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{May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month}

I picked up Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl because I love what the Rick Riordan Imprint is doing: publishing authors of diverse cultural backgrounds who are drawing from mythology/lore rarely seen in young reader’s fiction. And his selections have been fantastic thus far. I also picked up Dragon Pearl because I was intrigued by the premise of taking Korean mythology and fox magic into space. It works so beautifully, and makes so much sense.

Dragon-Pearl.2Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

Rick Riordan Presents, 2019. Hardcover, 312 pages.

Includes Pronunciation guide; which is useful to reference as you go along.

Middle grade, Science Fiction Fantasy. Ages 8-12

Min is just your average teenage fox spirit, living with her family on the dusty backwater planet of Jinju. Oh, sure, like all foxes, she can shape-shift into whatever she wants: human, animal, even a dining room table. And yes, she has the power to Charm—to manipulate human emotions and make people see things that aren’t there. But that’s not very exciting when you’re stuck in a small dome house, sleeping every night in a crowded common room with your snoring cousins, spending every day fixing condensers in the hydroponics unit. Min years to join the Space Forces like her older brother Jun did—to see the Thousand Worlds and have marvelous adventures!—Rick Riordan’s intro “A Thousand Dangerous Worlds”

Thirteen-year-old Min (meen) is a fox in female human form on unfinished planet where she is encouraged to stick to her human form and keep her fox magic a secret. If she were a Shaman, Celestial Maiden, Dragon or Goblin she probably wouldn’t be living on Jinju to begin with, but she certainly would possibly be viewed with less suspicion.

“Mom insisted that we behave as proper, civilized gumiho so we wouldn’t get in trouble with our fellow steaders, planet-bound residents of Jinju. In the old days, foxes had played tricks like changing into beautiful humans to lure lonely travelers close so they could suck out their lives. But our family didn’t do that” (4).

Min’s magic allows her to shape shift and charm others. Her capability for deception is pretty remarkable. She’s also intelligent, an adept mechanic, and Min’s determination is profound, compelling.

Sure Min is eager to follow her brother Jun into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds. She’s done with a household packed with aunts, cousins, chores, and secrecy. But when a stranger comes with news that her brother has deserted his posting, she knows something is wrong. She is certain that one: she is the only one who believes her brother’s innocence, and two: she is the only one to prove it. Min just needs to sneak off-planet and find him.

Min’s exit plan is not fully formed, nor does she make it off-planet without issue. She is pressed for time and her magic is still gaining strength and skill. Fortunately, she happens to arrive at the space station from where her brother deserted. Unfortunately, it was not without peril. And if we were thinking nothing is at stake in this young reader’s novel, we learn that a young cadet was killed in the process.

Yoon Ha Lee does a couple of things in the story that impresses me. The world-building involves more than just populating it with supernatural creatures from mythology, the lore is built into the world’s very fabric and its technologies (143).

According to the old lore, energy flows could bring whole civilizations to ruin or grant good fortune. Just like you could have flows of good or bad luck in a room, depending on how furniture and ornaments were arranged, there could be flows of good or bad luck across star systems and beyond. The Thousand Worlds hadn’t yet gotten to the point where we could rearrange the stars for own benefit, but I’d heard that some of the more ambitious dragon masters dreamed of making that happen. (142)

The author isn’t afraid of nuance. Few, if any character, is glowingly good or evil. Our protagonist is the epitome of questionable decisions based in admirable intentions. She is going to have to deceive people, and make deals that appropriately complicate matters. Which leads me back around to that young cadet—Jang—a young person killed in the course of the novel, a situation Yoon Ha Lee is hardly gratuitous with, just realistic about, and it heightens the stakes. Even so, we only really know Jang as a vengeful ghost, and the reality that not all characters will live is delayed for more pressing matters.

Ghosts have familiar capabilities in Dragon Pearl, but paired with Min’s ability to shapeshift, we get a convenient but not flawless means for Min to investigate her brother’s situation. She’s able to learn more about her brother’s reputation and situation, and that the hunt for the Dragon Pearl continues. Part of the complication comes in the form of fellow cadets Haneul (hah-nool), a dragon cadet using her pronouns, and Sujin (soo-jeen), a goblin (dokkaebi) cadet using them pronouns. Min makes her first friends (outside of family)—as both herself and Jang.

 

Through Min’s fellow cadets, we learn the unique abilities other supernatural have and how natural it’s incorporation can be and how useful it is corporately. Min learns to navigate life as a cadet, which will involve a lot of scrubbing toilets. But she is familiar with chores; she is skilled at troubleshooting; she has a quick mind for certain tasks.

Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t create their hero out of thin air, or even convenience. We come to be reminded that what we know is only what Min knows, thinks, believes. And just because she have convinced herself of something, it doesn’t mean that it is true. The use of shape-shifting and limited perception strengthens thematically as the novel continues and we try to navigate folk’s intentions and facades. Some fox spirits do lure humans to their doom (gambling).

Some characters will not surprise us—not in the end—and that smug feeling distracts from the more surprising revelations—which maybe aren’t so surprising. Yoon Ha Lee does not create conflict or solutions out of thin air either. They are willing to go to some difficult places narratively, but it is ultimately rewarding. Plans do not run smoothly, not everyone can be easily anticipated, and resolutions will cost our protagonist, others, and the reader (I cried). I can’t wait to read the next installment.

Min is a force of nature, as is her adventure to rescue both her brother and herself. The Dragon Pearl is an object that may be initially perceived as an innocuous excuse for an adventure, but it has serious political dimensions: power and survival. And I suppose Yoon Ha Lee’s novel could be read with depths unplumbed, but lines like “Due to lasting prejudice, they have to hide their true identity.” And “It was easier to design starships to human shapes and sizes and have everyone else adapt,” makes the novel’s conversation rich and relevant. Too, the ideas of sacrifice: which ones are noble and which ones are needless?

Dragon Pearl is fun, imaginative, and compelling. It also carries a good kind of weight in its dialog, characterization, and world-building. It would make for a great book club choice with its broad appeal. Dragon Pearl is also a great way to lure Fantasy readers into the Science Fiction genre to experience the space opera; I’m looking at you Harry Potter and Percy Jackson fandoms.

 

Yoon Ha Lee is the author of several critically acclaimed short stories and the Machineries of Empire trilogy for adults. Yoon draws inspiration from a variety of sources, e.g. Korean history and mythology, fairy tales, higher mathematics, classic moral dilemmas, and genre fiction

The Riordan Imprint’s page for the novel, where I retrieved character images of Haneul, Sujin, and Min respectively.

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