I am, I confess, of two minds about Bride of the Water God. As a romance it’s only middling, but as a visual spectacle, as a slice of Koreana (so to speak), it’s lovely and lush. The beauty and poetry of the presentation — and the poetry’s both visual and verbal — do make up in great part for the shortcomings in the story.
The premise, as set up in the first volume, lends itself to any number of romantic complications. The “bride” of the title is Soah, a young girl who has been sacrificed by her village to the water god Habaek. Much to her surprise, instead of ending up dead, she finds herself in Habaek’s domain surrounded by a whole pantheon of other gods. Among them is Habaek himself, who manifests in two forms — a snooty young boy, and a handsome adult who calls himself “Mui.” And to make matters worse, there are ongoing behind-the-scenes feuds and bits of internecine politics that Soah is now a party to.
The second volume moves things forward in three basic ways. It lets Soah figure out that Mui and Habaek might be two aspects of the same being; it advances Habaek’s own feelings for Soah (which are, to put it politely, muddled); and it makes things incrementally more complicated for Soah vis-à-vis the other gods as well. It comes as a bit of a surprise for her to find out, for instance, that it’s not wholly impossible for her to return home — but she’s soured on the idea of returning home to a family that might not have wanted her in the first place. Like most of the men in this type of romance, Mui/Habaek has shown himself to be a sulky type who would rather stab himself through the chest than admit his emotions. Give him time, though; by the end of the second volume he’s owned up at least once to his feelings, if only under a peculiar kind of duress.
Soah manages to assemble a few clues that Mui and Habaek are the same person. The first one is fairly obvious: they’re never in the same place at the same time. The second is subtler: the presence of a tattoo that she has only glimpsed on Mui, although not yet on Habaek. To that end she devises a number of goofy plans to get to see both of them undressed, and ends up in heavy-duty lip-lock with Mui when he gets dosed with an aphrodisiac by “mistake.” Soah also learns, quite by accident, that Mui harbors feelings for one of the other gods — something that inspires an unexpected streak of jealousy within her. (Unexpected jealousy and unrequited love go hand in hand in a story like this, though, don’t they?) The book ends on a cleverly-placed cliffhanger, where Soah does indeed finally get a look at Habaek’s tattoo — or perhaps not. We’ll have to wait until next time to find out what really happened.
It’s hard for me to read Water God and not make comparisons with another series I just finished, another romance that absolutely floored me with how good it turned out to be. That series was Real/Fake Princess, which also dutifully hit all the same notes of romance (reluctant woman, moody man, unexpected love) but did so with vigorous storytelling to burn. Water God is more languid and doesn’t make you feel like as much is at stake in its pages, but oddly that’s also part of its charm. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t gorgeous on almost every page, which surely counts for something.