For a literary story that’s still easy to read, for characters who draw you in whether you like them or not, for a dramatic and complex history of a tiny country that has seen unbelievable change very quickly
In 1917, deep in the snowy mountains of occupied Korea, an impoverished local hunter on the brink of starvation saves a young Japanese officer from an attacking tiger. In an instant, their fates are connected—and from this encounter unfolds a saga that spans half a century.
In the aftermath, a young girl named Jade is sold by her family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school, an act of desperation that will cement her place in the lowest social status. When she befriends an orphan boy named JungHo, who scrapes together a living begging on the streets of Seoul, they form a deep friendship. As they come of age, JungHo is swept up in the revolutionary fight for independence, and Jade becomes a sought-after performer with a new romantic prospect of noble birth. Soon Jade must decide whether she will risk everything for the one who would do the same for her.
From the perfumed chambers of a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the glamorous cafes of a modernizing Seoul and the boreal forests of Manchuria, where battles rage, Juhea Kim’s unforgettable characters forge their own destinies as they wager their nation’s. Immersive and elegant, Beasts of a Little Land unveils a world where friends become enemies, enemies become saviors, heroes are persecuted, and beasts take many shapes.
The triumph in this book is the characters, and it’s a masterful example of the joy one can have in seeing people grow and change in a story. There are several characters introduced, and yet it’s never hard to remember who did what or where they left off. They fall widely within the gray areas of good and evil, and yet every one is a fascinating read with whom you can typically empathize if even in the most unexpected ways.
They bring the history of Korea to life. If you’re not familiar with it already, this will provide coherent insights into the whole saga; if you’re already familiar, you will see the visions of lives inside while it all unfolded. For many many years, Korea was ruled by others, and the victory and independence they found was conversely combined with a division that persists to this day between North and South.
My god, why am I writing like this? So formal and try-hard? So unlike my usual voice? BECAUSE I WAS SO IMPRESSED AND INFATUATED WITH THIS BOOK. I want to do it justice, and so tried to emulate it’s wonderful sense of voice and presence and gravity (but I definitely failed).
Even the “bad guys” were complex in their moments we saw, and they carried a large piece of the history with them, because eventually bad guys might look like good guys and vie versa. It all depends on who the victor is, right? Even if you don’t like them, they represent the many different opinions about the country and its politics and its people during a time of extreme turmoil.
Anyway, this covers the span of several decades, with a focus primarily on Jade as she becomes a courtesan and moves around the country and tries to find herself as an adult. There are many others around her though, and they were all necessary for the story.
For a book at least partially about prostitutes and brothels, this is not very sexually explicit. There are definitely episodes of violence and disgust that are hard to bear, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it for teens. If your focus is on the romance, then you might be on the fence here. This is in a lot of ways a love story in all its forms. There’s familial love, there’s self love, there’s romantic love, there’s platonic love, there’s patriotic love… there’s a lot of love! But when it comes to romance, it’s pretty short supply. There is some build at times, but it’s certainly not the focus.
If you asked me what the story is about, I would have to say Korea. Yes, there are characters, and yes, they each have their own successes and setbacks and heartaches. But this is presented as parts of the whole. Each person is a tiny piece of Korea, and it’s more about how they live as times change, and less of a plot-driven beginning to end journey.
Thanks to Goodreads and Ecco for a free advanced copy! This is my honest review.