The Old Woman with the Knife, by Gu Byeong-mo

Hornclaw should probably retire. She’s been in the “disease control” business for decades now, and she’s not as fast as she was. She forgets things and a lot of her parts hurt. The problem is that she never really made clear plans for what she’d do after she hung up her knives and poisons. In The Old Woman with the Knife, by Gu Byeong-mo (and sharply translated by Chi-Young Kim), we see Hornclaw as she is pushed to the brink by a challenge that might make any of her vague plans for retirement moot.

Hornclaw lives by her routine. She carefully scopes out her targets. She makes sure that her accidentally adopted dog, Deadweight, has food and water. She works out to maintain her muscles and flexibility. The routine helps keep her moving forward, especially now that her memory seems to be going. She’ll find herself lost in memories of her neglectful family or the years she spent with Ryu after she fell into the “disease control” business.

A new-ish colleague at the office, who Hornclaw calls Bullfight, is a thorn in her side. He needles her about her age and her aloof manner for no apparent reason. His hostility ratchets up until Hornclaw has no choice but to use a lifetime of very special skills to take him out, even if she doesn’t remember why he hates her so much. This last job turns into one of the most epic fights I’ve read in a long time and Hornclaw, after a long life on the wrong side of the law, has a chance to be a hero.

I don’t often read thrillers. They tend to be too formulaic for me and, to be honest, chases and gunfights are usually better when you can see them on a screen. But I really liked The Old Woman with the Knife. The action was tempered with Hornclaw’s memories of her hard life in post-war Korea. It was also fascinating to read an action story with an elderly woman as protagonist. It was refreshing to read a thriller in which we saw the physical toll of running, hiding, and fighting in a protagonist who can’t just shake it off. She has to plan carefully to make sure that she can take out her targets and get away after.

This was an original, exciting, moving adventure; I highly recommend it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

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