Do you ever go to a bookstore and find yourself drawn to a specific book? It’s not the book you went there for and you don’t recognize it but you keep coming back to it? That’s how it was when I found Gilded at an Aladdin in Seoul. Aladdin is a used bookstore chain and where I get the majority of my books (read my previous post). Because it’s a used bookstore most of the books are a little rough around the edges and well loved. So it’s uncommon to see a book in pristine condition. Let alone to find one signed. I decided to flip it over and take a look at the back, saw that it was set in Seoul and added it to my pile.
It wasn’t until later, on my way somewhere where I pulled the book out of my bag and took another look at it. It stuck out amongst all the other books and I couldn’t figure out why. I looked for a publisher, a habit from college, and then when I found the publisher frowned because I didn’t recognize it and a lot of the book’s cover art and such had a little quote for “from Shutterstock” so I wondered briefly if I’d somehow found a self published book. But after a bit of research it seems the publishing company is an in-house publisher for Amazon.
I know you’re not suppose to judge a book by it’s cover but writing and books are what I studied in college, so if I don’t recognize a publisher I tend to be surprised. Especially if it somehow made it’s way to Korea.
The very very basic plot for Gilded is that a 16 year old Korean-American finds herself begrudgingly moving to Seoul due to her fathers’ work. While in Seoul she learns that her family has been cursed and that the eldest girl per generation is to doomed to be spirited away by a Korean demigod. She must fight against the clock to save herself and try to rescue her ancestors.
To me this sounded pretty cool. It reminded me a bit of Fushigi Yūgi, a manga I use to check out from my local library. I was very excited to read about Seoul and Korea from someone else’s perspective and learn some folklore while at it.
But sadly I found the book a little jarring. As if it needed one more go around of editing. Some of it was plot, others were plot holes, and sometimes it was word choice. All of which made me wonder if it was actually self published. Because I know that that is an option with Amazon. I also feel like odd things were picked to highlight in Korean culture while other things were completely dropped or shied away from in a way that made no sense to me.
Jae Hwa Lee, the main character is sporty girl with a black belt in taekwondo and archery, and seems to be having difficulty adjusting to life in Korea and at her rigorous international school. She’s struggling to get to know the country from where her parents came from, and also is adjusting to the death of her mother, a common trope that I’m tired of seeing. (Possibly made worse by the fact I am now a person struggling with the death of their own mother.)
It opens with her practicing archery and her father freaking out because she was…exactly where she was suppose to be???? It’s his event, he’s put a ton of effort into some fancy event for his job and he asked his daughter to perform and she’s backstage practicing like she should be, yet for some reason he’s acting as if she’s run away from home. That seems to be all he does. Not know where his daughter is and be upset about it. To be fair, later in the book she does actually run off, which is cause for concern. The only other thing he seems to do is fight with his father and ban Jae Hwa Lee from seeing various members of her Korean family, which is his family.
The other main character we meet in the opening is Marc, the white savior trope. Marc is, Jae Hwa Lee‘s love interest. And all Jae Hwa Lee can do around him is blush like kimchi, “My face feels as if it’s turning as red as kimchi.“, and go into a mush of teenage hormones to a ridiculous degree. Which for a black belt in taekwondo and archery, two things that require intensive training on focus and command over one’s emotions, it seems a bit…over the top. Marc goes to school with Jae Hwa Lee at an international school. It feels like part of Jae Hwa Lee’s struggle to adjust to Korea is that she’s trying to avoid the Korean groups. Almost none of the friends she makes at her international school are Korean. Seeing her struggling to adjust from America and living in America to living in her ancestral lands and dealing with the culture shock and find her place in Korea would’ve been really interesting to see, but instead it’s not explained. Instead the only other Koreans her age is a girl who she views as the kind of Korean girl her family would prefer over herself, and an older college guy who is rude to her and that she beats up in Taekwondo class.
But Marc is better at everything then her. He speaks Korean, Jae Hwa Lee doesn’t at least not very (which does happen), he also speaks Chinese but we only learn of this when she needs help. His father is also the foremost scholar with knowledge of Korean folklore. Something that…doesn’t make sense. I understand that yes, he could be interested in Korean folklore and know about it but for a random white guy to be the leading scholar on it IN KOREA is a bit iffy. And when she has questions about her curse or needs helps she tends to rely on Marc (or Marc forces his way to stay at her side) or his father. Not her grandfather, whose been living through the nightmare of the family curse and collecting artifacts and documentation on the stories and history for a long time. Nope, her crushes father.
There’s also moments where one minute she’s one place brooding and then suddenly she’s somewhere completely different and that tripped me up more times then I enjoyed. Jae Hwa Lee changes her mind about things a lot, and quickly, and tends to choose the stupider option.
I just got so frustrated because she would constantly do what she’s expressly told not to do. like for Chuseok her father drives her to an island near Incheon where they’re to celebrate and she’ll get a chance to meet the rest of her family. But her grandfather takes her for a walk and talks to her about the curse and points out to a cave and tells her no matter what do not go there. And what does she do? As soon as he leaves her alone she goes there. Do terrible things happen? Yes. Does she find artifacts and all of the things her grandfather has collected to try and make sense of the curse? Does her father cause wind to come in, yelling at the grandfather (his father) and then destroying his father’s life work and not batting an eye about the destruction he caused and immediately drive Jae Hwa Lee back to Seoul skipping out on any and all Chuseok festivities. Yes.
There are rules that she’s given very early on when she learns about the curse.
- Don’t let Haemosu touch you
- stay inside
- stay in crowds of people or just with people
- don’t go on your own
- don’t be out in the sunlight where Haemosu is strongest.
Jae Hwa Lee breaks every single rule without thinking. It’d be one thing if Haemosu, who is a demigod, was using his powers against her, but no, she’s just a teenage cliché of stupid choices cranked to an 11. You would hope she’d learn as the story progresses but she doesn’t. As a reader you catch on to things pretty quickly. Like any time she’s outside and alone some sort of mythical creature corners her and sometimes it’s a bad one and sometimes it’s a good one and sometimes it’s a Dokkaebi (a goblin out for it’s own interests so you don’t know whether he’s good or bad). Because of that you’d think she’d stay with her friends when she’s out rather then set off on her own.
But no, those gosh darn teenage hormones send her off on her own Every. Single. Time. Like instead of keeping a low profile and staying at home, she sneaks out to go to a…wait, is that right? a Coffee Bean???? To listen to a band???? I’m sorry but no one I know of has ever heard of a Coffee Bean hosting live music. Not my friends who’ve been here over 10 years or my Korean friends who grew up here. There’s no space. Especially not in Seoul during Chuseok. And apparently this is a common enough thing that she’s already a regular to see her favorite band, even though she’s only been in the country for…a couple of weeks???? Like I get that it’s fiction and it’s probably hard to come up with a place in Seoul that would host live music where a couple of teens could actually get in. And there’s some romantic ideas to being a teen and going to a coffee shop and listening to music, but if there’s not a real in life one, isn’t it arguably better to make one up? And what does she do while waiting for the band to start? Get all flustered because her friend invited Marc and then get all brooding and then go off on her own. Only to decide wait, her friends invited her to go shopping but then rather than wait for her they go off on their own without her and she chases after them only to get lost. She doesn’t bother trying to call them, doesn’t bother giving up and staying to enjoy the band with Marc or the other friends who stayed behind.
She even goes on a ski trip with her classmates that everyone who knows about her curse warns her against. And once again rather than stay with the group she sees Marc with the girl she hates who she’s nicknamed “long legs”. (why is this a term of hatred for women who have another woman as their enemy because the Shopaholic series uses this as well) Jae Hwa Lee gets flustered and tries to quickly escape. Rather than joining her friends she ends up going from the safe bunny trail to the super difficult and possibly dangerous expert hill. And so she decides she’ll slide down it on her butt, but then of course she sees them again so she can’t look like a fool so she stands up and tries to ski quickly away from them rather than being like oops I messed up, someone want to help me? and ends up crashing into trees, breaking her wrist and ankle and running into Haemosu and flat out breaking all of the rules. She’s in sunshine, she’s alone and she touches him.
But I kept reading, because that initial plot was interesting to me even if everyone was choosing the absolute worst way to react and interact with one another, or that Jae Hwa Lee would do something, regret it and feel awful, and then do it again.
The book is actually part of a series and while a part of me is curious as to what happens next I also am kind of good with this being the only book in the series I read. There’s just so much more I wanted from it. I want more about life in Korea from a Korean-American teenager’s perspective. I wanted more folklore and creatures beyond Haechi and the Dokkaebi. Though as someone who frequents Seoul often so sees Haechi statues fairly frequently it’s still cool. I wanted her to do a lot of the work herself and have more to her personality then I’m a black belt in Taekwondo and very strong and a good shot at traditional archery and whenever Marc is around I turn into goo. Maybe in the rest of the series she’s grown more and the reader can explore more of Korea and it’s stories through Jae Hwa Lee’s eyes. A reader can only hope.
Do you have any books where you loved the idea of it and then were let down? Did you finish the book or did you set it aside?