As a member of the Jade Society, twelve-year-old Faryn Liu dreams of honoring her family and the gods by becoming a warrior. But the Society has shunned Faryn and her brother Alex ever since their father disappeared years ago, forcing them to train in secret.
Then, during an errand into San Francisco, Faryn stumbles into a battle with a demon–and helps defeat it. She just might be the fabled Heaven Breaker, a powerful warrior meant to work for the all-mighty deity, the Jade Emperor, by commanding an army of dragons to defeat the demons. That is, if she can prove her worth and find the island of the immortals before the Lunar New Year.
With Alex and other unlikely allies at her side, Faryn sets off on a daring quest across Chinatowns. But becoming the Heaven Breaker will require more sacrifices than she first realized . . . What will Faryn be willing to give up to claim her destiny?
Listen: I am the sort of reader that likes to withhold judgement of a book within the first few chapters of a book, let alone the first few pages. However, when you read the dedication of The Dragon Warrior and find that it is dedicated to immigrants, children of immigrants, and diaspora kids everywhere? The diasporic child within me that imagined vivid sweeping stories about dragons and wielding magic powers as some foretold magic warrior will undoubtedly rise up, excited, rearing to go on an adventure.
And quite frankly, that’s how I felt reading Zhao’s book. Reading this book, it is evident that this is a book of Zhao’s heart; one that is a collection of treasured moments and memories incorporated into a story that is so deeply loved by its writer. And what a honour it is to have read this book, to celebrate its existence and to make me, even momentarily, feel like that giddy child again who craved magic and adventure.
But sentiments aside: The Dragon Warrior is not only beautiful and meaningful to me, a child of immigrants and part of the Asian diaspora, but it also an incredibly fun and exciting book! It follows Faryn, a 12-year old girl who finds herself to be the foretold Heaven Breaker, a warrior powerful enough to wield the celestial weapon, and her quest to find the island of immortals.
An action-packed, heartfelt, and empowering adventure
When I was a little kid, I had these extended daydreams where I imagined myself as the hero of fantasy stories filled with quests, magic, and – to be honest? – be endowed with incredible power. Reading The Dragon Warrior, a story steeped in my culture and having a heroine like Faryn, who is Asian (and multiracial) and a girl, was such an affirming and powerful thing. The story in The Dragon Warrior acknowledges the patriarchal perspectives inherent in quest stories – that quest stories are often led by boys and men and therefore girls cannot be ‘chosen’ – and deliberately subverts that. It’s so validating to read a quest story that acknowledges that girls and their potential are often sidelined or dismissed in favour of boys, and centers on a young girl who became and lived up to the title of Heaven Breaker.
There are many things that I love about The Dragon Warrior, but chief among them would be that The Dragon Warrior is just such a fantastic and fun adventure story. Zhao effortlessly balances a variety of aspects that make an adventure storyline so compelling that will keep kids entertained and adults intrigued. The Dragon Warrior follows a wonderful and action-packed quest with high stakes, fantastic and satisfying character development where the stakes of the quest begin to change those who embark on it, a series of challenges that the heroine has to overcome, and also some pleasantly surprising and exciting plot twists that take the story in an unexpected but welcome direction. Furthermore, at the heart of Faryn’s quest is to honour her family and realise her potential as, not just a hero, but someone who can help others in their time of need.
A story rich with mythology and Chinese culture
The Dragon Warrior is also delightfully and unapologetically Chinese-inspired! I loved the creative and inspired ways Zhao integrated Chinese mythology and culture into the story – from the meddling Asian deities (who have cool twists in their personalities that nonetheless feel so… right?), references to Chinese folklore and mythology (hu li jing! nián! King Yama! the ruyibang!), and even a notable mention of one of my greatest loves, pei pa koa (though Faryn slanders it by calling it nasty-smelling! I love Faryn, but I disagree; the smell of pei pa koa is a promise of soothed sore throats).
However, writing a story that is filled with references and familiar things isn’t what makes The Dragon Warrior such a good book. For me, what makes The Dragon Warrior such a fantastic piece of Asian literature is that the story isn’t just rich with Asian cultural elements but is also rich with its values, or the very substance that makes it quintessentially Asian. From the Asian Uncle-like humour that Asian kids will recognise to the emotional subplot rooted in the love and honour for one’s family, The Dragon Warrior is the kind of story that Asian readers can find comfort in and can feel understood and seen.
A love letter to diasporic kids
In addition to its representation and integration of Asian culture in the story, The Dragon Warrior is very evidently a love letter to immigrant kids, children of immigrations and diaspora. Not only is Faryn part-Chinese, she is also multiracial (Egyptian, Turkish, and Greek). Thus, threading the whole story together are themes of identity, in particular mixed identity, themes of belonging and finding your place in the world, and how sometimes it is people who help you figure out where you belong.
And I say that these are important to immigrant and diaspora kids because, well, I think a common experience among mixed and diasporic identity is the loneliness of it; mixed identity can be a lonely experience, particularly when you feel so disconnected from the places you ought to fit into. But, The Dragon Warrior shows that there is power and beauty and good things in being who you are, and that it’s the connections that we form and develop with others (shown through Faryn’s journey as the Heaven Breaker and the found family she finds along the way) that make us feel like we belong. Indeed, The Dragon Warrior has some delightful friendships – best-friends to enemies to frenemies to friends, tenuous and complex sibling relationships, and also the bonds we form with the people who overcome challenges with us.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Dragon Warrior is a stellar debut, a guaranteed hit with younger readers for its excellent pace and fun storytelling, and also an important story to immigrant and diaspora kids everywhere. I cannot recommend this wonderful book enough, and I am certainly looking forward to the sequel. Reading The Dragon Warrior felt like coming home to my younger self; the young Asian girl who dared to believe that she could be powerful, could do magic, and was destined for good things – and to feel this while reading? For that, I’m grateful. Thank you, Katie.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A 12-year old girl finds out that she is the foretold Heaven Breaker, and must go on a quest to prove her worth.
Perfect for: Readers who love fun middle-grade adventures; readers who are looking for a good Asian lit read; readers who love stories with mythology and folklore.
Think twice if: You’re not a fan of quest stories.
Genre: middle-grade, fantasy
Trigger/content warning: death of a loved one
Reading The Dragon Warrior would not have been possible without my dear friend, Melanie, whom I absolutely love and adore. Earlier this year, Melanie sent me an ARC of The Dragon Warrior (along with Girls of Shadow and Storm and A Thousand Fires) because she knew I couldn’t go to book conventions and didn’t want me to miss out. I love you, Melanie! I’m so grateful to you, for getting one of my favourite books of the year into my hands. Please follow her on booktube!
But friends, I absolutely adore this book and I hope you can all read it! It releases on the 15th of October (very soon!) and if you’re already thinking of holiday gifts for any little ones in your life (or even for yourself?), you can’t go wrong with The Dragon Warrior.
- Are you looking forward to read The Dragon Warrior? Have you read it yet?
- What is a middle-grade book that you love and would recommend to anyone?
- What is the last book you read where you felt represented and seen?