The elevator pitch for this book is “Pacific Rim meets a K-Drama” which is basically the greatest elevator pitch ever. I saw it on Twitter and one clicked so hard I think I sprained my thumb and my phone said “OW!”
In the year 2199, there’s been a series of global wars that united the Korean peninsula and upended the global map. Because a population of a country at war is a population that is easily controlled, the current iteration of the war is fought against organized rebel groups. One of the sexiest weapons used in the war are God Machines: giant mecha robots piloted by a single person.
In Neo Seoul, high school students get placed in the military in some capacity in their senior year. Our hero, Jaewon, is assigned to a Super Secret Military project involving technologically enhanced kids. There’s also gangs, rebels, fucked up families, betrayals, exams, and a bit of romance.
There’s kind of a lot going on, but it’s mostly folded into the world building. Oh spends most of the book very slowly exploring the world of Neo Seoul and building out the history for the reader. Actual plot movement shows up very late, so it’s really difficult to give a summary.
What I liked about this book is that it’s very steeped in Korean culture and (I’m assuming) K-dramas. There’s a glossary in the back of Korean words that pepper the text and dialogue (which is handy, since the only Korean I know is Tae Kwon Do related), and there’s details about geography and food that make the world more real.
I get that there was a lot of world building to do: there’s a whole history of three wars, massive global geopolitical upheaval, and whole society to describe and populate, but it was kind of maddeningly slow at times. I wish that the history had been delivered faster, instead of in dribs and drabs among all of the other details. It wasn’t until actual things started happening at about the 75-80% mark that I went “oh, good, there’s the plot.”
And that’s my main criticism: I feel like so much time was spent building up this universe that it’s at the expense of Jaewon’s story. He’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make it in a super exclusive high school in a military dictatorship. It’s a story we’ve had a lot, but it’s one that resonates with audiences, and seeing it through the lens of a K-drama was fun.
The romance is a little…difficult to talk about. It’s not really an afterthought, and it’s not shoehorned in. The existence of the romance is vitally important to that plot that shows up in the last 20%. But it’s decidedly not the focus of most of this story. The heroine is a super soldier that Jaewon is assigned as a partner, but she was kind of a cypher to me.
A lot of time is also spent on secondary characters that have their own stories, and I firmly believe that Oh knows the deal with all of them. I’d love to know more about the street gang culture in Old and Neo Seoul, and how that rose in the ashes of war. I want to know what Jaewon’s fashion designer classmate is up to. Or more about how the rebels organized. All of that happens before the world changing events at the end of the book, and I also want to know what happens next!
I really hope that this turns into a series so we can see what other stories exist in this world. (Also, there wasn’t nearly enough giant robots for me, which is what I want when someone invokes Pacific Rim.) (There’s another story I want! Why did giant robots become the weapon of choice in this series of wars?)
In a nutshell: lots of world building, not really enough plot, want more in this world.
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