Book Review: DRAGON PEARL by Yoon Ha Lee

Dragon Pearl by Noon Ha Lee (January 2019)

From Amazon:

Rick Riordan Presents Yoon Ha Lee's space opera about thirteen-year-old Min, who 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 sci-fi adventure with the underpinnings of Korean mythology will transport you to a world far beyond your imagination.

Why I recommend this book:

DRAGON PEARL is essentially a girl's quest to save her brother, beautifully written as a blend between the old and new—heavily influenced by Korean folklore and set in a distant universe. It actually works seamlessly. The story feels old and new at the same time—grounded in tradition but set in the future.  I have no doubt this will be the next Star Wars or other big box office hit someday. It does an excellent job of being gender-diverse and inclusive, something I think readers are hungry for. 

Although this was suggested on a Middle Grade list, at over 300 pages it feels more YA to me. The protagonist, Min, is identified as 13 years old at opening, she definitely seems more mature. The further I read, the harder it was for me to picture her as 13—she felt much closer to 17 to me—particular as she drives a scooter and works in a gambling den. As she moves around the ship and works as a cadet, I really couldn't' sustain the idea that she was 13. But I think this book will appeal to readers of all ages, and the language is direct and clear.  Content wise it is appropriate for younger audiences as well as more mature teen readers. 

Noon Ha Lee's world-building is smooth, visual without being too bogged down. Her writing is highly polished, tight, and without wasted words. There are little moments of humor—when shape shifting she got the dimensions wrong for her clothing and came back to human shape with her clothes tugging at her elbows and knees. 

Although Min is really a fox and has fox magic, she is mostly materialized in human form. The way Min materializes as female and male will additionally allow children of different genders to easily see themselves in the protagonist. 

This book is diverse and inclusive. Women and men are equally represented in positions of authority (guards, ship captains).  I love the nonbinary characters, who are smoothly introduced as no big deal, for example:

“This particular badge has a small symbol next to the name that let me know they should be addressed neutrally, as neither female nor male.” (38)

Heavy themes of family, loyalty, and also resourcefulness and self-reliance. It’s an exciting book that feels grounded and ancient, yet is still refreshing and new.  Get your copy at your local retailer, online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound, or ask your local library to carry it. 

I received a free copy on Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. 

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Copyright © 2024 Lara Lillibridge

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