Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

Review GPA: THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

In Review GPA, we translate reviews of notable new books into letter grades and determine a grade point average. 


The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Publication Date: January 10, 2012

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: Random House

Publisher’s Synopsis:

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.

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.


From The New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani:

Gold Star:

“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.”


“an operatic if somewhat long-winded tale”

Grade: A


From The Washington Post review by David Ignatius

Gold Star:

I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research.


But this is not a perfect novel. The subplot in Texas was, for me, a detour that didn’t pay off. It foreshadowed a spy story that never entirely materialized. And Johnson’s Pyongyang seemed much more real than his Abilene.

Grade: A/A-


From The Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks

Gold Star:

We don’t know what’s really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.


The opening of the novel moves so quickly through Jun Do’s early years that it is a little jarring—as is Mr. Johnson’s decision to have his characters use American idioms like “I wish” and “seriously.”

Grade: A-


From the USA Today review by David Daley

Gold Star:

Johnson’s chops are undeniable, his storytelling vivid and bold, his North Korea brilliantly rendered. 


But 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.

Grade: B


From the Kirkus review:

Gold Star:

“Ambitious and very well written”


“[the] thriller becomes picaresque satire and rifles through a few other genres, shifting narrators, losing and regaining focus and point of view.”

Grade: B+


Review GPA: 3.77 (A-)