The Emperor’s Riddle

Last night I raced through the final chapters of THE EMPEROR’S RIDDLE by Kat Zhang, a rollicking treasure hunt and rescue mission in which eleven-year-old Mia, reluctantly dragged on a summer holiday from the US to her family’s hometown of Fuzhou, goes in search of lost riches said to be hidden by Ming dynasty emperor Zhu Yunwen–a search which she believes will also save her missing aunt.

The book has a slow start but really takes off after the first few chapters. There is a wonderful interweaving of riddle-solving with real historical and cultural sites around Fuzhou, and a clever interdependence between the treasure hunt and Mia’s family dynamics. The adventure is launched because of Mia’s singular trust in her aunt (who co-parents with her mother); the enterprise tests the endurance of her sometimes troubled bonds with her cooler older brother and her harried, practical mother; and success is only possible in part because Mia overcomes her natural reticence to build bridges with her “stranger-uncle” in China.

Somewhat irritatingly, I had to order it online (an indie bookstore in Cardiff said they couldn’t even order it in–and it’s hardly an old book, published in 2017). Obviously I’m far from the first to observe that Anglosphere children’s publishing and bookselling is far more eager to promote books about non-humans than it is about non-white/non-western characters and settings; and that the exceptions are often Books About Issues. Those very much have their place, but one does wince at the idea of implicitly teaching children that there are Fun Whites (boy wizards! girl pirates!) and Worthy Others. Given that, part of what is refreshing about this book is its both gentle and informed use of elements such as a diasporic family’s homecoming and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (which has a major impact on Mia’s aunt’s past) in what is first and foremost a very enjoyable adventure story.

If I had one criticism: the gloomy villain is a bit of a flat plot device. That said, the book already has so much on its plate that to give him more psychological depth might have needlessly complicated matters. It was fun. I think kids would like it.