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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A Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier — book review

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“One thing was for sure: This Christmas was going to be anything but boring.”

A Castle in the Clouds is the book equivalent of cotton candy. Fluffy, sickly sweet, and somewhat insubstantial. Nevertheless, with its Clue meets Scooby Doo story this latest novel by Kerstin Gier makes for an entertaining, if silly, read.

A Castle in the Clouds follows the misadventures of Sophie Spark, a high-school drop out who is working as an intern at a grand hotel in the Swiss mountains. The hotel is no longer considered the luxury location it used to be. Many finds its traditional decor to be outdated and the general lack of modernity to be a nuisance. Sophie however enjoys the atmosphere of the place and it is only when she is assigned the role of babysitter that she begins to feel discontented. In preparation of the Christmas holidays the owners have also hired a lot of additional staff which includes three girls who enjoy bullying and belittling Sophie. It is the arrival of two handsome boys (one of which happens to be son of one of the owner’s) and some possibly mysterious guests that enliven Sophie’s life.
We have oligarchs, missing diamonds, possible kidnappers, some possible spies, a best-selling author, a bodyguard, and a lot of secrets.
Sophie embarks on a Nancy Drew type of investigation which sees her spying on staff, guests, and trying her best to prevent any shenanigans from ruining the hotel’s reputation and/or possibly risking both her job and life.

There was a fun mix of characters. Perhaps some of them should have been introduced at different times rather than bombarding with a lost list of names with no clear indication on who’s-who. While some of them were definitely cartoonish, it was interesting to see that there were quite a few who were not quite what they seemed.
Sophie perhaps encountered a few too many mishaps in her ‘investigation’. She was ‘act first, think later’ type of narrator. I appreciated the fact that she was a high-school drop out (in that so often YA books are all about the importance of high school and college) and that she was unsure on what exactly she wants to do in the future. She was naive, a bit clumsy, and fairly amusing.
The other teenage girls were….to be honest, I am a bit tired of this type of girl-on-girl hate. Only the quiet introverted teenage guest is nice to Sophie. Her new colleagues and the other rich American girls are awful. They are catty, coquettish, cruel, and vapid (really?!). There could have been a bit more variety in their personality and in their behaviour towards Sophie.
The two love interests were…okay. They were the least interesting characters in the story. They were good-looking and sort of nice to Sophie. To be honest, the romance felt very insta-lovey and this whole love triangle was unnecessary.
I also could have done without the creepy child with psychopathic tendencies (I forgot his name, but if you’ve read this you know who I mean). He was annoying and unrealistic.

The setting was the most interesting aspect of this book. Hotels have this ‘holiday/unreal’ quality that makes them the ideal locations of mysteries and romances. I liked reading about the staff and their routines. That this story takes place in the winter holidays adds a certain atmosphere to whole narrative.
The tone of this book was a bit weird in that it constantly switches from being rather juvenile to a more YA type of story. Still, for the most part I did enjoy the novel’s humour and surprising self-awareness (there were even some metafictional moments).
All in all, in spite of its flaws A Castle in the Clouds makes for a cozy winter read.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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“IT WAS DUSK – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourite books as a child. We have a winter-y and atmospheric setting, an evil governess who alongside some other knavish characters is up to no good, intrepid children—possibly an orphan or two—who outsmart wicked adults, and, last but not least, wild and ferocious wolves.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere that really brought to mind Jane Eyre (the first part of the novel, when Jane is a child).
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves.

Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is (a truly lovely and entertaining tale).

my rating: ★★★★✰

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Winterhouse by Ben Guterson — book review

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“She was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words.”

Although I am not part of Winterhouse’s target audience, I do enjoy reading the occasional book aimed towards younger readers as they can be quite uplifting and entertaining reads. In fact, I picked Winterhouse up hoping for a light and amusing read…which it was…occasionally, and the artwork was very cute, I’m not sure Winterhouse lives up to its summary. It has plenty of clever puzzles and word-plays but it lacked…oomph.

Winterhouse has an intriguing yet familiar premise. Elizabeth Somers is an orphan, who is raised by uncaring relatives and who doesn’t have any friends. She is a precocious bibliophile (she does bring up some childhood favourites such as Inkheart, The Golden Compass, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) who is a fan of puzzles, especially anagrams—and of using long or clever words (not always successfully). One Christmas her aunt and uncle decide to go on a holiday without her and so without any explanation or apology they send to the Winterhouse hotel. Once there Elizabeth meets Winterhouse’s eccentric owner, the kind librarian, a boy who happens to be as bespectacled and puzzle-lover as she is, and a sinister couple.
While there was a lot to like, once at Winterhouse Elizabeth’s behaviour becomes increasingly annoying. She is bossy towards her new friend and repeatedly jumps to silly conclusions. The mystery of Winterhouse is weakened by the incredibly cartoonish villains and by a general lack of atmosphere. The rather obvious connection between two characters did not in fact come across as a surprise.
The setting, which had so much potential, never came to life. It remained rather nondescript.

All in all this was an okay MG read. The simple writing style and story reminded me of The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood. At times it seemed that the narrative was trying to be as quirky and clever as a book by Lemony Snicket but it doesn’t quite succeed.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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