Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

Zhao, Xiran Jay. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor
May 3rd 2022 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Zachary and his mother escaped from China after his father was arrested and killed for his political beliefs, especially his support of the Uighur Muslims. They now live in Maine, where his mother works at a university, but also at Target to make ends meet. Zach feels akward at school, where he is one of the few Asian students, and he's a bit leery when he meets Simon Li.  Zach and his mother are Hui, and he knows that just because he meets kids his age who are Asian, they might not have the same experiences. The two bond over the video game Mythrealm, but things quickly go wrong when Zach's mother is attacked an becomes comatose. It turns out that Zach is a descendant of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, and Simon is the host of Tang Taizong. Because Zach hasn't learned Chinese history or language, Qin Shi Huang has found it hard to bond with him, and must be aided by an augmented reality portal-lens. This device is used for gaming, and produced by Jason Xuan's XY Technology corporation. These immortal emperors insist that in order to save Zach's mother, Zach must go to China to help with a problem. The portal between the spirit realm and the human realm is in danger, and Zach must find an ancient seal in order to close it back up. It turns out that Jason Xuan is the chosen host of the Yellow Emperor, and he's behind the drive to shatter the portal plug. The group, which soon includes Melissa Wu, who is the host of Wu Mingzhu, heads out to get the seal from the Dragon King. They encounter a large number of challenges and set backs, and even after they get the seal, things aren't seasy. Zach, having been injured a number of times in their journeys and fights while channleing Qin Shi Huang, finds out that he was lied to in order to compel him on the journey. Finding the seal isn't enough to keep the portal in good repair, and the group must go on another timed mission to retrieve five-colored stones to create a new plug. Given that his new found friends have lied to him, will Zach want to go on this new mission?
Strengths: I can't think of another book with a Chinese Muslim character, so it was great to see Zach bring his family's experiences to his quest. There is a lot of historical content introduced all through the adventures, as well as a lot of myths and legends that are widely known in China but not necessarily transmitted to children of immigrants. The tie-in with video games is cleverly done, and characters are sometimes introduced with brief, video game style descriptions. (This is also described in Anderson's Insert Coin to Continue, but having never played video games, I didn't quite understand this.) The quest follows the standard middle grade format, and Simon and Melissa (as well as the figures they channel) are good allies to have, especially since Zach spends a fair amount of time unconscious! The groups travels through Chinas are interesting, and Simon and Melissa try to get Zach up to speed by telling him a lot of stories. My favorite parts of the book where the ones where Zach is trying to strike the right balance in speaking for Qin Shi Huang, trying to bellow with just the right amount of force and authority. The deception makes sense, and there's definitely enough unfinished business for a second book. 
Weaknesses: While it's great to see information about Chinese history and legends, there is a lot of it, and sometimes the inclusion slows down the flow of the story. 
What I really think: There are quite a number of fantasy quest stories with cultural connections, and while my students are eager to pick up these books, they don't always want to invest in a long series. I may wait to see if this is going to be a 2-3 book series or a longer one. If it doesn't wrap up the story in three books, I might pass on purchase, since my readers just don't read series that continue past that point. There are a few exceptions, but I would love to be able to hand them more stand alones. 
Ms. Yingling

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