Goong: The Royal Palace Volumes 1-4 by So Hee Park
I think watching a couple live action Korean dramas for my soap opera needs has caused me to be able to appreciate manhwa more. I am now greeting standard plot devices like Poor Girl Inexplicably Engaged to Emotionally Withholding Rich Boy, Sympathetic but Potentially Dangerous Second Lead Guy, and Evil Manipulative Older Woman with amused recognition instead of annoyance. Goong takes place in an alternate world where Korea still has a functioning monarchy. Chae-Kyung is an ordinary high school girl. Her school is split into two buildings. She attends the school for normal students in the old building, while the crown prince of the country Shin Lee attends class in the new building. The two students have a fateful encounter involving Shin’s slippers that ends with each of them thinking that the other is annoying. Unfortunately long before they were born their grandparents decided that the two would be engaged.
The young couple go along with the arranged marriage, and Chae-Kyung soon finds herself unprepared for dealing with the customs of the royal family and the palace intrigue that goes along with her new position. Shin informs Chae-Kyung that he’s marrying her because he’d never bring someone that he likes into the royal family. Chae-Kyung is conscious of the financial struggles of her parents and sees marrying the prince as a way of taking care of her parents. While Chae-Kyung and her prince have a tendency towards antagonism in their relationship he promises to divorce her when he’s older and help her to able to make decisions for herself if she wants to leave the palace.
Park’s art gets better as the series progresses. The first volume displays a little bit of stiffness in the character poses, and some of the gangly proportions paired with excessively pretty faces that seems to be typical of most manhwa art. Park’s chibis look more grotesque than anything else, resembling Mad Magazine caricatures with sharp elbows and prominent teeth. Chae-Kyung often slips into chibi mode when dealing with the excessive emotions of her sudden engagement. Later volumes show more fluidity in the art and less broad comedy in the illustrations.
The second volume opens with the wedding, complete with gorgeous traditional costumes. I was surprised a little bit by the pacing, as I expected that Chae-Kyung’s princess training and the wedding preparations would take a few chapters at least. After one of the many ceremonies during the long day of festivities Chae-Kyung notices her new husband doing strange facial exercises so he’ll be able to tirelessly smile at all the people that will greet them. She thinks that she wants to get to know him better. Even though he often acts like a spoiled brat, there are occasional moments where Shin seems lost in his own thoughts. Perhaps he has hidden depths? Exhausted after a grueling day, the new couple keep falling asleep together whenever they get a chance to sit down.
Complications are introduced into the palace with the return of the former crown prince Yul. Shin’s cousin attends school in Chae-Kyung’s class and seems to have a bit of a crush on his new sister-in-law. Yul’s mother is determined to better her own position and that of her son, and she’s not afraid of playing underhanded tricks get her way. Chae-Kyung seems to enjoy talking to Yul, because he relates to her as more of a peer than her autocratic husband. Chae-Kyung and Shin escape the palace and go to visit her parents. The close physical proximity to her new husband causes Chae-Kyung to start developing feelings for him.
Shin’s visit to Chae-Kyung’s home exposes him to the lives of regular people. He stares at everyone’s toothbrushes crowded together in a single cup in the bathroom and thinks that is what a family truly is. He asks Chae-Kyung what it is like to call her mother “Mom.” He starts to articulate his own wishes instead of just being the puppet that the royal family expects. One of the ways that Park mixes humor into her soap opera series is breaking the fourth wall, as Chae-Kyung frequently comments on developments in her life that are like a “girly comic.” When she meets a pack of royal cousins that look as primped and pampered as a boy band, she wonders if this is her big chance to be “one of those female characters that is loved by several pretty boys?”
The awkwardly developing relationship between Chae-Kyung and Shin is hampered by Chae-Kyung’s wondering about the continued presence of one of his female friends and her natural ease when relating to Shin’s cousin Yul. She tells Yul that she loves Shin, but comments “I get attached to people easily. If I’d met you first I might have fallen in love with you.” When Yul attempts to intervene when Shin teases Chae-Kyung too much, Shin warns him off, saying “for now she’s mine and I can do anything I want with her.” Shin tends to relate to people through a protective shell of bravado, and after seeing the cold and overly-mannered way his family interacts, it is easy to see why he turned out to be a bit of a brat.
After setting up the relationships and budding romance, volume four of the series dials up the scheming and emotional manipulation. Yul builds on his relationship with Chae-Kyung by giving her a puppy. She’s delighted to have a cute companion to care for, but how will they manage to raise a puppy in the cold and overly regimented royal palace? Yul’s mother manages to get an additional title conferred on her dead husband with the effect of raising her rank so she can move back into the palace. She’s determined to make things worse for Shin and Chae-Kyung in order to advance Yul to his former position of crown prince. Shin has to leave on a trip, and Yul’s mother pressures Chae-Kyung to stay behind.
It is easy to feel sympathy for the new royal couple. Since they’re just teenagers they don’t have the freedom to fight back against the web of manipulation that is beginning to be put in place by the royal family. Still Shin and Chae-Kyung are both stubborn enough that they might manage to thrive in their unfortunate situation. If they become allies, they might be able to attain some degree of autonomy, but their bickering way of relating to each other may keep them apart. As Chae-Kyung tries to deal with a love she thinks is one-sided, Shin shows signs of wanting to help her out and protect her. He might claim that he wants to be around her because she’s fun to tease, but she’s one of the few people in his life without a hidden agenda.
Goong: The Royal Palace didn’t start out with a perfect first volume, but the art and intricate storyline improves as the series develops. The combination of humor and modern palace intrigue makes for an interesting plot, and as Park’s artwork develops it is easy to appreciate the attention to detail she lavishes on the fashions of the royal family and the occasional portrayal of a traditional ceremony. I’m going to check out the rest of this series, I’m curious to see how the new princess Chae-Kyung manages palace life as she becomes more used to the customs of the royal family and her new husband.