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The Sorcerer of Pyongyang

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Member Reviews

I have never read anything like the Sorcerer of Pyongyang before. I absolutely loved this book. I love history so to learn about a country that is so blocked off from the world was beyond interesting. The writing was phenomenal and I hope Marcel Theroux writes even more.

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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher
For this ARC!

Deep and emotional, rich and descriptive. This book was a great, if painstaking read. It was a lot to take in but I’m thankful to have had the chance to read it. It leaves me thinking about a part of history and culture I often don’t.

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This was an overall middling experience for me. The concept and potential were really strong, but the story dragged unnecessarily and clumsily.

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4.5 stars

A compulsively readable novel about a young man coming of age in North Korea, with the help of a tourist’s forgotten Dungeons & Dragons handbook, The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is the kind of story you can read in a day and think about for months.

The novel nicely balances its conceit as a nonfiction account, written by Theroux as biographer, with the aims of the fictive narrative. Through Jun-su, our protagonist, the reader is able to glimpse various angles and strata of North Korean life—provincial and urban, ordinary and privileged, imprisoned and international. Theroux writes Jun-su with a rich interiority that makes his early devotion to the North Korean state and its Dear Leader comprehensible and idealistic, rather than the butt of a joke.

I think this text would be well suited for a classroom as a thoughtful work of literary fiction. Personally, I found some of Jun-su’s observations about the methods by which Kim’s regime keeps ordinary North Koreans in line strikingly relevant even as a citizen of the capitalist, democratic US. One of my big take-aways from the story was the essential need for nuance, for acknowledging and grappling with the complexity of ideas and of people.

I would recommend this novel to literary fiction readers but would also say that, due to its simple (but lovely) language and brisk pace, to any readers of fiction interested in the story of a boy with a big imagination—and the consequences that imagination has for him.

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The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is a powerful and moving novel about the power of imagination and the importance of freedom. It is a story about a young boy who finds his voice in a world that is trying to silence him.

Here are some additional thoughts on the novel:

-The novel provides a unique and insightful look into life in North Korea.
-The characters are well-developed and relatable.
-The plot is engaging and suspenseful.

The novel is well-written and engaging. Theroux does an excellent job of bringing the world of North Korea to life. He also does a great job of developing the characters and creating a sense of suspense.

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“How did someone created by one reality begin to operate by the rules of another?”

The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is an excellent work of literary fiction by novelist Marcel Theroux. This is the first time I’ve read his work, but it will not be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

I am drawn to this novel initially because of its setting. Nobody sets a book in North Korea! I am fascinated. Then I learn that the author is the son of Paul Theroux, the veteran travel journalist whose work, by chance, I have only just recently found and read. So there are two reasons for me to start this book, but once I begin, I realize that in the future, I will read whatever this author writes, regardless of where it’s set or who his relatives are.

The author’s notes indicate that Theroux has experience in North Korea, and this informs his work here. This book, remarkably enough, is based on a true story.

Our protagonist is Jun-su, a child growing up in poverty in rural North Korea. He and his parents believe the official explanation for the widespread poverty and malnutrition, which is that the blockade imposed by the United States and other Western nations has created the situation. Children in Jun-su’s class sometimes fall asleep at their desks, because they are starving. Part of the school day is also spent doing hard labor for the State. It doesn’t occur to Jun-su, or to anyone he knows, to question the misery imposed upon him, because it’s happening to everyone in the village, and they don’t go anywhere or see anyone outside it, so they assume the whole nation is suffering in the same manner.

Then comes the day when Jun-su falls ill with rheumatic fever. He misses a lot of school, and his teacher, Kang, visits him at home, bringing acupuncture needles to help with the pain. It is during this time that he is introduced to a game his teacher calls “The House of Possibility,” but which is actually Dungeons and Dragons. This game will be both a blessing and a curse to Jun-su for the rest of his life.

Because the illness permanently damages his heart, Jun-su cannot participate in labor with his classmates, and so instead, he becomes a poet, and he wins a contest and briefly meets the Dear Leader. He is sent to study at an elite institution far from home, and his eyes are opened in a number of ways. Soon he sees that not only is not every North Korean impoverished, but some live lives of unimaginable luxury. The corruption has been part of his entire life, but he can only just now see that.

Theroux does a fine job of developing Jun-su, but he does an even better one with setting. We can see what a hall of mirrors is involved in living in a Stalinist nation, where no civil liberties exist and unspoken, unwritten rules prevail alongside those that are codified. For example, the Dear Leader is so exalted that a person can be in big trouble if their home burns down and they don’t rescue his portrait (and that portrait WILL be hanging in the house,) and likewise, someone that sells hot food had better be sure there are no pictures of the Dear Leader in the newspaper he uses to wrap fish.

My one concern is that the story might degenerate into an anti-Communist diatribe, but that doesn’t happen. This is an outstanding novel, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

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DNF - This was just simply not my jam. I know other readers will find much to love & appreciate in this so I am leaving off here.

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A young North Korean boy stumbling across a guide to Dungeons and Dragons - what a premise! However, this fell short of my expectations. Though Theroux may have researched a good amount, there is the very distinct 'written by a white man' feel in how aspects of the story are laid out (almost as if he spends more time trying to convince the reader that he understands the culture by explaining that setting the scene and really building the characters). I had so much hope for this and this ended up being a middle of the road read.

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Thank you Netgalley and the publisher of an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This was ok. This normally is exactly my type of story but it fell short for me. It wasn't a bad book, but nothing world changing for me.

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I was drawn to Theroux's book because I've read several nonfiction pieces on N Korea, and I've also read dozens and dozens of fantasy books over the years. Would The Sorcerer of Pyongyang be able to connect these two topics? An escape from a totalitarian dictatorship? I would say sort of... Both are well-researched, but I never felt the two meshed together particularly well.

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I love D&D and I was very curious to check this one out. While I think the North Korea parts of the books felt very well researched and the portrayal was fascinating to read about, I do wish that dungeons and dragons played a bigger role in the story. I still enjoyed this book but not for the tabletop RPG parts.

Thank you Atria Books for the ARC of this one.

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The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is a remarkably well-researched coming of age narrative following Jun-Su, a child in North Korea sick with a heart murmur. He learns english under the guidance of his Uncle/Teacher to understand a D&D book found, its fantasy tying in with his life as generations pass.

This book's strong points rest in the details of the setting and life in North Korea as it developed into a modern age. Theroux's writing was simple— yet cutting, and there were points I teared up when reading. The interweaving of D&D into the narrative was brilliant, we were shown both how the game saved Jun-Su, brought him immense joy and escape, and yet ultimately damned him to horrors as well.

The conversations and dynamics between certain characters as well really displayed various class disparities and privileges, it was well-crafted and there were so many snippets of dialogue left to think on. The style was narrated by the author as though he was hearing this story from our lead character Jun-Su, and in that it manages to blur the lines between truth and fiction for the reader — just as the character does to cope with his coming of age

I think my issues though can be rooted in the characters and relationships. I will say this book can read kind of distant and clinical and take it from me, it was a complaint I had while reading and yet, by the end I still cared and found myself touched by where the characters ended up, like they managed to make me care for them — or maybe just the circumstance they were in — and I didn't even realize.

This was a thought-provoking read with an execution that may end up splitting the audience, but I really enjoyed it.

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I absolutely loved this book. With the intermingling of a well known game with an infamous country as the backdrop, this was spell binding and hard to put down.

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This novel is an unusual intersection between the imaginative world of Dungeons and Dragons and the very regimented world of North Korea. Knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons gameplay is not really needed to enjoy the book, since it's focused more on the freedom and storytelling of the game and how it fits into the history of North Korea in the 90s to the present. Also found it interesting that they adapted the game and used yut sticks in lieu of dice.

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Sometimes I’m a sucker for a pretty bookcover and this one stuck with me along with it being fantasy mixed with North Korean life.

Jun-su, a North Korean boy, finds himself in possession of an English-language manual for the game Dungeons and Dragons. Owning this book changes the course of his life. It helps lead him away from the harsh realities of his famine-stricken life.

Unfortunately for me, I think this book is too much of a niche read. I was interested in the North Korea life aspect of it. But I thought the narrative part of the story fell flat. I think if I was more invested in the Dungeons and Dragons game play it would have been better for me.

Thank you to NetGalley and Atria books for this eARC. The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is out now.

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This book did a really interesting job of combining North Korean culture with D&D. I enjoyed this one a lot.

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the Sorcerer of Pyongyang is a great book that blends historical fiction in Korea with Dungeons and Dragons. I loved the way the game play coincided with the protagonist's actual life.

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Thanks to Atria for the copy of this book.

This was a unique blend of historical fiction and Dungeons and Dragons. While you don't have to know the ins and outs of the game because the necessary information is given in the book, I think this is still a niche read for people who love D&D and want to read historical fiction about North Korea in the 1990s. It wasn't for me, and I think would've preferred another medium to experience this piece of history.

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I received this Advanced Reader's Copy from NetGalley in exchanged for my unbiased review.

The Sorcerer of Pyongyang by Marcel Theroux tells the story of a North Korean boy named Jun-su, who, by coincidental circumstances, finds himself in possession of an English-language manual for the game Dungeons and Dragons. Owning this book changes the course of his life.

The story was very well-researched and factual. Jun-su's experiences lined up with everything that I know about life in North Korea and painted a picture of the everyday experiences of a citizen in that country. We get to see first hand the North Korean famine of the 90s and how it affected the people. Most interesting to me was the look at the citizens' complicated feelings about their country, their "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and subsequent "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il.

Jun-su was born into belief in his leaders' infallibility and care and concern for their people. Though presented in third person, the book presents this belief and other questionable or outright incorrect beliefs (unchallenged) in Jun-su's voice. Sensitive readers will wish they could correct him, but Jun-su will be forced to learn lessons through experience.

Incidentally, there are short forays into the first person as the author inserts himself briefly into the story in a scholarly manner. Some readers may find this confusing, but I don't think it took away from the story. Likewise, the mentions of Dungeons and Dragons game play are fairly brief, well-explained and you do not need to be an aficionado of the game to read and understand this book.

Overall, this was an engrossing, quick read about a fascinating topic. It is always humanizing to read about the everyday lives of people whose cultures are so different from your own. Recommended to fans of quick reads and novels about other cultures, especially North Korea.

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"The acclaimed author of the "sublime" (The New York Times) Far North, a finalist for the National Book Award, returns with a mesmerizing novel about a North Korean boy whose life is irrevocably changed when he stumbles across a mysterious Western book - a guide to Dungeons and Dragons.

Ten-year-old Jun-su is a bright and obedient boy whose only desire is to be a credit to his family, his nation, and most importantly, his Dear Leader. However, when he discovers a copy of The Dungeon Master's Guide, left behind in a hotel room by a rare foreign visitor, a new and colorful world opens up to him.

With the help of an English-speaking teacher, Jun-su deciphers the rules of the famous role-playing game and his imaginary adventures sweep him away from the harsh reality of a famine-stricken North Korea. Over time, the game leads Jun-su on a spellbinding and unexpected journey through the hidden layers of his country, toward precocious success, glory, love, betrayal, prison, a spell at the pinnacle of the North Korean elite, and an extraordinary kind of redemption.

A vivid, uplifting, and deeply researched novel, The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is a love story and a tale of survival against the odds. Inspired by the testimony of North Korean refugees and drawing on the author's personal experience of North Korea, it explores the power of empathy and imagination in a society where they are dangerous liabilities."

If your life hasn't been changed by Dungeons and Dragons now's your chance.

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