It is hard to believe that this book is middle grade- the world building, the social and political commentary, the authenticity, the history, the humor, the writing quality, the richness, really makes me embarrassed that as a child I never gravitated towards books like this. Everything I love about contemporary fiction seems to be done so well in the handful of fantasy books I’ve read of late, add in layers of adventure, imagination, and nuance, and I don’t know why I took so long to embrace this genre. Not to say every MG fantasy is written this well, but why settle for only friendship, family, and identity issues when you can have all of it and dragons? This 352 page book about a Chinese American Hui Muslim kid is action packed, culture rich, unapologetically Muslim, and a gripping good time. While I think lower MG could handle and enjoy the book, there is nothing explicit, it does in passing mention eunuchs, concubines, and adult entertainment, along with the main character stating that he is not attracted to girls a few times and that he acts like a girl, but presents as a boy, thus making me think middle school aged might be a better fit. If younger kids read it, they may or may not even pause or notice the aforementioned possible flags, I only highlight them, so that my readers are aware and can be prepared to explain and discuss if needed. As an adult reading it, I can see clearly that Zach is gay, but I don’t know that most kids will catch it. The author skillfully hints at it, but doesn’t make it the focus of the story, ultimately making me feel like if you want to see it you will, if you don’t, you probably won’t. Oh and the chapter titles, they are awesome!
Zachary Ying is twelve and while he isn’t comfortable in his Maine school, he manages. He dumps the delicious Chinese food his mom makes every day so that no one teases him for the smell it carries. He tries to impress the other members of the Mythrealm club, a vr video game, without rocking the boat, and he loves his single mom who works hard since his father was killed in China advocating for the rights of Uyghurs. He knows little about Chinese history, the language, or myths, but that all starts to change when his VR gaming headset becomes the host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang.
His mom becomes the target of demons and when her soul is taken, Zachary is off to China to secure the barrier that divides the worlds and keeps the spirits at bay. To do that though he is going to need to learn Chinese history, the power of artifacts, and the role of myths in keeping stories alive. With two friends, also possessed by past emperors, joining him, the adventure is non stop.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that Ramadan is mentioned on the very first page, that Zach’s mom wears hijab, that he only eats halal, and that details about life in China for Muslims is shared. It isn’t the main part of the story, but it adds such a powerful layer, that I found myself looking up Hui Muslims and trying to rectify how little I know about Islam in China.
The social commentary about which individuals from history are remembered and why some are celebrated and others vilified was so impressive to see in a MG fantasy book. It doesn’t ask you to agree with the narrative, nor does it preach anything, it just presents it in all its beautiful shades of gray glory albeit often shrouded in humor. I truly feel that most MG authors talk down to their readers, if these themes can be so strongly presented and consumed, what superficial fluff did I waste my time reading as a preteen? Thankfully I’m an adult that loves juvenile fiction, so there is still hope for me yet.
Magic, mythical gods, fighting, violence, lying, deceit, killing, crushes, same sex attraction, concubines are mentioned as are eunuchs, but nothing more is said about them. Affairs and mistresses in context to myths and past emperors are mentioned.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know if I could teach this. Once you sense that he is gay it is hard to unsee, and in an Islamic school, that would be problematic. I will have my own kids read the book, I don’t think there would be any concerns for me there. A few weeks ago concubines were mentioned in a khutbah, so I’ve already had to explain that to one of my kids.
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