Sixteen-year-old Jae Hwa moves from California to Seoul, South Korea, where she discovers that she’s part of a long lineage of girls who have been abducted by a Korean demigod. And she’s next.
I read Gilded as an interlude between the second and third books in Colleen Houck’s Tiger Curse series. The two stories run along parallel lines—both authors animate mythology to create a modern fantasy novel.
Christina Farley enchants the dusty museum artifacts to play out their stories in real time. Murals come to life, amulets glow, and at one point Jae Hwa finds herself draped in a millennium-old wedding dress. The unique setting and use of mythology are clever and creative. Farley has clearly done her historical homework.
However, while the Tiger Curse books made me practically salivate for Indian food and wish for immediate vacation plans, Gilded didn’t have me daydreaming about plane tickets to Korea. Despite the great setting, there was something lacking.
The book is too teenager-ey—the characters, plot, and writing are under-developed.
For example, much of the plot focuses on a teen romance that doesn’t go anywhere. I liked Marc, but Jae Hwa practically dies to save a guy with whom she’s been on a few coffee dates. I don’t mean that I wanted more physical intimacy—I liked their clean relationship—but I would like to have seen more depth in it. Or better yet, give the romance a bit part instead of a supporting role.
Some of the characters in Gilded were hard for me to get behind. Jae Hwa is tough and independent, but her best friend is clingy, likes to shop, and only talks about superficial topics. It was hard for me to believe their close friendship. As the novel progresses, their relationship becomes more strained because Jae Hwa is always off fighting supernatural creatures, but the conflict disappears abruptly at the end of the novel without Jae Hwa having to work for it.
I also wasn’t sure I believed the family interactions—they were too one-dimentional. Jae Hwa’s father disapproves of his family’s beliefs in mythology, while Jae Hwa’s aunt and grandfather flip dramatically from initial stiffness to overt love and willingness to die for their relative. There’s room for depth in each of these characters, but Farley doesn’t seize the opportunity.
On the positive side, Gilded features some great discussions of race and ethnicity. A sixteen year-old who has been brought up in America returns “home” to her ancestor’s native country, but she’s unsure how much of a home it really is. Yet the theme wasn’t overdone—Jae Hwa doesn’t spend the whole book caught up in whether or not she feels Korean. There are changes in her attitude toward South Korea, but they’re realistically subtle.
Where will this series go? The book ends well as a stand-alone story, but not necessarily as the beginning of a series. I expected several plot points to remain unanswered, or a new problem to arise, but everything is tied up a little too well. It doesn’t keep me chomping at the bit for the next installment.
Overall, I liked the book. It had a great setting with an unusual use of mythology, and was engaging to read. It just lacked depth—the characters don’t carry the same richness as the Korean culture they’re set in. I’d be interested to read another book by Christina when she’s given her writing a little more time to marinate.