June Hur’s debut novel, The Silence of Bones, is as much YA historical fiction as it is mystery. The twisty, complex plot is paired with the sometimes bleak, always atmospheric setting of the Joseon dynasty in 19th century Korea, where women are disregarded and Catholics are hunted.
Protagonist Seol has been indentured to the police bureau in the capital with the multifaceted job of examining corpses and fetching tea. When a noblewoman is found dead, Seol is drawn into the case, becoming integral to the investigation and an asset to the leading inspector, who she quickly grows to admire. All the while, Seol must continue her search for her brother’s grave and contend with her homesickness. As danger lurks in every darkened corner, Seol’s voracious curiosity leads her to discover deeper truths about herself and her world than she’d ever have expected.
The Silence of Bones is unique and wonderful on so many levels. For one, the mystery is genuinely mysterious! It kept me guessing up until the very end, and the twists and turns it took to get there had me fooled a number of times. The novel also centers around family, which is uncommon in many YA novels. Family ties are an integral part of the mystery as well, which made the story that much more interesting. I also really appreciate what the author did with the mood and atmosphere of the novel. June Hur’s setting is gloomy and bleak, with prose to match.
The cultural aspects of the novel, the ones that make it historical fiction, add depth to an already intricate storyline and play into both family relations and plot points. The use of legends and historical realities, like the Catholic rebels, was informative and allowed for deeper immersion in the story. While misogyny and classism were present, they also played a large role in learning more about Seol and her world and were therefore important to the story.
Seol, as a character, is very interesting. While she bends to the social norms of her day, she’s able to stand up for herself when necessary. She also cares deeply about justice, which is fitting for her work. In a world where she is limited by gender and class, she is strong in the sometimes understated way that I long for in YA novels as of late. She doesn’t have superpowers, or great fighting skills, or a magical birthright, but she’s dealt with the worst kinds of pain and still has the strength of her convictions, and the will to pick herself back up and keep moving forward, even in a world where it seems like there’s no one on her side.
I’d recommend The Silence of Bones to anyone searching for a YA novel, different from what we’ve seen before, one that navigates the complexities of familial ties and one girl’s mission to secure justice for the victims, for her family, but most importantly, for herself.