This is a novel about life in North Korea; need I say more? This book is dystopia on steroids! It makes "1984," "Brave New World," and "Lord of the Flies" appear to be visits to Disneyland in comparison. Furthermore, this book brings to life the personal lives, emotions and feelings of living in a totalitarian state as only a novel can do. I've read the non-fiction memoir Escape from Camp 14
account of life in a North Korean prison camp, and that was a powerful story. But non-fiction memoir just can't pack the emotion like a carefully crafted fictional story well told.
The book's plot is an updated version of the movie "Casablanca." In case you think the mention of "Casablanca" is a spoiler, let me explain that the movie is specifically referred to throughout the later half of the book. It's pretty clear which direction the action is headed, but the details of how it comes about isn't apparent until the book is finished. There's an epilogue by the author that gives a bit of background for the writing of the book. One of the things he mentions is that his first intent was not to include the "Dear Leader Kim Jong-il" as a character within the plot. But finally he decided there was no way to write a novel about North Korea without his playing a direct role in the story.
I normally don't like stories filled with torture and cruelty. If this book were a fantasy based on the author's imagination it wouldn't have much impact. But the stories told in this book are based upon recreations and modifications of recorded news events and testimony of former North Koreans. This is a description of hell on earth that has continued for the past fifty years and continues with no end in sight. I normally don't give dystopias five stars, but this is a story well told. It deserves five stars even though it made me feel bad.
Here's a link to a recent NPR interview with the author: