First Impressions: “Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung” Gets Real But Stays Fun

There’s an epidemic sweeping Joseon, but it’s not what it sounds like. The latest trend these days is books — and not just any books, but juicy, steamy (well, by Joseon standards) romance novels:

Warning: slight spoilers for “Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung” Episodes 1-4 below!

All the ladies are wrapped up in romantic tales at the start of MBC’s “Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung,” attending reading parties and reveling in stories of forbidden love and risqué moonlit meetings. Everyone, that is, except for one Goo Hae Ryung, whose tastes are a little… different:

When Hae Ryung (Shin Se Kyung) is not reading, she spends her time sleeping through bridal-training classes (where she is by far the oldest student, as yet unmarried), tinkering with her Western-style clock, and drinking with her older brother. She’s certainly not the typical Joseon lady, and if she had things her way, she would grow old alone with her brother and her books, reading about faraway lands and peoples.

This is quite a contrast to Prince Yi Rim (ASTRO’s Cha Eun Woo), who is completely infatuated with tales of love: under the pen name Maehwa, the prince has written many a romance novel, and his works have become so popular that Maehwa has gained a cult following around the capital. Unfortunately, the poor confined prince has never been able to witness the joy his novels bring to others first-hand — until now. And his reaction is heartwarmingly adorable…

Until he meets the first person to not like his stories, our heroine, whom he catches literally yawning while flipping through the pages he poured his soul into:

Doesn’t she know he stayed up “All Night” writing that?

The pair’s meeting feels suspiciously like the typical sageuk romance of girl not knowing boy is royalty and treating him like a normal person, and boy falling in love with her because she’s the first to ever treat him like a normal person. But because of the two’s shared passion for reading and writing, “Rookie Historian” has the perfect setup for a deeper, more fulfilling relationship between its leads: Prince Rim’s naivety leaves him plenty of room to grow, and Hae Ryung has the intellect and passion to open his eyes to the world.

Cha Eun Woo is predictably lovable in “Rookie Historian,” and it’s hard not to grin while he’s happy or want to give him a hug when he’s hurt. And while we’ve gotten a whole lot of wide-eyed Prince Rim scenes thus far, as the story develops, we will hopefully get to see a bigger range of moods and emotions from him. The one person who does seem to hate the prince is his own father (Kim Min Sang), especially when the king finds out that his son is the mysterious Maehwa:

In fact, the king finds out about his son’s hobby at precisely the wrong time, as he has just begun a bit of a crusade against books, banning foreign books, romance novels, and anything deemed culturally corrupting, and sending out officials to raid the people’s homes to burn their novels.

The king’s real motivation behind the new Office of Banned Books is a newly-circulating novel called “The Story of Ho Dam,” which appears to be a little too similar to an undisclosed incident from the king’s past that seems to have something to do with the line of succession… but we’ll have to wait a little longer to find out more about that.

In the meantime, while the prince tries to come up with new hobbies to replace reading…

The palace ministers have decided to tighten their control over the royals with a new policy: in addition to the male historians who follow the royal family around and record everything they say, female historians will now be recruited as well, essentially ensuring that the king and princes can be spied upon at all times.

Fortunately the crown prince, who is acting as regnant, decides (much to the ministers’ outrage) that rather than choosing female historians based on the ministers’ recommendations, the candidates will have to pass the civil service examination: which Hae Ryung plans to use to escape her arranged marriage.

There’s enough that’s different in “Rookie Historian” to keep it interesting, and it’s given unique twists to sageuk characters that usually get stereotyped: for one, in addition to being a wise leader, Crown Prince Yi Jin (Park Ki Woong) is a gem of an older brother — finally, a historical drama where the princes aren’t trying to kill each other!

The drama also has a lot to work with in terms of societal issues: the banning of books, the power of history and scholarship, and the elevation of women in a highly patriarchal society.

Goo Hae Ryung herself leans refreshingly towards an intellectual rather than a typical plucky female lead, and Shin Se Kyung (of “Tree With Deep Roots” and “Six Flying Dragons” fame) has not disappointed in a historical drama yet, so “Rookie Historian” has a lot of promise!

It’s also not afraid to get a little raunchy…

And with this balance between the serious and the funny, the drama is off to a solid start!

Hey Soompiers, did you watch the “Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung” premiere? What’d you think? Let us know in the comments!

hgordon stays up way too late on weeknights marathoning K-dramas and trying to keep up with the latest K-pop releases. Follow her adventures in Seoul on Instagram.

Currently watching: “Hotel Del Luna,” “Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung”
All-time favorite dramas: “Scarlet Heart: Goryeo,” “Goblin,” “Hwayugi
Looking forward to: “Vagabond”

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