Ms. Zhao, who was born in Paris and raised in a multicultural community in Beijing, and emigrated from China when she was 18, had dreamed of becoming a writer since she was in elementary school, according to her website. Her mother warned her it was impractical, so she pursued a career in finance while writing on the side.
On her website, she described how “Blood Heir,” which takes place in a fictional Cyrilian empire where a group of powerful people called Affinites are feared and enslaved, drew on real-world issues, including “the demonization of the Other and this experience of not belonging.”
“As a foreigner in Trump’s America, I’ve been called names and faced unpleasant remarks — and as a non-citizen, I’ve felt like I have no voice — which is why I’ve channeled my anger, my frustration, and my need for action into the most powerful weapon I have: my words,” she wrote on her website.
When Ms. Zhao’s agent, Pete Knapp, submitted the manuscript to publishers, editors swooned. Offers poured in from the five biggest publishing houses, and Ms. Zhao sold the book as part of a three-book package to Delacorte Press for more than $500,000, according to the industry website Publishers Marketplace. Delacorte described it in marketing copy as “the hottest fantasy debut of the summer,” calling it an “epic new series about a princess hiding a dark secret and the conman she must trust to clear her name for her father’s murder.”
After Delacorte sent out advance reader copies, many of the early reviews were positive — the book has a four and a half star rating on Goodreads. But a backlash began brewing this January, when some readers posted blistering critiques on social media. Some readers criticized what they viewed as racial stereotypes and careless borrowing from other cultural traditions: the novel features a diverse cast — including “a tawny-skinned minority of a Russian-esque princess; a disowned and dishonored Asian-esque assassin; an islander/Caribbean-esque child warrior; a Middle-Eastern-esque soldier,” according to Ms. Zhao’s description of the novel on her website.
Others objected to the way in which Ms. Zhao used slavery as a plot device.
“How is nobody mentioning the anti-blackness and blatant bigotry in this book?” one reader wrote on Goodreads. “This book is about slavery, a false oppression narrative that equates having legitimately dangerous magical powers that kill people with being an oppressed minority, like a person of color. This whole story is absolutely repulsive.”
With what seemed like lightning speed in the publishing world, where publicity and marketing plans are crafted months in advance, Ms. Zhao apologized and said she would withdraw the book, which was due out in early June.