Dragon Pearl is the sci-fi and fantasy mashup we need


In Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee creates a world that says magic and technology can co-exist without making it all feel forced.

As has been noted more than once in this writer’s life, it is entirely possible that though you may read both science fiction and fantasy, you might have a preference for one or the other. Whichever you like better is fine, but for those looking to split the difference, there’s not much better out there right now than Dragon Pearl, out today from Yoon Ha Lee and Rick Riordan Presents.

“But wait,” you might be saying to yourself, “isn’t that a kids’ book?”

To which there are only two responses: first, that the term is middle-grade, and second, if that matters to you, maybe you should stop watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, since that is also a “kids’ show.” Sometimes, there’s a comfort in reading outside your assigned genre, and sometimes, it can flat-out surprise you. Dragon Pearl is, in fact, a surprise in the best way.

To begin, Lee specializes in science fiction (if you’ve heard of him, it’s for Ninefox Gambit), but even that series had its own touches of vaguely magic-like systems. Here, Lee goes all in, making his lead character, Min, not only a fox spirit, but a fox spirit in a world where dragons, tigers, and goblins all co-exist with humans in a collective called the Thousand Worlds. Ships have their own meridian points and energy flows outside the normal scientific descriptions genre readers are accustomed to. But rather than play one up explicitly over the other, Lee just lets them blend together. Even as Min uses magic to get closer to where her brother was before he went missing, she’s pretending to be part of the Space Forces. There are space mercenaries, ghosts, and Gates, and Lee does take a bit to explain how those Gates and starships work in this universe that he’s built.

Like the other titles under the imprint (Aru Shah and the End of Time and The Storm Runner), the focus here is on a new mythology, but while both Aru Shah and Storm Runner felt more in the vein of the famous Percy Jackson series, Dragon Pearl is much more of its own thing, at least in presentation. Sure, there are lessons to be learned here — including not relying on one thing when you can use all the tools at your disposal — but because it feels so new otherwise, it’s much more capable of strong crossover appeal.

It’s also holding up the tradition of increasing representation. Sujin, one of the major supporting characters, uses they/them pronouns, and they’re explicitly referred to using those pronouns consistently. No one slips up. It’s just something that happens. Min casually mentions that most fox spirits choose to be female, but that others instead prefer to be male.

There are some weaknesses here. Early on, Lee effectively handwaves Charm to have all kinds of abilities, which, to be fair, does make sense after a brief look at gumiho mythology. They’re capable of basically everything Charm does, with the added bonus that the magic does extra work for Min in the story. There’s no requirement for hard and fast rules here, but it does clash slightly with the detail put into other explanations of both the scientific and fantastical elements of the story. It might seem minor, but because Charm is Min’s go-to for many things, it starts to become more obvious the further you get into the narrative.

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All in all, though, the Rick Riordan Presents imprint has put out decent to great titles thus far, but it’s Dragon Pearl that makes you really wonder just how far — and how fantastic — this lineup could really be. We can’t wait for Min’s next adventure.