REVIEW: A Crane Among Wolves by June Hur

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Hope is dangerous. Love is deadly.

1506, Joseon. The people suffer under the cruel reign of the tyrant King Yeonsan, powerless to stop him from commandeering their land for his recreational use, banning and burning books, and kidnapping and horrifically abusing women and girls as his personal playthings.

Seventeen-year-old Iseul has lived a sheltered, privileged life despite the kingdom’s turmoil. When her older sister, Suyeon, becomes the king’s latest prey, Iseul leaves the relative safety of her village, traveling through forbidden territory to reach the capital in hopes of stealing her sister back. But she soon discovers the king’s power is absolute, and to challenge his rule is to court certain death.

Prince Daehyun has lived his whole life in the terrifying shadow of his despicable half-brother, the king. Forced to watch King Yeonsan flaunt his predation through executions and rampant abuse of the common folk, Daehyun aches to find a way to dethrone his half-brother once and for all. When staging a coup, failure is fatal, and he’ll need help to pull it off—but there’s no way to know who he can trust.

When Iseul’s and Daehyun’s fates collide, their contempt for each other is transcended only by their mutual hate for the king. Armed with Iseul’s family connections and Daehyun’s royal access, they reluctantly join forces to launch the riskiest gamble the kingdom has ever seen:

Save her sister. Free the people. Destroy a tyrant.


Author’s Note – King Yeonsan (deposed name: Yeonsangun) ruled from 1495 to 1506 and was considered the worst tyrant in Korean history. Supposedly, he ruled decently for the first nine years of his reign, but in 1504—after learning of how his mother had been executed—he went on a revenge spree that began the bloodiest purge of his reign.

Emboldened by the absolute power he held, Yeonsan began committing widespread atrocities—stealing land from the people to turn into his personal hunting grounds, executing his own family members, murdering government officials in the cruelest ways, and kidnapping and enslaving women from every province.

I believe it’s important to tell history as it is, with all its violence and corruption, and so I did not shy away from the realities of Yeonsan’s reign. His crimes were so numerous, though, that I couldn’t mention them all in the story. But for the ones I did, I’d like to offer the following content warnings:

rape (mentioned), sexual abuse, misogyny, kidnapping women and girls, sex trafficking, incest (mentioned), violence, murder, animal cruelty, suicide (mentioned), infanticide (mentioned), psychological trauma, panic attacks

Dear Ms. Hur,

Two years ago, I read and enjoyed “The Red Palace” which had some dark stuff in it. Well, this one tops that. I’m glad that you included what you did in your author’s note and I hope people pay attention to the warnings. This book is being tagged (given the age of the MCs) as young adult but given the nature of the content, I would be very careful about how old readers are who read it.

Iseul was the pampered youngest daughter of a high ranking Joseon Korean magistrate when her world came crashing down. Her parents were murdered by soldiers on order of the king leaving Iseul and her older sister to seek refuge with their grandmother (who is only mentioned in the book). Then her sister (with whom Iseul has a fractious relationship – all due to Iseul) is kidnapped and taken by the king as a concubine – one among almost a thousand most of whom are subjected to sexual abuse. Iseul is convinced that this is all her fault and she’s going to make it right. How, she has no clue but she’s gonna do it.

Arriving at an inn not far from the capital, Iseul is taken under the wing of the innkeeper and a former investigator. Yul promises to treat Iseul like family in exchange for Iseul helping at the inn (something she only sporadically does) while Wonsik tries to tutor her in how to investigate a series of murders and discover who the serial killer is (something Iseul pouts about as Wonsik actually wants her to use her brain while she just wants him to tell her what she wants to know). Then an illegitimate prince gets involved (as he also scrambles day by day to keep his psycho half-brother the king from killing him). Iseul wants to save her sister while Daehyun has grander plans – to overthrow the king in a coup. Will they get what they want or die trying?

I applaud the use of this unusual setting and the fact that readers are not molly coddled by having Korean words, terms and things used and then immediately translated into English. The meanings are made plain through the descriptions and if that doesn’t work then there’s always Google. Also booyah for (as stated in the author’s note) not shying away from the brutality of what was actually happening in this time. Yes, it’s hard to read but how much harder must it have been to try to live through it.

While I enjoyed being set down in Joseon Korea again, there were a lot of things that didn’t work for me here. Iseul is, quite frankly, a spirited young woman who hasn’t an ounce of common sense. I understand that she was raised to be waited on by servants, has no life skills, is probably still upset about how her life has been upended, and probably looking for a way to get it back. However she’s ready to snap at anyone who (she thinks) is getting in her way and charge off into danger without bothering to think things through. That these people she’s snapping at are often trying to help her or that if her harebrain (lack of) plans might get her killed or kidnapped herself don’t stop her. I’ll give her courage. I’ll give her determination. But she doesn’t seem to learn and she’s also at times an idiot.

Daehyun is a bit smarter and can roll with a dangerous situation while keeping a cool head. He’s had to as the king loves playing “games” that usually end with a courtier being killed for the king’s amusement. Daehyun has plans though. If he and a small, loyal band can seize the moment, they can dethrone the tyrant making everyone’s life hell. Except he knows that this rag-tag band isn’t enough so some (I’ll be honest, boring) scenes of behind-the-scenes political negotiation to induce powerful men to join them take place. First though he has to attempt to keep Iseul from doing anything stupid and rescue her a time or three when she does.

The story has tons of secondary and tertiary characters. Honestly, too many. And it’s not trying to keep the Korean names straight that was my problem. I would feel the same if this were a historical set during the English War of the Roses. After a while, people began to blur. After a while, plot points began to blur as well. There’s Iseul saving her sister, Daehyun plotting, Wonsik giving Iseul tips on murder investigation, Yul keeping the inn afloat, the whackjob king, sleazy courtiers, a group of court jesters who skip in and out, lots of running around the countryside, a violent coup, and tons of background details. As the plot revved up and sped towards the finish I had already gotten more than a bit lost.

I cheered when (some of) the mistreated women rescued themselves. I did love that Iseul refused to give up trying to get her sister out of a living nightmare and then further protected her from the terrible fate that met many of the other women the king had kidnapped and debauched (and society is rarely forgiving of a woman’s loss of “honor”). I never quite got what Daehyun saw in Iseul beyond that she’s feisty as she never grew much as a character. I questioned the need for the murders in the story and also began mentally picking apart and poking holes in how the serial killer managed all that was done. The reality of the post-coup was depressing as well. I think if I had read this book when I was younger, I might like it more but I didn’t and I don’t. C


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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