Title: The Forest of Stolen Girls
Author: June Hur
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Review Copy: Received as a gift from family
Availability: Available now
Summary: Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask.
To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate…only to vanish as well.
Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.
Review: [This book contains child abuse, death/murder, kidnapping, mutilation, human trafficking/slavery, and mentioned/referenced sexual assault and suicide.]
I thoroughly enjoyed June Hur’s debut, THE SILENCE OF BONES, so I was delighted to find out she had another historical mystery set in Joseon Korea coming out this year. THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS features a new cast and a new mystery and is set nearly four centuries earlier than BONES, this time on Jeju Island. (There’s a historical note at the end of the novel that serves as a good starting off point if you want to learn more about the historical events that inspired FOREST.)
Our heroine, Hwani, is a great POV character for this story. Between lost memories and her years away from the island (and her sister), Hwani has an extra layer of complication atop the mystery of the missing girls. I loved her determination to find her father and to solve the disappearances, even when her investigation came at personal risk. It’s incredibly satisfying whenever the lead in a mystery realizes they’ve gone off track and has to work hard to backtrack/figure out where they’ve gone astray—and when they decide to ask for or accept help from others.
What truly makes FOREST a compelling read is Hwani’s relationships with her family. While Hwani’s search for her father drives much of the plot, it is her reunion with her sister, Maewol, that is truly the heart of the book. The two of them haven’t seen each other in years, and they both view their father very differently and lead incredibly different lives. Hwani and Maewol’s clashes feel realistic and weighty with their years of separation, and their interactions and conversations are what help Hwani see the world more clearly. She learns that people who are good to her can make bad choices with others, and she learns how many terrible things people can do when they’re trying to protect their family.
With such a strong focus on the sisters’ relationship and the overall mystery, there wasn’t much room for the supporting characters to be fleshed out. While there were some memorable supporting/minor characters, the world felt thinner than I’d like. With how wide-reaching the mystery ended up being, I think we could have used more time with the people it directly and indirectly affected beyond Hwani and Maewol. (Gahee, Shaman Nokyung, and Scholar Yu in particular are characters I would have liked to get to know better.) Still, this does mean that FOREST has a very tight focus on the sisters, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spend less time with them.
Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re a fan of historical mysteries. THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS is another solid book from author June Hur. The mystery is good, but the development of the heroine and her sister’s relationship is my favorite thing about the book. If you like estranged siblings coming together to solve mysterious disappearances, this is the book for you.