Book Review: Eun Na and the Phantom

Eun Na and the Phantom, by Erica Laurie. 3.5 of 5 stars, drat. I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I got it as a little, “yay, nailed the job interview” treat about two months ago, and finally got the chance to sit down and read it. The author’s blurb was about loving Korean fantasy historical drama and trying to write in that vein. I was really looking forward to it.

I have now read it, and I am underwhelmed.

The endnotes of the book strongly imply this was a NaNoWriMo project. Ladies and gentlemen, we all know I have nothing against NaNo novels. I’ve written several. But NaNo gives you a rough draft. You have to go back and edit it for clarity, consistency, emotional tone, and all those little scenes you left out in the rush to get to The End.

This book reads as if someone did the surface-level edits of spellchecking and typos, but failed to track the plot arc and get beta-reader feedback on “you’re implying X emotions here, but I don’t feel it.”

Two things in particular struck me as emotionally off. We have two female leads, Eun Na the woodcutter’s daughter and a shaman, and two male leads, the local lord’s son and the Phantom. Thing is, in a lot of sageuk (Korean historical dramas), First Girl Wins is a very common trope. And the couples we see meet first are the lord’s son and Eun Na, then the shaman and the Phantom. On top of that the shaman warns the lord’s son away from Eun Na because meeting her in the woods will lead to disaster… which is yet another trope-y situation straight out of sageuks, where true love only succeeds after overcoming horrible destinies. In short, the story start sets up Eun Na and the lord’s son as the Primary Couple, with the shaman and the Phantom as secondary. Yet less than a quarter of the way through the book it’s clear the relationships will be Eun Na/Phantom and shaman/lord’s son. This feels like a total cheat to a reader familiar with the genre.

Second, sageuks often have people tortured and executed, yes. But it usually has an impact, plot-wise and emotionally. People hold out heroically for days, or die saving another, and so on. The characters tortured here fold within hours – in one case, just from the threat – and trust the Evil Lord’s promise that he’ll let people go. After the whole rest of the book has made clear this guy never keeps a promise. And said characters die almost as an… afterthought. We barely see those who should have cared for them grieve. Oy.

And then there’s two practical details that annoy me. One, no village would have just one woodcutter. Too many people need wood. Second – if you’re in a fantasy Korea you might have humming-dragons, but you couldn’t possibly confuse them with hummingbirds, because those are native to the Americas. Grrr.

All told, if you just wanted a light fantasy read, okay. It’s just not up to sageuk standards. Woe.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Eun Na and the Phantom

  1. Yeah, there’s a reason you really need to delve deep when trying to write in a culture not your native one – so many things have different meanings, there are layers of courtesy, history, and interaction that need to be just right or (as happened) those familiar with the patterns that are supposed to be there get rather jarringly thrown out of their Willing Suspension of Disbelief needed to truly immerse yourself into a story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I ran across one of those web novels. A Chinese one, that had a whole bunch of the trappings of the historical ancient dynastic setting novels, but the attitudes of the main characters were… irritatingly modern. And possibly slightly western, to boot. Like a bog-standard harlequin romance novel.

      I mean it’s all very well and good to mention “oh yeah, separation between men and women is a thing and you can force a guy to marry you by being disheveled and publicly throwing yourself at him” but when your characters don’t act like that matters at any other time than when it’s plot convenient…

      Seriously, most of the lead females in this one would have been exiled or drowned before the story even started.

      And it involved everyone’s favorite trope of “Quick run to safety so that you aren’t in the way of the men with swords!” “No! I won’t leave you!”

      And yet, a translator was listed, so don’t think it was written by some Occidental person….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember reading a book that was three authors wrote short stories, then they reviewed each other’s stories and talk and about how they revised and changed the, from feedback.

    One of the stories went “we decided it worked much better putting the second half of the story first…”

    That stuck with me as how much a story can change from the first draft.
    Not just checking spelling and tweaking scenes, completely flipping the story format around.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. And then there’s two practical details that annoy me. One, no village would have just one woodcutter. Too many people need wood. Second – if you’re in a fantasy Korea you might have humming-dragons, but you couldn’t possibly confuse them with hummingbirds, because those are native to the Americas. Grrr.

    :poking at it: No…but you could confuse them with dragonflies….

    I am utterly SHAMELESSLY stealing that, hummingbird dragons that are easy to confuse with dragonflies!

    (It’s for a fantasy world where EVERYTHING is everywhere, and only very rarely– like, tree that has all stages of fruiting, in the winter– does it Mean anything because there’s too much magic involved.)

    Liked by 2 people

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