I got two chapters into this book and I knew it was going to be a new favourite. I’m a huge, huge Percy Jackson fan, so I was nervous and excited when I heard this book hyped as Chinese Percy Jackson meets Yugioh. I shouldn’t have been nervous, Xiran Jay Zhao writes perfect books and I was wrong to doubt them. ZACHARY YING AND THE DRAGON EMPEROR is my new middle-grade obsession and I need everyone to read this immediately.
About the book:
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.
What did I think?
I went into this book mostly blind. I was loosely aware of the concept but was largely trusting the fact that I love Xiran Jay Zhao’s writing and their character-driven style makes me fall in love immediately. ZACHARY YING was no exception to this. It’s safe to say that I’ll read anything that they write. I wish that middle-grade stories like this were around when I was a kid, and I can’t wait to read this series to my nieces one day. The audiobook is a fantastic performance, and the narrator did a great job bringing all the characters to life. I listened to the whole thing in one sitting.
There was a lot of information in this book, introducing us to the mechanics of the Yugioh-inspired magic system and the historical figures who would be the main characters in Zachary’s story. I don’t know much about Chinese mythology and history, but I managed to keep up easily. Zachary doesn’t know much about Chinese history either, so the explanations given to him helped me understand what was going on without feeling like the information was overwhelming. I think that the comparison to Percy Jackson is very well placed, it has the same magical feeling and sense of found family between the main characters. I hope that the rest of the series delves further into their characterisation and lets us see their friendships grow stronger. We had some morally-grey characters and I loved that we had complex heroes that weren’t all good and villains that weren’t all bad.
The magical powers are invoked by calling on well-known pieces of history relating to each figure, whether real or mythological, and that the powers were associated with their legends. It was a very easy-to-digest way of approaching what could be quite dense historical explanations. Zack’s father was killed for speaking out against the Chinese regime, and I really liked the way that the book balanced his feelings about this and the realities of the Chinese government’s genocide against people, including Hui and Uighut Muslims, with Zack getting to know his heritage. It’s a complicated balance to make, especially considering that the book is written for a middle-grade audience. It was masterfully done and I am ever amazed at Xiran Jay Zhao’s ability to pull off both technical writing and ridiculous creativity in one package.
Release Date: 10th May 2022