Hi there again, welcome back! It’s only been a week into may and I’m already exhausted, haha. On the other hand though, I’m rekindling my love for middle grade fantasy, which I find very refreshing!
When I was younger I loved reading middle grade fantasy (thanks Uncle Rick), I had basically read all the Rick Riordan Presents books up to date. That was when I didn’t know a thing about the book community or the YA or Adult genres. But now, I can’t believe I completely ignored them—I thought it was kind of like the contemporary romance genre? No matter how much you twist and turn the book, in the end, it’s always the same generic plot recycled again (with exceptions, of course). So today, I’ll be reviewing two of my recent reads; Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor and Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom.
zachary ying and the dragon emperor by xiran jay zhao
Percy Jackson meets Tristan Strong in this hilarious, action-packed middle grade contemporary fantasy that follows a young boy as he journeys across China to seal the underworld shut and save the mortal realm.
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.
— chinese-inspired middle grade fantasy
— morally gray protagonists (and side characters)
— mc with chinese heritage and is muslim
— cute friendship dynamics
— badass emperors picked right out of your history books
— video game inspired world building
Rating – 4 stars
So, I first requested this title on NetGalley because of the author. I hadn’t read Iron Widow but I’ve heard a lot about that book—both good and bad. And the premise of Zachary Ying sounded very interesting; the First Emperor of China bound to a headset? Sign me up.
Another thing that intrigued me was the author’s note on Goodreads where they talk about the struggles of being a Chinese American in a white community and also the prejudices of the Chinese government. And this book does not fail to explore those themes and present them beautifully. If you have second thoughts about reading this, take my word for it since it’s definitely gonna hook you in.
A quiver came over Zack’s heart. Could he ever find a place where he truly belonged, when he was so different from the typical American, the typical Chinese person, and even the typical Muslim?
Zachary Ying starts off with him discarding his lunch, made by his mom, because he wants to “fit in” and not be seen as that Chinese kid. It shows us an insight into Zack’s Chinese American life, where he tries super hard to impress everyone.
But after an accident, the First Emperor of China—Qin Shi Hang—tries to possess him, and fails. Soon after, his life turns upside down after a spirit tries to capture his mom’s soul and now Zack is on an adventure with two other teens; Simon Li who hosts the soul of Tang Taizong and Melissa Wu, hosting Wu Zetian.
Zack is a Muslim Chinese American, whose identity is deeply explored in the book. I really loved the way the author explains the myths, Zack’s inner monologue of whether he could ever be enough. I also think the relationship between the characters was greatly written. Zack goes through a lot and the end was so worth it. The relationships between the characters was also very well-written and you could actually care for them.
Qin Shi Huang had been right about one thing—there was no good versus evil, heroes versus villains. Everyone in this burial chamber was horrible in different ways.
The morality of the characters was also really well done and that actually shone through the pages. The Emperors’ cruelty and their reasonings behind their actions, Zack and his friends’ actions in the book, they all contributed greatly and it was really spectacular.
The only thin that I didn’t like about this book was the action sequences that read very slow and bland to me. If the writing of those particular scenes were improved, I’d definitely have loved this book more. At first, I thought it was the problem with the writing in general, but the other parts had me turning the pages, while the fights just couldn’t, no matter how hard they tried.
No. He was not Qin Shi Huang. And neither was he Jason Xuan, nor was he Shuda Li. Zack had spent so much of his life looking up to idols, trying to become someone different from himself, but they had all turned out to be shams with much bigger messes going on in the background than their glorious images suggested. He was done following others. He was Ying Ziyang, Zachary Ying, and from now on, he would find his own way.
I LOVED the end and how neatly it wrapped up the novel (Well, not literally because there definitely is room for a sequel after that cliffhanger). Zack figuring out himself was much more stronger and wholesome than I ever expected it to be. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for any news about the sequel and hope it’s so much better than the former.
kiki kallira breaks a kingdom by sangu mandanna
Kiki Kallira has always been a worrier. Did she lock the front door? Is there a terrible reason her mom is late? Recently her anxiety has been getting out of control, but one thing that has always soothed her is drawing. Kiki’s sketchbook is full of fanciful doodles of the rich Indian myths and legends her mother has told her over the years.
One day, her sketchbook’s calming effect is broken when her mythological characters begin springing to life right out of its pages. Kiki ends up falling into the mystical world she drew, which includes a lot of wonderful discoveries like the band of rebel kids who protect the kingdom, as well as not-so-great ones like the ancient deity bent on total destruction. As the one responsible for creating the evil god, Kiki must overcome her fear and anxiety to save both worlds—the real and the imagined—from his wrath. But how can a girl armed with only a pencil defeat something so powerful?
— indian-inspired middle grade fantasy
— mc with anxiety and ocd
— world based on the myths of mysore, karnataka (south india)
— inspired by legend of mahishasura
— a very sweet and wholesome found family dynamic
— laugh out loud dialogues that will have you gasping for air
Rating – 5 stars
Where do I even start? I think saying that this is my all-time favourite middle grade fantasy is not fair since (a) I haven’t read everything out there and (b) It would be a huge disservice to all my other favourites. But of course, I don’t care and I’m just gonna consider this my favourite anyway.
Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is a novel I definitely would have fallen in love with, as a kid. Which is clear ’cause I’m no longer one and yet I’m here gushing about this. One of the main reasons I love this book as much as I do is because of the South Indian representation. As a brown girl, finding books revolving around people like me has been hard, but thanks to recent times we see more diverse authors coming up with books of their own. While there definitely are the Aru Shah and Kiranmala series, they are mostly derived from North Indian myths. And to find something that’s close to my home was truly special.
Anyway, enough gushing—let’s get into the actual review.
I had absolutely, definitely killed my mother.
This is a book that will pull and pluck your heartstrings, make you laugh and cry all the while keeping you entertained. Kiki (short for Krithika) is an eleven year old girl who has anxiety and as a coping mechanism, she draws tales of Indian lore into her sketchbook. And yep, that’s exactly how the story starts—with Kiki killing her dear mother.
I’m kidding, of course.
But that’s still the very first line of the book. It starts off with Kiki’s brain conjuring up all sorts of scary scenarios where her mom dies because she wasn’t sure if she locked the front door. Fun, huh? Unfortunately, that is what it’s like, living with anxiety. The way the book explores Kiki’s neurodivergent nature was so cleverly woven into the story.
Her grin grew bigger. “So,” she said, “you’ve made quite a mess, haven’t you?”
Kiki Kallira screws everything up when she continuously draws into her sketchbook despite the small earthquakes that follow.
And one night, a real asura springs out of the book to wreck havoc in London. But luckily, Ashwini, the fierce demon-slaying girl Kiki conjured up, also escapes from the book killing the asura. And after informing Kiki about the dangers lurking Kiki’s Mysore, Kiki is now forced to enter her own book and save the city from the villainous Mahishasura.
I looked around desperately for inspiration, but there wasn’t even a convenient stick lying around that I could hit the Asura with (not that a stick would have done much against a demon, but said stick could have at least had the courtesy to make itself available).
The humour was so on point! I really loved the banter in this book and Kiki’s inner voice just adds to it. The banter also gets so much better in the sequel, Kiki Kallira Conquers a Curse, which is releasing this month.
The friendship and found family vibes that this gave out were just as wonderful! The relationship between Kiki, Ashwini, Jojo, Lej, Pip, Suki and Samara were so well-written I was so into their lives more than my very busy and boring life.
“Little girls are always more powerful than people think we are. People think we’re sweet, precious things, all sugar and spice and everything nice, but we’ve got iron and steel in us, too.”
Finally, this was such a wild ride, in a good way! I also liked the way that all the books in this series are self contained and don’t necessarily need a sequel. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is as easily a standalone as it’s the first in an installment. And truth to be told, I think I enjoyed having this fun break from heart-wrenching cliffhangers.
So if you’re looking for a light read that is also deep, don’t forget to check this book out as it is underrated as heck!
2 thoughts on “Review Bundle: Zachary Ying & Kiki Kallira”
[…] puts out, so good luck stopping me. After her picking up her Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom (review here), I instantly fell in love with the author’s writing and atmosphere! This witchy romance […]
[…] if you have read my previous post reviewing Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom (see here), you’d know how much I adored it! And today, joining me, is the wonderful Sangu Mandanna, […]