Paper Dragons: The Fight for the Hidden Realm

Random. Mar. 2024. 384p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780593706114.
Gr 5 Up–Twelve-year-old orphan Zhi Ging escapes her small glass-making village to become an apprentice to the immortal Cyo B’Ahon scholars. But once she arrives, Zhi Ging discovers that she can stay in the underwater city of Hok Woh only if she passes 12 challenges. If she fails, she will be exiled. And there is more—Hok Woh is under threat from the mysterious Fui Gwai demon. Will Zhi Ging be able to pass her exams and uncover the villain? Obviously; and it’s a fun ride. In the best wizard boarding school tradition, there are magical feasts (sau bao and congee with duck egg!), cool dormitories, sports competitions (dragon boat), high-stakes challenges, and a mysterious enemy who shows their face in the final chapters. This is a magical setting where readers will want to live, with weird, tangible charm. Like the squire-schools of Tamora Pierce or Nadia Shammas, the education is as much about learning the nuanced history of place and peoples as it is about testable skills. As a bicultural author, McDermott makes a point of having a world that has its roots in both English and Cantonese punning. The novel ends too soon, just as Hok Woh is under attack and Zhi Ging is setting out on an epic quest. Readers will be impatient to follow her next adventure.
VERDICT With a plucky orphan heroine learning to harness mysterious powers in a well-realized fantastical setting built off Cantonese cultural motifs, this hits the sweet spots in the magic-school novel genre.

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