On the surface, this book looks like just another rousing adventure for the video game generation. The First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, fails to take over the body of twelve-year-old, Chinese immigrant Zack, and instead manifests in his video game AR glasses. Zack is rapidly joined by two other young people who are inhabited by two different ancient Chinese emperors. The three (or six, really) set off on an exciting quest through Chinese mythology.
I have to admire the skill of the author in providing background information about Chinese history and culture. Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-generation Hui Chinese immigrant to Canada, and has an extensive knowledge of both China and the way all things Chinese are overlooked by Western school systems. They are also hilarious. Like, how can you not read a chapter titled “How the Creation of China was Exactly Like American Idol” or “How Chinese Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Leroy Jenkins Can Help a Museum Heist”?
But what sets the book apart for me is the moral ambiguity that becomes apparent as the story progresses. All three Chinese emperors historically did great things, but also initiated heinous acts of murder, betrayal, and genocide. (One does not unite the Seven Warring States, as the First Emperor did, into an enduring nation called China without deaths. Lots of them.) As with most good books written for middle school, the protagonists are faced with difficult moral choices. But in this story, the kids must also learn that good and evil exist side by side, and sometimes cannot be separated from each other.