The Girl Saves the Day
Move over, Disney princesses. Debut author Ellen Oh introduces a new type of protagonist: a young female warrior in ancient Korea.
by JULIE HA
Author Ellen Oh admits she wrote Prophecy, her debut fantasy adventure novel, for her three daughters. In fact, the idea to feature a strong, young female demon slayer was inspired by a sense of frustration over the types of stories available—and unavailable—to her children.
“I’m a feminist … and I find it very hard [to accept this idea of,] ‘Oh, the girl must be saved by the boy.’ I guess we were watching too many Disney movies at the time, and it was making me so angry,” said Oh, 45, who lives with her husband and daughters in the Washington, D.C., area. “Where are all the girl adventure stories?”
Instead of waiting for Disney to make one (and, incidentally, they finally did, with Brave released last year), the entertainment-attorney-turned-writer began crafting her own four years ago.
“One girl will save us all,” reads the teaser on the cover of Oh’s young adult novel, released last month by HarperTeen, an imprint of Harper Collins.
In Prophecy, the first book in a trilogy, Kira is the lone female warrior in her uncle-king’s army, and also serves as bodyguard to her cousin, the prince. When demons invade their kingdom of Hansong, Kira must go on the run with the young Prince Taejo, who many believe is the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy. Along the way, she faces off with demon soldiers and the Demon Lord himself, while also confronting her own coming of age as a tough teenage girl who is treated like an outcast in the male-centered kingdom. Oh, and her yellow eyes also make her the subject of fear and scorn.
“Being bullied and disliked—those are like experiences I’ve had,” revealed Oh, noting her similarities to her protagonist.
Born in Korea, spending her infancy in Tokyo, where her parents studied, and then moving to New York at age 2, she faced a tough childhood growing up in Queens. She often confronted very overt racial taunts from schoolmates. Blaming her father, who she said taught her to come back harder, she got into a number of physical fights starting in the eighth grade and throughout high school.
Funny enough, decades later, she would draw from those experiences to flesh out Kira’s sense of injustice and also to write the novel’s many fight sequences. “Even if you’re being punched and kicked, you don’t feel pain when you’re angry,” described Oh, in a tone reminiscent of Kira’s tenacious spirit. “It’s not until later that you feel it.”
Some fans of the fantasy adventure genre may compare Prophecy to the popular 2008 novel Graceling, which also centers on a teenage girl who is the king’s niece. In fact, a Kirkus review of Oh’s book noted that fans of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling “will be drawn to the despised warrior princess.”
But one major distinction for Prophecy is that it is set in ancient Korea—a detail Oh notably refused to change.
“When I was first starting the writing process, I had lot of people saying no one’s going to buy a book about ancient Korea,” she recalled.
But, much like her feisty and stubbornly determined heroine, such skepticism only made Oh even more set on featuring mostly Korean names for the characters and setting, and peppering the novel with terms like sunim, baduk and Jindo. She believes Prophecy is the first American novel in the fantasy adventure genre to feature a Korean setting.
She notes that, to someone who’s Korean, the book’s Korean allusions are not going to read authentic. “But I was going for feel,” said Oh, who, with the help of her father who provided translation, did extensive research on Korean history, and even Korean architecture and pottery in order to capture that feel.
“What I was hoping was to make a Western audience read about Eastern culture and civilization, [but in the context of a] fantasy adventure, making it very accessible to a Western audience,” said Oh, who left the law seven years ago and is currently on sabbatical from her academic work at George Mason University.
And what did the debut author’s original target audience think of the book? Her younger daughters, aged 9 and 11, are not yet allowed to read it (the young adult audience spans the teenage years), but her 13-year-old did, and loved it.
“It was almost all Korean [characters], and that was exciting for her,” said Oh. “Also, she loved that it was a strong girl character who didn’t need any boy to save her!”
Book 2 in the series will be out in 2014.
This article was published in the February 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)