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May 11, 2022

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao ~ a Review

by MK French

Zachary Ying's mother works hard and can't teach him about his Chinese heritage. All he learns at school are Western classics, so Zack is unprepared to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China in order to seal the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open. Unfortunately, the spirit binds to his AR set and botches the mission from the start. When Zack's mother's soul is stolen by demons, he must learn to wield the emperor's powers and search for artefacts. If he can't get this right, he loses his mother for good.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of middle grades novel Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
May 2022; Margaret K. McElderry Books
978-1665900706; audio, ebook, print (352 pages)
middle grades

Being Chinese among a lot of not Chinese people is difficult for Zack in the middle of the novel, something many minorities or mixed kids will feel and identify with immediately. He wants to make friends in his new middle school, talk about video games, and be seen as just one of the other kids. His ethnicity isn't something he can forget, not when the white kids joke about it around him and say being friends with him gives him "a free pass." This is of course the kid that becomes the avatar of a greedy spirit. Over the course of the novel, we find out more about the different cultures in China, the ethnic groups, and the way they're treated. Zack is Muslim, and not part of the dominant Han Chinese culture that usually comes to mind when people think of China.

Because Zachary doesn't know much about his Chinese heritage, he gets a crash course on the early history and what the first emperor's accomplishments were. By extension, so do we. I recognized the mention of the first woman emperor; she was the inspiration for Zhao's first book Iron Widow. (Amazing YA novel, look into it if you haven't already read it!) And we learn more as the novel progresses, because the driving force for the emperor spirits is legend magic: the strength and skills the spirits have is based on the stories told about them, and this can change over time and different versions of the stories. Because Zachary doesn't have much connection to the ancestor spirit and his heritage, he must find items that once were precious to his ancestor to truly bond with his magical ability. This means we get a chance to see modern China and learn about the past as well as the historical figures.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a wonderful middle-grade novel starring East Asian characters, as well as the history and legends surrounding the creation of the modern Chinese state. It's deftly done, and I look forward to reading more books in this series!

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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