A nurse becomes a detective in this gripping YA mystery set in 18th century Korea's royal court.
Hyeon has worked very hard to become a palace nurse, tasked with tending to the medical needs of the ladies of the court. Born the unwanted daughter of a concubine, she longs to make something of herself and prove her worth to her dismissive courtier father.
One night, she is summoned for an unprecedented task: to tend to the Crown Prince himself. But it soon becomes clear that she isn't there to nurse the Crown Prince at all, but rather to be an alibi for his illicit absence from the palace. For the Crown Prince and his father are often at odds, and scheming courtiers are always poised to fan the flames of conflict within the royal family.
Then, later that same night, Hyeon discovers that four women have been murdered at the facility where she received her medical training – and her beloved mentor has been accused and imprisoned. Desperate to prove that her mentor is innocent and prevent her from being tortured by the police, Hyeon decides to track down the real killer.
Her covert investigation soon draws the attention of the new police inspector, Eojin. Eojin is young, dangerously unconcerned with social class, and just as eager to uncover the true killer as Hyeon. Forced to respect each other's abilities, they form an uneasy partnership to solve the murders together.
The more they attempt to unravel the events that led to the death of the four women, the more it seems as though the Crown Prince and his absence from the palace that night are at the center of a conspiracy. It soon becomes clear that the mystery runs far deeper than they could have anticipated, and in solving it, they may destroy the fragile balance that holds a royal dynasty in power.
The device of a police officer and a civilian joining forces to solve a complicated mystery is one of the most common tropes of the genre, and yet, The Red Palace's setting and specificity make it feel unique. The true story of Crown Prince Sado, who was a real and very tragic figure, was the inspiration behind this whodunnit, and the historical detail that threads throughout is both brutal and intriguing. It's a prime example of historical fiction where some of the most outrageous events that take place are the ones that most closely cleave to historical fact.
What really grounds the twisting narrative of The Red Palace is the characters' inner struggles – in particular, the ongoing themes of honoring and gaining approval from one's parents. I can't speak to the significance of this theme from a cultural standpoint, but in terms of a psychological conflict, it's very effective. Almost every character is acting either directly for or against the interests of their parents, and Hyeon's difficult relationships with her mother and father motivate her at every turn and are mirrored back to her via the people she encounters. The place where she ends up internally with these struggles feels very modern in its nuance.
It's possible that some readers might find Hyeon's thoughts and emotions too modern for a young woman of her time and place, but if there's one thing that I've learned from reading letters and journals written by our forebearers, it's that people's inner worlds have long been surprisingly similar to our own, despite the changes in culture and manner. Interestingly, much of what is known about the life of Crown Prince Sado is drawn from the writings of his wife, who is a minor character in The Red Palace. She was herself a tragic figure, caught up in the whims and machinations of the men who wielded power over her life. Knowing that truth at the core of this story, it feels right that Hyeon is set on pushing back against the constraints that try to bind her to tragedy and forging her own path to justice.
The Red Palace is an expertly choreographed mystery with a touch of romance and an emotionally satisfying conclusion that beautifully binds fiction to fact. It's the perfect book to curl up with for a cozy winter afternoon of murder and intrigue.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.