Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
Published May 10th 2022 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Age Range: Middle Grade
Representation: Muslim Hui Chinese MC, Miao Chinese SC, Chinese SC, LGBT
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.
Right off the bat, we meet Zachary Ying. Our main character is one of the, if not the only, Asian students in his school, and is desperately trying to fit in even though his “friends” are unworthy of that title. Zack’s mom fled from the Chinese government with baby him after Zack’s father was deemed a traitor to the country. Single-handedly raising a young child, Zack’s mom does everything she can for her child. It is no surprise that when her soul is stolen, Zack will do anything for her.
When Zack tapped into a link sent by Simon, he wasn’t expecting to trigger Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), the first emperor of a unified China, a.k.a. his ancestor. Now hosting a prominent character in history, Zack is thrown into the world of Chinese legends. Characters include Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian, Li Bai and Qiu Yuan, and The Eight Immortals of Penglai (八仙过海). (Note: these rulers are stuck in twelve-year-old bodies.) The more people within the culture knows about the legends, the more prominent they are. With Qin Shi Huang, his reputation as the First Emperor of China solidified his position in people’s minds, as did Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian.
Simon and Tang Taizong decided to recruit Zack to help them restore the portal that sealed the entrance to the underworld. If not stopped, the demon that has Zack’s mom’s soul will gradually become more powerful and enter the human realm. On the team are Wu Mingzhu and her ancestor, Wu Zetian.
Xiran Jay Zhao is constantly building up the world of Mythrealm by adding layers and layers of Chinese history and elements of the culture (e.g., 孟婆汤 the soup to forget past life). The usage of the qi meter as an indicator of the hosts’ powers is an essential element. One thing that I found unique was that the legends can obtain powers from anything once it is associated with them (e.g., earning magical abilities because of the game character). Also, with the spirits and spiritual realm playing such a huge role, there is no lack of lore surrounding them. The author injected humor everywhere within the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed as well.
The names deciphered themselves in Zack’s head. “You play mahjong with Alexander the Great, Ramses the Second, and Genghis Khan?”
“How do you know all of them except me? I am as much of an A-list conqueror as any of them!” Qin Shi Huang spluttered, then put his fingers to his temples.
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong said.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”
“You know what you did!…”
Qin Shi Huang stared off across the expanse of orange-tinged waves, his black robes billowing in the ocean wind.
Qin Shi Huang was virtual. The wind shouldn’t have been affecting him.
“Are… are you making your robes do that on purpose?”
Qin Shi Huang screwed up his face, then shot Zack a dirty look. “Must you ruin my moment?”
Zack finds out that his hero in the tech world, the man who built XY Technologies, is the host of the Yellow Emperor. The danger came when the emperors, Qin Shi Huang, Tang Taizong, and Wu Zetian, were hiding secrets. These seeds of doubt grow easily within Zack’s mind.
Xiran Jay Zhao fully brought me into the world that combined the AR game of Mythrealm and Chinese mythology. The latter is something that I hold close to because it’s my own culture.
Zack is a confused twelve-year-old who has no idea about the stories of his Chinese roots and whose only parent was suddenly taken away from him. As he journeys with Simon and Melissa, Zack learns about his history–the good, bad, and ugly. Qin Shi Huang, his host, is known as a conqueror, a tyrant. However, his greatest achievement is unifying China. A task that came with heavy consequences on his reputation. Zack learns more about the past and views the world with a less black-and-white lens.
Overall, I loved Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor. The inclusion of each Chinese history and culture was my favorite element. I believe this will be a series, but there isn’t any news yet. Regardless, that ending warrants the next book!