Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, the most recent book from Rick Riordan Presents, takes Korean mythology on a wild adventure in space, and it’s tremendously fun!
Min is a 13-year-old girl living on a backwater planet that never got completely terraformed, who happens to be a shapeshifting fox. Foxes like Min and her family have a bad reputation for being untrustworthy, so Min’s mother makes it clear that the family must keep a low profile. Min isn’t allowed to use any of her fox magic of charm, the tricky persuasion power of foxes, though she does use her shapeshifting magic, which allows her to change into just about anything. Though she bends her mother’s rules when she feels like it, her life is a monotonous round of chores, sprinkled with annoying cousins.
Then a government agent arrives at the family farm. Min’s older brother, Jun, a cadet in the Space Force, has apparently deserted his ship and gone in search of the legendary Dragon Pearl. The Dragon Pearl uses the elemental magic of dragons to terraform planets, and it’s just what Min’s barely habitable home world needs! But the agent’s visit goes wrong when Min loses her temper, sheds her disguise (a table) and hits him over the head with a saucepan.
Staying at home and facing the music isn’t appealing, and Min sets out to find her brother. Her fox charm comes in handy in the big city, helping her finagle her way onto a spaceship. When the ship is attacked by space pirates, in a stroke of good luck for Min, it’s rescued by the very ship on which her brother was stationed.
Jing, a young cadet killed in the encounter, lets her take on his form with her fox magic. Now Min must use all the magic and cunning at her disposal (which is considerable) to pass as a 16-year-old boy who actually knows what he’s doing on board a spaceship. Fortunately, Jing had two good friends who are there to help her out, not realizing she’s deceiving them. They are great characters—a dragon girl and a non-binary goblin with a snack-conjuring spork and other magics, and they lighten the tension lots.
This is a good thing, because the tension keeps building. Now, on top of her own hunt for information about her brother and the Dragon Pearl., Min has to keep her promise to Jing’s ghost, and solve the mystery behind his death. The warship, captained by a shapeshifting tiger, is full of secrets and lies, and there is danger both without and within its hull, both to Min and to the thousand planets…And Min’s journey takes her and her friends head right to the most haunted planet in the galaxy, a place whose people died in a horrible plague long ago. There’s a lot happening, but it all makes sense, and all the adventures and dangers lead briskly to the final confrontation.
Min may not be a role model for principled rule following, but her brash fearlessness drives this story beautifully! As more and more tangles to her brother’s story emerge, and the stakes get higher, she starts to rely less on her magic and more on her intelligence, and her friends, in a nice bit of character growth. Her fox magic, and the magic of other supernatural types of persons, both living and dead, drawn from the rich well of Korean mythology, are seamlessly interwoven with the science fiction story of danger on board a spaceship in a vast network of planets, making this a truly delightful read for fans of every age!