BookBrowse Reviews Star of the North by D.B. John

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Star of the North

by D.B. John

Star of the North by D.B. John X
Star of the North by D.B. John
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 416 pages

    May 2018, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book



A thriller about a woman trying to rescue her twin sister from captivity in North Korea.

It's summertime. You're looking for an absorbing thriller while you flop at the beach. Bonus points if it's somehow tied to current events where a summit with "Little Rocket Man" has just migrated to the rearview mirror. You're in luck because Star of the North doesn't just have the advantage of being an engaging rollercoaster ride, it's also a story that's that much more relevant because it's set in a country that's got enough intrigue for miles: North Korea.

Much like 24, that popular television series, the crisis presented in Star of the North is pressing. In essence, the North Koreans are testing long-range missiles and American intelligence is convinced the U.S. west coast is in the crosshairs. The Americans are desperate for ways to defuse the crisis. They're even willing to place all their bets on a rookie, Jenna Williams, the brainiac daughter of an African American father who had once served proudly for the government himself and a Korean mother.

Up until the Feds find her, Jenna Williams is whiling away her time as a fast-track professor at Georgetown and an expert in North Korean geopolitics. But she's nursing an old wound: when they were teenagers in the late '80s, her twin sister, Soo-min, mysteriously disappeared in South Korea. Jenna is convinced her sister was abducted and is alive in North Korea. So when the CIA calls, she sees a two-fer: a way to reunite with her sibling and help her country.

Two parallel tracks follow the stories of two North Koreans. Cho Sang-ho is a diplomat whose star may be rising, but his murky past could derail all his hard work for the Kim Jong-Il regime. As Sang-ho's brother reminds him about political relationships with "the Dear Leader": Get too far from him and you freeze; get too close and you burn.

Then there's Moon Song-ae, an elderly peasant woman who turns to desperate measures to scrape a living for her family. She starts by selling rice cakes at the local Hyesan Train Station and soon understands how to game the system. Using the most basic bargaining chips, she registers small wins for herself and her sisterhood of workers at the station.

These three primary narratives weave together to spectacular effect. This is a straight-up "good vs. evil" standard-issue thriller so the ending might not be terribly surprising, although it's definitely intense. Star of the North especially succeeds in adding a touch of nuance to our understanding of North Korea. Of course, Cho San-Ho's situation is very different from that of Mrs. Moon, but we come to exactly how they are different and, equally, how all that can change on a dime.

Author D. B. John has traveled to North Korea himself, and co-authored a book with Hyeonseo Lee, a young woman who escaped the regime when she was a teenager. "My visit to Pyongyang sometimes felt like a tour around a gigantic stage set. Hyeonseo Lee's story provided me with a clear view of what lay behind the scenery." Indeed, that's precisely what this novel does too: it gives us a compelling look behind the propaganda and that's the most interesting element of the story.

At times the turns get too formulaic and the suspense and the literary fiction angles don't mesh as well together as they really should. But Jenna Williams makes for an engaging protagonist as she searches for clues about her sister's disappearance. What is the seed-bearing program and how might that be possibly related to her sibling's fate? The supporting cast of North Korean characters are also well-rounded and mercifully steer well away from caricature.

All told, if you like high-voltage suspense there's enough fireworks in here to light up the darkest night sky.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review first ran in the July 11, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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