When the discovery of The Dungeon Master's Guide draws him into a colorful new world, ten-year-old Jun-su, with the help of an English-speaking teacher, deciphers the rules of this famous role-playing game, which sweeps him away from the harsh reality of a famine-stricken North Korea.
Imagine the film The Princess Bride, but with more malnutrition and predatory overtones ... The novel is brisk and crammed with ideas. It draws on and fictionalises elements of North Korean memoirs such as Jang Jin-sung’s Dear Leader, adds a touch of The Kite Runner’s coming-of-age melancholy and slots in some thriller-inspired set pieces. The depictions of famine are striking ... The narrative is taut, which is generally to the novel’s benefit. Unfortunately, the end arrives in a frantic rush. The final pages flirt with an emotional gut-punch, then resolve it before it has a chance to make an impact. It feels cheap, especially as there is already plenty of urgency supplied by the thrusting prose ... Theroux treats the fourth wall as a semi-permeable membrane with the narrator showing signs of being a fictionalised version of the author recounting Jun-su’s story.
Arguably the most thematically interesting aspect of The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is its examination of the fictive reality of North Korea ... The great irony central to life in North Korea is highlighted by the narrative structure ... Reading The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is an informative and entertaining way to learn about North Korea. Theroux’s painstaking research intimately reveals the workings of North Korean society, in the public and private spheres. Its greatest achievement, however, is occasionally its greatest weakness. The lively, page-turning narrative sometimes falters into thinly disguised nonfiction that overshadows the characters and the development of their relationships
... The storytelling is fast-paced, sometimes too much so. The action relies on improbable coincidences, and Jun-su’s motives are not always convincing, particularly in the concluding pages. Yet Theroux also writes with intelligence, compassion and an occasional quiet lyricism. Most crucially, the novel powerfully embodies the plight of North Koreans in the state’s vast shadow.
A meticulously researched novel ... Entertaining as The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is, the book elides greater insights into the North Korean refugee experience in favor of a fast, fairy-tale ending that fails to explain the narrator’s specific interest or relationship to Jun-su’s remarkable journey or drive home its thematic significance.