More and more books are featuring extensive Asian-inspired worldbuilding, and Sophie Kim’s debut novel Last of the Talons follows suit in emphasizing the importance of Asian-centered storytelling. This young adult fantasy book, the first of a trilogy, blends Korean mythology with action-packed fighting, a cool and empowering protagonist, and a resonant emotional core about family and grief. In other words, the book not only contains all the elements of a great story, but successfully puts them all together.
Shin Lina is the Reaper of Sunpo, a renowned female assassin forced to work for Kalmin, the leader of a competing gang, the Blackbloods. Her former gang members, the Talons, were murdered in cold blood by the Blackbloods; as a result, Lina holds both a burning resentment and a desire for revenge. When she steals a tapestry owned by the Dokkaebi emperor Haneul Rui for Kalmin, Kalmin is captured by Rui as punishment. Kalmin’s second-in-command tells Lina that she must rescue Kalmin or her young sister Eunbi’s life will be forfeit.
Lina agrees, but after meeting Rui, he makes her a deal: Lina must successfully kill him in fourteen days in order to return with Kalmin and save her sister. However, she soon realizes that this task may be more difficult than she expected as she begins to fall for the emperor.
The initial premise of the story is a bit weak — upon first read, it seems disingenuous that the emperor would strike up such a deal with Lina so quickly after meeting if he didn’t have some other kind of interest in her than mere entertainment. Because the majority of the book centers on this deal between Lina and Rui, Kim essentially sets up the time limit to be less of suspenseful, harrowing time — as it’s implied to be — and more of the period in which a predictable burgeoning relationship occurs. However, this external conflict shifts to make way for more substantial stakes, such as the Revolution against the emperor and Lina’s plan to avenge her Talons.
Lina is an inspiring role model, especially with the way that she struggles with her grief. Her grief literally haunts her, and she turns to smoking as a way to cope. This rendering of addiction is dark but a meaningful way of externalizing her pain. Kim also sets up this novel for its sequel as Lina uncovers her own potential, physical, magical, and otherwise. The plot of saving her sister feels contrived and somewhat artificially placed to show Lina’s “human” side beyond her fierce warrior attitude. There could have been more snippets included of Lina’s investment in Eunbi, but Kim still makes the journey to rescue Eunbi captivating.
Rui, the powerful Dokkaebi emperor, is a perfect romantic complement to the assassin who wants to kill him. On top of the compelling love interest, Kim also incorporates the Pied Piper tale in a mysterious yet charming way—the emperor’s allure is both magical (with his flute) and psychological (with his entire person). Last of the Talons possesses an inventive spin on traditional relationships between the Pied Piper and those who are lured by his flute; Kim broadens that seduction to the emperor himself.
Even as Kim ducks from delving too deeply into the romance — this is a young adult fantasy, after all — she still incorporates sizzling tensions between the two without fear. Will they kill each other or kiss each other? That might just be the most pressing question of the novel, and, needless to say, it’s an enjoyable one.
One has to praise Kim for the most intriguing part of the novel, which is the different stakeholders in the narrative. There are a few moments where everything that’s going on plot-wise in the universe becomes convoluted to follow, as is the custom with many fantasy novels, but the different interests involved in saving the world or destroying it are so vast and varied that they show the complexity of Kim’s attention to each individual character.
Kim has expressed on Twitter that her inspiration for Last of the Talons was the BTS song “Pied Piper,” and it’s strangely fitting. Kim doesn’t use a flute to write, just her beautiful prose. Yet, just like the folkloric figure, it’s as if the novel draws you in gradually and leaves you spellbound.