Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I’ve read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, ‘concubines’, often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good’, an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine’ Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow’ she’s paired with Li Shimin, ‘Iron Demon’, a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy’ feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis’ axiom’s end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA’ tone to them that didn’t really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian’s inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what’s happening? how did i get here? who am i?” “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?” ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters’ surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on…we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me…the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as…I don’t know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian…I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be ‘physically strong’ but they are certainly intelligent)…but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting…also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend).

There are a few other things that I didn’t like but I won’t go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I’m sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you give it a shot regardless of my review because I’ve been known to have shitty opinions (some people on this wonderful site have called me a ‘hater’, ‘dumb’, and ‘illiterate’, so do read my reviews with a pinch of salt).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Desire is the cause of all suffering. All Zhu had ever desired was to live. Now she felt the pure strength of that desire inside her, as inseparable as her breath or qi, and knew she would suffer from it. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the awful magnitude of the suffering that would be required to achieve greatness in the chaotic, violent world outside.”

This book OBLITERATED me 🙃
While I can see why She Who Became the Sun has drawn comparisons to Mulan (we have Zhu ‘posing’ as a man), The Song of Achilles (we have a ‘close’ bond between two soldiers, one a lord the other a general), and The Poppy War (harsh backdrop + war/battles + main characters who do questionable things), what this novel really reminded of Mary Renault’s historical novels (like her Alexander the Great trilogy). But brutal. I mean, x1000 more brutal (so, think Mary Renault + you are being sucker-punched).

“All of it had been nothing more than the mechanistic motion of the stars as they brought him this opportunity: the path to his fate. And once he stepped upon it there would be no turning back.
It was an opportunity he wanted, and at the same time it was the very last thing he wanted: it was a future too horrible to bear. But even as he prevaricated and agonized, and shrank from the thought of it, he knew it wasn’t a matter of choice. It was his fate, the thing no man can ever refuse.”

In this reimagining of the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant-turned-emperor founder of the Ming Dynasty, Parker-Chan transports her readers to Mongol-occupied imperial China. Famine, poverty, plagues From the very opening pages we are plunged into a harsh and unforgiving world. In 1345 the Zhu children, a boy and a girl from the famine-stricken Zhongli village are given opposing fortunes. The boy, Zhu Chongba, is promised ‘greatness’, his “deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to [his] family name”. The girl’s fate? “Nothing”. Yet, after a bandit attack leaves them orphaned it is the boy who is unable to recover while the girl refuses to succumb to despair. After his death, the girl claims his name and fate. The ‘new’ Zhu Chongba refuses to accept her former fate and will do whatever it takes not only to survive but thrive. Zhu goes on to become a novice at the Wuhuang Monastery, and as the years go by the more her conviction that she will be great is cemented.
When the unrest against Mongol rule grows Zhu, now a monk, joins forces with the Red Turbans, a group of peasant rebels. In her ruthless quest for greatness, Zhu will stop at nothing. Driven by the certainty that she will be great, Zhu slowly rises among the ranks of rebels, demonstrating time and again that to win a war one needs more than swordsmanship or physical strength. The more powerful Zhu becomes the more she craves, but how far is too far?
We also follow Ouyang, a eunuch of Nanren blood, formerly a slave and now a general in the Mongol army (the people responsible for exterminating his family and enslaving him). Ouyang too is following what he believes to be his fate, even if he knows that this path will lead in pain (my pain, Parker-Chan, if you are reading this you broke my effin heart).
As the narrative progresses, Zhu and Ouyang’s fate become irrevocably and terribly entwined. One is hungry for greatness, the other, revenge.

She Who Became the Sun is an epic historical fantasy and probably one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. While I was not familiar with this era/setting (predictably, the little I knew about Mongolia concerns ‘the’ Genghis Khan, aka Temüjin, and I knew next-to-nothing about 14th century China—I love wuxia films but they are not entirely reliable) Parker-Chan does a fantastic job in immersing her readers in this period of Mongolian/Chinese history. In that way, she brought to mind Renault who also excelled in evoking ancient cultures and peoples without making her readers feel overwhelmed or confused.
Parker-Chan does not shy away from portraying the grim realities faced by people like Zhu and Ouyang. In addition to famines and plagues, we have battles between Mongols and the Red Turbans who seek to free themselves from their cruel rule. Rather than portraying either faction as inherently good or bad, Parker-Chan populates her story with characters who are all varying degrees of terrible (Ma, daughter to a Red Turban general, and Xu Da, Zhu’s monastery ‘brother’ are perhaps the only not-so-morally ambiguous characters).
Zhu and Ouyang are no heroes. They are, to different extents and purposes, self-serving, and willing to commit acts of horrific violence to fulfil their fates (even if it means betraying their loved ones). Yet, given what we learn about them, in other words, their circumstances, readers will have a hard time condemning or judging them.

Parker-Chan’s unadorned prose perfectly complements the severe world inhabited by Zho and Ouyang. For all its apparent simplicity, Parker-Chan’s writing packs a punch. We have emotionally charged dialogues, precise and clever descriptions about the characters (their motivations, fears, natures), and some fantastic fighting sequences. It just goes to show how talented a writer Parker-Chan is but I was gripped by scenes focusing on military strategy (something I am not usually all that wowed by). There are also surprising moments of humor that offer brief yet desperately needed moments of levity (Zhu’s ‘pious’ act was a delight to read). The narrative is otherwise fraught with tension. The fantasy elements were also very well-done. Although they are seamlessly incorporated into the historical backdrop they did add a certain atmosphere to the story.
In addition to a gripping storyline and a detailed historical setting Parker-Chan also brings to the table a complex cast of characters. Their shifting allegiances and dynamics made the story all the more captivating. Zhu is no hero(ine). She is hellbent on getting what she wants (greatness) and while she isn’t wholly morally reprehensible she is not afraid to get her hands dirty. Her relationship with Xu Da and Ma were wonderfully compelling, even heart-rendering.

Aaaand, now I have to talk about Ouyang and I cannot even. Dio mio. This man is terrible but that did not stop me from loving him. I swear, I felt ‘all the feels’ each scene he was in. The man is literally haunted. His tortured self-loathing reaches highs not even Adam Parrish would dream of. My heart broke for him, time and again. His storyline managed to be even more devastating than Zhu’s one. I am never going to shut up about him. Just thinking about him makes me wanna curl in a ball and cry.

At its heart, Parker-Chan’s novel is about power, survival, and fate. Parker-Chan pushes Zhu and Ouyang to their limits, putting them in impossible situations and pitting them against each other (we have more than one scene where I could not for the life of me root for either Zhu and Ouyang, hoping against hope that they could just set their weapons aside and become best buds…I am delusional I know). In addition, Parker-Chan subverts traditional gender roles and notions of masculinity and gifts us with an A+ queer romance and a complicated relationship with a lot of yearning (when their hands brushed I was a goner).

It took me 40 pages or so to really get into the story but once I was ‘in’ I was 100% invested in both the story and the characters. This novel is gripping, brutal, poignant, distressing and full of jaw-dropping moments. The betrayals and political intrigue made the novel all the more engrossing. I don’t often use the word epic to describe a novel but She Who Became the Sun demands it.

ps : i am both terrified and desperate to read the sequel

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★★

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads