Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an exciting adventure novel combining Chinese myth, history, and hi-tech gaming. 

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a middle-grade novel by Xiran Jay Zhao. The novel follows Zachary Ying, a Chinese American whose knowledge of his Chinese heritage is limited. So, when he is chosen to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission, he is woefully unprepared. The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack and binds to his AR gaming headset instead. Now, with the legendary tyrant barking orders in his ear, Zack must journey across China to defeat figures from Chinese legend and seal the portal to the underworld before it is too late.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an incredible novel that will have you at the edge of your seat with its action-packed narrative. The real standout feature of the novel, though, is Zack's character. Zack’s storyline allows Zhao to explore the difficulties of being a Chinese-American kid. Zack, often pressured by his peers to denounce his Chinese heritage, does whatever he can to fit in. He even goes to the extent of throwing away the Chinese food his mother packs him for lunch, instead opting for the Americanised canteen food on offer. Throughout the novel, Zack is left in a state of turmoil, contemplating who he is and who he wants to become. Zack’s feelings about his heritage are further confused by the Chinese government’s treatment of his father. Zack is a Hui, a Chinese follower of Islam. Being a minority group, the Hui people find themselves discriminated against in China. Zack’s father was, in fact, executed for speaking out against China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. It was interesting to see Zhao use Zack’s character to discuss the treatment of minorities in China, as most novels by Chinese authors tend to avoid the topic altogether. 

Although Zhao critiques China, they also showcase the magnificence of Chinese mythology and history. Throughout the novel, for example, Zhao introduces multiple characters, many of whom are figures of historical significance in China. Whenever one of these characters is introduced, Zhao provides us with a pop-up – much like what you would see in a video game – with a brief overview of the character’s life. This is a fantastic way for Zhao to introduce and educate her readers about Chinese culture. It was also wonderful to see this mixing of history and gaming here. The notion of combining the old with the new and futuristic felt unique and progressive. This is also another great way for Zhao to make history more accessible to the younger audience the book is targeted towards. 

Overall, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an immersive, fast-paced novel that explores Chinese culture in a unique blend of history and modernity. 

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