Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl is the upcoming title in Disney’s “Rick Riordan Presents” series for middle grade readers. I am, myself, the parent of a middle grade reader. We’ve had to have a number of difficult conversations lately—chores and homework, mostly—and I jumped at the chance to review the book in the hopes that offering her access to a pre-publication work with the word dragon in the title would help me score some cool points. Unfortunately for me, she thinks that reading a book before its release date means waiting longer than everyone else for the sequel. There is compelling evidence that she and I are related, but that is not it.
Typical middle grade space stories feature protagonists who leave familiar worlds (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) to have fabulous adventures that sometimes involve aliens, sometimes involve war, and sometimes are hilariously misguided parables about the power of international cooperation or justice or something. Dragon Pearl is neither a war story nor an alien story—it’s about people competing to find and control their society’s most important resource. It’s not a misguided parable either.
Dragon Pearl is a fun adventure. It rips and it snorts. Our protagonist, Min, and her family are Foxes—they usually choose to appear human, but have a “true form” that is fox-shaped and can also shapeshift into almost anything. At her mother’s insistence, Min has hidden her powers and her shapeshifting ability for most of her life. What is she doing instead? Fixing farm equipment, and sharing a bedroom with all of her cousins. When a military investigator delivers a mysterious letter from Min’s missing brother, she runs from home away to find him. The story borrows some beats from Star Wars—Min’s family relies on evaporators, they live on a desert planet, there’s a major scene in a casino that reminds me of Mos Eisley Cantina—but Lee gives each of these his own twist; Min’s experience with evaporators helps make her a talented engineer rather than a bored aspiring pilot, her family wants to transform the desert instead of escape it, and the casino’s morally ambiguous owner is also an estranged relative. Everything is connected to everything. Lee doesn’t talk about The Force, but energy flows and gi are important to the story.
Min is at that age where kids simultaneously feel highly competent—sometimes like the only competent person in the universe—and incredibly overwhelmed. In a lot of middle grade books, characters handle this contradiction by thinking and acting like 35-year-olds. Min is a very authentic young teenager, with all the impulsive willfullness that implies. She tends to blunder her way into situations, evaluate her mistakes, start to figure things out, and then blunder into something new. Min approaches her world with caution and cynicism; she often doesn’t understand what the adults around her are thinking, but she knows that she’s surrounded by people with questionable motives and that figuring out those motives is crucial to her own plans. Some adult readers might find Min trying. I think kids will find her sympathetic.
Min doesn’t stay anywhere for long. She makes some cool friends when she lingers—I especially like the goblin who conjures food with a magic spork—but the relentless pace of the story keeps us from spending too much time with anyone. Weirdly, my one complaint about the story is that it sometimes moves too fast. Slowing down the narrative might help readers understand Min better. We find out about her talent with repairing machines in the middle of a pitched space battle. If we had spent another chapter with Min before she ran away from home, she might not have to reminisce about her experience in evaporator repair while she fixes her ship’s life-support equipment. A little more focus in that moment might leave space for acknowledging Min’s fierceness. Min’s mother’s prohibition on shape-shifting and magic is part of her effort to protect her family from human prejudice against Foxes. What is that like? And how did Min get so good at using her powers?
Dragon Pearl resolves enough of its plot to work as a stand-alone story, but it leaves some tantalizing threads hanging for Min’s future. My fingers are crossed for a sequel.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.