The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh.
HaperCollins, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 248 pages.
Not yet leveled.
Jiho Park is an anomaly in his highly magical kingdom – part of a family not affected by magic, which makes him destined to become a ranger protecting the Kidahara. But he wants nothing to with the forest and the magical creatures it protects and instead is intrigued by the foreigners from technologically advanced lands trying to tear down the forest in the middle of Joson. Meanwhile, two girls whose lives have been heavily affected by magic both have their own agendas – and when all three cross paths, the whole kingdom might be affected, for better or worse.
I wanted to love this so much – bought the hardcover, so yes I fully invested in this story. Sadly, it underwhelmed me on many points despite the appealing blubs from several authors I trust and the fabulous cover. Let me just take a minute to mention that I completely support Oh’s mission, her work on WNDB, and even her excellent anthologies, and continue to do so despite really not liking this book.
The setting had a unique feel. The land of Josen, the Kidahara forest, the permeation of magic in the kingdom, everything had a twist to it somewhere. But on the other hand it had some steampunk or even science fantasy elements, as some of the other kingdoms have no magic but focus instead on technology. The one other region with magic was also different, so a lot was packed into this book.
Worldbuilding was clearly a major focus of Oh’s, and she has a fairly detailed mythology likely to appeal to young fans of speculative fiction. While this book focuses on Joson, based in Korean mythology, Shane and Calvin are from another country called Bellprix and mention vampires, werewolves, and zombies. I only wish that more of the essential information about this world had been organically included in the action or dialogue, instead of being infodumped .
The character development was also disappointing. Maybe because this was an ensemble cast, but the balance of voices were consistently off. We follow three young people – Koko, the princess and only child of the king and queen; Jiho a born ranger with an unusual ability who knows a lot about, but wants nothing to do with the forest; and Micah/White Peony, matriarchal leader of the Botan clan who have always lived on the outskirts of the Kidahara.
While I enjoyed the introductory chapter, this book would have been much stronger if it focused on developing fewer viewpoints more thoroughly. Even if Oh had kept Koko’s viewpoint to just the introduction and started Micah’s viewpoint earlier, it would have helped me feel more invested in this story. Koko’s parts were less interesting, and by the time Micah was introduced I was mostly invested in Jiho and annoyed at the other portions.
Each of the three main characters has a lot of secondary characters in their story, who are very hard to remember. Because there were so very many characters and they weren’t well distinguished, the major battles in the second half of the book felt flat and confusing to me. It’s very rare that I review a fiction book after only one full reading, and when I do, it’s usually because my children want the book and I have to review it quickly. In this case, I simply could not bring myself to complete the second reading.
Spoilers in this paragraph /// We learn that Koko is adopted, which makes sense from a plot standpoint but gives a totally different set of emotional reactions. She had no idea, even though many if not most of the people around her knew. And her entire people are dead, and she’s not even human. Yet despite all these major revelations, she remains a fairly two dimensional character. I initially thought that her reactions and personality were altered by the time spent with the namushin, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Everything except her introduction in the first chapter bothered me. Without going into too many spoilery details, several other plot points were a bit too obvious and forced.///
I think this book irked me the most because it had so much potential, and just didn’t quite live up to my expectations. That said, middle grade fantasy buffs may still like this one. Looking back at my 6th grade fantasy-loving self, I definitely would have been overjoyed to find this book on my local shelves and probably would have uncritically read and loved it. Hopefully our copy can find its way to someone that will love it.
Truly, as wonderful as Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin, or Zeta Elliot are, we also need some of these titles too. We need some mediocre diverse fantasy in the world. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and mythos, so I hope that Oh is able to publish more Five Kingdoms novels, where she can explore and explain her world better.