I just finished my second book of the year! Today, I am reviewing the first installment of the Giften Clans series called The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim. This fast-paced middle-grade novel was a great way to jump-start my reading momentum this year.
Like last week’s book, I came across The Last Fallen Star as a free offering under the Kindle Unlimited subscription service. Many books from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint are currently available, and it’s great to see that there are so many stories by diverse authors about diverse cultures being published these days. I chose this one in particular because it features a Korean protagonist and Korean mythologies. As someone who lives in South Korea and is married to a Korean national, I was very curious to see what elements of Korean culture would be incorporated into a modern fantasy novel.
“Riley Oh can’t wait to see her sister get initiated into the Gom clan, a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches their family has belonged to for generations. Her sister, Hattie, will earn her Gi bracelet and finally be able to cast spells without adult supervision. Although Riley is desperate to follow in her sister’s footsteps when she herself turns thirteen, she’s a saram–a person without magic. Riley was adopted, and despite having memorized every healing spell she’s ever heard, she often feels like the odd one out in her family and the gifted community.
Then Hattie gets an idea: what if the two of them could cast a spell that would allow Riley to share Hattie’s magic? Their sleuthing reveals a promising incantation in the family’s old spell book, and the sisters decide to perform it at Hattie’s initiation ceremony. If it works, no one will ever treat Riley as an outsider again. It’s a perfect plan!
Until it isn’t. When the sisters attempt to violate the laws of the Godrealm, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance, and to save her Riley has to fulfill an impossible task: find the last fallen star. But what even is the star, and how can she find it?
As Riley embarks on her search, she finds herself meeting fantastic creatures and collaborating with her worst enemies. And when she uncovers secrets that challenge everything she has been taught to believe, Riley must decide what it means to be a witch, what it means to be family, and what it really means to belong.”
Quoted from Goodreads
The Last Fallen Star is absolutely action-packed. Having read Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief a few years ago, I anticipated that this novel would be similarly filled with clues, quests, and obstacles every few pages. It definitely was!
The main protagonist, Riley Oh is a Korean adoptee living in Los Angeles with her magical family. It was interesting to see not only the perspective of a Korean American and their take on Korean culture but also that of an adoptee coping with the issue of what it means to belong. Riley’s situation is quite different from the typical Korean adoptee, however. Many Korean adoptees come from the motherland and are adopted into non-Korean families, and that comes with its own complications and hardships that weren’t touched upon in this novel. I just wanted to point that out in case anyone might be looking for that element in this story, which is not present.
What I Liked
I really loved all of the characters in this story. Everyone felt like a distinctly different person with their own personalities, styles, and thought processes. Sometimes in a book with so many characters, it’s easy for some to seem similar, or for the author to lose track of each character’s distinct voice. But I was very impressed and delighted by how individual every single character felt in this book.
As a Southern California native, I also liked seeing all of the different scenes around Los Angeles. It was fun to see some familiar landmarks and also a great way to integrate LA’s Korean community into the plot of the story. I was surprised to hear that the author is actually from New Zealand! She seemed to know the area really well.
I will admit that some of the magic and myths had me confused by the end (there was a lot going on!) but overall I really enjoyed all of the fantastical elements in this story. The various creatures and spirits that Riley encountered were exciting and richly described. My favorites were probably the haetae and the inmyeonjo. I also found the dokkaebi particularly frightening! I loved learning about the magic of the different clans and seeing different gifted members use their various magical talents in times of crisis.
My favorite thing about this book was that it was not afraid to tackle difficult subjects like death and coping with loss, right and wrong, sacrifice and responsibility, defining ones’ personal values, defining oneself, and more. I was really touched, almost moved to tears, during the scenes with gwisin. I also loved how much Riley loved her family and especially her sister, as well as her compassion for her friends. I think there are many great lessons to be learned by Riley.
What I Didn’t
I’m aware that as a middle-grade fantasy adventure, there is some expectation for this novel to be extremely fast-paced and full of action. As I said before, this novel certainly fits those descriptions. But I personally felt overwhelmed by the constant break-neck speed at which the action in this story progressed. There were so many twists and turns and reversals that I nearly got whiplash! I think this kind of story would really appeal to its target audience, but I suppose I prefer a bit more depth in each scene, rather than rushing onto the next without being able to fully digest what just happened. I think if this book were longer, or broken up into two novels, I would have been able to enjoy the action and the pace a bit more.
Now, I am not Korean nor am I well-versed in Korean folklore. That’s actually one of the reasons why I picked up this book; I wanted to learn more. But there are a few stories that I am familiar with, and I also ran a lot of the mythological elements by my husband to hear his perspective on them. Of course, the author is absolutely free to reinvent Korean folklore to create a brand new fantasy tale, and I think she wrote a fascinating story. But I was surprised by how much certain things were changed. For example, the story of the Bear Goddess is really different from what my husband and I know. The bear mentioned in the book receives a blessing from Mago Halmi and becomes a goddess and patron of the Gom clan of healers, whereas in the common myth that most Koreans know, the bear becomes a human who marries the god Hwaneung and she gives birth to Dangun, who goes on to found the Joseon Kingdom and give origin to the Korean people. My husband also had no idea who Mago Halmi was. I did some research and it is a real character in folklore, but not one that is given nearly as much significance as was given in the book. Again, the author is free to reinvent and embellish these myths in a work of fiction, but some of the choices were bewildering.
I also have two smaller nitpicks to mention. The first is that the magic of the Tokki Clan, the infusers, did not seem distinct enough from the Gom Clan, the healers. I had trouble understanding what was the difference between them because they seemed to overlap a lot. The second is that Riley’s parents, especially her dad, were a bit bland. They weren’t very present in the story except for the very beginning and end, but I wish we could have learned more about their personalities since many of the other adults introduced were well-developed.
My Star Rating
I obviously really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy/adventure. I was struggling between choosing 4 and 5 stars, to be honest, but ultimately I decided to give only 4 stars this time. While it was certainly a fun, fascinating read, I still felt like it wasn’t completely “my jam,” as you can tell by some of my critiques. I am hoping to reserve a 5-star rating for books that more fully suit my tastes and really blow me away.
You can check out The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim on Amazon. I am looking forward to the next installment in this series! There were lots of cliffhangers and unanswered questions left at the end of this book, so I’ll have to read Book 2, The Last Fallen Moon, when it gets released hopefully later this year.
Have you read this book or any others from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint? Do you enjoy reading middle-grade fantasy? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!