cover image The Sorcerer of Pyongyang

The Sorcerer of Pyongyang

Marcel Theroux. Atria, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-66800-266-7

Theroux (The Secret Books) delivers a humorous yet insightful take on the lives of ordinary North Koreans with the story of a boy whose life is transformed by Dungeons & Dragons. In 1995 Wonsan, North Korea, 11-year-old Cho Jun-su discovers a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which cracks open a fantastical world for him. Later, while at university in Pyongyang, he develops a romance with the pretty and worldly Su-ok, who goes on to marry Kim Jimi, the supreme leader’s older son. In 2003, Jun-su is arrested and sent to a penal colony for playing D&D, and Su-ok secures his release via Jimi’s connections. Jun-su befriends Jimi (named after Jimi Hendrix), and through their friendship, as well as what he learns from the game, which he calls the “House of Possibility,” Jun-su gains the courage to build a life on his own terms. As Jun-su, Su-ok, and Jimi strive to be more than mere “NPCs” (non-player characters in D&D), they retain a belief in the state’s ideologies. It’s frustrating that Theroux never resolves this underlying tension, though continued references to the game shed light on Jun-su and his friends’ understanding of the world: “We are not real, but what we do to each other is real.” This entertains and edifies in equal measure. (Nov.)