Science fiction mixes with Korean mythology in this book by acclaimed adult SF writer Yoon Ha Lee. Of course I had to read it!
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee. Read by Kim Mai Guest. Rick Riordan Presents/Listening Library, 2019.
13-year-old Min has grown up on the dusty, backwater planet of Jinju, trained not to use her forbidden fox magic, which gives her the power of transformation. She idolized her older brother, Jun, who joined the Space Forces and hoped to find something to bring back to improve the planet for its impoverished residents. So when an investigator shows up at their house claiming that he deserted, Min is shocked enough not only to reveal her powers but to attack the investigator.
Determined to prove his innocence, Min runs away and joins the Space Forces herself, using the form of a recently deceased ghost she meets on board ship (this is vastly simplifying her getting here!) The ghost is understandably upset to be dead and wanting answers, so Min has to try to investigate that mystery as well as finding out the truth about what happened to her brother.
Both answers are bound together with the possibly mythical, possibly real Dragon Pearl, which could make rich worlds richer, save Jinju, or destroy worlds, depending on who’s wielding it. The adventures and close escapes fill up most of the story, though there’s still some time for introspection and trying to make friends with the best friends of the person she’s impersonating – naturally fraught! Kim Mai Guest as narrator reads expressively, with fluid pronunciation of both English and Korean.
This had so many elements that I look for in a book that I should have loved it. Somehow, it fell a little flat for me – maybe because (spoiler alert) Min’s brother turns out to be dead, but it’s still treated like it should be a happy ending. Probably partly also the usual problem I have with Riordan-style books, of things just moving too quickly. This is reminding me, though, that I should finish reading Yoon Ha Lee’s adult sci-fi trilogy, whose opening book, Ninefox Gambit, I very much enjoyed.
Here are some other Korean-American speculative fiction books for kids I’ve enjoyed: