This is a hideously beautiful, harrowing work of imagination. It's hard to tell which atrocities come from the mind of the writer and which are real. It illuminates a North Korea that seems all too real, while telling the story of a man whose feats of survival would turn him into a folk hero in any other context. Jun Do chooses his own identity from the beginning. Is he ever told he's the orphan master's son, or does he assume it because he gets the worst punishment? Which stories that he tells himself are true, and which are true enough to get him through the situation he faces? He plays many roles in this novel, some of which he chooses and some of which he is forced into. Through all of it, there is a theme of the stories people tell to get themselves through harsh realities. From early in the novel the protagonist is shown the machinery behind the magic. He harbors no illusions. That and his identity as the lowest of the low - an orphan, or a perceived orphan - allow him to what it takes to achieve his goals and maintain his own code of honor. In doing so, he attains mythic status himself. Only he and the reader are privy to the true story, and even that story is subject to question. This one's going to stick with me for a while.