Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney Hyperion 978-136801335-2, $16.99, 310pp, tp) January 2019. Cover by Vivienne To.
In the latest title from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee transports traditional Korean animal folklore to space in an interplanetary adventure with all the thrills, spills, and surprises that younger teens could want. Dragon Pearl is a bit like the vintage “Perils of Pauline” serials (without the female character needing outright rescuing), as protagonist Min careens from one near-death/capture experience to the next. Her determination and stubbornness (and dare I add “pluckiness”), get her out of certain danger more than once although she often finds herself in an even more difficult circumstance soon after. It’s an obvious page-turner, and Yoon Ha Lee has nailed what the younger action crowd craves. If the story gets a bit thin along the way, that’s okay, as the plot barrels along at such a breakneck pace you hardly notice.
Thirteen-year-old Min lives on a backwater planet (visions of Tatooine were immediately in my head), with her mother, many aunts, and assorted cousins. Everyone is grumpy, they are all just scraping by, and Min’s dream is to get off of Jinju and join her older brother Jun in the Space Forces and see the many worlds beyond her own. Life is more complicated for her family than most because they are fox spirits and thus much maligned in society for their ability to shape-shift and charm others. Avoiding use of fox magic is the order of the household, but then an official visits with devastating news about Jun, and Min loses control and must go on the run to avoid bringing disaster upon everyone. Thus starts the roller coaster ride that is Dragon Pearl and it doesn’t let up until the final pages.
In the course of trying to find out what happened to her brother, Min escapes planetary law enforcement, briefly goes to work in a seedy gambling establishment, sort of hijacks/becomes a crew member on a ship with both pirates and mercenaries, impersonates a dead guy, goes undercover on a Space Forces ship, springs some bad guys out of jail, communicates with a lot of ghosts, runs for her life from ghosts, and becomes involved in the rejuvenation of an entire planet using a magical item that could also be a devastating weapon.
Just a reminder: Min is only 13.
There are some very funny moments in Dragon Pearl and plenty of angsty ones as well. There is no romance at all which fits well with the needs of the likely younger audience (and would have spoiled all the action bits, so is not missed). Min’s charm magic is used with abandon once she leaves home (in a “these are not the droids you’re looking for” kind of way), as is her steadfastness and the pluckiness I mentioned earlier. She does get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her brother, she does find the Dragon Pearl, and she does get to see more of the galaxy (with promises for much more travel in the end). Is it all a bit over-the-top? Maybe for my eyes, but I’m not the intended audience. For good clean outer space fun with the nice addition of Korean folklore and plenty of engaging characters, (both good and evil), Dragon Pearl gets the job done. Also, a shout out to Vivienne To for the stunning cover art – it’s impossible not to love that shot of Min in all her glory, getting ready to take on the universe to find out the truth.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2019 issue of Locus.
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