One of the first things they teach you about the Internet is that anything you say on there is permanent. While I never made the mistake of giving away private information to strangers on social media, I have made posts that I now regret. One really damning post was my glowing review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. Several months after reading the book, my outlook on it has completely changed. I could write a whole additional post about what I’ve been going through that made me love it at the time, and how I’m only just starting to face my personal issues head-on, but I won’t bore you (if you want context, you could read my other YA novel reviews and see how increasingly depressed I got over time).
In any case, I’m not going to hide what Iron Widow is anymore. I still stand by Wu Zetian being one of the few proactive YA protagonists, and the book overall being great as a mindless, anime-like romp. However, if taken with anymore than a grain of salt, it is a toxic and unhealthy tome of Feminism to the most violent, hypocritical extreme. Regardless, I still think Zhao is one of the most promising rookies in the field. With all that being said, let’s see if their middle-grade debut novel, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, improves on their writing style while potentially being less of a loaded gun than Iron Widow was.
In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the titular Zachary is a passionate fan of Mythrealm, an AR-game that combines Pokémon Go with ancient mythology. One fateful day, he meets a boy named Simon Li, who is the host of the spirit of one of China’s past emperors. Zachary himself is also able to be possessed by the spirit of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, via his AR headset. The timing of this couldn’t be better, because his mom is captured by demons and needs saving.
I hate that my blog has gotten so political lately, because I wanted to be a breath of fresh air from said politics. However, when you’re reading a book by Xiran Jay Zhao, it’s impossible to not get political. Unsurprisingly for a book published in 2020 onwards, Zachary Ying is a victim of racism; people assume things because he’s Chinese, and he’s even ashamed to eat his authentically homemade Chinese lunch at school. This means nothing for the plot, but it’s there anyway because it’s topical. To be fair, this is significantly tamer than Iron Widow. Of course, almost everything is tamer than Iron Widow in terms of political undertones, meaning that Zachary Ying will still feel very political in and of itself.
Let’s stop getting political for a bit and discuss what makes the book interesting in the first place: its very anime premise. Like in Iron Widow, Zhao is at least able to come up with creative ideas and execute them well. In a world where so many stories involve VRMMOs, the rare instance of an AR game is novel already. One of the biggest criticisms of Iron Widow was that the mechanics weren’t thought out well enough, and Zhao actually learned from that mistake! The basic principles of Mythrealm and the whole spirit thing are simple: the powers of the spirits are determined by how they’re thought of by people in the living world, including their portrayals in videogames. It’s an easy way for Zhao to go all-out and make Zachary Ying maximum anime.
In addition to being more anime, the book is significantly more action-driven than Iron Widow. There’s a fight scene in almost every other chapter, and said fight scenes are absolutely nuts. This is good because subtlety is about as good as it was in Iron Widow, i.e. non-existent. Zhao tells you exactly how to feel, from political views to how to view the spirits pulling the reins. They at least pull a moral ambiguity angle, something that was SORELY needed in Iron Widow, where a mass murderer was considered a messaiah.
So… the characters. Ohhhhh boy. Let’s discuss Zack first. He’s kind of a wimp, even when he has phenomenal cosmic powers. He’s meant to be an audience surrogate protagonist; the Asian-American who knows nothing about Chinese culture and history, and is therefore an incomplete human being. I’m not even exaggerating that last bit; part of today’s “woke” culture is the idea that every person is duty-bound to know and understand their “racial identity” to the Nth degree. Like almost all other books of this kind that I’ve covered, he gets stronger not by becoming more self-confident, but by learning random stuff about Chinese history.
Simon Li feels like he’s kind of there. He basically serves as an infodumper when the ghost of Huang doesn’t happen to be doing it himself. He has a brother in the hospital, but it feels like a shock value thing to make you like him. Oh, and here’s a kicker: the guy possessing his body is the real-life inspiration for Iron Widow’s drunk delinquent, Li Shimin.
Speaking of Iron Widow, recall its protagonist, Wu Zetian. She’s here too, and I honestly felt PTSD from her reappearance. Zetian possesses the body of Melissa Wu, and their personalities are so identical that you can’t even tell who’s speaking out of Melissa’s body at any given time. Surprisingly enough, she’s not as much of an extremist this time around. She’s still the Best Girl, though, if not better because she’s not yelling P.C. P.S.A.s every five seconds.
Every time I review an urban fantasy like this, I’ve said that the actual mythological characters are boring. Fortunately, the many mythological and historical figures that Zack encounters on his journey are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are memorable and faithful to their sources, and have the self-referential humor that you’d think more authors would take advantage of but don’t.
If there’s anything I learned from Zachary Ying, other than a LOT of Chinese history, it’s that I still don’t get Xiran Jay Zhao at all. They say some things that are true, like how Chinese people aren’t all exactly the same as individuals, and a line about not caring about what other people think. However, they definitely portray Americans as a single, racist entity that hates Chinese culture, contrary to hard evidence that proves otherwise. Also, today’s culture literally revolves around people having to be “seen” by America in order to exist. Zhao seems to be establishing themself as a guru of Chinese history, but because of how political they are, and how things are in general these days, I don’t know if their interest is born of passion or civic duty. Their bio says they were “raised by the Internet”, which makes me feel like that their motives are purely the latter. Zack is often condemned for not knowing Chinese culture facts, and to be honest, I felt condemned by the author as well. That’s not how you should feel when learning about a foreign nation’s rich culture.
Final Verdict: 9.85/10
I think I really like this book. It’s a significant step up from Iron Widow, at the very least. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is way more creative, and ties into Zhao’s vision to make the world learn Chinese history. It’s just a shame that it still has sprinkles of agenda throughout, otherwise it’d be almost perfect (although many would argue that the political aspects make it perfect).
Regardless, I need to stop getting political. Other than a few rants I may or may not publish, I’m going to try my damndest to stop being obsessed with politics, and to stop reading these politically charged books. I might still find myself consuming more of them (including but not limited to the sequels to books I’ve covered), but if I do, you won’t be seeing them. Anyway… Zachary Ying is great. Just be wary of the potential to get triggered.