Middle-Grade Mashup // Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor & Nura and the Immortal Palace ARC Review

Hi all!

Today I’m going to be doing somewhat of a mini review on Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao & Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T Khan! I hope you all enjoy this review and feel free to discuss with me your thoughts in the comments! Thanks for checking out these reviews!!

Without further ado, Let’s get started!

Book: Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

Author: Xiran Jay Zhao

Published: May 10th 2022 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Content Warnings: Islamophobia, Bullying, Death of a parent, Racism, Violence

Zachary Ying is a middle grade series in the vein of Yu-Gi-Oh! meets Percy Jackson

12-year-old Zack 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.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is about Zachary Ying who discovers he was born to host the spirit of the first emperor of China to accomplish the mission of sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming ghost month blows it wide open. When I saw that Xiran Jay Zhao was releasing their Middle-Grade debut, I just knew I had to pick it up after thoroughly enjoying their debut, Iron Widow.

As you all know, I don’t typically read Middle Grade books but once I heard the premise behind Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, I knew I just had to pick it up. Let me say that this story was an absolute joy to read and I can’t recommend it enough! If you don’t typically read Middle Grade, I would totally recommend you pick it up!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is the kind of book I wish I had when I was younger. This middle-grade debut from Xiran Jay Zhao is a thrilling action-packed adventure that explores finding your identity and will capture your attention from page one.

“You have your own background, own heritage, own story. You cannot earn true respect by pretending to be someone else.”

– Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor, Xiran Jay Zhao

Our story follows Zach, a twelve-year-old boy who is the only Chinese student at his school and struggles to make friends who appreciate him. Unlike in Iron Widow, Zach is not comfortable in his own skin and often is very self conscious of how people view him. This was a great choice on Xiran’s part because his character comes off as very relatable as middle school is a time where people are finding themselves while tackling the new challenges middle school brings to the table.

Xiran creates a world unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The combination of gaming, a heist for magical artifacts, the history of China, and its historical figures is brilliant and something unexpected that readers will surely fall in love with. While I did enjoy worldbuilding, it had a similar issue that is also present in Iron Widow. Throughout the story, we get several history bits about China and its various historical figures. While I did enjoy learning about China’s history, much of what I didn’t know before, gave off major info dump vibes. This put a huge damper on the plot, slowing it down tremendously. I struggled to grasp the mechanics of the more magical elements and oftentimes was confused about what is ultimately going on.

There were certain elements added that didn’t bring anything important in terms of the plot and overall story structure. I wasn’t sure what elements were fundamental and what I should be paying close attention to. There were lots of characters introduced in this story and this was a major detriment to the story because I would spend so much time remembering who they were and then they never showed up again. By focusing on a few characters, we could have dug deeper into their stories which would make it overall less confusing. 

“This is about your personal connection to me, not about you being Chinese enough. Which is not something that can be measured.

You claim Chinese heritage. That makes you Chinese. Knowledge of me is just one small part of Chinese culture, which is vast and different across the world, wherever Chinese people are.”

– Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, Xiran Jay Zhao

The utilization of humor in this story was quite well done and there were many times where I was laughing out loud. Each of the chapters has sarcastic titles foreshadowing what the chapter will bring to the story. Even though this was a minimal detail, you can tell how much time and effort Xiran put into this story so that readers will be able to enjoy it. The interaction between historical figures and new technologies creates fun scenes that are sure to make you laugh out loud. This sense of humor that Xiran brings to the table is what makes their stories so entertaining and creates a unique writing identity that you won’t find anywhere else.

While this story has fun and entertaining moments, Xiran is able to intertwine heavy themes that resonate with the reader. This story does a brilliant job with criticizing the oppressive policies of China’s government and tackles the prejudices that many Chinese people face on a daily basis. This story explores the diaspora that Zach struggles with feeling disconnected from his Chinese Heritage since he grew up in the United States. This story puts on display how Zach knows much about western culture but he feels that he isn’t Chinese enough because he doesn’t know much about China’s history. This story does an absolutely stunning job of revealing to the reader that as Zach goes on this journey he is able to connect with his Chinese heritage and find his identity.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a thrilling fast paced adventure that is filled to the brim with Chinese history and mythology that is sure to have you invested from page one! 

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing for this eARC!

Book: Nura and the Immortal Palace

Author: M.T Khan

Published: July 5th 2022 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Jimmy Patterson

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Content Warnings: Gambling, Child Labor, Indentured Servitude, death

Aru Shah and the End of Time meets Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away in this mesmerizing portal fantasy that takes readers into the little-known world of Jinn.

Nura longs for the simple pleasure of many things—to wear a beautiful red dupatta or to bite into a sweet gulab. But with her mom hard at work in a run-down sweatshop and three younger siblings to feed, Nura must spend her days earning money by mica mining. But it’s not just the extra rupees in her pocket Nura is after. Local rumor says there’s buried treasure in the mine, and Nura knows that finding it could change the course of her family’s life forever.

Her plan backfires when the mines collapse and four kids, including her best friend, Faisal, are claimed dead. Nura refuses to believe it and shovels her way through the dirt hoping to find him. Instead, she finds herself at the entrance to a strange world of purple skies and pink seas—a portal to the opulent realm of jinn, inhabited by the trickster creatures from her mother’s cautionary tales. Yet they aren’t nearly as treacherous as her mother made them out to be, because Nura is invited to a luxury jinn hotel, where she’s given everything she could ever imagine and more.

But there’s a dark truth lurking beneath all that glitter and gold, and when Nura crosses the owner’s son and is banished to the working quarters, she realizes she isn’t the only human who’s ended up in the hotel’s clutches. Faisal and the other missing children are there, too, and if Nura can’t find a way to help them all escape, they’ll be bound to work for the hotel forever.

Nura and the Immortal Palace is about Nura who is after a fabled treasure buried in the mine to help support her family experiencing financial troubles. Her plan ends up going haywire when the mine collapses on four kids and her best friend, Faisal, turns out to be dead. Nura doesn’t believe this and shovels through the dirt to find him. While digging, she ends up in the world of the Jinn and is invited to their luxury hotel. But this world hides more than meets the eye and hides much darker forces at stake.

As I mentioned above, I don’t read middle-grade books that often. But once I saw the cover of Nura and the Immortal Palace and read the premise, I just knew that I needed to read this story. I’m so glad that I decided to pick this one up, it was an absolute joy to read this brilliant story!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once again, Nura and the Immortal Palace is the kind of book I wish I had when I was younger. Nura and the Immortal Palace is an endearing adventure story filled with loveable characters at its core that emphasizes the cycle of exploitation.

History repeats itself. Once again, we fall to chaos. But we’ll rise again. And again. And once more.”

– Nura and the Immortal Palace, M.T Khan

Our story follows Nura who works in the mines in a small Pakistani town to give her family a better life. Through the eyes of Nura, we see that even when she makes mistakes that come with terrible consequences, she does everything in her power to make it right. Along the way she learns key lessons that guide her as she travels through her journey. Her motives and the importance she places on materialism are questioned directly causing her to rethink her previous ideals when problems start to confront her. The growth that Nura goes through is written beautifully and you can see a clear progression of her character from start to finish.

M.T Khan smoothly combines the commentary on child labor and the continual cycle of exploitation into the world of the Jinn. The juxtaposition between the bright, colorful world of the Jinn while hinting at the darker undertones of child labor was done in such a brilliant way. Small details like this demonstrate how much time and effort the author spent crafting this story meticulously. The lyrical writing brings this fantasy world to life and the descriptions jump right off the page.

The time and effort the author spent are directly reflected within the world. Throughout the world, there is Desi culture sprinkled in through the clothing, food, and childhood stories of the Jinn. It’s a celebration of M.T Khan’s culture and allows those who aren’t of the same to feel a connection to it. It creates a truly memorizing world for the reader to engross themselves in.

But sometimes,” he sighs, ruffling my hair, “if you dig hard enough, you can find sparkles in the dirt, can’t you?

– Nura and the Immortal Palace, M.T Khan

The author does a remarkable job of handling the various tonal shifts balancing the lighthearted moments with the darker serious moments. M.T Khan handles these topics in such an appropriate way allowing young readers to pick up on the message woven into the story seamlessly.

Nura and the Immortal Palace is perfect for readers looking for a thought-provoking middle-grade fantasy that celebrates Desi Culture while having darker topics woven in seamlessly.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publishing for this eARC!

Will you be picking up Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor or Nura and the Immortal Palace?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

7 thoughts on “Middle-Grade Mashup // Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor & Nura and the Immortal Palace ARC Review

  1. Lovely reviews! They sure didn’t have books this good when I was in middle grades. And they are even better than when my kids were this age.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ahh both of these sound SO INTERESTING??! i haven’t gone anywhere near a middle grade novel SINCE SO LONG, i kind of miss them now 😂 SO THANK YOU FOR THE REVIEWS (AND ALSO INCREASING MY TBR)!! I LOVE THE POST!

    Liked by 1 person

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