I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, Zach and his mom have a quiet life in Maine, until one day something bizarre happens—Zach learns that he is able to be the physical host for the spirit of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, who is reaching back into the mortal world. But things go wrong, and the emperor ends up trapped in Zach’s VR headset instead. Now, they have to team up (reluctantly) to save the world before the portal to the Chinese underworld breaks open and causes havoc and destruction. The stakes are raised again when demons kidnap Zach’s mother’s soul, but Zach is having doubts about the emperor’s intentions…
This was a fun adventure, overall. I’d heard good things about this author’s debut work, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (surprise, surprise). So when I got this ARC, I thought I’d give it a try.
I liked Zach as the hero. He’s easy to sympathize with, considering the way he’s picked on by other kids for his ethnicity and religion, and of course when his mother’s soul is captured. He’s an underdog. I also found his bond with Qin Shi Huang intriguing; the power imbalance and tentative trust makes their dynamic complex. The other characters, Simon and Melissa, are also good, and it makes for a solid cast.
I also thought the commentary on how difficult it often is to call historical figures “good” and “bad” was excellent. There is always nuance, but history is always written by the winners, so accounts we learn are biased in various ways. So seeing how Zach learned these things and had to navigate through them was cool. Especially since Qin Shi Huang was given some decent complexity, while not shying away from or excusing the bad things he did in life as emperor. Him being a real person also helped ground the fantastic plot.
Speaking of the plot, though, I found it took a little while to really get going. (Though, full disclosure, I did keep reading other books in the midst of reading this one, so my perception of the pacing might be a little off.) Once they arrived in China, more started happening, but it still felt slightly meandering after that. I did really enjoy the water battle scene, and the final confrontation was good. The stakes were high, and the twists kept you guessing. But overall, it could have used more clearcut direction.
Furthermore, while I loved learning about these figures from ancient Chinese history, I think some of the stories could have been presented in a more interesting way. Certainly, with a written medium, it’s hard to make accounts of stories super dynamic, but there are still more cinematic ways to do it than just having the characters describe past events to Zach. Maybe he could have viewed them through his VR headset, or something, so that he—and by extension, the readers—could experience the stories. Because after a while, hearing yet another story of something that happened to someone in the past started to lose some meaning for me, and I don’t know how much of that information I really soaked in, let alone retained.
In the end, though, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a good story. The characters are great, the dynamic between the titular two being especially excellent. The settings are well-described, and the action is exciting. Not everything worked for me, but there was still a lot to enjoy here. This will definitely appeal to fans of Percy Jackson and Aru Shah.
Zachary Ying was published on May 3rd, 2022!