Thirteen-year-old Min comes from a long line of fox spirits, but you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.
Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.
When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.
Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.
Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl—a space opera adventure with the underpinnings of Korean mythology—will transport you to a world far beyond your imagination. Available January 15th from Disney-Hyperion.
I almost missed the stranger’s visit that morning.
I liked to sleep in, though I didn’t get to do it often. Waking up meant waking early. Even on the days I had lessons, my mom and aunties loaded me down with chores to do first. Scrubbing the hydroponics units next to our dome house. Scrounging breakfast from our few sad vegetables and making sure they were seasoned well enough to satisfy my four aunties. Ensuring that the air filters weren’t clogged with the dust that got into everything.
I had a pretty dismal life on Jinju. I was counting the days until I turned fifteen. Just two more years left before I could take the entrance exams for the Thousand Worlds Space Forces and follow my brother, Jun, into the service. That was all that kept me going.
The day the stranger came, though—that day was different. I was curled under my threadbare blanket, stubbornly clinging to sleep even though light had begun to steal in through the windows. Then my oldest cousin Bora’s snoring got too loud to ignore. I often wished I had a room of my own, instead of sharing one with three cousins. Especially since Bora snored like a dragon. I kicked her in the side. She grunted but didn’t stir.
We all slept on the same shabby quilt, handed down from my ancestors, some of the planet’s first settlers. The embroidery had once depicted magpies and flowers, good-luck symbols. Most of the threads had come loose over the years, rendering the pictures illegible. When I was younger, I’d asked my mom why she didn’t use Charm to restore it. She’d given me a stern look, then explained that she’d have to redo it every day as the magic wore off—objects weren’t as susceptible to Charm as people were. I’d shut up fast, because I didn’t want her to add that chore to my daily roster. Fortunately, my mom disapproved of Charm in general, so it hadn’t gone any further.
All my life I’d been cautioned not to show off the fox magic that was our heritage. We lived disguised as humans and rarely used our abilities to shape-shift or Charm people. Mom insisted that we behave as proper, civilized gumiho so we wouldn’t get in trouble with our fellow steaders, planet-bound residents of Jinju. In the old days, foxes had played tricks like changing into beautiful humans to lure lonely travelers close so they could suck out their lives. But our family didn’t do that.
The lasting prejudice against us annoyed me. Other supernaturals, like dragons and goblins and shamans, could wield their magic openly, and were even praised for it. Dragons used their weather magic for agriculture and the time-consuming work of terraforming planets. Goblins, with their invisibility caps, could act as secret agents; their ability to summon food with their magical wands came in handy, too. Shamans were essential for communicating with the ancestors and spirits, of course. We foxes, though—we had never overcome our bad reputation. At least most people thought we were extinct nowadays.
I didn’t see what the big deal was about using our powers around the house. We rarely had company—few travelers came to the world of Jinju. According to legend, about two hundred years ago, a shaman was supposed to have finished terraforming our planet with the Dragon Pearl, a mystical orb with the ability to create life. But on the way here, both she and the Pearl had disappeared. I didn’t know if anything in that story was true or not. All I knew was that Jinju had remained poor and neglected by the Dragon Council for generations.
As I reluctantly let go of sleep that morning, I heard the voice of a stranger in the other room. At first I thought one of the adults was watching a holo show—maybe galactic news from the Pearled Halls—and had the volume turned up too high. We were always getting reports about raids from the Jeweled Worlds and the Space Forces’ heroic efforts to defend us from the marauders, even if Jinju was too far from the border to suffer such attacks. But the sound from our holo unit always came out staticky. No static accompanied this voice.
It didn’t belong to any of the neighbors, either. I knew everyone who lived within an hour’s scooter ride. And it wasn’t just the unfamiliarity of the voice, deep and smooth, that made me sit up and take notice. No one in our community spoke that formally.
Were we in trouble with the authorities? Had someone discovered that fox spirits weren’t a myth after all? The stranger’s voice triggered my old childhood fears of our getting caught.
“You must be misinformed.” That was Mom talking. She sounded tense.
Now I really started to worry.
“…no mistake,” the voice was saying. No mistake what? I had to find out more.
I slipped out from under the blanket, freezing in place when Bora grunted and flopped over. I bet starship engines made less racket. But if the stranger had heard Bora’s obnoxious noises, he gave no sign of it.
I risked a touch of Charm to make myself plainer, drabber, harder to see. Foxes can smell each other’s magic—one of my aunties described the sensation as being like a sneeze that won’t come out—but my mom might be distracted enough not to notice.
“How is this possible?” I heard Mom ask.
My hackles rose. She was clearly distressed, and I’d never known her to show weakness in front of strangers.
I tiptoed out of the bedroom and poked my head around the corner. There stood Mom, small but straight-backed. And then came the second surprise. I bit down on a sneeze.
Mom was using Charm. Not a lot—just enough to cover the patches in her trousers and the wrinkles in her worn shirt, and to restore their color to a richer green. We hadn’t expected visitors, especially anybody important. She wouldn’t have had time to dress up in the fine clothes she saved for special occasions. It figured she’d made an exception for herself to use fox magic, despite the fact that she chastised me whenever I experimented with it.
The stranger loomed over her. I didn’t smell any Charm on him, but he could have been some other kind of supernatural, like a tiger or a goblin, in disguise. It was often hard to tell. I sniffed more closely, hoping to catch a whiff of emotion. Was he angry? Frustrated? Did he detect Mom’s magic at all? But he held himself under such tight control that I couldn’t get a bead on him.
His clothes, finely tailored in a burnished-bronze-colored fabric, were all real. What caught my eye was the badge on the breast of his coat. It marked him as an official investigator of the Thousand Worlds, the league to which Jinju belonged. There weren’t literally a thousand planets in the league, but it encompassed many star systems, all answering to the same government. I’d never been off-world myself, although I’d often dreamed of it. This man might have visited dozens of worlds for his job, even the government seat at the Pearled Halls, and I envied him for it.
More to the point, what was an investigator doing here? I could only think of one thing: Something had happened to my brother, Jun. My heart thumped so loudly I was sure he and Mom would hear it.
“Your son vanished under mysterious circumstances,” the investigator said. “He is under suspicion of desertion.”
I gasped involuntarily. Jun? Deserting?
“That’s impossible!” Mom said vehemently. “My son worked very hard to get into the Space Forces!” I didn’t need my nose to tell me how freaked-out she was.
I remembered the way Jun’s face had lit up when he’d gotten the letter admitting him to the Academy. It had meant everything to him—he would never run off ! I bit the side of my mouth to keep from blurting that out.
The investigator’s eyes narrowed. “That may be, but people change, especially when they are presented with certain… opportunities.”
“Opportunities… ?” Mom swallowed and then asked in a small voice, What do you mean?”
“According to his captain’s report, your son left to go in search of the Dragon Pearl.”
I wasn’t sure which stunned me more: the idea of Jun leaving the Space Forces, or the fact that the Dragon Pearl might actually exist.
“The Pearl? How… ?” my mother asked incredulously. “No one knows where it—”
“The Dragon Council has made strides in locating it,” the investigator said, rudely cutting her off. “And they would pay handsomely to have it back in their possession. If he found it, your son could have found the temptation irresistible.…”
No. I knew my brother wouldn’t risk his career by trying to cash in an artifact, even one as renowned as the Dragon Pearl. Mom’s shoulders slumped. I wanted to tell her not to believe the investigator so readily. There had to be some other explanation.
“Jun is not here,” she said, drawing herself up again, “and we have not heard from him, either. I’m afraid we can’t help you.”
The man was not put off. “There is one matter you can assist us with,” he said. “Your son’s last report before he left— it included a message addressed to Min. I believe that’s your daughter?”
A shock went through me when he said my name.
“I have been sent here to show it to her. It may offer clues to Jun’s location—or the Pearl’s. Perhaps he wrote it in a code language only she would understand.”
“Again, I think you have the wrong impression of my son,” Mom said haughtily. “He is an honorable soldier, not a traitor.”
“So you say. But I am not leaving these premises until I have shown Min the message. Are you not curious to see his last communication?”
That did the trick.
“Min!” Mom called.
Excerpted from Dragon Pearl, copyright © 2018 by Yoon Ha Lee.