The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao.
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 344 pages.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .
Faryn Liu wants nothing more than to become a warrior in the exclusive Jade Society her family was born into, but the current leader sees her gender and mixed race as fatal flaws. With her grandfather sick, only finding her legendary, long-lost father can get her the entry into demon-fighting she desires. All it would take is a cross-country, multiple-realm trip wielding the legendary Fenghuang and facing dragons, demons, and rogue gods.
This book calls out colorism from the very first page, and that’s incredibly unusual in a middle grade genre novel. Although I wish it wasn’t needed, and agree that it shouldn’t be in every book, I also remember students struggling with this, and wish I’d had this book then to offer. There’s a unique power to being able to see one’s struggles in a fictional hero. She identifies as half-Chinese and half-Other (Egyptian/Greek/Turkish); I have used both the part-white and the non-white biracial tags here because sometimes those groups are classed as white, other times they are not. Faryn herself points out that she is darker skinned than the norm for her Chinese community.
I spent perhaps more time than I should have trying to pin down the exact year this was meant to be set in. It’s frequently mentioned that it’s the Year of the Horse, but that could be 1990, 2002, 2014, or 2026. Since the kids have a handheld video game but none of them have cell phones, I’m going to cut the first and last of those out and say it’s either 2002 with surprisingly good tech, or 2014 and they either can’t afford or have too strict of a family to have cell phones. I’m leaning towards 2014 because in 2002 kids would have been a lot more worried about approaching the District of Columbia with magical flight. However, the scenes of deserted streets also feel strangely familiar post-pandemic!
Allow me to digress for a moment and point out how much I love Vivienne To. I’m convinced she is an illustrator who actually reads the books, and I very much appreciate how her covers succinctly capture the story and sell it to readers. This is the third series with covers illustrated by To that I’ve reviewed for this blog (the others are the Jumbies and Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond), and I’m convinced she’s the next big name in MG fantasy cover art.
Relationships between characters were well developed here, and even when I guessed at one plot element early on, I was still interested in reading just to see how the characters would react. Zhao also nails the simultaneously comforting and suffocating nature of small groups within a larger majority, and especially how that can feel to someone who both belongs and doesn’t belong at the same time for whatever reason. In particular I felt very invested in Faryn’s emotional arc and connected strongly with her as a character.
I also loved the romp through five different Chinatowns across the USA, and the little references that brought the story alive like the Tiger Balm. Although I was very confused by the frequent Yelp mentions. Was this an attempt at setting the time period, or is there a cultural reference here I’m missing? Faryn’s little brother’s obsesssion with video games isn’t as limited in either time or space; however most anyone can relate with that. A nonbinary character is also included – I’m not familiar enough with the source material to know if this is an interpretation generally accepted or a tweak by Zhao.
There was some mild romance in this story, and even an unexpected kiss on the cheek. One aspect of MG which I enjoy is that it’s difficult to write insta-love in MG (especially compared to YA where the term was coined). However, both for that reason and because MG generally is just more predictable than books written for older readers, it is often very easy to guess which characters might develop a relationship long before it happens.
Zhao doesn’t remain predictable, either on her romance or other areas of the plot. While the central plot quest is resolved by the end of this book, Zhao manages to do it in a way that asked far more questions than it answered, leaving the door wide open for a sequel. This felt a bit like a younger, Chinese version of American Gods, whether it was the travel, unpredictability, heart-wrenching moments, or unlikely companions who turn out to be a perfect match. Along with that, there are some difficult moments, so I wouldn’t suggest this for sensitive readers.
I want to give this a highly recommended, if only for the interesting technical things Zhao did with this book. But I also would like to hear from #ownvoice reviewers about some of the portions of this book that I’m uncertain about before I wholeheartedly suggest it to others. In particular, would be interested in hearing from mixed-race Chinese about the colorism Faryn encounters, and practitioners of traditional Chinese religion about the spiritual portrayal. Assuming no major flaws in those areas, otherwise recommended.