JThe interest in North Korea is not surprising at a time of the rise of totalitarian states and growing threats to fundamental freedoms in democratic countries. The latest in the catalog of books on this little-known place is The Sorcerer of Pyongyang by Marcel Theroux, which sets out to tell the story of a nation, from the 1990s, through the life of its main character, Cho Jun. -su.

Jun-su is not part of the North Korean elite; he has the typical problems of a high school student anywhere, in addition to the horrors of widespread starvation around him and endless political demands, such as mandatory weekly self-criticism sessions that demand public confessions of wrongdoings from all the citizens. His life is transformed one day, however, when he accidentally comes across a Dungeons and Dragons rulebook, The Dungeon Masters Guide, left behind by a foreign guest at the hotel and later picked up by Jun-su’s father. one of the hotel kitchen staff.

This manual becomes Jun-su’s entry point into role-playing games and the world of storytelling. This accompanies him through high school, helps him improve his English as he painstakingly translates text, and helps him pass a prestigious poetry competition, which leads to his acceptance into Kim Il- sung from Pyongyang.

Perhaps the most thematically interesting aspect of The Wizard of Pyongyang is its examination of the fictional reality of North Korea. Jun-su’s student life in Pyongyang promises to be idyllic: he drinks with friends, starts a secret role-playing group on campus, and begins dating a girl from Pyongyang’s elite. But sustaining that existence requires Orwellian doublethink. It is only when it is destroyed that he becomes painfully aware of how he has “compartmentalized his own inner life, how he has arranged things so that his undeniable knowledge of arrests, disappearances and executions is not never openly examined; he had therefore never had to face difficult questions about the regime – and his own complicity with it”.

The Dungeon Masters Guide, formerly his talisman, now brings about his downfall: he leads to a detention center and torture by the Thought Review Board, until he finally confesses to the charges of activities against – revolutionaries. Her past life takes a surreal and impossible turn during nine grueling years in the brutal reality of a penal colony. Yet the power of constructed reality is ever-present: “Even in prison, Jun-su hadn’t let go of the fantasy that the Dear Leader was a loving, caring parent. He told himself that if Kim Jong-il knew what had happened to the young poet whose verses he praised, he would be outraged and immediately rehabilitate him.

The great central irony of life in North Korea is highlighted by the narrative structure. Jun-su is rehabilitated and assigned to the elusive Office 39, a shadowy organization whose role is to generate foreign currency for the nation. There, he concocts insurance claims to be filed in Western countries, fabricating accidents to create foolproof story arcs that will win over the most suspicious insurance companies. His life is devoted to inventing such fictions, just as his youthful hours of idleness were devoted to the construction of imaginary worlds.

Reading The Wizard of Pyongyang is an informative and entertaining way to learn more about North Korea. Theroux’s painstaking research intimately reveals the workings of North Korean society, in public and private spheres. Its greatest achievement, however, is sometimes its greatest weakness. The lively, page-turning narrative occasionally devolves into thinly disguised non-fiction that overshadows the characters and the development of their relationships.

There are other issues. The narration is fast, sometimes too fast. The action is based on improbable coincidences, and Jun-su’s motivations are not always convincing, especially in the last pages. Yet Theroux also writes with intelligence, compassion, and occasional understated lyricism. More importantly, the novel powerfully embodies the plight of North Koreans in the vast shadow of the state: “How much of their lives have been spent waiting! Waiting for the bus, waiting for their day to pick up the rations from the distribution center, waiting for a glimpse of the chief, waiting for on-site advice, waiting for the decisive arrival of socialism that would finally give meaning to all their waiting.”

How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee is published by Faber. The Sorcerer of Pyongyang by Marcel Theroux is published by Corsair (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.