With North Korea getting its pieces positioned on the geopolitical chessboard at a faster rate than ever before, this timely novel by D.B. John explores what life is like in the harsh land ruled by the iron fist of Kim. This suspenseful and thrilling novel gives the reader a glimpse into the dark world of North Korea, a bleak reality of sadness knowing that more than half of what D.B. John is telling us in his story is rooted in fact after his 2012 visit to the secluded country.
The story is broken into three characters and their arcs, Dr. Jenna Williams, an academic at Georgetown University is recruited into the CIA for her skills in language, particularly the North Korean dialect, and her academic achievements. Jenna also has a heart string for the CIA to tug on and help make her transition into the Intelligence service bring less indecision, in 1998 her identical twin sister was abducted by a North Korean submarine and she has not been seen or heard from since.
Colonel Cho Sang-Ho, a rising star in the DPRK, is selected to go on a mission of critical importance for the regime. Being sent to New York City to negotiate sanctions and diplomatic duties of his countries importance with American diplomats. It’s upon arrival that nearly everything Cho has been educated and warned about in his life that has to do with America and Americans is not the truth. He sees no famine, no lines for food wrapped around city blocks. He encounters happy people, good food, and beauty.
After the success of his negotiations, Cho is taken by the American diplomats to Club 21, a dinner with an ex-President, Secretary of State, and also where he meets an undercover Jenna Williams. It’s there where Jenna tells Cho about her sister, Cho who after initial rebuffing, agrees to help Jenna look into her lost twin.
Throughout the intertwining plots of Jenna and Cho, we’re shown life from the perspective of 60-year-old Mrs. Moon. Mrs. Moon is an arthritic woman who struggles to survive her life as a farmer and joins a local market at the train depot on the shared border with China. She starts making and selling popular dishes of rice cakes and brothy soup. Her foods are a hit and as lines start queueing and the need for a table for her customers arises Mrs. Moon has to balance between bribing the right officials and secret police throughout her time at the market. There’s no shortage of sadness and deliberate cruelty to the people who are unable to bribe those in any station above themselves. One of her first friends is executed in front of her for secretly giving away Bibles. Mrs. Moon’s own children were taken from her a lifetime ago, and it’s through her eyes of the story we witness the starving lives and hardships of the typical North Korean citizen. Mass graves that are used to fertilize the large and sweet fruits exported out of the country, and too many parentless children.
D.B. John does a marvelous job keeping a fast and thrilling pace of his novel, with beautiful prose in his descriptions that give the reader a glimpse into the harsh reality of the poor country subjected to tyrannical rule. The depression of Gulag life is horrific and every bit as brutal as Solzhenitsyn and Frankl have told before. The climactic end to the story is rife with twists and turns and races through the pages, a thrill ride ending with reveries of a Tarantino film. Fantastic from cover to cover, whatever D.B. John comes out with next will be picked up faster than a dissenter from the ranks of Kim.