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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Happy for You by Claire Stanford

The premise for Happy for You made me think that this would be something in the realms of titles such as Temporary, The Factory, and Severance, which present their readers with wry commentaries on the gig economy and the modern workplace, or, satires about social media, the tech industry, and wellness culture, such Followers and Self Care ….so I was slightly disappointed by the trajectory taken by Claire Stanford’s character arc and, consequently, the direction of the story. If you are approaching this thinking it will be something in the realms of shows like Black Mirror or Severance, well, you may want to readjust your expectations. The speculative element within the narrative is barely there and mostly appears in the form of a few skits featuring invasive personalized adverts and apps, which, to me, was a bit of a letdown. Still, there were parts of the narrative that I did find engaging, even if I was frustrated by how our main character’s arc becomes exclusively about the possibility of marriage and motherhood, her life outside of the ye old woman=wife/mother equation is given little to no page time.

Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto is a burnout PhD student who is offered the opportunity to work as a researcher at ‘the third-most popular internet company’. The company is currently working on an app that is meant to track and improve its user’s happiness. To ‘quantify’ happiness the company has employed various researchers, including Evelyn whose research allegedly focused on the mind-body problem. While she does meet two of her colleagues, the narrative barely explores the realities of working for this company. It may seem bizarre but I like or am intrigued by books that explore, in whatever capacity, office dynamics (a few examples: Edge Case, Luster, Severance, If I Never Met You, The New Me, Promising Young Women, and Days of Distraction) maybe because I do not work in such an environment, and I was under the impression that convinced that Happy for You would focus in equal measure on Evelyn’s working and personal life…but it doesn’t, not really.
She is employed by this company, picks up on some weird vibes (which lead nowhere), and at some point goes on a work trip/retreat of some sort to discuss the app and happiness. That’s kind of it. The narrative does highlight how male-dominated the tech industry is, the commodification of non-western religious and cultural practices in the west, and the many microaggressions experienced by a person of dual heritage (for instance, the fetish-y comments about ‘how cute your babies will look’). Evelyn is routinely questioned by strangers in regards to her ‘background’ and at times feels a sense of alienation when moving in predominantly white spaces. Readers will also notice that because she has always been at the receiving end of ‘guess their ethnicity game’, she too at times does the same (except she exclusively plays this ‘game’ in her head), which seems to point to the loneliness she experiences as the only woc in many predominantly white environments and how exposure to certain attitudes may eventually lead to you to imitate/perpetuate said behaviours/mentalities. Though Evelyn’s experiences the narrative touches on the realities and many microaggressions experienced by poc in a society that deems whiteness to be the norm.
The author’s social commentary could be quite effective, and her stylistic use of repetition adds to the sense of otherness and claustrophobia that Evelyn experiences in this modern age.

Her work life and her experiences as a student remain largely unexplored, which is a pity. The narrative doesn’t really give us any information in regards to Evelyn’s actual contribution to this ‘happiness’ app. Her relationship to the academic world is also given little consideration, which is a pity as her character supposedly had already spent a few years on her dissertation.
I did enjoy those sections that focused on her somewhat awkward relationship with her father, who was born in Japan and spent most of his life in the United States. Evelyn seems to feel a certain degree of jealousy that his new partner is Japanese, especially when she perceives changes in his routine and beliefs, changes she attributes to his new partner, and worries that her presence in his life will erase her mother’s memory. The sections focused on the dynamic between them all were my favorite as I appreciated how the author is able to render an undercurrent of unease in their various interactions and to create poignant moments of mutual understanding or empathy.
Now, as I mentioned above, I went into this thinking that it would be a book about this ‘happiness’ app and the tech industry (on a related note, i’d definitely recommend ‘why does everyone want to break into tech?’ by the lovely amanda), however, the story offers only a surface level understanding of modern workplace politics…instead we have pages and pages spent with her boyfriend who is easily interchangeable with the male ‘love interests from The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and Days of Distraction who, funnily enough, are named respectively Jamie and J….in Happy for You we have yet another Jamie, of the white straight cis American male variety whose personality resembles that of sliced bread. He is well meaning-ish and fairly supportive, has a stable job and comes from a financially & emotionally stable family. He often isn’t aware of his own privilege and seems to either be oblivious or dismissive of the microaggressions experienced by Evelyn. Yet, while the narrative tries to paint him as this fairly innocuous & insipid guy annoyed me when the story concludes with him managing somehow to convince Evelyn to do things she initially was opposed to or unsure of doing.

spoilers below

We are told that Evelyn enjoys the financial stability offered by her new job and even if she’s not convinced by the app—from whether it is feasible to ‘quantify’ happiness, to the meaning and desirability of happiness itself and the actual benefit an app like this would have—she naturally feels a sense of satisfaction and pride when her boss implies that she is talented etc. We also know that at this stage in her life Evelyn doesn’t want to get married and is unsure of ever having kids…by the end of the narrative, we are somehow led to believe that after becoming pregnant Evelyn has somehow reconciled herself to both of these things. She spends the latter of the narrative worried that she will be a bad mother, and eventually gives up her job because she doesn’t believe in it (it wasn’t clear to me whether she was interested in picking up her studies again). And, at the end, she also says yes to Jamie, who’d proposed early on in the book. Like..ugh. I am tired of narratives where the female protagonist initially doesn’t want marriage/kids and by then ends up marrying (or about to marry) and with kids (or about to have kids). This type of narrative feeds into ‘you will change your mind’/‘it is natural for a woman to be a wife/mother’ reactionary rhetoric. That is not to say that there is no palace for narratives where female characters go on to do so things should not exist, but given their abundance, I found it frustrating when a character who says they don’t want those things for themselves, ends up being persuaded into doing/becoming those things. Evelyn lacked agency, and I wasn’t convinced that she really had had a change of heart.

Back to the app. This was very disappointing. Employees like Evelyn are ‘encouraged’ to be beta users for this app so we get to actually see it in action..and it basically consists of the classic questions you would get in any type of happiness quiz. Yes, Evelyn gets a lot of push notifications and she’s urged to improve her results but I wish the author had gone heavier on the speculative elements when it came to her portrayal of this company and app.
And, I almost forgot, Evelyn has one single friend who is given two appearances where he exists only as an object of not quite ridicule but his depiction felt cartoonish. Later on, his character is completely forgotten by both Evelyn and the story, which made it really seem as if he was included as an afterthought.
The narrative often doesn’t name things directly. From Evelyn’s company, which is constantly referred to as ‘the third-most popular internet company’, to things like Facebook and Ikea or even a book she’s reading (missing husband? greece? i’m fairly sure the book in question was Katie Kitamura’s A Separation)…anyway, the point is that this device was implemented in a rather gimmicky way.

I have rather mixed feelings about this debut. On the one hand, I found its themes compelling and thought-provoking. I liked that the narrator questions the origin of some of her behaviours and attitudes, for example, there are several instances where she realizes just how pervasive and insidious stereotypes perpetuated by the media are. I also thought that the author truly captures her dissonance and her sense of discomfort. That is not to say this was a bad book, in fact, I would probably recommend it, especially to fans of the ‘she’s not feeling so good’ subgenre. I did find the resolution to her story and arc frustrating, as they were predictable. I would have found it more satisfying if Evelyn had left Jamie and truly focus on herself, her career, her studies, and her friendships (which were painfully absent). Her relationship with her father and her tentative bond with his new partner was far more emotionally stimulating than her bland and generic romance.
Lastly, I would have appreciated a more intersectional approach to certain discussions as I found it a bit sus for a story exploring contemporary social issues that lbgtq+ related issues are very much not addressed or even mentioned.

Anyway, if this book is on your radar I recommend you check it out for yourself as Claire Stanford is clearly a promising author. Sometimes her prose is a bit heavy-handed on repetition and her satire does stray into silliness but some of the ideas that are at play in the story and her storytelling herself have definite potential…personally, I just prefer when these types of books don’t conclude with the mc getting married and having children.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Klara and the Sun presents its readers with a quiet yet touching meditation on life. In a similar fashion as Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro’s foray into the speculative realm is deeply grounded in the mundane. Yet, in spite of its ordinary trappings, Klara and the Sun is a work that is brimming with ambiguities. Ishiguro excels at this type of narrative, ones in which ordinary scenes and interactions are interrupted by moments of unquiet. The near future of Klara and the Sun comes to us slowly, and even in the end, much of it remains unknown to us.
Our narrator Klara, an Artificial Friend, an android whose primary function is that of providing companionship to children. From the confines of her store, Klara has but a limited view of the outside world. Through the store window, she watches passersby, taking notice of their behaviors, appearances, the emotions they seem to manifest. Klara reveres the Sun, which every day provides her with ‘nourishment’.

Klara is purchased as an AF for Josie, a girl afflicted by an unnamed illness. In her new home, Klara learns more about people and their incongruities. Klara’s purpose is to be there for Josie, but, even she cannot seem to be of any help when it comes to Josie’s illness. Josie, who lives with her mother (who Klara refers to as ‘the mother’) and their somewhat brusque housekeeper (‘Melania housekeeper’). As time goes by, through Klara, we learn more about this near future. There are communities of post-employed, there are lifted and unlifted children, and both Josie and ‘the mother’ seem to have mysterious ‘plans’ up their sleeves.

Klara’s child-like narration belies her unsettling reality. From the way children treat their companions, to the lengths parents will go to provide their children with the best chance at succeeding in life, the world Klara witnesses is far from reassuring.
In spite of its domestic setting, which takes us from the kitchen to the living room, and with the occasional foray into the outside, Ishiguro explores questions of love, freedom, and memory. And, of course, humanity. What makes us human? What makes me, me?

Ishiguro provides no easy answers or solutions, depicting instead the different ways Klara and those around react to the same worries and fears. Klara is often a witness to crucial exchanges. Yet, her passive role does not mean that she is unable to understand a certain situation/conversation or the motivations and emotions of those involved.
The simplicity, one could even say purity, of her voice might annoy some readers, especially those who are looking for more complex or ambivalent narrators. Still, I grew quite fond of her, and there were many instances in which she struck me as more human than the actual humans.
One thing that I am unsure of is why Klara—who usually does not describe the physical appearance of others—noticed, in two different instances, that one of the people in her vicinity was Black. As far as I can remember, she does not comment on anyone else’s race or ethnicity (we learn that Melania is European through her accented English and another mother making a comment about European housekeepers). Klara guesses Josie’s friend’s accent but only after talking to him. So why would an android who usually does not describe those around her as white or would notice that someone is Black? Was this Ishiguro pointing to this:
<a is="" href="https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/aug/08/rise-of-the-racist-robots-how-ai-is-learning-all-our-worst-impulses
? Or that Klara was designed after a white person or to have a white person’s perspective? Otherwise it just seems odd.

There were also certain plot points that felt a bit too neat, especially towards the end. And while I am always appreciative of Ishiguro’s prose, of his ability to capture ephemeral emotions and thoughts, of the ambiguous nature of his stories, I found myself wishing for more. Josie, alongside her mother and neighbors, never earned their way into my heart. That is to say, I felt at a distance from them. The tension between them was certainly palpable and well rendered but, ultimately, I found them somewhat dull.
Although I wasn’t blown away by this novel I did overall enjoy it. Klara is the novel’s star, and I found her to be a deeply compelling protagonist who challenged my notions of ‘human’.
Readers who prefer faster-paced narratives may want to give this one a large berth but if you were a fan of Never Let Me Go you might find this to be just as gripping (I, for one, finished in less than 24 hours).

re-read: ishiguro’s surreal realism is lulling indeed. some of the dialogues may sound slightly off but, given the dystopianesque setting, i didn’t particularly mind. josie was annoying as fck, and i get that she’s sick however that doesn’t entirely exonerate her from her shtty behaviour. melania teetered on being rather stereotypical, and i am a bit tired of british/american authors (or authors who write in english) who throw into their story mix a character, often in the form of a brusque older woman, from an unspecified ‘eastern european’ country as a source of humor because their english is (supposedly) ‘funny’ and their un-english ways are (supposedly) just as ‘funny’.
this aside, i still found this to be a thought-provoking read that gives way to questions about human nature, freedom, and altruism. ishiguro also incorporates many discussions and scenarios about the difficulties of parenting and of being parented (with the children having often no choice in decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives, or being kept in the dark about matters that directly concern them).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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