Title: Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor
Author: Xiran Jay Zhao
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication Date: May 10th, 2022
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
A middle grade contemporary fantasy that follows a young boy as he journeys across China to seal the underworld shut and save the mortal realm.
Zachary Ying never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.
The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.
And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.
CW: racism, mentions of Chinese govt’s brutal oppression of ethnic minorities
Would I have read this middle grade action adventure novel if not for the author being Xiran?? Probably not. I only finished the Aru Shah series because it’s inspired from my favorite childhood stories and I truly didn’t have any interest in checking out more middle grade novels. But I fell in love with Iron Widow and then Xiran’s fantastic YouTube channel, so I was ofcourse gonna read whatever they write next, even if it turned out to be MG. And this was a total riot.
To be honest, I’m just glad I’ve watched some cdramas, brushed up on a bit of Chinese history, and watched all of Xiran’s videos diligently in the past year or so, because otherwise the experience of reading this book wouldn’t be the same. I’m not saying that you won’t enjoy the book if you don’t know the history – you still will because the story is written in such a way that everything that needs to be learnt is told in an organic way and you learn it along with the main character. But if you do know some little history and pop culture tidbits, it just makes you feel more excited and in the know. The magic system is also very interesting because it’s based on myths and legends and how much people believe in them. The writing is fun and quirky and full of banter, and the action starts right from chapter one, so there’s not much here to get bored. We are always on the move with the characters, going on heists and summoning legendary historical or mythical figures and just overall having fun all throughout.
While all the fun parts should be great for the age group of readers for whom this book is written for, I think what I loved was how many themes the author tackled while never letting it get too heavy and in the way of the fun. The one thing this book definitely is is a story of being part of a diaspora, unable to feel like you belong anywhere, not knowing much about the place where your family comes from but also being othered in the place you live. Our main character’s struggles are also amplified because he is from an ethnic minority in China and Muslim who are being oppressed in the mainland, but for the Americans around him, he is just another outsider Chinese boy. But while he goes on his journey to save China, he not only gets to know more about his culture and heritage, he is also able to confront the reality of wanting to be proud of his culture, but also understanding the brutality of the government against his people. But this story is not just about him finding his own way through his heritage. This is also about the perils of power and authority, how power can corrupt anyone, and how the myths and legends we get to know might not always have a basis in truth. We can never be sure about the truth behind who is hailed and who is vilified in our historical texts, because it all depends on who’s writing the stories. And finally, there’s quite a bit of contemplation here about what makes a good leader and how the ones we think we know the truth about can contain multitudes.
Zachary Ying or Zack is a twelve year old who just wishes that he could have friends with whom he can be himself and not trash his mother’s lunches because his friends think he smells. He is struggling for belonging but he finds all the love he needs from his mom, who had to escape from oppression but works hard to ensure her son leads a better and safe life. He is overwhelmed with his sudden circumstances but he is also ready to do anything to save his mom. While he slowly gains power and gets to understand what being powerful means, he also experiences betrayals and untruths and has to decide for himself what he wants to believe in and how he wants to save China. He is very easy to empathize with and I loved following along his journey, seeing him grow and understand his priorities.
He is supported in his adventures mainly by the spirit of the first emperor of China, Qin ShiHuang, who has possessed his gaming lenses. Famously known as a tyrant, there are many legends associated with him and Zack gets to know him and his history slowly. It was actually quite fun to understand the stories about the historical figure and reconciling that with his spirit which has had thousands more years of evolution and might not be so tyrannical anymore. But he can be pompous and full of himself, so it was interesting to get to see all sides of him and how he reacts to the various good and bad legends that have formed around him. Zack is also supported in his mission to save China by two mainlander kids of his age, Simon and Melissa but I don’t wanna give away which emperors they are being possessed by because that was a lovely surprise. I just wanna say that I loved their budding friendship, especially Zack and Simon, because Simon is the history nerd who takes it upon himself to educate Zack. And it was also nice to see Zack be freer among people of his own age. Ofcourse, we also get to meet many other historical figures, especially the comrades and enemies of these emperors as well as some other mythical and legendary figures, and I was especially excited whenever someone showed up whose story I already knew a bit.
To conclude, what more can I say. If you’ve enjoyed reading Percy Jackson, Aru Shah or other middle grade adventure stories featuring mythological figures, then this is a perfect book for you. It’s fast paced, action packed, full of history and pop culture info without ever feeling too overwhelming, and characters who are very entertaining to engage with. If you have any interest in Chinese dynastic history, you really will find this a lot of fun. And if you’ve read Iron Widow, then be prepared for some delightful surprises.
PS: Thank you so much to Colored Pages Tours for providing me with the opportunity to participate in this book tour. Also thanks to Simon and Schuster Children’s and Xiran Jay Zhao for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.
XIRAN JAY ZHAO (they/them) is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series. A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were raised by the internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead. You can find them @XiranJayZhao on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, TikTok for fun short videos, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is their first middle-grade novel and is the first installment in a planned trilogy.