Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Gilded is based in Korean mythology, particularly metamorphosis magic and the story of Haemosu, the sun god who abducted Yuhwa, the daughter of Habaek, a water deity. She escapes, and in this version, he keeps his psychotic dream – of power and possession of a beautiful woman – alive by kidnapping the eldest daughter of each generation of Yuhwa’s descendants. Jae Hwa is that daughter in her generation. When her mom dies of cancer, she and her dad move back to his native Korea, which puts her within reach of Haemosu, whose power is strongest within the borders of Korea.
Her father denies the family legends that tell of the abductions, but her grandfather tries to warn them that Jae Hwa is in danger in Korea. On a family holiday, she goes to an island cave on her grandfather’s property that transports her to the spirit world, where her troubles (and adventures) begin. Haemosu cottons on to the fact that Jae is in Korea, and begins pursuing her. Each time they meet, he steals a little piece of her soul. After the fifth meeting, she will become his eternally.
This is clearly a young adult novel – Jae is a teenager, she has a crush on a classmate, and the narrative is strewn with the high and mutable emotions of youth. I’m not a YA reader – every now and then I dip into the genre, and I still re-read my favorite stories from childhood. But generally, I don’t enjoy those things that make YA novels YA. I left most of that behind after high school (or, more honestly, college), and I try to avoid reminiscing about it. What drew me to this one is the backdrop of Korean mythology, and I felt satisfied in that aspect.
The mythology comes to life in modern Korea in this story. Minor demons appear in the subway, Jae’s school locker becomes a portal to the spirit world, and flying dragons interrupt a boat trip between Korea and Japan. Not all of the rules of the spirit world have been explained, but the rules of battle clearly rely on Korean metamorphosis magic. Battle is really a contest of strength between opponents: who can transform into the stronger, more powerful, or faster creature?
So what went wrong?
Jae’s open-mindedness is the only thing I really liked about her. She doesn’t spend a lot of time denying and disbelieving the frankly unbelievable things that happen to her, either. Which, you might agree, can get a bit tiresome in a protagonist.
The other thing that gets tiresome in a protagonist? Silliness. Jae obviously has some unique magical gifts when she’s in the spirit world, but in the mundane world her gift seems to be landing on her feet miraculously after every mistake she makes. Readers may be able to ignore this because none of her mistakes really have any lasting effect – they are glossed over and ignored as she makes her way to the finish line. No consequences – things just work out for her. Somehow, even though Jae is supposedly Chosen, she never seems to be directing her own fate. Instead, she gets into trouble and other characters step in to save her life.
Many things in this book don’t quite make sense. Why is the love interest in South Korea white, even if he does study at an international school? In the beginning, Jae describes herself as plain, but then she becomes beautiful in the eyes of Haemosu and Marc. Why does Marc, the hot popular guy, fall so quickly for supposedly plain, new student Jae? Aside from Jae’s family, why are there so few Korean characters? Why would the foremost experts on Korean archaeology and mythology be white foreigners? If Jae’s aunt Sun, who was kidnapped by Haemosu, became distant as she became more enslaved by the demi-god, why doesn’t Jae? How did Jae end up with her special powers, when all her ancestors could not break the curse?
This book’s strength lies in its depiction of Korean mythology. Modern-day Korean culture and environment suffers in comparison, and the plot and characterization also failed to engage.
One of my personal goals this year is to read more diverse fiction. This book was not as diverse as I had hoped, with its Korean-American heroine, South Korean setting and mythology, and strangely limited cast of Korean characters. Have you read any fantasies set in the East, or other diverse fantasies that you would recommend?
Encyclopedia Mythica‘s articles on Korean mythology helped me get my context straight for this review.
You might enjoy this book if you like tales about the crossover of supernatural realms with the mundane world, as in the darker, creepier Neverwhere by superstar Neil Gaiman.
Fantasy set in the East is a rarity in my experience, but there are a few good examples. Namely, Dragons of Heaven and Gunpowder Alchemy. The first doesn’t have much in common with Gilded, but the second is about a young woman in an alternate, steampunk China (that is, it’s based on 19th century China), who has to choose sides in an imperial war.
There are lots of YA novels about young people discovering heretofore unknown powers and completing magical or impossible tasks in the face of a supernatural threat in order to rescue loved ones and/or the world. One of my favorite examples of this is Wildwood Dancing, by (one of my favorite authors) Juliet Marillier.
If you were to pick a similar read, which would it be, and why? Feel free to share in the comments!