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Book Review: Star of the North by D.B. John

Since Mum found out this was on my TBR pile, she’s asked me whether I’ve read it every time I’ve seen her. Why? Because the author’s parents live in our village and he is, therefore, “practically a local.” I’m grateful she did though because Star of the North is a superb and incredibly timely thriller, coming out as it did a month before the recent summit between the US and North Korea.

A young American woman disappears without trace from a South Korean island.

The CIA recruits her twin sister to uncover the truth.

Now, she must go undercover in the world’s most deadly state. 

Only by infiltrating the dark heart of the terrifying regime will she be able to save her sister…and herself.

The disappearance in 1998 provides the spark for this novel but the action properly gets going twelve years later in 2010. John cleverly tells his story, while shedding light on this unfathomable regime and the mysterious country over which it presides, by focusing on three main characters: Jenna, a university professor and the missing woman’s sister; Cho, rising through the ranks in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang; and Mrs Moon, a resourceful farm worker scratching a living in Hyesan, in the northern province of Ryanggang.

I enjoyed the way in which Star of the North‘s narrative switches between these three. John leaves it just long enough between each changeover, that I never felt as if I was losing the thread of anyone’s story. This helped me come to know each character, care about them and their fate, to the point where I still wonder how they are and what they’re doing even after having finished the book.

John not only chose his characters well but he made them feel real to me. They’re all brave at times but they are also refreshingly human, despite of or perhaps in spite of their training or conditioning. It’s those moments where they are emotional or plain reckless that I felt the tension in their lives coming to the surface, threatening the fragile equilibrium of their lives and, more importantly, their safety and that of those around them.

With fascinating and often horrific detail, Star of the North places you firmly inside one of the world’s most secretive regimes in a fight for survival, often feeling as if it’s a race to rescue characters I didn’t want to see fall prey to the vagaries of this brutal state. It may veer a little off the rails close to the end but I was fully willing to go with it because it was irreverent fun.

Reading Star of the North feels like being on an adrenaline-fuelled covert op. Not that I’ve ever been on one, mind you. (Well, not that I could tell you anyway!) I can’t recommend this one enough. Star of the North is a terrific, topical, and truly terrifying thriller.

Star of the North by D.B. John is published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Vintage. It is available as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery.

D. B. John has lived in South Korea and is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea. He co-authored The Girl With Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee’s New York Times bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea.

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley. I’ve since bought my own copy of the hardback but suspect it may disappear when Mum next visits.  

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