Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Zachary King is the only Asian kid at his school in small-town Maine. While he never exactly fit in in New York, here Zach is truly aberrant. What he wants—what he craves—is to fit in, something that he’s spent all his time and energy trying to do.

Which is, of course, when he discovers that he’s the chosen host for the First Emperor of China.

The bad news is that the only reason the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) has left his eternal paradise is that China—and the world—is in danger. The worse news is that only Zach (and a couple other vessels hosting Emperors) can save it, preferably in time to save Zach mother, who’s had her soul stolen. The worst news is that to save it they must return to China: the place Zach was born, the place he lived before the government killed his father. The good news is that the revelation makes his problems seem pretty petty by comparison.

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, rather than manifesting within Zach, has instead possessed his AR gaming headset. Meaning that the Emperor cannot make use of his heavenly powers, nor his ability to, say, speak Mandarin. Thus Zach must rely on the help of his new allies Simon and Melissa (the hosts for the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian (李世民 和 武曌)) if he’s to save the day.

But things are more complicated than Zach could possibly imagine. Which he must make sense of if he’s going to save his mother—and the world.

“No,” Qin Shi Huang replied, “I was a regular person in my mortal life. I mostly relied on the cooperation of my ancestors in the underworld to plug the portal. But after I transcended my physical flesh—“
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong quipped.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”

Huangdi (黃帝) was a mythical (and possibly historical) Han Emperor who ruled early China in the mid-3rd millennia BC. While primarily remaining a hero out of myth and legend for thousands of years, lately he’s been a bit co-opted by the Han nationalism movement, which is completely different from Chinese history. I mean, it’s part of China’s history, but the Han are not what makes China China. In Taiwan, the Yellow Emperor stands as a symbol of reunification with the mainland, as he’s still worshipped there. And—let’s just say it’s complicated. Chinese history is complicated.

And somehow, the author decides to make him the bad guy. At least, initially, until the world devolves into a haze of grey on grey madness—a little bit heavy for a kids’ book. I mean, that’s seriously ballsy.

Not uninteresting, just not my kind of book. It was rather muddied in the middle by the amount of different plots and deceptions—made the story hard to follow. The info dumps of everything from technology to Chinese history and mythology slowed things down a little, but were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t overly ruin the pacing. Unfortunately, with so many of them throughout the text, they further obfuscated an already muddy river that seemed to be flowing in too many directions as it was. What I mean is that not only was it really hard to keep up with the story, it was even harder to find out what was going on. And once I got lost I pretty much stayed lost, despite rereading sections to figure it out.

It definitely delivered on the promise of a Yu-Gi-Oh style tale. Zachary Ing and the Dragon Emperor reads like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and a Chinese History lesson. Except one with all the really bad bits left out. Honestly, that description doesn’t sound too bad, but the story was mostly more confusing than I’d’ve thought. That said, Yu-Gi-Oh is also more confusing than I thought it would’ve been, so it was likely intentional. There were possessions, virtual games, more possessions, and bizarre twists to up the action even amid an already action-heavy sequence. Problem is, I’m not a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, so this kind of chaotic plot didn’t work for me. I picked this one up because I enjoy the occasional MG adventure, and I really liked the author’s debut novel.

The thing is, for how much this starts like a Yu-Gi-Oh mashup, it dissolves pretty quickly. The corresponding game of Mythrealm is mentioned at first only to familiarize readers with the VR goggles and basics of pop culture—and then dropped in order to relate the trip through Chinese history. Only… with just how much Mythrealm seems to involve the story (at first, at least), I would’ve expected to see more of it. But after the first few chapters it’s barely mentioned again.

I did manage to learn a few words (well, ONE word), though I can’t imagine it’ll ever come up in conversation. Nor will I ever manage to get the tones right.

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

If you picked up Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor hoping for: a mashup of Yu-Gi-Oh and Percy Jackson; a new and exciting episodic series where anything can happen and routinely does; a MG adventure that tackles tougher issues than good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and delves straight into the world of grey; or a crash course in Chinese mythology and history (depending heavily on what your definition of “Chinese” is)—then, honestly, you probably won’t be disappointed. If, however, you picked this up because you enjoyed the author’s debut, or hoped for something a little bit deeper than the surface layer of Chinese history (of ghosts, legends, and curses), well, you may be slightly less impressed. Regardless, you’re sure to find a well written (if not terribly well organized) story about a boy and his place in the world. It may be confusing at times (because, well, it is) (most of the time, in fact), but there’s never a dull moment, and never any time to take a breath. If you’re able to follow the plot I kinda suspect you’ll love it—but I could not follow it and got left behind. And never really got back on board.

結束

Iron Widow – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Iron Widow #1

YA, Fantasy, Scifi

Penguin Teen; September 21, 2021

399 pages (ebook)

Goodreads • Author Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I did not pay for this book. I was very kindly granted an advance copy of it in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for the ARC! Hopefully the author will forgive me—especially after I post said review to Goodreads and/or Amazon with a rating;)

Iron Widow is the debut by author Xiran Jay Zhao. And if you don’t know how to pronounce that, don’t worry I’ve got you covered.

Here’s a crash course if you’re new to pinyin:

• ZH is pronounced like the ‘dg’ in “fudge”
• Z is pronounced like the ‘dz’ in “Adz”
• Q is pronounced like the ‘ch’ in “China”, only toward the front of the mouth
• X is pronounced like the ‘sh’ in “Shiny”, only toward the front of the mouth
• C is pronounced like the ‘ts’ in “cats”

Honestly, I could’ve just kept going, but these are the basics—let’s not go overboard. So now let’s butcher her name. If you guessed: something like “She-ran Jay Jow”—you’re on the right track. If you said it perfectly first time: nice! If you guessed: anything else—keep trying!

Right, the book. Iron Widow is a retelling of the Empress Wu Zhao who served as consort for the Tang dynasty and later seized control of the throne leading to the Zhou dynasty, during which she ruled unopposed. The book is the beginning of a retelling of her life.

Only with giant pilotable gundam-like chrysalises. And aliens.

Huaxia sits on the edge of extinction. The Hunduns—sentient mechanical aliens that have overrun the lands north of the Great Wall—have pushed humanity to the brink.

The remnants of the Han survive only through the grace of the great Chrysalises—huge husks made of spirit metal capable of transforming into fighting machines. When the two pilots—one a boy (nanhaizi 男孩子), one a girl (nühaizi 怒孩子)—combine their qi within the Chrysalis they are able to force it into metamorphosis, resulting in a huge fighting robot. Though this grants the pilots the power to repel the Hunduns from their land, it usually results in the death of the girls. This is seen as a sacrifice worth taking, in order to assure the survival of the human race. Plus, they’re only girls.

Wu Zetian is born upon the frontier, near the Great Wall itself. Should the Chrysalises fail, her family would be one of the first to fall. And she was born (and ultimately kept) in order to die.

As her sister did before her.

And so Zetian follows her elder sister (jiejie 姐姐) into the army, joining the ranks of Yang Guang’s concubines—who wait on his every whim, offer themselves to him freely, and are taken into battle with him, most often to their deaths. Again, as Zetian’s 姐姐 did before her.

But unlike her sister, Zetian isn’t here to make some sacrifice, noble or otherwise. Instead she has her heart set on vengeance—for her murdered sister, for thousands of dead girls before her, and ultimately for herself. For even should she live long enough to kill Yang Guang—what then? She’ll still only exist in a world set against her, one where she’ll carve a place for herself—in blood.

You are here to provide comfort and companionship to one of the greatest heroes of our time. From this day onward, you exist to please him, so that he may be in peak physical and mental condition to battle the Hunduns that threaten our borders. His well-being should be the most prominent subject of your thoughts. You will bring him meals when he is hungry, pour him water when he is thirsty, and partake in his hobbies with him with lively enthusiasm. When he speaks, you will give him your full attention, without interrupting or arguing. You will not be moody, pessimistic, or indifferent, and—most importantly—you will not react negatively to his touch.

This book is steeped in both sexism and racism. The misogyny of the classical world has been well documented of course, but here’s another crash course on China (zhongguo 中國), which take things a bit further. Being born a boy was a huge responsibility. You were the hope of your family, your bloodline. You were supposed to succeed in the exams, in life, marry into a good family and produce a (male) heir. You would then take care of your parents and manage their estates. If you were born a girl, you had to hope your parents didn’t kill you because they wanted a boy. If they let you live, you basically did whatever they wanted to ensure that you fetched a good dowry, which would be used to help your brother pay his way into a good family. Then you were someone else’s problem, but should never forget your parents/family should you somehow make it big. You were subservient to your father, then your brothers, then your husband, then your sons. At no point were you ever in charge of your own destiny. Maybe don’t google this.

“I’m so tired of being a girl.”
“Yeah, if you were a boy, you’d be ruling the world by now.”

Likewise, if you were Han, then you had a natural step up on the competition. If you were anything other than Han, you were a barbarian. Often even subhuman. If you were half-blooded or quarter-blooded non-ethnic Han you were often seen as inferior. Han nationalism is generally on par with white nationalism in terms of exclusionism. Of course, this is the only instance of racism ever in history, and therefore is quite notable. Seriously, DO NOT GOOGLE THIS—you won’t find anything remotely heartwarming.

The overwhelming sexism here takes center stage, while the racism is kinda glossed over. I hope that we get to it more later in the series, though. Xiran Jay Zhao doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture for female life back in the annuls of history, but it’s probably pretty realistic. There’s a reason there’s a huge gender imbalance even nowadays—as the number of men heavily outweighs the number of women.

In terms of a fantasy book, Iron Widow is a damn good one. I mean, it’s a whirlwind of blood, tears and chaos, but one hell of a ride all the same. Zetian quite the character. I legitimately believe she’d bathe in the blood of her enemies. She’s got a bit of a demon in her; willing to do anything in order to achieve her ends. She also has a warm, sensitive side (though it’s a little overshadowed by the whole “demon” bit)—which she shows in touching scenes with Yizhi and Li Shimin. I’m honestly not sure what kind of a romantic she is. All in all, Zetian is complicated. She’s entirely human, but also a vengeful goddess born of pure chaos. As I said, quite the character.

The romance is a thing—leaving me undecided whether I bought into it or not. Despite her assertions that “the triangle is the strongest form of geometry”, I’m still not sure what it was that Zetian really wanted. It seemed to me that both male leads were head-over-heels, willing to die for her, while she was more “well, I like them but… meh”. Again, I hope that this is something that gets cleared up in Book #2.

The gundams—or chrysalises—are more like zoids than mobile suits. Or… a bit of a cross between the two. I envisioned them as gigantic seed-pods that could digivolve into mechanical fighting robots based on the qi of their pilots. Maybe more like a “Big O” kinda thing.

TL;DR

From gundams to aliens to emperors, there’s A LOT going on in this story. And while I didn’t love every minute of it, I loved way more than enough to recommend it. Wu Zetian is a monumental task of a retelling, but Xiran Jay Zhao has a winner here. For while it’s not all accurate, it’s certainly a perspective with a twist; a story that finds the future Empress as a poor farm girl with a taste for vengeance, blood, love, and ambition. An amazing coming-of-age tale that devolves into pure chaos and is somehow better for it.

Note: If you want a soundtrack while you read this book, the author suggests that you just go listen to the Pacific Rim soundtrack on a loop. An excellent idea:)