Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Release date: 20th July 2021 (US), 22nd July 2021 (UK)
Publisher: Tor (US), Mantle (UK)
Genre: Fantasy, Political, Historical Fiction, Epic
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu is flung back onto a collision course with her lethal fate. Her one chance of escape is to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness. Searching for a path to power, Zhu joins the rebellion—only to find it under existential threat from the Mongols’ most feared general: an enslaved eunuch whose beautiful female face conceals a heart as merciless as jade and ice.
For a monk with no martial skills, the front line of a war’s losing side is a bad place to be. And worse yet, Heaven is watching for any sign that Zhu might not be the true owner of the fate she has been audacious enough to claim…
She Who Became the Sun is one of those titles that even before review copies went out, a lot of people had recommended to me. Naturally, it came to my radar pretty quick and took over my anticipated read list just as quickly! After the end of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War trilogy, I have been looking around for sweeping Chinese and other East Asian-inspired epic fantasies to read. She Who Became the Sun, as I discovered, was exactly what I had been looking for and more.
In the narrative (but never dialogue), She Who Became the Sun refers to Chinese characters by their surnames rather than the conventional Chinese usage of [surname] [first name], which may be jarring to some readers.
Zhu Yuanzhang, in particular, had three names that were used according to the situation: her original name (unknown due to narrative leaning to her obscurity before assuming her brother’s name), her brother’s name (Zhu Chongba), and her self-chosen name (Zhu Yuanzhang). In order to make it easier for readers to keep track of the same character, Parker-Chan made some compromises, including referring to Chinese characters by their surnames in the narrative. Therefore in this review I too, will do the same and refer to Zhu by her surname.
She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty). In Mongol-occupied imperial China, an iron-willed peasant girl strives to escape from her fate of nothingness, even if it meant stealing her brother’s identity to seek sanctuary as a monk. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against the harsh Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned fate of greatness. Her rise, however, brings her face to face with the empire’s most feared general: a eunuch as trapped by his gender as she is free of hers.
The story centres around the Nanren people rebelling from their Hu/Mongol overlords and their attempt to regain autonomy and restore their own to the emperor’s throne. We follow characters on both sides of the conflict – Mongols, loyal Nanren and rebel Nanren.
I am still in awe of She Who Became the Sun. It is a masterful blend of a sweeping high fantasy narrative with an epic scope of its own, magic, and true history. This beast is also by all means brutal, violent, traumatic, and cruel. True to the bloody pages of history she seeks to re-imagine, Parker-Chan discusses ambition, desires, and what it means to achieve (or in our Zhu’s case, steal) greatness with its long running push-and-pull with Zhu’s hands throughout the book. For Zhu’s case, to acquire greatness is no easy, nor merciful feat — and for clear-eyed, iron-willed, ruthless Zhu, the path she takes require more and more moral compromises to make. Her growing ambitions and the increasingly terrible choices they compel her to make stunned me even though I knew the Zhu from our historical records had his fair share of blood in his hands. Reading the gruesome facts from the historical distance; and watching them unfold in its devastating glory from a literary lens, however, are two different experiences altogether.
Zhu is only one character from whose eyes we see whose ambitions exact their terrible costs. This book has a full cast scheming at every corner and exhibiting the most exquisite of inner conflicts. Every character in this book is complicated, messy, and flawed; driven by desire to achieve their goals no matter the cost. No matter which side of the conflict we follow, Parker-Chan manages to make readers not just root for them but adore them altogether. The relationships between each character are rife with much heart-wrenching tragedy, aching, and yearning. You will find a favourite character you would want to root for in this book no matter where you look.
Not only is this book a fantastic epic fantasy, but also one impeccably done literary fiction. The thematic and cultural elements in this book are so richly layered with one another. For one, this book is firmly grounded in the theme of fate, honor, family, and filial obligation which are some of the primary tenets in East Asian culture. There are several instances where the actions and fate of one directly affects their families, some instances extending to the need to avenge their dead and ensure their peace in afterlife. I also loved how these themes and a mandate to rule were given fantastical realness. These themes have had massive influences in shaping history, so it was a pleasure to see them given a concrete representation in epic fantasy.
The one theme I am absolutely obsessed about, however, is the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. Throughout the book, prophecies and predictions are pivotal in what Parker-Chan’s character arcs. In Zhu’s case, her name had been forecast to be “nothing,” while her brother Chongba’s name had been destined for “greatness.” I like to think that Zhu’s name had become nothing because she had cast her own aside for her brother’s, and the greatness prophesied for her brother’s name was in fact because she strived to achieve greatness using his name. Another character also accuses someone close to them to planning a betrayal, only to set it in motion themselves as their conviction end up spurring the other party’s deep-rooted bitterness and resentment to resurface. I kept marveling at the idea as I kept observing the gears of fate being set into motion with every thought, action, conversation, and turn of events in the book.
She Who Became the Sun would very much appeal to queer fantasy readers who have longed to see characters who they could identify with in sweeping, dramatic epics. I appreciated how Parker-Chan sensitively handles questions of identity, consent, and gender. She thoughtfully explores historical queerness along with gender essentialism and how characters transcend beyond it.
To suffice, She Who Became the Sun has smashed its way to its position amongst my favourite books and it is there to stay. This ferocious epic offers a dazzling and exciting re-imagination of Chinese-Mongolian history, yet it stays true to its dark, blood-soaked roots. Parker-Chan pushes the limits of literary fiction as she deftly blurs the boundary between sweeping epic fantasy and historical fiction.
Parker-Chan’s powerful writing is truly something to behold, as her prose manages to be melancholic, lyrical, and fiercely brutal at the same time. She Who Became the Sun truly has it all: gorgeous writing, epic scope, heart-rending emotions, intimate and dramatic stakes, and characters that continue to fascinate despite their disastrous decisions. Parker-Chan has weaved a harrowing, yet magnificent story where ambitions and passion run high and her characters must weigh whether their desires are worth the cost. I had a hard time putting it down, to the point of devouring it within hours. This book is just too brilliant, too sublime to miss. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of The Radiant Emperor duology, and I have every faith Parker-Chan will knock it out of the park just as she did with this book.
She Who Became the Sun is now available for pre-order, set for official release on 20th July 2021 (US) and 22nd July 2021 (UK).
Thank you, Tor UK and Mantle Books, for giving me an advance review copy of She Who Became the Sun! I am grateful to have been provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.