The Rick Riordan Presents imprint’s mission statement is, in part, “to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage,” leading to the publication of novels like Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time and J.C. Cervantes’ The Storm Runner, and most recently joined by Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl (2019), a blend of Korean mythology and high-flying space opera adventure suited perfectly for middle-grade readers.
Our hero is 13-year-old Min, who lives in a small home on the dust-covered planet Jinju with her extended family, most of whom are female and all of whom are gumiho — fox-spirits with talents for various kinds of “trickster” magic, like Charm, which has a multitude of uses beyond shape-shifting and the manipulation of others’ emotions and perceptions. Min’s mother admonishes her to focus on practical skills like machine repair and household chores so that she can better blend in with the other settlers, but Min itches for any opportunity to let her natural gifts loose, especially when her many aunties and cousins make life too constricting.
One day, their home is visited by a man acting on behalf of the Thousand Worlds empire spread throughout the galaxy. He claims that Min’s older brother, Jun, has deserted his post aboard the Pale Lightning battle cruiser in search of the Dragon Pearl, a possibly-mythical object rumored to contain tremendous power. Min knows her brother would never do such a thing, however, and decides that the best way to clear her brother’s name is to run away from home and track him, and the Dragon Pearl, down. Along the way, she discovers hidden depths within herself, meets a variety of interesting people with their own supernatural heritages and abilities, and must make some difficult decisions which ultimately change the course of her life.
Min’s skilled at certain things like meditative trances for engineering purposes and the aforementioned repairs, and the occasions when she gets to put those practical skills to use in service to the story are some of the best moments in the novel. I enjoyed her gradual explorations of the limits of her Charm magic, and I thought Yoon’s reveals of what Charm could do on its own, with only a little input from Min, were creative and useful. As a kid, I would have loved every page of Dragon Pearl and would have stayed up all night to read it, gasping every time Min gets herself into an impossible situation and barely squeaks out of it only to find herself in another new jam a few chapters later, with each obstacle carefully placed in her path and then eventually removed thanks to judicious helpings of luck. As an adult, I was horrified by all the dangerous and reckless things Min does in her quest, and it drove me crazy how often she’s rewarded for that behavior. Ultimately, I completely understand the wish-fulfillment aspects of Dragon Pearl, and I adored the bond between Min and Jun, who read exactly like two close siblings (with all the love and bickering that can entail).
Yoon’s eventual explanation for how and why people and events are orchestrated in a particular way makes sense and went a long way toward mollifying my initial annoyance at the plot’s reliance on what appears to be happenstance. The storytelling style is slightly simplistic at first, but the concepts and emotions at play are complex and multi-faceted, and Yoon’s handling of inter-personal relationships and diversity, both of mythological species and gender identity, is to be applauded. One gets the impression that Min doesn’t have a lot of experience in dealing with people who aren’t her family, and her forays into friendship with Space Forces cadets Haneul, a dragon, and Sujin, a goblin, are ripe with opportunities for Min to make mistakes, to apologize, to grow, and to laugh.
Dragon Pearl is suffused with Korean mythology, cultures, people, language, and more in a way I’ve never seen before, and certainly not in a children’s book intended for mass publication. I loved the idea of a Korean-colonized collection of star systems, in which supernatural beings like dragons and goblins (dokkaebi) and tigers are allowed to take on human form and interact with humans, even lead them, putting their various abilities on display while gumiho are so mistrusted that they can’t live openly for fear of retribution. This is going to open up new interests and possibilities for kids who aren’t familiar with Korean culture, and I hope it’ll make lots of kids of Korean descent feel seen and included. The pronunciation guide at the back got a lot of use while I was reading my copy, and I’m grateful for its addition.
Currently, Dragon Pearl is intended as a stand-alone story, and ends in a way that satisfactorily ties up narrative threads while still leaving open the possibility for Yoon to create a series — or perhaps encourage young readers to write their own adventures for Min and Jun. Either way would make me very happy.