Axie Oh’s 2017 young adult dystopian thriller Rebel Seoul is the first volume in Oh’s Rebel Seoul series.
Abandoned in Neo Seoul’s slums by his parents, student Lee Jaewon has clawed his way out of the gangs and into borderline respectability. Only a single test lies between Jaewon and a decent career. Unfortunately for Jaewon, it’s not an easy test and failure means death.
Half a century ago, Korea became Neo State Korea, part of a Neo Alliance designed to end war by eliminating nation states.
“Only countries destroy other countries. Only selfishness breeds selfish actions. Without nationhood, there is no war. Without nationhood, there is only peace. Unity in all things; humanity above monstrous division.”
Despite the unassailable logic of the Neo State movement, its enemies, both international1 and local, persist in resisting. Consequently the last half century has seen war after war between the forces of righteousness and an evolving alliance of nationalists.
All of the above means that most of the career paths open to Jaewon are military or criminal. Most people of his class who enlist are consigned to rewarding roles as cannon fodder. Thanks to his hard work and friendship with Alex, son of the Director, Jaewon has a decent shot at a less obviously suicidal career path. Or so it seems.
Having survived a high-stakes war game, Alex and Jaewon are assigned to a secretive advanced weapons program. The Neo State has carved out its own global niche thanks to its God Machines (mecha, more or less). Now the state is developing something even more powerful: genetically engineered pilots the Neo State’s enemies will not be able to match. The program’s latest products are two teenaged girls: psychic Ama and warrior Tera, neither of whom are living up to the Director’s demanding expectations.
Alex and Jaewon are the latest in a series of companions/mentors for Ama and Tera. If the young men can guide the girls towards exemplary service to the Neo State, kudos all round. If they fail as all others before them have failed, ah well. There are always more ambitious young men eager for an opportunity and many dismal fates to which failures can be consigned.
This is all stressful enough. As it happens, however, Jaewon is (quite reluctantly) connected to the Neo State’s bitterest enemies. His assignment makes him an asset the rebels cannot resist using, no matter how Jaewon feels about the matter.
How odd to encounter a book where the nationalists form the least bad faction.
“Wait, as the son of the Director, shouldn’t Alex get an easy ride?” you wonder. No. The Director is a terrible dad and if Alex fails to live up to his father’s expectations, he can expect brutal beatings or worse. The Director just one of the many bad parents featured in the novel. Jaewon’s father decided his political cause was more important than his son. Jaewon’s mother abandoned Jaewon to flee with her other children.
As happens in many novels, it turns out that only a few people are in a position to affect the fate of the world and (surprise!) they all seem to be directly connected to the protagonist. His friendship with Alex gives Jaewon a link to the Neo Alliance’s rulers. His family history gives him a connection to the rebels. His assignment puts him cheek to cheek (ahem!) with the superhumans vital to the war effort. His knack for befriending people carrying sacks of plot tokens provides him with a connection to an entirely different set of subversives. Not to mention that he happens to know the closest thing to a supervillain this novel has.
Jaewon is a more reluctant player than many protagonists. He knows the risks he runs; he knows he’s not enhanced, not a high powered politician. Too bad that his connections draw him into dangerous games; too bad that, thanks to his romantic ties, he cannot quit the games. Too bad for him but fun for the reader.
This is pitched as Pacific Rim meets K‑drama. I haven’t actually seen Pacific Rim but I do watch the odd K‑drama. This novel is just as emotional as the dramas. Everything, romance to war, is played for high stakes; the lowest setting on anyone’s dial is eleven. It’s pretty clear the story owes a lot to manga and manhwa; if this were to be adapted to a graphic novel or video, the visuals would no doubt be quite impressive.
The plot was pretty predictable but the characters were engaging enough. The book isn’t subtle; the tropes are familiar … but sometimes it’s enjoyable to watch villains monologue and kids find their inner potential.
1: The USA is Sir Not Appearing in this Text, having lost one of the previous wars against the Neo State.