In 1426, a teenage detective named Hwani returns home to Jeju Island to find her missing detective father, who vanished while investigating a mysterious case of 13 girls disappearing in a forest.
Hwani is left with her father’s investigation case notes and an estranged younger sister, Maewol, who had a traumatic experience in the same forest when she was younger.
Determined to find her father and solve the case, the young detective digs into the secrets of the small village.
First published in English in 2021 by Korean Canadian writer June Hur, the historical mystery set in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1897) gripped English language readers with its nail-biting plot of twists and turns.
The Korean-language edition of the book published by Media Changbi hit local bookshelves last month.
Having lived in Canada most of her life, the 33-year-old author based in Toronto said she was worried and nervous to meet Korean readers at first.
“A lot of diaspora writers are scared to write about the history of their homeland,” Hur said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province.
“There is such a big burden that you need to write accurately, so we write very cautiously. But there is a kind of grief that we will never write like the writers from the homeland, say, like Koreans who were born, raised and studied in Korea,” Hur said.
But Hur said that as a diaspora writer, she believes she has her own “accent.”
“One time, I cried for days and told my mom that I would never write like them (Korean writers),” she said.
“And my mom told me, ‘June, when you talk in Korean, you have an accent, but accents are beautiful. Accents tell another, different kind of story. Accents bring new perspective.’”
Love letter to Korean history
Hur has published three novels -- all historical mysteries set during the Joseon dynasty.
Her debut novel “The Silence of Bones” (2020) follows the story of 16-year-old Seol, a servant at a police bureau who investigates a politically motivated murder of a noblewoman.
Her latest novel “The Red Palace” revolves around a 17-year-old palace nurse called Hyeon who sets out prove the innocence of her teacher, a murder suspect, amid dark court political intrigue.
She said she resolved to write about Korean history after reading Hahn Moo-Sook's "Encounter" -- a historical fiction centered on Joseon scholar Jeong Yak-yong and his nephew amid the persecution of Catholics.
"When I read it, I fell in love with the history. I remember my hands were getting sweaty and my heart was beating fast. I wanted other people to know about how amazing Korean history is," she said.
“All the books that I’m writing now are love letters that I dedicate to Korean history,” Hur wrote in the author’s note for “The Forest of Stolen Girls.”
Writing each book is her way of learning more about the history of Korea, using mystery as a means to explore that time period, the author said.
“It’s like my own history class. I can spend months just researching and creating a story about what I learned,” she said.
After reading about Korean women being sent as human tributes to China’s Ming Dynasty during the early Joseon Kingdom, the author said she wrote the novel to cope with her emotions.
It was while reading “Epistolary Korea” -- a collection of letters and documents from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) and Joseon era (1392-1910) which was translated into English and published by the Columbia University Press -- that Hur stumbled upon a letter which inspired her to write “The Forest of the Stolen Girls.”
The letter, written by a Goryeo Kingdom scholar, extorts the Yuan emperor to disband the system of human tributes. The practice, however, continued into the years of King Sejong's reign.
“I came across (the letter) when I was researching for my first book. At that time, I was just shocked. But when I read it again when I was pregnant with my daughter, it hit me even harder. And when my heart is broken, the only way that I cope with it is to write stories,” she said.
Bridging different readers to Korean culture
Although Hur's novels deal with specific events in Korean history, they have gained traction with English-language readers.
Hur was named a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards for her first two novels, while her third book made the Forbes’ list of “The Most Anticipated Books of 2022, According to Book Podcasters.”
Beyond their appeal as mystery novels, their gripping narratives touch on themes of family, sisterhood, court politics and hierarchical society while weaving in the history of the Joseon Kingdom.
“I write about the lives of women and how history shapes their lives. And I think that’s something that even Western readers can relate to even though the story is about Korea. … Still today there are similar issues surrounding women and the rights of women,” she said.
Hur said the main reason her heroines are teenage girls is because adolescence was the most difficult time for her.
“I struggled with a lot of questions about my identity -- where do I belong, am I Korean, am I not, am I Canadian, am I not,” she said.
“So I was wrestling with all those questions and I realized that these are questions that still haunt me as an adult. These questions affect people even as they grow older and never get fully resolved. But as a teenager, these kind of issues hit us so much harder.”
The author added that she channels her past struggles into her books to solve them through her characters.
Hur’s next book, “A Crane Among Wolves,” is another mystery set in the Joseon Kingdom during Yeongsangun’s reign, which is scheduled for a 2024 release in English.
The author said she appreciates when readers say that her writing has been a bridge for them.
“Since a lot of Korean Americans want to learn about Korean history but they can’t, because they can’t read Korean. They said at least my book is kind of a bridge for them,” Hur said, adding that she wishes more Korean historical fiction written in Korean would be translated into English.