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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The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa

The Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles makes for a quick and wholesome read that will definitely appeal to bibliophiles. Like other fantasy coming-of-age tales, this novel features a talking animal who enlists our human protagonists in an adventure and acts as a guide of sorts into the magical world. Rintaro Natsuki, our protagonist, is a particularly introverted boy who sees himself as a hikikomori. When his grandfather, who was his primary carer, dies, Rintaro inherits his secondhand bookstore. Rintaro struggles to articulate his grief and is unable to truly express how much this loss has affected him. Rintaro stops going to school, staying instead at the bookstore. Here he meets Tiger, a talking cat who makes him join in a quest of sorts. According to Tiger, there are books in need of rescuing and Rintaro is the only one who can save him. Together they travel to four different mazes where they come across bad book owners who have lost sight of what caring & loving books truly means. One owner no longer reads for pleasure but because he wants to read the most books possible in his lifetime. Another one thinks that because people no longer make time to read, the only way to keep these stories alive is to literally ‘cut’ them. The third one cares nothing for old books and is interested in books that sell well. While the last one will truly force Rintaro to question what literature and books in general truly mean. The nature of Rintaro’s quest definitely brought to mind the structure of fairy tales. The lessons Rintaro teaches the owners instead reminded me of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Like the ghosts in Dickens’ novel Rintaro shows them the error of their ways. While at first these bad book owners seem unbending in their ways, Rintaro is always able to make them reevaluate their attitude towards their books by challenging their behaviour (hoarding books, reading books simply for the sake of ‘reading’ them, without actually connecting to the story, trying to condense books to short summaries, or caring only about the books that sell, well, this is not how someone who professes they love books should act).

Rintaro is the classic guileless male protagonist. More than once we are reminded that he is a nobody, no one of interest. And yet for some reason, Tiger chose him as his companion in his book-saving adventures. There is also the classic female character who is a bit of a busybody and for some bizarre reason kind of likes our male mc. There is also a popular guy whose function in this story is somewhat bizarre. He really served no purpose other than to remind us that Rintaro is not one of the cool guys. Tiger, the most interesting character of the lot, is largely underused.
The moralistic nature of the mazes also struck me as fairly simplistic. Still, the author does ask some thought-provoking questions about what books/reading mean, whether one should prioritize discovering new voices or deepening their relationship to books they love by re-reading them. Also, in one of the “baddies” says that now-days books don’t stand a chance as a source of ‘entertainment’ as one can’t read and multitask. Clearly this guy has never heard of audiobooks (i know it technically isn’t ‘reading’ but you nevertheless can ‘absorb’ a book). I also didn’t like that the final villain, who is portrayed as cold and slightly ‘off’ (in a not-human kind of way), is a woman.
I can see this book appealing to fans of Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura and Colorful by Eto Mori. Similarly to those novels The Cat Who Saved Books focuses on a Japanese teen who doesn’t really fit in at school but over the course of the narrative, and thanks to the aid of some fantastical elements, begins to connect with other people his age. Overall this was a fairly engaging read even if it was a bit too vanilla for my taste.

my rating: ★★★½