The best historical fiction set in Korea by Korean American authors

The Books I Picked & Why


By Min Jin Lee

Book cover of Pachinko

Why this book?

The accolades for this epic novel are deserved. In her second novel, author Min Jin Lee follows members of a family (and many equally fascinating ancillary characters) from the Japanese Occupation era in Korea, to the Korean diaspora in Japan up to 1989. She manages this expansive timespan through third-person omniscient voice, allowing a kind of economy in the storytelling that would otherwise be limited to structural concerns. It’s both a feat of intricate character development and a rapid-moving plot that makes one love the people, even the antagonist, and live through a hundred fast-moving stories that kept pulling at me long after all the pages were turned. Much is written about her inspiration and about the story itself, soon to be a tv mini-series. If you’re interested in Korean historical fiction, read this stunning epic.

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The Surrendered

By Chang-Rae Lee

Book cover of The Surrendered

Why this book?

What happens after you survive the atrocities and randomness of war? Chang-rae Lee examines the deep intricacies of this question and its ramifications, portraying three survivors (Korean War, Sino-Japan War) whose lives mesh at an orphanage somewhere in South Korea after liberation. From that common crossroad, the lives of Sylvie, a missionary wife, Hector, a G.I., and June, a Korean orphan, are forever intertwined, shadowed by pervasive doom pitted against the human need to endure. Lee’s intense focus on physicality seems to reflect the characters’ bodily will to continue life, even as their hearts are blackened by tragedy. It is an intense and absorbing read, frightening for what we do to ourselves and how, despite all the darkness and violence we create in the name of war, some continue to persist in a semblance of life, and helplessly pass along the damage of war to those they touch as they reach out with a last shred of hopefulness. Is it all in vain? That’s the question Lee poses in this masterpiece of writing.

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This Burns My Heart

By Samuel Park

Book cover of This Burns My Heart

Why this book?

This book will capture you with a heroine who is both irresistible and flawed, and will engross you with increasing twists in a triangle of love and sacrifice. The story explores how a fateful choice colors a decade of marriage, and challenges a young woman’s ambition already constrained by traditional Korean culture. Sam Park paints all the flavors of post-war Korea in this vivid debut, and his understanding and expression of the human heart is universal.

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The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

By Caroline Kim

Book cover of The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

Why this book?

Caroline Kim’s captivating story collection gathers an entrancing variety of voices spread across time and place. These diverse viewpoints reveal cohesive threads that address clashes of culture, of generations, of relationships, of history, carrying us from medieval Korea to the Korean War and our own contemporary then-future world, and strikingly reflects us all in riveting microcosms of story. Deeply moving and affecting, these stories and their heartfelt characters will linger long after the last page is turned.

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The Grass Roof

By Younghill Kang

Book cover of The Grass Roof

Why this book?

This is an autobiographical novel of a scholar’s son’s coming of age in a small village during the Japanese occupation, though that is felt with some distance. Kang focuses on classical education in that era, traditions for holidays and ceremonies, schooling, friends, family dynamic, a detailed account of the March First Independence Movement Day, and finally emigration to America as a young man. It is a little-known prequel to Kang's book, East Goes West, a seminal work in Korean American literature, which covers his immigration to New York in the 1920s through the war years.

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