June 25, 2024

REVIEW Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: May 10, 2022
Format: eBook + Audiobook (Personal Library)
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books 

Xiran Jay Zhao’s Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor was an amazing middle grade debut. Akin to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series or The Kane Chronicles series meeting Yu-gi-oh, a young Chinese American boy’s life is changed forever when he discovers he is the descendant of the first emperor of China. 

This book is full of mythology, history and adventure. The author does a great job of weaving historical facts from the history of China in with the more fantastical elements (i.e. how every time a story gets told about them and added to their legend, the emperors and other spirits ‘power up’). I really appreciated how the author made things accessible and understandable for those who might not be familiar with Chinese history (both ancient and modern), as readers get to learn a lot of the stories at the same time Zachary does. It was also fun to see how modern technology played a role in the book (the first emperor botches his attempt to possess Zachary, and is now bound to his video game headset). The video game-esque fight scenes were quite amusing to read, and added a bit of a lighter tone to help balance the darker themes the author touches on in the book. China has a complex history, and the author does not shy away from criticizing some of the government’s past failings as well as their more recent ones while at the same time highlighting some of the things they love about their culture. 

The characters were quite compelling. As a second generation child of China (who has immigrated to the US), Zachary struggles with his identity. He distances himself from his heritage in an attempt to fit in, and his burgeoning feelings towards other boys don’t help either. As a middle-grade novel main character, he was very relatable. Despite his love of video games, he never asked to be a hero or to be caught up in some quest to ‘supposedly’ save the world. He has a developing sense of right and wrong (which comes to play later in the book), and at the end of the day he just wants to save his mom. 

Overall, this was a great read and I’m excited to see more set in this world (It’s written such that it implies a sequel, but there has been no word as to when that will be released). If you or a young reader in your life enjoys action packed middle grade reads complete with fantasy, mythology, and adventure, this would be a great choice. 

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