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Tyrant’s Delight

A Crane Among Wolves

By June Hur 

7 Jun, 2024

Doing the WFC's Homework


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June Hur’s 2024 A Crane Among Wolves is a stand-alone historical thriller.

Iseul didn’t appreciate her sister Suyeon until Suyeon was kidnapped; now she wants her back. Finding Suyeon is easy enough. Getting her back? King Yeonsan’s legions stand between Iseul and Suyeon. Suyeon was kidnapped by the king and is being held prisoner in his harem.

Let me explain.

[Spoilers for Korean history, which by the way is impressively documented in the book.]

Nine years after ascending to the Joseon throne, Yeonsan discovered some disturbing facts about his mother. She was not Queen Jeonghyeon, as he had been led to believe, but the Deposed Queen Yun. Seeing Deposed Queen Yun as an endless source of turmoil, government officials petitioned for and received her execution by poison.

Yeonsan was enraged.

Those guilty parties prudent enough to die before Yeonsan discovered the truth were dug up and posthumously punished. Those stupid enough to be alive were found and punished. Yeonsan took a very broad view of what constituted guilt; simple geographic proximity to the plot sufficed to justify a cruel death.

After the initial massacre Yeonsan engaged in cruelty on an even broader scale. He confiscated land and executed anyone who objected (this is how Iseul and Suyeon’s parents died). Lest anyone criticize him, Yeonsan targeted intellectuals and writers. He indulged his lusts by kidnapping any woman who attracted his interest. Handsome Suyeon was one such victim.

Iseul, spoiled as a child, raised in privilege, had only the vaguest plans for extracting her sister from the king’s harem. By rights she should have failed utterly. But Iseul is fortunate. She doesn’t attract the attention of informers; she does fall in with people as upset with the king as she is. Better yet, she crosses paths with Yeonsan’s illegitimate half-brother Prince Daehyun. He’s still at court, but knows that he’s not safe at all. It’s only a matter of time before Yeonsan turns on him. The only way out: deposing the king. Iseul and Daehyun ally and search for co-conspirators. Informers abound. The quest is perilous.


Iseul keeps making bad choices, but is lucky enough to survive them. She at least learns from experience… slowly. The lesson: in the words of Buford Pope, “[…] better to be lucky than smart.”1

Author Hur appears to be working her way through the worst episodes in Korean history. This volume treats of Yeonsan (also known as Yeonsangun), who is generally held to be Korea’s worst tyrant, an impressive first in a very competitive field. Her 2022 book The Red Palace was inspired by Crown Prince Sado, who is reputed to have been a serial killer and rapist. Her 2020 The Silence of Bones covers the purges that followed the death of King Chŏngjo. I wonder what will next catch the author’s attention.

The cover leads readers to expect a thrilling romance between Iseul and Daehyun, and there is. That’s not what attracted my attention, although I imagine romance fans will be happy.

Recorded history is something of a spoiler for the novel: in real life, Yeonsan went spectacularly off the rails in 1504 and was deposed in 1506. Why did it take two years? The same reason it took three years to depose Caligula. Even if the ruler is a homicidal maniac, even if everyone agrees that the ruler has to go, it’s hard to manage this without ending up like Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Pyotr Tavrin, or other commonplace household names I shouldn’t need to explain. Consequently, nobody wants to be the leader, lest more cautious people betray them. Crane’s depiction of this cautious process is fascinating.

Even if the plot succeeds, a happy ending is not at all guaranteed. Not as bad as Yeonsan” leaves lots of room for pretty bad.” In fact, people familiar with this era will know the coup was not immediately followed by an unparalleled golden age. What does this mean for the protagonists? Read and find out.

A Crane Among Wolves is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo),and here (Words Worth Books).

1: I’m going to let you look this one up. Hint: it’s from a movie.