This is one of the best things I’ve ever read.
Dragon Pearl is a Korean-inspired space opera following a teenage fox spirit, set in a queer-inclusive universe. I can’t believe I almost didn’t read it just because it was middle grade; if I hadn’t loved Ninefox Gambit so much, I would have never picked it up, and that would have been such a mistake on my part. It is middle grade, that’s the target audience, but Dragon Pearl is the kind of book that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
I had almost forgotten that books could be so much fun. I read mostly upper YA and adult books, and many – though not all – are always trying to be dark and tense and serious while forgetting that without the light moments, nothing in them feels meaningful. That’s not to say that this book is all sunshine and happiness, because it’s not, but it understands balance and doesn’t throw unnecessary violence at you. It’s the kind of book about an adventure that you just can’t put down – it follows a young shapeshifting fox who is constantly trying to trick people, and I loved every moment of it. I would have loved this when I was twelve and I think I would love this again if I reread it in a few years. There are books I loved because I read them at the right time in my life, but this is the kind of book I would have loved no matter what.
Let’s talk about our trickster fox, Min. She’s the kind of character I would have wanted to be at twelve, and now I both admire her a lot and want to hug her. She’s just trying to find her lost, maybe-traitorous older brother back, and to do so, she’ll get in increasingly dangerous situations, with the help of her charm and her ability to shapeshift.
This is also the kind of book I needed but didn’t have when I was twelve. A middle grade book that not only has queer characters in it, its world is full of them: in Dragon Pearl, being non-binary is normal and people casually mention their polyamorous family. Also, foxes can choose what gender to present as in their human form, and Min says that she chose to be a girl… because of tradition. I love reading about societies whose views towards gender are different from the western human default.
(Min’s sexual orientation isn’t stated – there’s no romance and I loved that – but I will never assume that the default in a book written by Yoon Ha Lee is straight and neither should you!)
As I expected, I loved the writing. If you’re familiar with Ninefox Gambit and you’re worried it will get as complicated as that (I love complicated! But not everyone does), this is much more accessible and the worldbuilding is still wonderful and complex. It’s a story set in space which has exactly what I love about Lee’s worlds: technology, magic and the characters’ beliefs are linked, the lines between them always blurred. You get something that feels a bit like science, a bit like religion, a bit like magic, and yet different from all of them.
I never struggled to understand how things looked like. And from dangerous gambling parlors to spaceships and halfway-terraformed, dusty planets, everything about this book was beautiful.
I also really liked reading about the side characters – Jang, the ghost of the cadet Min is impersonating at some point, her friends, the female dragon Haneul and the non-binary dokkaebi Suijin, and even Min’s own brother Jun, when I got to meet him. This is officially the first time I liked the “main character goes on an adventure to rescue sibling” trope, because I actually ended up caring about said sibling. He was an amazing fox too.
Also, that ending? I almost cried. Of happiness.
My rating: ★★★★★