Reviewed by Genevieve Hartman
A mystic and legendary journey through rural Korea, full of gods and monsters
Set in the Korean peninsula in the 1870s, as the Western world prepares to infiltrate the country, Third Moon Passing by Rina Olsen is an epic tale. It follows Chansol, the daughter of a mountain god, Moonso, the son of the Dragon King of the West Sea, and two human Korean girls, Wolhwa and Daseul.
The girls’ lives become entangled in the affairs of the gods due to an unlikely accident caused by Chansol and Moonso, and all four must embark on a quest that takes them far from their homes near a rural Korean island to an underwater palace and to the dark depths of the Underworld. There they must uncover the messy secrets of the past, even as their families mourn their disappearance, their worshippers call out for protection, and the American troops threaten to invade.
Third Moon Passing is lush with the history and folklore of the Joseon (Korean) people, exploring an often overlooked part of the past. Real historical figures live alongside carefully rendered fictional ones, and the pantheon of Korean folk gods are brought to life in all their powers. Told from multiple perspectives, the book reckons with imperialistic Western ideologies and the Koreans’ fight to remain pure of this Western influence.
As the Koreans struggle to maintain their traditions and isolationist policies, the gods struggle to not interfere, even as they worry their power will fade with the onset of Catholic and Buddhist religions. Chansol, Moonso, Wolhwa, and Daseul all must grapple with their allotted destinies and the laws that govern the living and the dead, even as they seek to resist American intervention in Joseon. These tensions between honor, duty, and the desire to follow their individual wishes result in four personable, intelligent, yet unpredictable characters that are fascinating to read about.
The tapestry of Third Moon Passing is saturated with characters, and it takes time to parse each new god and human and understand their role in the machinations of the story, but the investment is worth the time. As each personal history is unfolded and each folktale is brought to life, the reader is immersed in the richness of Korean folk history: from human-eating gumiho foxes; to the trickster god Seokga; to the story of Ungyeo, the bear who became a woman and gave birth to the founder of the first ancient Korean kingdom. Each folktale begins with the delightful refrain, “When tigers smoked long pipes,” the Korean equivalent of “once upon a time.”
Olsen has written a spellbinding novel, full of magical courtly intrigue, historical facts, and the intricacies of complicated family dynamics. Third Moon Passing is a strong debut that marries fantasy with historical fiction with a precise and skilled hand, and it is sure to captivate.
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