Star Of The North by D. B. John

The Blurb On The Back:

North Korea and the USA are on the brink of war.

A young American woman disappears without trace from a South Korean island.

The CIA recruits her twin sister to uncover the truth.

Now, she must go undercover in the world’s most deadly state.

Only by infiltrating the dark heart of the terrifying regime will she be able to save her sister … and herself.

Prepare yourself for the most explosive international thriller of the year.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

In June 1998 18-year-old Soo-min Williams and her boyfriend Jae-hoon Park disappeared from a beach in South Korea.  The local police investigated and decides that they must have drowned as a result of misadventure, even though their bodies are never found.

It’s now October 2010 and Dr Jee-min (Jenna) Williams is an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.  Half African-American and half-Korean, she’s haunted by her twin sister’s disappearance and specialises in the North Korean regime.  It’s at Georgetown that she’s approached by Charles Fisk, to work with him in the CIA.  Kim-Jong-il has just tested a missile and Fisk wants her help to uncover what he’s up to and where he is with his nuclear programme.  In return he offers her the possibility that her work for the Agency may help to uncover what happened to Soo-min …

Meanwhile in North Korea, Lieutenant Colonel Cho Sang-ho works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but it’s his brother, Yong-ho who’s the real star of the family, poised to take the highly prestigious position as chief-of-staff for Kim Jong-un, the Dear Leader’s likely successor.  Cho finds his own star rising with his brother’s when he’s selected to head up negotiations with the Americans over North Korea’s nuclear programme.  But Cho knows how quickly people can find themselves on the wrong side of the North Korean regime and how punishments can affect entire families …

D. B. John’s timely international thriller uses his knowledge of the North Korean regime to gripping effect featuring two characters wounded by the regime and a plot that’s built around Kim Jong-il’s real-life 2010 nuclear testing programme. However the final quarter, over-eggs the adversity that Jenna and Cho face and I wasn’t wholly convinced by Jenna’s CIA training but the book ends with a set up for a sequel that I will definitely read.

I thought that Jenna was a fascinating character. I enjoyed her bi-racial heritage and, in particular, the impact that her mother’s marriage had on her relationship with her family, and how she clings to Korean tradition and tries to matchmake for Jenna.  The plot revolves around Jenna’s grief and loss caused by her twin’s disappearance and I thought John did well in defining their relationship and the affect of the loss on Jenna – both in terms of driving her interests while also holding her back from other opportunities.  I believed in Jenna’s yearning to discover the truth and thought that John does well to use that to drive his plot forward, although I think he slightly over-egged her dilemma on whether to join the CIA to do so and I thought that the obligatory CIA training chapters could have been cut as some of it – notably her attraction to another student – veered towards cliché.

Similarly Cho is also fascinating as it’s through him that you learn about the machinations at the upper levels of the Kim regime and how the personality cult functions.  John has knowledge of the North Korean regime and he deploys this to great effect – showing an elite that is always on edge, knowing that anything can bring them down at the Dear Leader’s whim.  I especially enjoyed how John weaves Korean history and North Korean paranoia into Cho’s storyline – using facts that are far more horrifying than fiction could ever be (e.g. the way the regime punishes an entire family for generations due to the transgressions or perceived transgressions of one).  If I had a criticism, it was that Cho’s disillusionment with the regime on a visit to New York was slightly too abrupt – specifically I wasn’t convinced that he’d recognise the absurdities of his nation as quickly as he does or that the recognition would become shame.

Also good is the way that John contrasts Cho’s experiences in North Korea with those of Mrs Moon, an elderly woman living a hand-to-mouth existence and whose encounter with a South Korean Christian-sponsored balloon sets her on her own collision course with the North Korean authorities. Without going into spoilers, John is especially clever in the way he slowly draws Mrs Moon’s storyline in with Cho’s.

The plot unfurls at a gripping pace and I loved the way John ties in real life events to flesh out his fiction, including using real people (an unnamed Hilary Clinton cameo was one of my favourite scenes). For the most part John maintains tension and keeps the reader on edge as he throws unexpected setbacks in the way of his characters but I did find this overdone in the final quarter when – for me – Cho and Jenna face one obstacle too many, which slightly took me out of the story.  That said though, the book ends with a really interesting set up for a sequel that I would definitely want to read.

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