Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 15th 2017 by Tu Books
Source: Author

Today is the release day of one of my most anticipated reads of the year. Rebel Seoul brings to fictional life a place I have previously only seen in Kdramas and it does so with verve and flair. Before I launch into a discussion of the book, here’s the official synopsis:

After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

Rebel Seoul brings together a collection of fascinating characters who function as the sparks that light an inferno. The protagonist of the novel, Jaewon, straddles two worlds, old Seoul and Neo Seoul, and is not quite at home in either. In old Seoul he is an ex-gang member and in Neo Seoul he is a government soldier, a guard to one of the most expensive weapons in existence who also happens to be a person.  Alex’s father is the leader of Neo Seoul and his own personal demon. Ama and Tera are living weapons guarded by Alex and Jaewon respectively.

Add a simmering rebellion, a resentful populace, greedy gangsters, and things get heated quite quickly. And I haven’t even mentioned the friendships and the burgeoning but definitely forbidden romances yet. Rebel Seoul discusses class divides, power disparities, and what it means to be human.

The bromance was definitely one of my favourite parts of the novel:

“It has to do with me because it has to do with you,” Young says, his voice dropping. “Jaewon-ah, we’ve been friends longer than we’ve been–.”
“Enemies?” I suggest weakly.
“Than we’ve been lost.”

Excuse me while I flail. Young is Jaewon’s childhood friend and perhaps my favourite character. Though I might like Sela, a popstar with depth, more. I’m spoiled for choice.

Tera’s vulnerability  is at odds with her strength. Her character is poignant and beautifully written. I found her internal conflict (is she a person or is she simply a construct) very compelling.

Axie writes atmospheric scenes, zooming on the little details that bring the world she has created to life. The more memorable among them are the scenes with the food stand ajumma with whom Jaewon enjoys an easy camaraderie and the easy banter between Jaewon and his school friends.

The narrative progresses swiftly. As soon as the world and characters are established, the conflicts take centre stage until you are flipping the pages as quickly as you can to reach the very explosive climax.

If you want a wonderful story, characters you can root for, and a setting that enchants as well as makes you think, Rebel Seoul is for you.