“They’ll fucking ruin you and make it seem like you’re the one who destroyed yourself.”
When she was only eleven years old, Rachel Kim’s whole family gave up their life in New York City to move to Seoul so that Rachel could pursue her dreams of becoming a K-pop artist. Ever since, Rachel has been a trainee at DB Entertainment, spending her days at school, and her evenings and weekends dancing, singing, and competing with the other girls who share her aspirations. After six years in training, Rachel is starting to worry that she will never debut, because no matter how good she is at singing and dancing, she is still camera shy in an industry that is all about image. Then rumours begin to swirl that DB Entertainment is about to debut a new girls group for the first time in seven years, and Rachel will have to decide if she is willing to do what it takes to be one of the nine girls chosen.
Shine is set in the cut-throat world of the K-pop idol system, where young men and women give up their childhoods to train as entertainers, in the hopes of being debuted in one of the industry’s famous music groups. I’ve enjoyed novels set in the high-pressure environment of ballet school, so idol school seemed like an interesting analog for this type of setting. As a bonus, author Jessica Jung is a former member of the K-pop group Girls Generation, bringing insider knowledge of the industry to the table. I don’t have a lot of knowledge about K-pop or the idol industry, so a book written by an insider seemed like a good bet. Like Rachel, Jung is a Korean American who went to Seoul to become an idol, before breaking with her band and her label in 2014.
One of the strict and well known rules of the idol industry is that the stars are forbidden from dating. For Rachel, this rule is put to the test when she meets Jason Lee, a Korean Canadian idol who is the lead vocalist of DB Entertainment’s hottest boy band. Jung uses this relationship not only as a vehicle for romance within the story, but also as a way to examine the double standards of the K-pop industry for male vs. female artists, with an added power differential in that Jason is an artist who has already successfully debuted, while Rachel could lose any chance at a future in the industry if their relationship is revealed. Jason is a sweet character, but fairly blind to the additional pressures faced by the women around him.
While the difficulties of romance in the idol industry is a major plot point for Shine, the complications in Rachel’s other relationships are no less central. Her family has made many sacrifices for her career, and her sister Leah also seems to be harbouring K-pop dreams despite the reservations of their mother. At school and at training, Rachel has friendships and rivalries that shift with her fortunes. Success may mean working with girls she doesn’t like, while leaving behind those who have truly been her friends. Her relationship with her sister is a particular bright spot of comfort and mutual support, but Leah pays her own price for her sister’s choices.
The writing in Shine is a little bit uneven, with a number of awkward transitions, and a few scenarios that are overly contrived. For example, Rachel accidently runs into Kang Jina, a member of the girls group Electric Flower, not once but twice, first on a school field trip, and then again at a street food stand. Jina plays an important role in the story, in that she stands for the worst possibilities of the future Rachel has been fighting for, but her appearances can be a bit on the nose. Rachel is very focused on debuting, believing it will solve all her problems, but Jina’s story reminds the reader that new, bigger problems lie ahead for those who actually succeed.
Shine is the first in a duology, and a second novel called Bright is due out in October 2021, which will take the story out of idol school and onto the stage.
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