A work of fiction based on North Korea is not my typical review, however, the undertones of “The Sorcerer of Pyongyang” (Marcel Theroux, 2022) evokes personal development. This blog post is my critique of the book from the standpoint of individual insights.
Each of my critiques review the key message of the book, the high-level concepts, the book’s areas of strengths, and where it falls short. I conclude each critique with an overall assessment ranking (1-10 ascending) of its effectiveness in providing the reader applicable lessons in personal and/or leadership development.
Overview: “The Sorcerer of Pyongyang” was sitting on my husband’s night stand. He picked it up recently in the airport and finished it in a night. I was curious about North Korean culture and was tempted by the approachable young-adult type gamer (and refreshingly short) fantasy novel amidst an era of famine and control, so I picked it up. The book follows a boy named Jun-su from childhood trauma to manhood freedom, I would like to have a conversation with the author.
Key Message: To me, the key message of this book is to follow your heart to freedom. Whatever life circumstances have presented to you, use all of it to become who you were destined to be, and don’t stop trying until you fulfill it.
High-level concepts: In my opinion, the journey has three main parts of Jun-su’s life. The first includes childhood in a food-rationed small town in North Korea, where 10-year old Jun-su gets deathly ill but somehow manages to survive under the medical care of his school teacher. That same teacher introduces him to the Dungeons and Dragons playbook, which frees his mind of the rigid life that “Dear Leader” has imposed on him and his nation. He compensates his health by becoming a skilled poet and thrives as a young adult and meets his love. The second part takes a turn for the worse, when the army discovers his “American book play” and sentences him to 9 years in prison. He breaks down and loses all hope. The third part is his version of a resurrection, where he is released from prison, finds reputable work in Pyongyang, and then ultimately escapes the country, beginning a new life.
Areas of Strengths: The moment late in the novel when Jun-su jumped out of the bathroom window was one of the most powerful anecdotes I’ve ever read. It was the compulsive “follow your heart no matter what” moment that I believe compels us rarely in our lifetime. The real and invisible chains are a palpable contrast from the freedom we Americans enjoy as human rights. This story makes me want to understand North Korean Leadership and culture more. It is also an easy and short read that can be achieved in a weekend, which is immensely helpful for a busy person.
Supplemental Materials: Theroux posted a YouTube 20 minute video in North Korea that illuminates his motivation for writing the book. North Korea – inside the world’s most secretive state | Unreported World – YouTube. His official website can be found here: This World of Dew | Marcel Theroux
Where it Falls Short: While it was a nice premise to use the Dungeons and Dragons game as background, I can’t tell if the author was attempting to make the character Jun-su’s life to be an analogy. I believe that his girlfriend (wife, spoiler alert) is the Sorcerer, but I’m not sure if the game was primarily used as a marketing tactic to reach a broader audience, rather than a natural integration with the boy’s journey.
Overall Assessment & Why: I rate it an 7 out of 10. Both disturbing and inspiring, this book’s message will resonate for years to come. When you want to understand what true mental and physical freedom is, choose this book to learn what the opposite could look like. It is a reminder to be grateful for all that you have and to use your gifts to better the world.