A prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, Yoon Ha Lee’s short stories and novels are widely acclaimed—his debut novel was even nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award. In Dragon Pearl, however, Lee strayed from his comfort zone of adult fiction in order to cater to a very different (and very specific) audience.
“I wanted this book to be for my daughter,” says Lee, whose daughter he describes as a big fan of Rick Riordan’s various middle-grade series. Dragon Pearl will be the third novel published under Riordan’s imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, which was founded with the express purpose of showcasing "diverse, mythology-based fiction by new, emerging, and under-represented authors.”
“That was one of the things that attracted me to Rick's imprint,” Lee explains, “that he was opening up the space and promoting cultures that are not necessarily the default Western theme you see in science fiction and fantasy.” Setting himself against that traditional approach—and against another historic limitation within the genre, its overt reliance on male protagonists—Lee set out to tell a female-driven space opera grounded in Korean mythology.
Min is still a young teenager living with her family on an impoverished world when news arrives that her older brother is suspected of having deserted the Space Force. She quickly realizes that there’s more to the story than is being told, and so she decides to travel off Jinju and track him and the truth down. While such a perilous journey is made easier by the fact that she’s a fox spirit—a supernatural being capable of transforming her body into anything—it’s still far more challenging than anything she’s been up against yet in her short life.
For most American readers, the word “mythology” likely conjures up images of gods like Apollo, Zeus, and Odin. But those aren’t the deities Lee, who spent his childhood years in South Korea, grew up learning about. “There are some godlike figures, but mostly what it is is a bunch of shape-shifting tigers who are out to eat your grandma,” he adds with a laugh.
Min’s journey takes her across the universe, to the ship her brother supposedly abandoned. Along the way she makes new friends, meets old family, and crosses paths with a dazzling array of supernaturals, ghosts, and ancient powers. Yet despite the beauty and depth the Korean legends and history add to the story, Lee admits that for a long time, it didn’t occur to him to include elements from his own heritage in his writing.
That began to change, however, a few years ago as Lee watched a debate unfolding online around the diversity of stories being told in science fiction and fantasy. “I had this kind of really obvious realization, of, Hey, I'm not white, I don't have to write about white characters.” Prior to that, his work had revolved mostly around white characters because that was the “role model” within the genre. That’s what he himself had grown up reading.
Thankfully, things are changing. Realizing the appetite for diverse storytelling, publishers are reacting accordingly, especially in literature aimed at younger audiences. “I really hope that people who read this book are inspired to see what else is out there, because the diversity in voices, from disabled characters to characters with different body types, different sexualities, ethnicities, religions—it’s really reassuring.”
James Feder is a writer based in Tel Aviv.