Book Reviews

Review: Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zhao’s middle grade debut is an utter success. It’s a mix of stories, video game references, and deconstructing what we know. I could not more highly recommend this latest release and addition to the MG library. Keep reading this book review for my full thoughts.


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.


(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)

TW: racism

I adored Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor. Not only is it full of humor and quick banter, but also critiques of oppressive systems and mindsets. From the very beginning, Zachary is unafraid to point out the prejudices against Chinese people not from mainland China and this critique only continues especially as they make their way to China. The diaspora feels in Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor are strong and resonated so deeply with me. This lack of knowledge and this almost tentative contrast between our ‘home’ and our feelings.

Zachary needing to learn history and stories and his character journey is moving and emotional. What we will do for acceptance and how difficult it is to question what we are told. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is rooted in his love for his mother as well as his feelings of (non)belonging. Infused with history, this book questions acceptance and power. Zhao asks us what it means to be a good leader and what stories tell us. It manages to be thoughtful and questioning, while also being packed with action.

(Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links. For more information you can look at the Policy page. If you’re uncomfortable with that, know you can look up the book on any of the sites below to avoid the link)

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor asks us what we would do with power. With the ability to command, what would we utter? This middle grade debut is one that I would recommend to all middle grade fans. Multi-faceted from start to end, it is about found friendships and the important of questioning. Find Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, & The Book Depository.


What is your favorite MG with virtual reality or tech elements?

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