Book Review

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Genre | Middle Grade Fantasy
Page #s | 340
Publishing Date | May 2022

Zachary Ying never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.

The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.

And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.


I will forever compare middle grade mythology adventures to the Percy Jackson series (which I love), and I’m happy to say that Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor captures the same energetically educational vibes while also introducing some very compelling moral ambiguity into the story.

Using Augmented Reality goggles as the gateway to introducing and interacting with the powerful spirits of Chinese emperors who offer 12-year-olds enormous powers was ingenious, as was the Pokemon GO-style game that is mimicked in the book. It’s very fun and feels written in a very forward-facing, technology-driven mindset while exposing readers to legends and stories from thousands of years ago.

For me, there were two real highlights to the book. First, Zachary is a Chinese-American who was raised to assimilate into American culture, so he wrestles with his cultural identity throughout the book as he has to interact with people, places, and languages that he is totally unfamiliar with. He is the perfect way for readers with little to know background knowledge of Chinese lore to catch up alongside him, but it’s also a very poignant story about embracing your culture, no matter what age or “how late.”

Second, this novel plays around with moral ambiguity in a way that is pure catnip to me! Zachary and his friends have inherited the power of emperors, and emperors have historically gained their power through violent, paranoid, and oppressive means. This book embraces this fact and forces Zachary to wrestle with the nature of power and figuring out whether the people he is working with are the heroes…or the villains. It’s very compelling, and I can’t wait for the sequel for more!

What Make This Book Queer?

This is a middle grade adventure book, so Zachary’s sexuality is not the focus by any stretch of the imagination. However, he mentions being attracted to boys, and he’s disappointed when a cute boy shows interest in a girl. It’s all very innocent and sweet, and I think representing gay or queer kids at this age is so important!

Also, there’s a throwaway comment about Zachary being very pretty. He says that’s not a good thing in American culture, and his new Chinese friend assures him he would be very popular in China because of it. It was a brief but powerful statement about the cultural construct that is gender!

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a fast, fun read that brings Chinese mythology to life in a dramatic and accessible adventure. A definite recommendation to anyone in Percy Jackson withdrawal.

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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