by Yoon Ha Lee
I don’t usually read Middle Grade books, but this was the May novel for a book club I'm part of on Goodreads and I’m starting to collect books for my daughter to read when she's older. I am especially looking for chapter books that have well-developed female characters and interesting themes/concepts.
Dragon Pearl fits those two requirements!
The story is about 13-year-old Min, living on a backwater planet, who is informed her older brother has gone AWOL from the space cadets in order to search for a mystical object called the Dragon Pearl. Min runs away to try and find him, using her "fox" magic powers (the ability to transform her appearance and to charm people) as tools to get where she needs to go. Her adventure is part duty to her brother and part a journey of self-discovery.
The main character, Min, is an impulsive girl who is brave and resourceful. She makes mistakes (some physical, like leaving her go-bag in a restaurant, and some moral, like using her powers to manipulate people), but overall, I liked her plucky spirit and resolve. She grows as a person through the course of the novel, which is the most important thing for a kid’s book. The other characters aren't very fleshed out, but for a kid's book they serve their purpose.
The mysticism of the Dragon Pearl universe is based on Korean mythology. I don’t know a lot (ok, anything) about that topic, but that made the story even more interesting to me. If I’d read this when I was 15-21 (as during those ages I was working at a video store owned by a Korean couple), it would have spurred me to ask my bosses more about their culture.
I wish there was a bit more focus on the political structure of the galaxy, but that might be boring for younger readers. I did like how Min’s family live on an impoverished, poorly terra-formed world – that was an interesting concept.
One thing that I really wish was better explained was the military set-up. If kids can join the space forces at 15, are they forgoing their education? And the kids do mention being worried about being court martialed and executed, but I don’t believe a government would allow children to be treated like that, especially since a cadet is not really in the armed forced yet. Even now you can be tried as an adult, sure, but that’s for heinous violent crimes or if you’re almost 18.
The approach to gender in the novel is wonderful. One of the main characters uses gender-neutral pronouns and there were women in the upper ranks of the military and as part of mercenary groups. I can’t say enough how refreshing that was, especially for a book aimed at kids.
In terms of the plot, I found it quite compelling. I love military science-fiction, so was not disappointed when that became a major focus of the novel. I found the plot moved at a sensible pace – while there were moments when Min took a breather, I never felt like she was forgetting her mission to find her brother. The end result was realistic and heartfelt, something I always appreciated when I was kid. It’s a bittersweet ending for Min in most regards.
Overall, while certain things could have been tightened up or more details were needed in other areas, this was a compelling, enjoyable space opera that I can’t wait to read again with my daughter in 6-8 years.