I’m gong to start by saying that this is one of my favorite books this year. I’ve seen quite a few references to the movie Pacific Rim and I can understand why: what Pacific Rim did for Japanese Godzilla movies, this book does for mecha anime. That should be a disclaimer but it is actually the highest praise I can give and why I loved this book so much. It feels like a superior novelization of one of the really good late night mecha anime series that we’ve seen come out of Japan over the years. But the setting is Korea and the South Korean culture is so well represented here in our engaging hero and interesting storyline. The appeal is broad – more than for just action, sci fi, anime, or Pacific Rim fans. And I really look forward to more from this author in the future.
Story: After several great wars, the Eastern Pacific Asian states have been united; individual cultures are suppressed in an attempt to wipe out the nationalism that breeds war. But it also makes for a dictatorship and many want their cultures back. Seoul is a city divided: the slums of “old Seoul” litter the area outside the pristine and wealthy domed city of “Neo Seoul”. Slumboy Lee Jaewon has managed to escape his past of gang warfare in the mean streets and squeaked into the great academy in Neo Seoul. His schoolmates are all children of prominent citizens and Alex, the Director’s son, has taken an interest in Lee Jaewon’s war skills. But Lee Jaewon’s association with Alex will pull him into a secret program to augment humans – and two young girls who have been ‘enhanced’ but are unstable. Jaewon and Alex will be enlisted to be caretakes of the girls and keep them stable – but Jaewon will soon discover that there is a sinister secret tied to his mean streets past and his rebel father’s failed attempt to overthrow the united government.
Although mecha was used quite frequently in the description/blurbs about the book, that isn’t the crux of the story and there are actually very few mecha scenes. Most of the story is about Jaewon at the school, dealing with his past/betrayal of his best friend, and being manipulated by the Director’s son, Alex. Through it all, is the conflict of straddling two worlds and ideologies: not only is he a ‘street rat’ in a prestigious academy but he is also, unknown to all, the son of the rebel leader who died by a terrorist attack taking innocent lives. Jaewon was thrown into the street at the age of eight and has survived since.
The book can be broken down into three sections: Jaewon moving between the two worlds of the academy/Neo Seoul and his home in old Seoul, Jaewon and Alex working with the test girls, and then the culmination of the rebellion’s long dormant plans. Each is exciting and certainly the book was very different from the description of what appeared to be boys fighting in giant mecha suits.
Axie Oh is clearly an anime fan – this book has all the elements of one of the better mecha series that entrance millions with their complex and nuanced storylines and high action. Careful consideration is always to keep the focus on the humanity and not the mecha aspects – ensuring readers have empathy with the characters and want to see how their stories turn out. There is a nice romance in Rebel Seoul and I appreciated that, unlike anime, the girls aren’t too cutsey or overidealized versions of youth-oriented femininity. As well, the story has many aspects and threads but remains fully focused on Jaewon.
There is a nice dictionary in back of the Korean terms so this isn’t too confusing. But for me, as much as I do love Japanese anime, I have to really respect this glimpse into Korean culture. The book is solidly written, a mature science fiction that will appeal to more than just anime fans for its depth and nuances. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.