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Foxes, Dragons, Tigers, Goblins, and Angry Ghosts: Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl


Foxes, Dragons, Tigers, Goblins, and Angry Ghosts: Yoon Ha Lee&#8217;s <i>Dragon Pearl</i>

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Foxes, Dragons, Tigers, Goblins, and Angry Ghosts: Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl


Published on March 20, 2023


Way back in the day, an editor who was among the Great Old Ones said to me, “Fantasy readers are OK with science fiction in their fantasy. But science fiction readers aren’t too fond of fantasy in their science fiction.” That was hard wisdom for my happy genre-bending self, but at the time, it was the way.

I’m sure there are still many readers who want their science served straight, no chaser—and there are plenty of books and stories that give them what they love. But I am really liking the mix of genres that I’m seeing in certain quarters. Space opera is great fun anyway. Add a dose of supernatural and we’re in for a grand ride.

We’ve seen werewolves in space with a Southeast Asian flair. Yoon Ha Lee gives us a range of Korean shapeshifters in his series for younger readers. The first volume, Dragon Pearl, stars a fox spirit named Min and an assortment of other supernaturals and shifters, including a dragon, a tiger, and a goblin.

Min lives with her mother and her aunties and cousins on one of the poorer of the Thousand Worlds. Jinju is a dusty, barely habitable, incompletely terraformed planet. Min’s family are fox spirits, but her mother insists that they restrict themselves to human form and human capabilities. Unlike dragons and tigers and other supernaturals, fox spirits are not considered respectable; it’s safer not to let anyone know what they are.

Min’s brother Jun has dreamed his whole life of exploring the Thousand Worlds. Not long before the novel begins, he became a cadet in the space force. Now he’s missing, presumed to have deserted, and an inspector has come to interrogate the family. He brings a message from Jun to Min, a brief missive that tells Min more than she’s willing to divulge to the stranger.

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Dragon Pearl
Dragon Pearl

Dragon Pearl

Min sets off to find her brother and the treasure he’s supposed to have been looking for when he disappeared: the Dragon Pearl. This object has the power to terraform a planet in moments instead of years. Jun would be hoping to bring it back to Jinju and finish the job the terraformers left undone.

She’s uniquely qualified for the search, between her ability to shapeshift into any living creature or inanimate object, her natural talent for mechanical engineering, and her power to Charm others into doing and seeing whatever she wants. She tricks and shifts her way off planet and onto her brother’s ship, where she impersonates one of the cadets—just for starters. By the time she’s done, she’s been everything from a dining table to a tiger shifter, and she’s discovered considerably more than the Dragon Pearl and the fate of her brother.

Min is a classic clever teen. She makes up her mind to save the family and not so incidentally the world, and she uses every scrap of knowledge and talent she has. She feels guilty about how many lies she has to tell and how many tricks she has to play on people she comes to care about, but she does her best to navigate the moral minefield without doing too much permanent harm. She has the best of intentions, and a fair amount of empathy, which serves her well, mostly.

It’s not easy being a fox spirit in a universe that accepts the existence of supernatural creatures—ghosts as well as shapeshifters—but regards foxes with mistrust. They’re a little too clever and a little too tricky. But Min proves her worth against some powerful opposition.

I love the reach and scope of a universe that includes both fox spirits and starships. Science and magic coexist. Ships run on gi (perhaps more familiar to Western readers as chi) as well as machinery and software. A ghost can haunt a ship and mess up its gi, and a tiger shifter can become a starship captain. Space cadets are mostly human, but dragons and goblins and celestial maidens can sign on, too.

Default mode in this universe is human form. That’s presented as a matter of efficiency. It’s easier to design a starship around a particular shape and size of creature. Foxes and goblins in their natural forms run smaller, tigers larger, and dragons are huge. But when they’re all in human shape, they fit into a reasonable range.

There are indications of what they are. The goblin has a horn on their forehead. The dragon’s hair has a blue sheen, and she often moves in an aura of wind and seas. The tiger is large, formidable, and has a deep, growly voice.

Min is the least detectable of the shifters. She’s also the most versatile, with the greatest ability to transform. The only way really to tell what she is is to catch her in a mistake, or to provoke her into breaking cover.

As superpowers go, fox powers are seriously cool. Everything is a matter of choice, including gender. Min opts to present as female, because tradition. Jun chooses to be male. I’m sure there are foxes who run a gamut in between—the goblin is a “they;” it makes sense that foxes might make that choice, too.

There is a cost, of course, or it would be too easy. Staying for long periods in a form not her own can wear Min down and mess up her head. At times she has to work to remember who she actually is. There are layers to that, too: when commanded to show herself in her native form, she defaults to human. It takes her a minute to remember that she’s really a fox.

N0 matter what shape she wears, she’s still the same clever, well-meaning, basically compassionate individual. She loves her family, especially her brother. She wants to help people. She tries to make her world a better place to live in. She’s not greedy or cruel at all, and she plays her tricks with the best of intentions. She’s a good person.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks. She’s written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

About the Author

Judith Tarr


Judith Tarr has written over forty novels, many of which have been published as ebooks, as well as numerous shorter works of fiction and nonfiction, including a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has a Patreon, in which she shares nonfiction, fiction, and horse and cat stories. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a pair of Very Good Dogs.
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