As the mother of three young girls, Ellen Oh is constantly on the lookout for good books that showcase female empowerment. She’s found a few here and there – say, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and maybe a few others – but to ask for characters with whom her Korean American daughters might directly identify seemed too tall an order. So the former entertainment lawyer and adjunct college professor decided to write her own: Prophecy, the first of a planned trilogy, debuts this month.
“People feared Kira,” the heart-thumping, fantastical young adult novel begins. With her yellow eyes and unprecedented fighting skills, Kira is hardly the average teenager, much less the picture of modesty and subservience befitting a court royal. Her uncle the King considers her a “freak of nature, and a terrible embarrassment to the royal family,” and yet he must rely on her warrior strength to protect his only son and royal heir.
Throughout a fantasy version of third-century Korea, demons, imps, hobgoblins, and shamans threaten the entire peninsula, falling the seven kingdoms one by one. In Kira’s home kingdom of Hansong, evil forces are moving through the ranks, possessing even once-trusted officials. The horrific events that the great ancestor, the Dragon King, prophesied are proving true: “Seven will become three. Three will become one. One will save us all.”
When and how did the idea for your Prophecy trilogy come to you? Did Kira arrive fully formed like Athena? Or did you struggle to bring her to life?
Kira and [her cousin Prince] Taejo were the easiest characters for me to write, because they did literally spring out of my head, much like Athena – I love that analogy, by the way. I like pretending I’m Zeus! The cousins arrived fully formed, with very specific details about how I wanted them to be. When the idea for Prophecy first came to me, it was about a young prince who is believed to be the hero of a legend. But as the legend progresses, his female cousin – who is also his bodyguard and a far better warrior – turns out to be the true hero. I initially wrote Prophecy from Taejo’s perspective, but he was coming out too whiny and jealous. That changed when the point of view switched over to Kira’s. That’s when the story became more alive, moved faster, and became more relatable, at least to me. Which makes sense because the story was always about Kira – I just had to let her tell it.
Besides the shift in perspective, did the story change in other ways over the various revisions?
I think, overall, the story became more emotional. As a writer, I tend to be oriented more toward action, action, action. Both my agent and editor were really good at making me pause and ask, “Yeah, but what does Kira feel when this happens, or that happens?” I always knew the “how” and “what,” but during the revision process, I had to really work on expressing Kira’s reactions, her emotions.
Besides the obvious fact of your Korean ancestry, why did you choose to set your first novel in ancient Korea? As a fantasy writer, you pretty much have unlimited freedom as to where and when.
I chose ancient Korea for two specific reasons: the first was just practical – I couldn’t find anything like a fantasy adventure story set in ancient Korea in libraries or bookstores; the second was more personal – ancient Korea was such a fascinating, turbulent time with kingdoms changing, collapsing, being taken over, dealing with amazing politics and endless intrigue. But the specific moment I realized I had to write about ancient Korea was when I read a Genghis Khan biography and came to a point in the book when the Mongols invade Korea, and the entire royal court flees to Ganghwa Island (which is at the mouth of the Han River), where the Mongols aren’t able to cross the river to get to them. The Korean leaders are out there laughing, while the poor peasants are getting raped and killed by the Mongols. And then the royals, who’ve been safe and sound in their island fortress, come back to tax the hell out of the peasants and steal all their food. All those layered dynamics between the haves and have-nots were just so visual, interesting, and ultimately inspiring to me. That was feudal society at its best – from my perspective as someone who’s interested in the history – and at its worst – from a human perspective because you really see the worst of what people in power do to their citizens. And through it all, the common peasants endure and survive. [... click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Ellen Oh,” Bookslut.com, January 2013
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult