Review: Dragon Pearl

“Cautiously, I nudged both of them with Charm. If they detected that I was a fox and ratted me out, I’d be toast.” page 93

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee.
Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019, my edition 2020.
MG speculative fiction, 312 pages.
Lexile: 780L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 13.0 points) .

Min Kim is stuck on the un-terraformed planet of Jinju with her family, pretending to be human, performing an endless cycle of dreary chores, and waiting for the day she turns 15 and can join her brother in the Space Forces and finally see the world. Then a stranger arrives saying Jun is a deserter who left to search for the fabled Dragon Pearl, which 200 years ago was supposed to transform Jinju.

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee.

My absolute favorite part of this entire story is that it’s assumed that space will be dominated by Asian culture, in the way that so very many speculative fiction authors have constantly assumed white dominance. Lee never explains away the setting, although he does keep it readable for all. I loved details like not looking a superior directly in the eye and larger worldbuilding aspects, like how important gi and meridians are in ship design and maintenance.

Now, I’ll admit the opening chapters, while strong on family representation, are among the least interesting and compelling in the book. I think this is mainly because Lee was adapting to the MG format, and indeed there were several elements he seemed off with – too heavy handed on coincidences and sometimes too fast with the action. I have no doubt that this will be improved by his next middle grade novel.

Min reminded me very much of a particular 12-year old I know, so her character felt very real. Before deciding to buy this, I read a lot of reviews to try and figure out if I’d enjoy it, and many said she was too old or her character too inconsistent. However, what I think many readers overlooked is that she’s spending most of the novel pretending to be someone else, whether it’s an older version of herself so she can drive, or the more serious impersonations she attempts later on in the story.

Gumiho choose their gender, although most decide to follow tradition since fox spirits are typically female. Beyond the choice of one’s own gender, gumiho are also shapeshifters. This is inherently different than being transgender or genderqueer, yet Lee writes sensitively about shifting into a different gender so I don’t think this would be problematic for those readers.

An important secondary character is also nonbinary and this fact is seamlessly learned by Min through a little mark that reminds me of the Japanese car stickers. They and them are used throughout which seems to be turning into the English language standard. As much as I would hope for one of the new created pronouns to have gained precedence instead, it’s still great to see nonbinary and genderfluid representation. Another character is polyamorous; while that character’s family are not at all part of the plot, his husbands and children are briefly mentioned (on page 186 for the curious).

I’m becoming a huge fan of Vivienne To’s artwork. She did the cover and chapter header art for this story and just perfectly coveys the gist of the story (magic, space, a strong female lead on an unearthly planet). This is not even my favorite To but I still enjoyed it.

What disappointed me was the formatting of this book. The margins were decent but the text felt crunched into the space. I suspect it was not reformatted for the softcover edition, and that shows. The cover was still nice with a glossy embossed title on a powdery matte finish (librarians will certainly want to use cover protection) and the title was even embossed and glossed on the spine. I just wish the same amount of care had gone into the interior. This seems to be an ongoing problem with Disney Hyperion paperbacks, and my likely solution will be not purchasing anything I don’t buy in hardcover although I may still read from the library.

Content warnings or mentions of poverty, gambling, illegal parking, colonization, implied magical seduction, petty theft, implied smuggling, life-threatening peril, ghosts of both the mundane and murderous variety, serious injury, sabotage, firefights, parental and familial deaths, loss of life support, and probably others I’m forgetting.

Dragon Pearl is undoubtedly one of those polarizing novels people tend to strongly like or dislike. I think reading sample chapters is a good way to determine if this book is for you – that’s how I knew I wanted to read it but was okay waiting for the paperback. While there is a clear avenue for more books here (and I do hope for a series), this also works well as a stand-alone. Lee pulls the main threads together into a cohesive, satisfying ending, and I appreciated that.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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