I’ll be the first to admit that I was interested in reviewing or at least reading Young-Hee and the Pullocho, the new young adult novel by Mark James Russell as soon as I heard about it. First, he’s a well-known and respected writer about the Korean entertainment industry – I own and have read his non-fiction book Pop Goes Korea after it was recommended to me by my good friend Sherri so I was intrigued to read his first book of fiction. Plus, I just like books but especially fantasy books which I read like some people do yoga, to relax.
13 year old Young-Hee moves back to Seoul, Korea with her over-worked mother and 4 year old brother after several years abroad. Finding her new life and apartment gray and “so annoying” (a phase she repeats regularly), she explores her new neighbourhood trying to find something to take her mind off her current situation.
While looking for a section of the underground parking garage under her apartment complex with no cars so she can play with her ball, she finds a magical door that leads her into a parallel mystical world populated by the creatures of myth and fairy tales.
After a brief first visit, she returns with her younger brother to disastrous consequences and ends up on a quest for a pullocho, a magical and rare ginseng-like plant. And like any quest in a fairy tale, it’s filled with challenges, twists, danger, friends and villians.
**Warning: like any review, there may be spoilers.**
Young-Hee was such a typical teenager. Okay, it’s probably more obvious during the parts of the story set in Seoul but the descriptive language and dialogue that Russell uses to portray her paints the picture so clearly of a young girl who is not happy being rooted up nor is she unwilling to let everyone know. Like I said, a typical teenager. Which makes the rest of the story that much more interesting as she’s thrust into a very unusual situation.
The book sucks you in right from the start with the first chapter jumping right into the action in Strange Land (the name that Young-Hee gives to the alternate world). Nothing like hitting the ground running but then chapter two backtracks a bit to introduce the title character, Young-Hee, and her situation. In this section of the book, we get to know the 13 year old Young-Hee, her family and a bit of her circumstance and surroundings (remember I said she was a normal teen, despite the unhappy changes in her life, this is where we learn that).
But it isn’t long before Young-Hee enters the parking garage, discovers Strange Land and things get, well… strange. And I really got into the tale. Hey, there were cool characters and mythical beings to meet like the jangseung, Grandma Dol, Tiger and Mansoo, the blue water dragon.
As someone who loves fairy tales (and not just the mythical creatures that are in some of them), I really enjoyed all short fairy/folk tales throughout the book, usually at the end of chapters – some of them I knew already but many were new. I felt that they really added depth to the story but also helped connect the reader, especially if the reader was unfamiliar with Korea, to it in a fun way. While those sections were obvious, they fit quite seamlessly into the tale and usually enhanced or explained something that was happening. As a writer (and voracious reader) I was impressed with the amount of research that must have gone into them. And being me, I found it interesting to compare them with Western tales I was more familiar with, especially Aesop’s Fables.
Like many fantasy stories, Russell’s story is very character driven and the scenes are wonderfully descriptive so it’s no surprise that the reader feels like they are a part of the journey. I liked how many of the characters seemed to come alive – I have a very vivid imagination – and soon, I felt that I knew them. And yes, if you know me and without giving too much away, I did end up crying (twice) because of Tiger.
After the long, difficult quest and slightly brutal battle, I found the trip back to the market a little anti-climactic, perhaps because it was so quick, but there was still a twist to be had in the ending (again, without giving too much away, I guessed part of it but not the deliberate deception). Got to love a story that keeps you wondering what’s happening right to the end.
However, one thing I would recommend is a glossary as while I understood the few Korean terms and words in the book, many non-Koreans are unaccustomed to Korean language and culture and so will find a some of the terms unfamiliar. Of course, most are explained but still, a glossary might be a handy reference for those interested.
I definitely recommend this book for young adult readers (middle school and above I would think) and adults, especially those who like fantasy and/or fairy tales. It’s entertaining, full of fun fairy/folk tales, colourful characters – both good and bad (and some who are neither or both) – and a story that comes alive because of the author’s fabulously descriptive writing. I giggled, I got annoyed, and I cried… but more importantly, I was engaged in and with the story and already have two people lined up to read it (my mom and a coworker).
Editor’s note: I was provided with a free copy of the book to review by the author. All opinions expressed are mine and are not influenced in any way.