Review: The Court Dancer by Shin Kyung-sook


Upon meeting Yi Jin in the Joseon Dynasty at the height of its cultural splendor, a young French diplomat is captivated. He is especially enamored by her delicate and traditional Dance of the Spring Oriole. Despite knowing that women in the court are not available to outsiders, the diplomat confesses his love to the Emperor and is granted permission to take Yi Jin with him back to France.

In Paris during the Belle Epoque era, Yi Jin enjoys a life of freedom and independence, unencumbered by the constraints of court life. She collaborates with another Korean student to translate and publish Joseon literature into French. However, even in her new surroundings, Yi Jin experiences great sadness and heartache, as she yearns for her home and her oldest friend. Her return to Joseon is marked by betrayal, jealousy, and intrigue, culminating in the tragic assassination of the last Joseon empress and the discovery of a poisoned book.


I am finding it difficult to assign a rating to this book as I have mixed feelings about it. While there were aspects of the book that I enjoyed, there were also elements that left me dissatisfied. I am struggling to identify whether my disappointment is due to the book’s flaws or issues with the characters.

In my opinion, the first two thirds of the book moved at a slow pace. The majority of the story was told from Yi Jin’s perspective as a foreigner residing in France during the 19th century. There were occasional glimpses of her memories from her life in Korea’s Joseon era, but the characters were not fully developed. Although these chapters were exquisitely written with vivid descriptions, I felt that they didn’t advance the plot in any significant way.

The pace of the book picked up when Yi Jin returned to Korea with Victor. Personally, I felt that the story could have been improved if Queen Min had been the protagonist instead of Yi Jin. Queen Min’s character was much stronger and commanding, and whenever she appeared in the few chapters, she overshadowed Yi Jin and left me craving more of her story.

Despite my preference for Queen Min’s character, I couldn’t help feeling sad for Yi Jin. She was a powerless pawn, who was treated like an object and had no say in her fate. First, she was passed on from the queen to Victor without any regard for her wishes. I noticed that some readers had criticized the lack of passion between Yi Jin and Victor, stating that the book failed as a romance. However, I believe that this is a misleading impression created by the book blurb. The story was never intended to be a love story. Yi Jin was given to a stranger by the emperor, and her feelings or desires were of no consequence since she was merely a property of the court. She tried to make the best of her circumstances while making them tolerable for herself. I also doubt that Victor had genuine feelings for Yi Jin. He was merely someone who collected exotic items, and Yi Jin seemed to be just another addition to his collection that he could flaunt to his acquaintances back home.

One positive aspect of this book was that it motivated me to conduct extensive research on the Sino-Japanese wars and the Joseon era of Korea. The backstory of the political landscape, which had a significant impact on Yi Jin’s life, was presented in an ambiguous and limited manner. Despite the book’s blurb stating that it was a true story, I was unable to find any proof of Yi Jin’s existence online.

At last, I am wondering whether The Court Dancer was actually intended for an international audience at all because while the author described Yi Jin’s life in Paris in such phenomenal details she was very vague about Yi Jin’s life in Korea or the Korean empire as a whole as though she didn’t want to bore the reader with facts they already were aware of. For an instance, the book’s name sake, court dancing. We had nothing but two or three glimpses of Yi Jin reminiscing about her dancing but with no details at all except for that one time she dances alone in Paris out of nostalgia. Another was the political turmoil the Korean empire was in while this story was taking place.

As someone who deeply appreciates Korean culture, it pains me to give The Court Dancer such a low rating. Although I wanted to rate it higher, I feel it’s important to be honest about my thoughts and feelings on the book.



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