Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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 received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.


Zhao returns with another break-neck Chinese history-inspired sci-fi novel and it’s an absolute delight. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is marketed as Percy Jackson meets Yu Gi Oh and for once the comps are exactly what this book offers. Zachary, you average middle school boy, suddenly learns that the VR video game he plays isn’t just fiction and is thrust into a world of bickering historical and mythological Chinese figures, all while trying to save his mother’s soul. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, plays a weirdly prominent role with bizarre personalities in online media, from the Qin Huangdi RP twitter account to FateGO’s mothman and Zhao is here to add yet another delightful addition to that canon. Easily my favorite part of this book was the bickering between Qin and the various other figures Zach meets through his journey, each petty argument laced with historical references and stories that a younger me would have just loved. As usual, Zhao is unapologetic in calling out racism, both the racism Zach faces in the US for being Chinese, and the racism he faces when he travels to China, for not being the right kind of Chinese. At the same time, they deftly interrogate Zach’s Muslim identity and how a Western perception of China is often skewed. Overall, I rate this book a 4.5/5.

r/Fantasy 2022-23 Bingo Squares:

  • Cool Weapon (hard mode)
  • Name in the Title (hard mode)
  • Published in 2022
  • Urban Fantasy
  • BIPOC Author
  • Features Biological Family Ties (hard mode)

Publication Date: 10 May 2022
Publisher: Margaret K McElderry Books
Format: eBook, ARC
Pages: 352
Word Count: ~81,000
ISBN: 1665900725 

Buy It Here: Amazon | Google Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads

4 thoughts on “Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

    • Haha let me know your thoughts! I think some parts are still pretty heavy handed like Iron Widow is, but I’ll give it more of a pass because I’m not expecting as much nuance in MG as I would YA or Adult

      Liked by 1 person

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