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Aug162019

Book Review: The Pyongyang Option

The Pyongyang Option. A.C. Frieden. Avendia Publishing, March 29, 2019. Trade Paperback and E-book, 468 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

If you want a fast-paced thriller that parachutes you into intriguing and dangerous places, A.C. Frieden is your guy.

Frieden’s ability to put readers into exotic locales is on full display in The Pyongyang Option, the third book in Frieden’s series featuring Jonathan Brooks, a globe-trotting attorney with the instincts of a master spy. Brooks’ decision-making and feats of daring can seem implausible at times, but you’ll root for him to succeed—it’s fiction, after all. 

As the story opens, Brooks is in a bad way. Hurricane Katrina has devastated cash flow to his New Orleans law firm, and he’s obsessed about the breakup with his ex-wife, Linda Fabre. Although they stay in touch as friends, she rebuffs his efforts to reconnect. Linda, a talented broadcast journalist, has had her major setbacks. Now she wants to focus on a reboot of her career with an overseas assignment that will eventually take her with a group of reporters to North Korea.

Desperate for clients and wise in the ways of international business deals, Brooks agrees to help a software company seeking a murky-but-lucrative partnership in the Ukraine. He flies to the old city of Kyiv to link up with the client’s top executive, former U.S. security official Kevin Wyatt, but Wyatt never shows up, putting the deal at risk. 

Brooks seeks help from a sketchy U.S. diplomat and soon learns Wyatt has entangled him in something much darker and more sinister than he imagined. Brooks and the diplomat are ambushed as they search for clues to Wyatt’s disappearance. Brooks barely survives as he uncovers clues to a network of web hackers and Korean operatives secretly operating near Chernobyl, concealing their illegal activity in the sealed-off, radioactive area. 

Linda lands in Pyongyang for an exclusive interview with a key North Korean leader as peace talks unfold between the U.S. and North Korea. Frieden portrays fascinating sequences in which the U.S. president places his political success ahead of the lives of individual citizens. When Linda's questions and actions put her in severe danger, Brooks decides he must try to get to North Korea himself.

The North Korean scenes are particularly well-crafted and haunting, demonstrating the power of fiction to bring real-world conflicts and settings to life, and showing how the unexpected actions of individuals can have far-reaching consequences.

Frieden conveys authenticity and lurking danger in exotic settings, many of which—including North Korea—are isolated and forbidding areas the author has visited and toured personally. For example, here is his description of the Ryugyong Hotel in the North Korean capital city:

“The sharply pointed pyramid-shape of the Ryugyong Hotel pierced the dark stone sky like a dagger thrown at the heavens. Some, however, might say it was a middle finger thrown at the world, as the massive 105-story tower, with its planned revolving restaurants and entertainment facilities, remained a ghostly, unfinished structure for the last two decades and symbolized the dictatorship’s unaccountable, unrepentant and unforgivable excesses.”

The story ends abruptly, with more than a few unresolved issues after 400-plus pages of buildup and a powerful climax. A key North Korean character is left out, but perhaps the author needed some dangling story threads to weave into the next book. Even in a genre in which strong plots matter most, the dialogue could be stronger and less cliched in spots, and some characters could be less stereotypical. While backstories that refer to events in earlier books are necessary for new readers, they sometimes slow the story unnecessarily. The author should correct the scattered missing words and other typographical errors.

None of that takes away from the strong sense of place and fast-paced plotting that make The Pyongyang Option a worthy thriller. Readers will look forward to Jonathan Brooks’ next adventure.

 

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