A brutal book of war and famine, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is a queer reimagining of the founding of China’s Ming dynasty that has no business being as poetic as it is. (That is not a dig. The prose in this book is beautiful.)
I know this may seem ridiculous, considering I review Attack on Titan which is not exactly a fluffy story, but I’m not a huge fan of violence and bloodshed in my fictional stories. As far as She Who Became the Sun goes, I was dazzled by the pretty cover and I guess failed to realize the entire premise of the book. But even knowing now what I didn’t know then, I still would have read this book.
Also, most of the violence happens off-screen, but I have a very vivid imagination.
This is the story of a young girl who, after the deaths of her father and brother, assumes her dead brother’s identity. For Zhu Chongba has been gifted a great fate, and she was gifted nothing, and she is determined his fate will be hers. She lives as a man, seeking refuge at a Buddhist monastery (which is eventually burned down by the Mongols) before joining up with the rebel Red Turbans, who are hoping to drive the Mongols out of China.
This is also the story of General Ouyang, who chose becoming a eunuch over being murdered like the rest of his family and has spent every day since plotting his revenge against the Mongol invaders who destroyed his life.
For the most part, the book alternates between Zhu and Ouyang’s perspectives as both of them do whatever they must to achieve the destinies that are laid out before them. It emphasizes the importance of power, and freedom of choice, regardless of circumstances. Zhu’s stubborn refusal to become the nothing she was fated to be is inspirational, albeit pragmatic and not always moral. I don’t agree with a lot of her decisions, but you have to admire her resilience and craftiness.
It’s hard to believe that She Who Became the Sun is Parker-Chan’s debut novel. The prose is almost lyrical, painting a well-crafted portrait of a war-torn country; the characters are complex, and the author’s skill at building tension is fantastic. This is an extremely engaging read, and the POV shifts will leave you concerned for the fate of the various characters. (If you’re like me and know absolutely nothing about this very real, very historical event.) In fact, the first change in perspective had me worried about Zhu, because the first part of the book is told entirely from Zhu’s POV and then suddenly it’s not, and I was so sure she had died.
While this is a story about war, death, and vengeance, it is also about the complexities of gender and identity, as both Zhu and Ouyang are genderqueer. (Also, I think Zhu may be asexual, which is pretty awesome.) It’s very much an exploration of how gender is not about biology, and I like how this is paralleled between the two characters, because they have very different journeys.
There are some aspects that I don’t think were developed enough, and the ending felt very abrupt… and then I discovered that this is the first book in a duology. (Why does this keep happening to me?) After Zhu decides to take her brother’s place, she begins to see ghosts, which is apparently a sign that one possesses the Mandate of Heaven, but I felt like this was an underutilized aspect of the story.
If you are someone who enjoys a lot of politics and strategy in your fantasy, or you’re into historical C-dramas, I really think you will enjoy this book.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is published by Tor Books and will be available July 20 wherever books are sold.
*I received an advance copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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