Da Chen, . . Delacorte, $15.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-385-73020-4

Chen (China's Son) turns from memoir to fiction with mixed results in this uneven fantasy set in ancient China. Eleven-year-old Luka lives with his guardian, the monk Atami, hiding from Mogo invaders and begging for food. Atami, explaining that Luka is destined to be China's next Holy Emperor, schools the boy in Jin Gong, a type of kung fu. Things look bleak when Luka is imprisoned and sentenced to death, but he is befriended by Gulan, another monk, who tunnels into his cell à la The Count of Monte Cristo to train him in the art of Yin Gong, the highest art of Xi-Ling. It turns out that Gulan and Atami both belonged to the Xi-Ling warrior brotherhood, and after Luka and Gulan escape, they embark on a series of adventures that eventually reunite them at the Xi-Ling temple. There Luka undergoes further training and butts heads with a rival as the tale rushes toward a climactic battle against the forces of evil. Plying themes reminiscent not only of Dumas but also of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (e.g., channeling his energy, Atami's dagger flies at his bidding) and Star Wars ("Go with the flow and use the force to your advantage," Atami tells Luka), Chen's sprawling tale strains under the combined weight of breathless adventure, clunky prose ("Big thoughts swelled like waves in his heart") and a parade of anachronisms ("I'm out of here"; "Wow, Grandmaster"). Still, there is much to enjoy, particularly the unusual kung fu backdrop, which makes an intriguing setting for a fantasy adventure. Ages 12-up. (Jan.)