Shape-Shifter Space Adventure: Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl

Yoon Ha Lee is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting voices in SFF. His Machineries of Empire trilogy did things to my brain that I didn’t think possible. Going from this crazy complex SF story to Middle Grade is a big departure. While I think he did a good job and wrote a wonderful tale of adventure, it lacked that certain extra that made his adult novels stand out the way they did.

DRAGON PEARL
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published: Rick Riordan Presents, 2019
eBook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: I almost missed the stranger’s visit that morning.

Thirteen-year-old Min comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.
Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.
When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.
Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.

This is exactly the kind of adventure story I would have loved as a kid. A young girl with magical shape-shifting powers runs away from home to find her brother who allegedly deserted his dream job at the Space Forces. Min knows that just can’t be true and she is determined to find her brother Jun, clear his name, and maybe even find that Dragon Pearl that could help terraform their dusty planet. There are all sorts of dangerous situations, new friends (and enemies) to be made, dark secrets to discover, and lessons to be learned.

But I read this as an adult and while I love YA and Middle Grade fiction, I need something more than just a good story. And Yoon Ha Lee did a pretty great job at adding layers onto this tale of wild space adventures. It begins with Min’s family being fox spirits. Based on Korean mythology, fox spirits can shape-shift into anything, even inanimate objects, and because of their powers (and the fact that they are said to suck the souls from humans) they are feared. So Min has been hiding her true self all her life, but it becomes necessary to use those powers and use them frequently on her quest to save her brother.
This led to several interesting developments. While making herself slightly older-looking to get past some guards is one thing, at some point she changes into a male body because the situation demands it. Now Min doesn’t dwell much on this, except for the occasional comment about suddenly having more stuff between her legs, but I found it intersting because it manages to talk about gender without really making it a big deal for the characters. There’s not really much discussion about Min’s identity – she’s always herself, no matter which body she currently wears. And one of the side characters is addressed as gender-neutral, which is also explained once and respected by everyone. The way this seamlessly just works within the story makes it easy to glance over it, but I think it’s an important message, especially for kids.

The world building was also quite interesting, although it’s one of the things that I felt needed more depth. Apart from fox spirits, there are also dragons, tigers, dokkaebi, and goblins – all with different supernatural powers. The Dragon Society is essentially rich people. Dragons can influence the weather and do most of the work when it comes to terraforming new planets. Jinju, Min’s home planet, got the short end of that stick and is still pretty impoverished and not exactly nice to live on. If only the mystical (and missing) Dragon Pearl were here, then it could help make Min’s planet more livable.
There are definitely great ideas hidden in the world building and I liked how Lee handled the class difference between different cultures or planets. But there’s not a lot of that and I felt like I had to make up my own ideas about the backstory if I wanted to know more. And I get why it is written that way – there is a lot of story to get through and adding more to the world building would have made this a much bigger book. And it’s meant to be for kids.

The characters ranged from well-developed and layered to flat and I don’t know how to feel about them as a whole. Min is a good protagonist, she’s clever and resourceful, brave and kind, and it’s easy to insert yourself in her shoes and live through her journey with her. Some side characters also showed surprising amounts of depth, like Haneul and Sujin, the two people Min’ befriends on a space ship. But others, especially the villain, remained flat until the end. Ooooh, I’m bad because I want all the power and I have no conscience and nothing will stand in my way. 
Of course that works for a children’s book because it’s easy to hate the villain and it makes the heroes’ decisions much simpler. Again, I understand why it was written that way, but I believe that kids can handle more nuanced characters just fine.

That all sounded very negative but I actually enjoyed reading this book because it does tell an exciting story with cool magic. I may have remained at arm’s length from the characters but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy space battles, dealing with ghosts, learning about the Space Forces, or watching Min trick others with her fox magic. This may only have been a good book for adult me but I just know that child me would have loved it. And while I can’t go back in time and give my younger self this story, I can definitely put it into the hands of other young people.
As science fiction for young readers goes, this is definitely one of the more interesting ones, not only because it mixes Korean mythology with a space adventure but because it shows a diverse range of people and genders. There’s not enough books like this out there and I have to say, I am growing ever fonder of the Rick Riordan Presents series!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite Good

2 thoughts on “Shape-Shifter Space Adventure: Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I have such a hard time with a lot of middle grade books for all these reasons! Even when I can see that they’re good books, I just struggle with how young they feel. It’s frustrating because I know a lot of good work is being done in MG but I just can’t enjoy it. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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