The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
A Novel

78%

67 Critic Reviews

In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson...juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.
-Publishers Weekly

Synopsis

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION

An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE WINNER • LONGLISTED FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION’S ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • WINNER OF THE CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The New Yorker • The Washington Post • Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly • The Wall Street Journal • Los Angeles Times • San Francisco Chronicle • Financial Times • Newsweek/The Daily Beast • The Plain Dealer • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Scott Turow, The Millions • Slate • Salon • BookPage • Shelf Awareness
 
“The single best work of fiction published [this year] . . . The book’s cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.”—The Wall Street Journal

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.

Praise for The Orphan Masters Son

“An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.”—Pulitzer Prize citation

“Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
“Rich with a sense of discovery . . .

 

About Adam Johnson

See more books from this Author
Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper's, Tin House, Granta, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories. His other works include Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. He lives in San Francisco.
 
Published January 10, 2012 by Random House. 465 pages
Genres: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Literature & Fiction, History, Political & Social Sciences, Romance. Fiction
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Critic reviews for The Orphan Master's Son
All: 67 | Positive: 54 | Negative: 13

Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Oct 24 2011

In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson...juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.

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NY Times

Good
on Jan 13 2012

...he has written an exceedingly readable book...

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NY Times

Excellent
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani on Jan 12 2012

In making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel...

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Guardian

Excellent
on Feb 17 2012

...The Orphan Master's Son deserves a place up there with dystopian classics such as Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World...

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WSJ online

Excellent
on Jan 11 2012

Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity.

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Book Reporter

Good
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on Jan 12 2012

Satire is a difficult genre, but Adam Johnson handles his material adroitly. Simultaneously deadly serious and very funny, the book shows readers a complex portrait of North Korea that will surprise almost everyone, even those who think they know the North Korea they see in the news.

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Toronto Star

Good
Reviewed by Georgie Binks on Feb 04 2012

There is subtle humour and particles of hope in Adam Johnson’s horrific tale from North Korea....By weaving such a compelling story, Johnson has given the people of North Korea that much needed voice.

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Entertainment Weekly

Excellent
on Jan 27 2012

Johnson seems most interested in questions of identity...The answers he imagines in The Orphan Master's Son are both vivid and chilling.

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The Telegraph

Excellent
on Mar 06 2012

In turns a moving love story and a comic tour-de-force, Jun Do’s is a poignant search for selfhood in a country of outlandish propaganda.

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Christian Science Monitor

Excellent
on Feb 27 2012

...Johnson has penned a ripping good thriller, full of surprises and derring-do, blood and guts, cowardice and heroics.

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USA Today

Above average
on Jan 19 2012

...midway, a smart literary thriller sprouts into a David Mitchell novel without warning – making The Orphan Master's Son feel divided into two very different novels.

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Washington Independent Review of Books

Good
Reviewed by Alice Stephens on Jan 23 2012

This luminously written book is not the Great North Korean Novel, but rather the Great American Novel, affirming individualism, struggle against repression and the right to shape one's own destiny.

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Open Letters Monthly

Good
Reviewed by Joyce W. Lee on Sep 19 2013

Perhaps the most valuable feat of Johnson’s fiction is to demonstrate just what it takes to make North Korean hardship accessible. The human dimension Johnson speaks of in the interview and fictionalizes in The Orphan Master’s Son is less about North Koreans and more about us.

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Oregon Live

Good
on Aug 28 2012

... the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work.

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Review (Barnes & Noble)

Good
Reviewed by Katherine Powers on Jan 26 2012

...Johnson, whose work is otherwise free from thematic plod, decided to bang the lesson home by including a parallel with the movie Casablanca, a crude element, completely out of place in the novel's intoxicating amalgam of imagery and irony. Except for that misstep, the novel is a thoroughly exhilarating work of imagination and terrible poignancy.

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Denver Post

Good
Reviewed by David Ignatius on Jan 25 2012

A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That's the genius of "The Orphan Master's Son."

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PopMatters

Above average
Reviewed by Chris Barsanti on Feb 26 2012

Although the latter two-thirds of The Orphan Master’s Son brings in a wider range of characters...the dramatic break hobbles the rest of the novel, as do Johnson’s more florid and clownish passages, which become more pronounced as the book lurches toward a climax that’s self-consciously farcical and absurd.

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The Daily Beast

Good
on Jan 06 2012

...Johnson’s novel is rich with a sense of discovery...

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About.com Bestsellers

Excellent

It provided a long climax and satisfying resolution and did not sacrifice thoughtfulness for pace.

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Macleans

Good
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman on Jan 11 2012

What truly marks The Orphan Master’s Son as a feat of literary alchemy is that the high entertainment factor never lets readers off the hook: there’s no forgetting North Korea’s real horrors.

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NJ.com

Below average
on Jan 29 2012

I have read depressing novels, but none so depressing I could not finish the book. For me, this is a first.

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St. Louis Today

Good
Reviewed by Mike Fischer on Jan 22 2012

As the novel hurtles toward its masterfully plotted climax, it becomes clear how easily either of these two stories could overtake Jun Do's own — further underscoring what he faces in trying to become master of his own destiny.

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The New Republic

Excellent
on Apr 16 2012

...many nations and political systems have attracted the epithet “Orwellian,” but Johnson’s novel is a timely reminder that none have deserved it to such a chilling extent.

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The New Yorker

Above average
on Feb 06 2012

...the absurdity that characterizes life in a totalitarian state devolves into narrative improbability.

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The New Zealand Herald

Good
Reviewed by Bronwyn Sell on Mar 02 2012

Johnson is a creative writing teacher at Stanford University, and his writing style is a lesson in unaffected yet descriptive and powerful prose. When Jun Do drinks tequila in Texas, it's described as: "tart and dry, it tasted like thirst itself".

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BookDragon

Good
on Mar 20 2012

More than a thriller, a mystery, or even a romance-of-sorts, Orphan is unshakable testimony to the power of storytelling.

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Full Stop

Excellent
Reviewed by Michael Waldrep on Mar 09 2012

Learning to live...in the darkness of an infiltration tunnel, scooping the frozen-off toes from a replacement boot on entrance to a forced-labor camp: these are the haunting episodes that make up a powerful novel and The Orphan Master’s Son is beautiful, heart-breaking fiction.

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Dominion of New York

Excellent
on Jan 25 2012

A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.

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Three Guys One Book

Above average
Reviewed by Joseph Rakowski on Feb 05 2013

Johnson’s novel succeeds at doing this and gives readers inside access to a cloned environment that exists in our world today. But have no fear citizens of the United Femme Fatale, Johnson does it safely, fictitiously, and equips you with love story escape routes...

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Englewood Review of Books

Good
Reviewed by Leslie Starasta on May 15 2012

Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is recommended for mature readers and would be a source of rich book group discussion about the nature of culture and how cultures are formed and sustained.

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Arts Sarasota

Good
Reviewed by Susan Rife on Mar 15 2012

How much of the detail in "The Orphan Master's Son" is truly fiction is hard to say. Johnson's research included interviews with escapees and defectors. But the overall picture Johnson draws is an incredibly detailed and nuanced one of a culture and a people about which the rest of the world knows very little.

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DenverPost.com

Above average
Reviewed by Andi Pearson on May 20 2013

Certainly with its recent posturing and threat of nuclear weapons, North Korea has been in the news lately. This makes The Orphan Master's Son seem even more pertinent and revelatory.

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Think Progress

Above average
Reviewed by Alyssa Rosenberg on Apr 02 2012

When I heard the news last week that North Korea’s National Symphony might mount an American tour if the governments of both countries sign off the trip, I was reminded of the first terrific novel I read this year, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.

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World Literature Today

Above average

At times, the sadistic governmental whims, Kim Jong Il’s character...and the content of propaganda messages border on the farcical

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National Post arts

Below average
Reviewed by Philip Marchand on Feb 03 2012

This is just too rich a diet of absurdity for the reader, along with Jun Do’s impersonation of Commander Ga. It feels like parts of the story have gotten out of control.

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Curled Up

Above average
on Sep 19 2013

It is no surprise that Jun Do’s favorite movie is Casablanca—the greatest movie ever made, he says. The overriding theme of the movie—that of personal sacrifice—is a principle that Jun Do lives by even if it might lead to his eventual unraveling.

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Before It's News

Good
Reviewed by Sue Jackson on May 24 2013

This is an emotionally moving story, and you soon find yourself rooting for Pak Jun Do and hoping he can somehow escape to a better life. I was even talking out loud to the book...alternating “Nooo!” with “Oh, good.”

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Before It's News

Above average
on Aug 28 2012

In all fairness, I have to say the book is on the New York Times bestseller list. There are readers who see what I can’t. But I do give kudos to the writer for all the research and time invested in writing this unusual book.

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Readings

Above average
Reviewed by Imogen Dewey on Feb 28 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son, though readable and engaging, is occasionally a bit slow and hard going. Given the enormity of trying to both understand and critique a notoriously private culture however, Johnson’s care seems well spent.

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Devourer of Books

Good
on May 18 2012

It is this contemplation on reality in North Korea that makes The Orphan Master’s Son so very brilliant. At the same time, however, Johnson has also created a story that keeps the reader interested, even before this theme becomes so strongly apparent.

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Raging Biblioholism

Below average
Reviewed by Drew on Feb 22 2013

There are elements here of a good book, even maybe a great one. Johnson has some splendid turns of phrase and he shifts voice very well. But this feels like a cheap ploy to garner critical attention: “ooh, look, I’ve written a book about NORTH KOREA!” and no one is really doing that right now.

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Lit Lovers

Good
Reviewed by Adam Johnson on Sep 19 2013

The Orphan Master's Son is a stunning portrait of an elusive society, the resiliency of its people, and the sacrifices they make to survive. In turn, harrowing, tender, even funny, it's a book to dig into.

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Lit Stack

Excellent
Reviewed by Sharon Browning on May 20 2013

In the grand tradition of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and in the footsteps of The Good Earth, Gone With the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Beloved, Alan Johnson has given us a story that is deeply rooted in time and place, defining a people at their point in history.

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Leeswammes' Blog

Above average
on Jan 23 2013

...I found myself mixing up the interrogator and Ga every now and then and had to remind myself who was who. Finally, I didn’t like being told a large part of the story via the loudspeakers. It was not the only surreal element of the story but to me, this way of telling the story was just not believable.

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Book Chatter

Good
Reviewed by Ti on Apr 20 2012

If you like adventure, then there is plenty of that to be found within its pages. And I have to say, I did enjoy Jun Do’s character although I never did figure him out. The book itself was a fast read and quite different from anything I’ve read before. That’s saying something, right?

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Peeking Between the Pages

Above average
Reviewed by Darlene on Sep 10 2012

...I will say that the writing in this novel is incredible as is the author’s obvious talent at being very creative with his storytelling. I only wish it had been a little more cohesive because I have the feeling I would have really enjoyed if it would have been.

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You've GOTTA Read This

Good
Reviewed by Sandy Nawrot on Sep 18 2012

Overall, this was one bizarre reading experience, one that you have to work for, but one worth the effort. It was no easy feat to even begin to describe it, and it continues to linger in my mind days after I finished.

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Take Me Away

Below average
Reviewed by Jenny on Feb 10 2012

I can't really say that I enjoyed the reading experience, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to many people; but I can say, since it's been a couple weeks since I read it, that I can appreciate it a little better now looking back. But that's it.

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Caribous Mom

Good
Reviewed by Wendy on Nov 19 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son is a dense and complex novel that deserves more than one reading. This would be an excellent book to be dissected by book clubs. Readers who love literary fiction and who enjoy complex characters will want to read this novel.

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The Nature of Things

Good
Reviewed by Dorothy Borders on Jul 03 2013

That's what I take away from this book: In this society, you aren't born. You don't possess a family or connections. You are whatever the state makes you, whatever the Dear Leader says you are...It is a chilling and utterly depressing tale.

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BookPeople's Blog

Good
Reviewed by Juliewbp on Aug 28 2012

His book is an open letter to metaphorically examine the North Korean state of mind. Engaging and well paced, The Orphan Master’s Son will charm and terrify you at the same time.

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Read Me Deadly

Good
Reviewed by SISTER MARY MURDEROUS on Aug 10 2012

The book can be confusing, as it jumps from one narrator to another, one time period to another, one style to another, with no explanation. But it's so vividly written, I didn't worry about the shifts and came to enjoy the crazy-quilt style...This is one of the most unusual, riveting, touching and unforgettable books I've read.

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Where Pen Meets Paper

Excellent
Reviewed by Andrew Jacobson on Feb 29 2012

As it functions both as fiction and as a report on the issues North Korean’s actually face, I think The Orphan Master's Son is a must read due to its timeliness as well as the fact that it is based partially in reality.

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Literary Hoarders

Excellent
on Mar 31 2012

The story of Jun Do, Sun-Moon, “The Dear Leader” and North Korea will be with you LONG after you have finished reading. A 5 star read for me!

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A Common Reader

Good
on Jan 01 2012

The book is a remarkable achievement and perhaps give more idea about daily life in North Korea than anything else on the market. It is a work on an epic scale and I think it is going to attract a lot of attention in 2012.

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Biblioklept

Above average
Reviewed by Edwin Turner on Jun 14 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984...

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Bookmagnet

Good
Reviewed by Jaime Bolder on Jan 31 2012

Johnson’s novel works well. In The Orphan Master’s Son, he lifts the veil on North Korea, a closed society made up of secrets, half-truths, and often downright lies.

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A Case for Books

Excellent
Reviewed by Anna on Apr 03 2012

Ultimately, this is a superb novel. It is expertly put together with beautiful, inspiring writing, wonderful characters and plenty to make you think. It has politics, romance, action, drama all put together in a carefully and excellently crafted novel.

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The Year in Books

Good
Reviewed by Nancy on Jan 18 2012

I can't say exactly why I loved this book, but it is one that made its way under my skin and one I will not soon forget. Bravo, Adam Johnson!

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The Discarded Image

Good
Reviewed by Mindy Rice Withrow on Apr 21 2013

...mystery makes Johnson’s book all the more compelling. We don’t really know what’s it like to live in this world.

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As I Turn the Pages

Below average
on Aug 13 2012

The book just moves sooooooooo slowly. It just wasn't holding my interest. I hate to admit it, but I gave up on this book on page 144. I know the book shifts the narration to another character in Part II, but I just wasn't interested in the rest of the story.

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A Walking Delight

Below average
on Nov 10 2011

Johnson’s book reads like a comic book episode of Captain America or, more aptly, Captain Korea. The hero’s tortuous flight to freedom is unconvincing. North Korea is a dark totalitarian country that needs real heroes.

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4everoverhead

Excellent
Reviewed by Brooks Williams on May 15 2012

I want to share it with everyone that loves literature. I want to swim in it and breathe it into my lungs. And so I don't think I could ever do it justice in a blog post. I just want you to know that I loved my reading experience and I hope that others love it too.

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Daniel Threlfall

Above average
on Mar 01 2012

The book is a Dick­en­sian bil­dungsro­man, chron­i­cling the life of Pak Jun Do. The book begins with Pak’s con­sid­er­a­tion over who he is — orphan or true son.

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Publishers Weekly

Good
on Jan 10 2012

In this big-hearted, haunting, and boldly imaginative novel, Johnson interweaves the story of a young man named Jun Do with the official North Korean narrative as dictated by Kim Jong Il.

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Serendipitous Reading

Good
Reviewed by Marci on Sep 04 2012

I felt as if I was inside the country ducking to hide wherever I could so I wouldn't be captured much like some of the characters in the book.

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The Brunette Bibliophile

Good
on Nov 02 2011

The world Johnson creates is so bizarre, so cruel, so dangerous that it's hard to look away. I especially loved the second half of the book, where Johnson drops a giant talent bomb on the reader and demonstrates his absolute command of narrative and voice.

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Reader Rating for The Orphan Master's Son
81%

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