Prophecy (The Dragon King Chronicles #1) by Ellen Oh

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I came to this book with a very low expectation as expected from the average Goodreads ratings but boy this book was severely underrated. Set in the fictionalized Gojoseon era (around and before Three Kingdoms era aka around or before 220 AD), “Prophecy” is a Middle Grade-YA Historical Korean Supernatural story about a young girl with the ability to sense demons and raised to be a warrior as the crown prince’s personal bodyguard and a demon slayer. When a plot ravages the royal family of Hansong and part of the Seven Kingdoms by the invading Yamato and traitors abound, Kang Kira and her brother Kwan and their cousin, the crown prince Taejo were forced into hiding. With their country invaded, parents murdered and the queen imprisoned, all hope seems lost if not for the prophecy of Dragon Masado who will come to realization.

Admittedly, I was a wuxia geek as a kid and this book reminded me how I used to like these type of East Asian stories. Mostly because they’re the civilization that have the least tendency to come up in modern adaptations outside Asia. One of the things I like about “Prophecy” was that the author didn’t have the tendency to drag the story with history lessons or heavy descriptives like a lot of other Asian stories especially in YA. The main focus of the character was the fight to save their nation and not to romanticize the settings which work well with the book. Then again, I watch Joseon dynasty dramas with enough frequency that I didn’t have a problem with the writing style or settings. I do think the dialogues was accurate to portraying Korean-speaking folks rather than English-speaker trying to sound Asian like countless other Asian-inspired appropriation stories. Yes, the style was simplistic but I guess that was the point of writing a novel on historical fiction for a largely younger western audience that was rarely written about in English. Seriously, this book series should be made into a tv series because you hardly see any Young Adult historical Korean dramas these days that have this mild level of politics, nearly zero fillers and medium level drama. It is refreshing!

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I really like Kira. (Yes, that is a Korean name). She was genuine as a girl who defied the conventions of her time and society and was heavily ostracized by it. Born with strange eyes and the heightened ability that enable her to become a warrior, she choose to stay as one by her own abilities rather than a court lady which was expected from her. Although the author didn’t say it plainly, a lot Asian cultures are sexist everywhere especially in these traditional times. Women hardly break the defined restrictions those who do will be extreme about it as the disapproval by most of the noble families and officers and even the king himself, the sneer from the ladies about Kira not fitting in them as a highborn and the tales being told about her that made her feared and disgusted by others including the lower class. Because to them, she lost her worth by being the way she is. It was unsettling right? That was accurate and realistic to the settings too. I guess, that was what made this book good to me was that I understand the people and the setting without the added exoticism embellishments which usually entitled by the word “Asian-inspired”. While Hansong was fictional, the settings down to the society was factual.

One of Kira’s redeeming qualities is that although she was a subdued person, cautious, suspicious but she was really strong-willed. She wouldn’t be where she was if she wasn’t stubborn and most of her family supported her. I am surprised by that too. Normally in actual Korean drama, she would constantly being pressured and talk down to by not fitting in and shaming the family’s honor especially for a high born like her.  That was a big deal.  (Yes, she is one of the royal family but she doesn’t have a claim to the throne as long as there was an heir to the throne. Besides she have a much older brother which by rankings, she was insignificant especially with her unlady-like role which made it next to unlikely unless she was ambitious enough. Something about politics I skim off “Goong” and “Hong Gildong”, you can get disowned from inheriting and the status can change with it and this book, she is the equivalent to a commoner than an actual highborn court lady.) So whatever Kira did to gain respect from others was from her own conduct rather than her status. Which is also a big deal and an admirable quality that wasn’t being shown off as it should be. Graceling’s Katsa really took those for granted you know and she’s a psychopath Mary Sue with a lot of issues.

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And she’s naive which is a given as everyone who is a teenager is. There was a hint of a triangle love in the story between her, Shin Bo Hyun and Jaewon which didn’t live up to average YA level of romance since it was very minimal. I guess that was the main gruff with the book but I do think it was fine to stay as it is. Kira hated Shin Bo Hyun because he used to bully her while I think he always love her as she is even if he didn’t show it that way. But of course, he’s the son of the main antagonist of this story but it was interesting to see whether it will pan out in the series. Then we have the elusive Kim Jaewon who came to Kira and found friendship and loyalty with her. I’m not sure whether everyone could see it, the book did great in illustrating the growing trust between them as per the usual romance subtleties in most period dramas. But I’m still unsure about liking where this goes because Korean stories aren’t famous for happily ever afters. To date, I never seen it with period dramas so I’m not very optimistic with the romance elements with the series especially if the author was concerned about maintaining authenticity.

As for other characters in the story, as I said it was mildly dramatic as I’m used to so I’m quite glad there weren’t any jealous Queens or handmaidens or people wanting to kill them for jealousy reason or stuff like protocols or some power-hungry yangban wanting to eliminate everyone. Oh wait, we have that last one. But I was disappointed by the word volume of this book since Prophecy was short for my taste. The fantasy elements was minimal too if you count prophecies and prophetic dreams and demons and turtle and water dragons and heavenly deities as minimal. Sometimes these supernatural parts were too fast-paced and aren’t descriptive enough for me to take deep appreciation to them. I like fight scenes but it can be repetitive in writings. Technically, it was a supernatural story than a plain fantasy story since the elements was still largely significant to Kira alone. I guess some of it was a symbolism of some kind especially with the demon-possessed invaders from Yamato. But I like that the play around the prophecy between Kira, Taejo, King Eojin, Kwan and the monks. Much like “Jang Myung Go” where it was also about a prophecy about saving and the destruction of a nation, the prophecy can play out and be interpreted differently which isn’t much as a twist as it should be. I like that the characters were able to be develop enough along the story although it was too rushed as it probably span around a couple of days. Death was played around grief, there was an element of sacrifice and familial element which was another common element in these kind of stories. It was a humanistic story which is fine on its own.

 

As a side, I do know that it was hard to appreciate this book if you haven’t had any exposure to ancient Korean civilization or stories. I had even lesser amount of stuff I read on on Korean ancient history. I know a part of Joseon Era but this was set around the time of Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) which was pre-Joseon and frankly I only know that part of Chinese civilization rather than the Korean and Japanese version of that era. So in some sense, this book was just a fictionalization according to modern interpretation of the time which was often use in the making period dramas but I was fine by that since I can read more about the history. If you’re interested in learning more or need more descriptiveness of the era (which is usually absent in some western-inspired fantasy as it was something “you already know about”) to fill in the blanks, try watching the period dramas I mentioned. “Ja Myung Go” is the story adapted from a Korean folklore about a forbidden love between a princess and an enemy prince. “Hong Gil Dong” is adapted from the Korean folklore of a version of Robin Hood. And also the famous stories of the era, The Romance Of the Three Kingdoms which have been adapted to many tales and even mangas and manhwas.

Most of what I read and watch about these East Asian related stories and literature was translated version of the original rather than written for English audience which is why I tend to look away from stylistic and grammatical problems. Personally, I find it was unfair to judge the book based on the books you read previously on Asian-inspired stories. Of course, the style would be different because most of it was written by non-Asian fantasizing and appropriating the story to suit the genre and audience which is something I never like about. I mean, most of highly rated Asian-inspired books in English was written by non-Asians with a very skewed ratio over Asian-Americans or Asian authors. Alison Goodman’s Eon and Eona was a fine series on its own but is still a distorted version of Chinese dynasty. Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer and Kinslayer was a great beloved series among Goodreaders but it heavily appropriated Japanese culture and making a caricature of Asian people and its traditions which was weirdly societally acceptable rather than plain being ignorant and racist. I know that I am being unfair myself expecting people to be authentic but what Ellen Oh did in “Prophecy ” is that she didn’t make her culture exotic or foreign enough that it fetishize her book, its just a story of a girl fighting for her nation and it work for me. Then again I have my own problem with my own local literature in English for embellishing local cultures like it was some kind of exotic sea creature which is why I rarely read these kind of book out of leisure. In turn it does making me turn off from writing stories about my own culture as well (although specifically my story is too complicated for words since I’m not completely traditional Malay either).

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