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Review: Shine by Jessica Jung

Review: Shine by Jessica Jung

‘What would you give for a chance to live your dreams? For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment – one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most popular stars. The rules are simple: Train 24/7. Be perfect. Don’t date. Easy right?

Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bent on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up, Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner, or if she’ll end up crushed … Especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understands how badly she wants her star to rise.’

What I love reading even more than fantasy novels are books that look at our relationship with the media and the impact it can have on people’s lives. That, and the fact that I loved K-Pop when I was a teenager, and Shine swiftly became one of the books of 2020 that I desperately wanted to read, so thank you very much to Electric Monkey for sending me an ARC for review!

Shine follows Rachel, a Korean American girl in her late teens whose family have relocated to Seoul, ostensibly so that she can try to make it in the world of K-Pop, after being signed by DB Entertainment. However, Rachel’s experience of that world is notably different to those that she is working with and who are ultimately her rivals, for her mother requires her to attend school during the week and only train with DB at the weekends, something that Rachel quite bitterly resents and sees as something that is only putting her at a disadvantage – and, at seventeen, she doesn’t have much time left to be selected as a member of the next girl group to debut.

One of the novel’s focuses is on just how much of their trainee’s lives DB Entertainment (and, we are led to assume, not so fictional companies) has complete control over. This obsession with their trainees’ weight, appearance and behaviour spills over into every aspect of their lives, to the point where it seems that the trainees are unable to think or act without fear of how the company will react and how it might punish them – and their potential careers – for any slight mistake, no matter how unintentional. DB Entertainment’s fixation on controlling every aspect of everyone’s lives opens up the potential for sabotage in a world of fierce competition, something that Rachel experiences more than once over the course of the narrative, but a particular incident early on, in which she is drugged by a rival, is the most serious and isn’t quite resolved, so I hope that we get to see it addressed in more detail at some point in Bright, the follow-up scheduled for October 2021. What’s most troubling about the company’s attitude to those in their employ is that they don’t seem to understand that they should be those in their care too. The girls are worked to exhaustion and constantly encouraged to see each other as competition, thus stripping them of any support system that they might be able to build in the stressful environment in which they work. There seem to be no boundaries as to what rivals might do in terms of sabotage, from invasions of privacy to exploiting family members, which leaves the trainees essentially isolated in their efforts to pursue their chosen career.

Rachel’s romantic interest, Jason Lee, is a somewhat conflicting character. There are times when he truly seems as if he could be a nice person, such as during his interaction with Rachel’s sister, but he remains so oblivious about who and what he is – being one of the company’s biggest successes – that his behaviour is often contemptable and makes it quite obvious that he shouldn’t be trusted, even if Rachel herself doesn’t quite see it. And yet, just as the reader may have made up their mind about him, there are instances where he seems to redeem himself, only to then ultimately undermine his acts of decency. It’s easy to see, especially in a world where no-one can be trusted, how Rachel can never quite decide whether he is ever not acting a part or under the company’s spell.

Shine is a ridiculously enjoyable read and a sharp look at the darker world that exists beneath the glossy surface that K-Pop presents. One of the things it does well is avoid falling into predictive narratives with the relationships that Rachel forms, swerving away from easy redemption arcs and quick forgiveness to highlight that there is no quick fix in an environment where you are constantly monitored and your life – and your decisions – aren’t your own. It develops an effective contrast between the bright and vivid performances for camera, and the pain and confusion beneath, while continuing to bring to the forefront why Rachel is putting herself through the grueling routine demanded of her: that she loves to sing and loves K-Pop, no matter what.

Out on October 15th, Shine is so fun that I didn’t want it to end! I was checking to see if there was a sequel long before I’d finished, as I was afraid I was reading too quickly and wasn’t ready for it to be over. A delightful book!