Genre: Middle Grade / Contemporary Fantasy
Content warnings: Islamophobia, racism, death
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: an introduction to Chinese history, culture and legends, much like PJO was for Greek myths, or just a fun contemporary fantasy involving kids with superpowers
Superheroes are just American myth. They haven’t been passed down long enough to take spiritual form, but if they last another few centuries, I reckon I’ll be playing mahjong with Bruce Wayne on the same ethereal table as George Washington.
This winter holiday, my plane to Brisbane was cancelled, and I was stuck in Melbourne for a two-day layover rather than the original hour and a half. As I was separated from my video games, I had time to sit down and read a few books.
One of them was Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao. Let me tell you, this book is drawn out of my wildest dreams and everything about it, from its concept, writing, plot and quality, is out of this world.
You know that feeling: ‘I wish I could read a story about this idea.’ Scouring through bookstores, Ao3 and libraries only reveals that it doesn’t exist, and the only way for it to do so is for you to write it. For years I had a Thought™ about how human belief and imagination could shape a thing, turn it into a legend and then into something more. Well, Xiran Jay Zhao has created a magnificent world that is everything I wanted and more.
Zachary Ying is set in our world, but legends and myths have come alive through the power of belief.
. . . in death, my spirit became tied to the Chinese cultural consciousness as a legend. As the tales and beliefs about me grew wilder over decades and centuries and millennia, I gained astonishing abilities. Legend magic is fickle, however.
Over time, the legends have changed, and with them, the abilities of the spirits themselves. Zachary Ying has been half-possessed by the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, whose current portrayal in legends and popular video games (yes, video games count as well!) depicts him as a dragon that controls water.
After his mother’s spirit is captured and taken hostage, Zachary must hunt down the lost Heirloom Seal of the Realm and repair the seal on the plug between this world and the spiritual world in just about two weeks. However, he’s hindered by the fact that spirits are throwing themselves at him nearly every day, and he can hardly summon a drop of Qin Shi Huang’s power, let alone blast everyone with suiton: water dragon jutsu (sorry, corny Naruto joke).
Xiran’s book is more than just an idea. It’s well thought-out and constructed with drawbacks and exact power structures. Zachary doesn’t know jack about Chinese legends and historical figures, and as such, he can’t access Qin Shi Huang’s abilities as well as other hosts like him. Many of the spells have specific situations and requirements for use, such as the sword Qin Shi Huang/Zachary wields, which must be called into existence by others around him.
Zachary Ying is a middle grade book and, let me tell you, I haven’t had a blast like this in a while. I can’t describe the fight scenes in any other way than Yu-Gi-Oh! and fun (and the Yu-Gi-Oh! touch is no mistake – Xiran is a massive fan of the manga and anime, and I can feel their love for the art written into each page of this book). The fighting? Awesome. But the characters? Even better.
Qin Shi Huang is a personality as big as the storms he controls. I love each of the emperors presented in the book; Wu Zetian (readers of Iron Widow, Xiran’s debut novel, will recognise this name!) and Tang Taizong are arrogant, strong-willed and boastful as rightful emperors and have their own way of showing it. Each of these emperors has a wealth of legends to draw unique powers from, and Xiran does it beautifully.
Their hosts, Melissa for Wu Zetian and Simon for Tang Taizong, also have their place in the story, and not just as a container for the spirits’ power. Unlike Zachary, Melissa and Simon have fully integrated their emperors and have already handed over their bodies. When not being possessed, they are Zachary’s friends, and their interactions have me cheering them on.
Such nonsense that children in China are bombarded with Western Legends and history, while children in the West are taught nothing beyond the typical Europeans, the occasional Egyptian, and maybe Genghis Khan.
The inclusion of many Chinese legends and mythologies is a perfect way to introduce them to young kids or even people of any age. It’s a fun and exciting time and a great introduction to the topic, much like Percy Jackson is for Greek myths. After reading this, you’ll surely be wanting to learn more*.
Regarding the content warning, the Islamophobia and the racism tags are because it deals with these topics, not because the book itself is Islamophobic or racist. Zachary very pointedly talks about the minorities of China and how Muslims are treated in China, and he deals with day-to-day racism at his school. These scenes help us learn who Zachary is and why he acts so ashamed of his cultural heritage at the beginning of the book.
Xiran also dives into the depths of what it means to be a person and also what it means to be an emperor. Yeah, it’s epic that Qin Shi Huang unified China, but his ambitions also caused thousands of deaths. Isn’t ‘emperor’ a pretty title for a tyrant? If their actions ultimately result in good, is it justifiable? I think that Xiran looks at the pretence of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and shows us that it’s not necessarily what a person has done, but more specifically, what they will do now. Your past actions might be inexcusable, but as long as you try to do better now, then that’s what matters. The ending is an important message for kids and older people. I think that, in today’s age of internet cancel culture and Twitter discord, Xiran’s message is highly relevant and personal.
I rate Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor 5 stars. This is my second 5-star rating in a LitSoc review, partly because fantastic books are what makes me get off my ass and open a Word doc, but primarily because I feel that this book has shown how much Xiran has improved since their first book. The fight scenes were awesome, the inclusion of Chinese culture and heritage was fun and interesting to read, and the characters, while flawed as hell, were still loveable. Xiran Jay Zhao, you’ve done it again. Just take my heart next time! Looking forward to their next book, wherever they might go.
P.S. Everyone, join me in my efforts to keep Batman as a cultural icon so we can witness him deal with the insufferable Qin Shi Huang. Thank you.
*If you’re interested in the historical figures of Wu Zetian and Qin Shi Huang, then Xiran’s YouTube channel has some videos that may be of interest. They explore historical figures, and tell their tales from before birth to after death; a treat for all the history lovers and anyone who’s just interested in learning more about China.