Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
Min is a fox—a shapeshifter with the power to take the form of nearly anything (even inanimate objects, though it comes at a cost), and also exude magical charm, handy at persuading others (as wiley foxes do). Despite this inherent coolness, Min and her family's standing as foxes marks them as the lowest of the low, even on the outer rim planet of Jinju—a rock with a botched terraforming job and never enough food or resources to go around. Foxes are tricksters and regarded as untrustworthy by humans and other supernaturals, so for her entire life, Min has had to hide her true nature (and is never supposed to use her charm to take advantage of others). For the most part, Min follows her mother's rules—and performs an endless stream of chores when she breaks them.
But one day, an official Space Forces investigator shows up at Min's house with the news that her straight-laced older brother Jun has gone AWOL—in search of the fabled dragon pearl, rumor has it. Min, who has wanted nothing more than to escape Jinju and have grand adventures with her brother as Space Force officers, immediately suspects that something else must be going on—and so she runs away, and starts putting all her fox-magic to use in order to find her brother.
Min's adventures take her through the seedier side of Jinju and to the stars beyond, where she's nearly killed by ruthless bandits, finds her brother's Space Forces ship, and is forced to impersonate another young cadet using the full extent of her fox-magic. Something is wrong with the story everyone tells her about her brother, and Min will stop at nothing to get him back—even if it means looking for the dragon pearl herself.
It has been a while since I've read a middle grade novel, and reading Dragon Pearl, I'm reminded of why I love this category so much. There's so much room for adventure and death-defying high stakes without any of the excessive page-bloat in MG SFF! And Yoon Ha Lee's first foray into the field is an absolute winner (not that I should have expected anything different, given the author’s awesome track record with the Ninefox Gambit books).
Dragon Pearl is everything that I want in a sci-fi adventure story (for a reader of any age): it's smart, fast-paced, and balanced nuanced world building with solid characterizations and exciting capers spanning different planets, space ships (and space ship battles), and supernatural twists. I especially loved the world building and the different look at what science fiction—with space ships and gate jumps—can be when rooted in a Korean pantheon that runs on magic and luck, and whose characters eat gimchi in outer space.
This holds for characters in Dragon Pearl, too. Min is a thirteen year old, masquerading as a sixteen year old boy for most of the novel, and faces several identity and soul-searching questions about her own motivations and desires. She’s a kid who relies entirely too much on her magic (especially early on), but over time learns that her innate supernatural abilities—while powerful and certainly important in forming her identity—is not the only tool she has at her disposal. Min gradually grows from impulsive, slightly whiny self-focused narration to a more empathetic, conscious young person—that’s a hard thing to do in the span of a couple hundred pages. I also appreciated that Min’s cohorts include other similarly nuanced characters—two of Min’s best friends in Space Force include a female dragon and a nonbinary goblin. Instead of facing sexism or gender identity discrimination, the supernatural characters in this novel face a different type of distrust and xenophobia—”normal” humans don’t trust supernaturals, and Min becomes even more familiar with the types of judgement her kind faces when masquerading as a human cadet.
The only negative in Dragon Pearl is the forced, awkward simplistic writing style, which is particularly jarring early on in the book (especially as I’ve read and love Lee’s style in adult fiction). There are several exclamation points! And repetitive stilted sentences. Still, Dragon Pearl shines with originality, and I cannot recommend it enough.
In Book Smugglerish, 8 goblin-conjured magical chocolate candy treats out of 10.