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If you love reading historical crime thrillers and underdog characters, may I present to you The Silence of Bones by June Hur? As someone who loves reading murder mysteries, The Silence of Bones delivered on character study and a puzzling mystery.
I have a mouth, but I mustn’t speak;
Ears, but I mustn’t hear;
Eyes, but I mustn’t see.
1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.
But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.
GOODREADS // STORYGRAPH // AMAZON // BLACKWELL’S
TRIGGER WARNING: torture, references to religious persecutions, physical punishment
I had been eager to read The Silence of Bones by June Hur because it is a historical fiction novel with a murder mystery. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of Nancy Drew but reading The Silence of Bones has revived a love for young adult sleuths. This is my first time reading a mystery set in 17th century Korea which is the Joseon Kingdom.
Seol is a sixteen year old orphan who is looking for her brother in the capital city of Hanyang. In order to find her brother, she is indentured in the police bureau so that she is afforded a place to stay and safety. In the Silence of Bones, Seol is not only involved in solving a murder but she is also navigating the limitation of her position as a damo. Damo are a class of servants who not only performed household tasks but were also used to help with police investigations. According to Confucian law, the men weren’t allowed to touch a woman they weren’t related to or even gaze at one during autopsy. Because she is a damo and a woman, Seol is often dismissed and her skills or instincts doubted. Inspector Han is the first among the police to see her potential.
At first, I was drawn into this book because of its mystery and setting but from the first page readers will be enchanted by June Hur’s writing. One could easily imagine themselves slinking through alleyways, examining crime scenes and interrogating witnesses alongside Seol. If the author’s worldbuilding set the foundation, then it was the amazing character work that coloured it.
As she gets more involved in the investigation of the murder of a Catholic lady, Seol’s early impressions of the world shift. Seol begins to realise that the world is more complicated than good or evil, servant or noble, and loyalty or betrayal. Her relationship with Inspector Han establishes this. Some days they are allies, some days adversaries. Seol clearly admires him, even projecting memories of her brother on to the man. But when suspicion is cast upon the Inspector, Seol has to choose between following the truth or being loyal. The secondary characters are fully realised as well. Seol’s interactions with each reveal the nuance of their positions whether it be the lowly police officer, an arrogant rival or a runaway maid. Each of the characters revealed nuggets of social values expected of people and how this formed motivations for each person as they navigated life within the confines of their social status. Another highlight is Seol’s friendship with a noble Catholic family which, I believe, is when she began developing and learning to trust her own instincts.
The mystery was paced well, red herrings included in just the right places. The more Seol learns, the more questions arise. It was like a big riddle and I enjoy books that make me work to the final reveal.
This character-driven mystery is full of symbolism, delving deeply into the theme of loyalty. Whether this be loyalty to one’s nation, to one’s faith, or to the people we are responsible for. Additionally, this book also touches on social inequity, religious persecution, social hierarchy and literacy. Though we did not dive into these themes, I still found them thought-provoking. Another that the book explored was intergenerational trauma. I don’t want to get into this too much for fear of spoiling the book, but the story of it was so sad and made me wonder more about family loyalty and how we can often get too lost in it.
I read this book slowly; the writing was pensive, almost melancholic as Seol’s desperation to find her brother building an emotional knot within me. There was so much longing in Seol’s words that I couldn’t help but ache every time she spoke of home. Yet in spite of that, Seol was so full of curiosity and adventure. I love her characters, her thoughts and was glad the book ended on a hopeful note.
🌸 Do you enjoy reading historical murder mysteries? Which ones are your favourite?
🌸 Have you read The Silence of Bones or do you plan on picking it up?
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