Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee is an #OwnVoices Korean, middle-grade, science-fiction, stand-alone novel about a young fox girl that goes on a quest to find her brother who has disappeared from the Space Forces, presumed to have gone AWOL (absent without official leave), or deserted.
There are so many elements that make Dragon Pearl feel like a near-perfect novel. The first quality that I fell in love with is the writing with the second bits being the implementation of Korean culture and lore, the sci-fi milieus, and the diversity.
The content is filled to the brim with imaginative incorporation of Korean culture, traditions, and practises as it pertains to their social etiquette, history, folklore, and mythos. Anyone who has ever argued that culturally diverse characteristics can’t make for a breath-taking science-fiction setting or story, really needs to read this book because it blows those narrow-minded conceptions out of the galaxy, so to speak. Spirituality and the belief that spiritual balance transcends into all aspects of the universe was so brilliant. We see this when the cadets are learning about flying the ships and the different things that can affect them outside of basic operations.
For example, if a ship is haunted, it significantly decreases their luck and will create adverse effects for light speed and combat. I know this sounds like it’s too convenient and very much contrived for the younger audiences, but the author manages to weave this element into hard engineering mechanics that left me feeling rather invigorated. It’s such an original notion and that originality helps creates a beautiful connection between the audience and the story because the interest to see what creative twist the author will come up with next is too damn delicious to ignore or write off as merely opportune and outrageous.
Another example of the use of culture to tell a sci-fi tale are dragons. They are beings that literally mould an entire planet’s ecosystem and environment. When I think of dragons, I usually think of a giant, gorgeous, terrifying bad arse creature. While they are giant and extremely powerful people in Dragon Pearl, it was (once again) so nice to view them in an utterly different light. Fantastical people in general are key elements to the realm of Dragon Pearl.
Min, the young female protagonist, is a shape-shifting fox. There is an officer in the Space Forces who is a tiger; there are also Korean goblins (Dokkaebi, 도깨비) and ghosts. Each one of these has their own specific piece of associated Korean folklore that plays into the what’s occurring in one way or another. I have never read anything like this before and, to be perfectly frank, I felt like my brain was in dire need of a gloriously visionary piece of fiction like this, especially within my favourite genre.
In addition to the various races of people, we also have some diverse individuals. One of the characters identifies as a non-binary person. People in the Space Forces have their gender/preferred pronouns listed on their uniform and I think that is bloody fantastic. My non-binary soul was singing a hymn at this. While it’s such a seemingly small thing, it made me feel very validated and accepted as someone who has the same pronouns. When I think about it being written into a middle-grade adventure, I feel even more ecstatic because we are teaching children to be more open-minded and accepting of other people’s differences rather than creating these harmful, superiority/inferiority complexes that have no place in modern society.
All these things do make Dragon Pearl a great treat, however, the writing is the true gem of the entire gig. It isn’t written like a middle-grade book. Aside from Min being a twelve to thirteen-year-old girl, and many of the characters either being the same age or a few years older, the prose style flows quite like an adult narrative. The action and continuous influx of plot progression as well as the character interactions and the somewhat dark themes of the overarching scenario easily feel like they are part of an adult space opera of sorts. The vernacular also consists of some words that can be difficult for younger minds to decipher. I respect this quite a bit because it incites an interest in middle-grade audiences to learn more about what they are engaging with. When I was a kid, coming across words I couldn’t pronounce or define excited me. I would look them up in the dictionary and try to find ways to use them outside of the books I was reading. It also helped me improve my English-speaking capabilities.
Overall, if you have read some books from the Rick Riordan Presents line and have had no luck with them (like me), I highly recommend that you give Dragon Pearl a chance. It’s unlike the others and it also isn’t a regurgitation of Percy Jackson, which I appreciated in ways that cannot be expressed via words. My biggest issue with Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi was how much it felt like an Indian Percy Jackson; too fucking much. Dragon Pearl is very unique and established Yoon Ha Lee as an incredible author across all reading levels—a difficult feat to accomplish. Fans of science-fiction and Korean culture especially may be interested in this book.
4.75 shrimp crackers outta 5!