She Who Became the Sun
by Shelley Parker-Chan
“I refuse to be nothing…”
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 uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
I received an eARC of She Who Became the Sun from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
She Who Became the Sun is political and scrumptious and the best book I’ve read so far this year. Oddly it was one I was a little hesitant to pick up, even though I loved the premise and that this is both fantasy and historical fiction with a genderqueer woman at its centre. When a book is described as Mulan (which I love) meets The Song of Achilles (which I adore), I can’t help getting a little worried that I won’t like it as much as I’m hoping I will, especially when I’ve been previously burned by comp titles.
Luckily I loved this novel. A lot. I thought about it so often and, when I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t wait to pick it up and get lost in medieval China. I know practically nothing about Chinese history and for once I’m glad of my ignorance; I believe this is one of the only times I’ve picked up a retelling with zero knowledge of the source material, and in this case I’m glad of it because I don’t want to know what might happen to a group of characters I’ve grown to love so deeply.
In famine-stricken 14th century China, a widowed peasant takes his two remaining children, one son and one daughter, to a fortune teller, who reveals his son, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness. When he and his son die, his daughter takes Zhu Chongba’s name and sets out to take his fate for herself, too.
If you love fantasy novels with politics, power struggles, revenge and characters who are truly morally grey, you need to get your hands on a copy of She Who Became the Sun. Zhu is such a brilliant character and, unlike many early classic fantasy protagonists, she sets out on her path towards greatness by being one of the most Machiavellian protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of following. After her family’s death she disguises herself as a boy so she can enter a monastery, where she’s guaranteed food, shelter and education if she can keep her true identity secret, becoming a monk and then a warrior after Mongol troops, led by the eunuch general Ouyang, burn her monastery to the ground.
Ouyang is another fascinating character in his own right, and I loved how he and Zhu are essentially two sides of the same coin: they’re both orphans, both genderqueer, and both far more cunning than the majority of people around them realise. His quest isn’t greatness, however, but vengeance, and yet the very man he wants to exact his revenge upon is the man who means the most to him. I wasn’t sure what to think when Ouyang became a pov character – I wanted more of Zhu – but Parker-Chan’s character work is so exquisite that, whoever’s pov you’re reading, you can’t help craving the others and wishing you could read them all simultaneously. Zhu is already a triumph of a character, but Ouyang is just as delicious.
Another notable character is the noblewoman, Ma, who in many ways is this novel’s moral centre. She understands what’s expected of her in the world she inhabits – she’s the epitome of dutiful – but she’s no fool in the realm of politics, and she’s unfailingly kind. I loved her relationship with Zhu – in fact I’d like ‘Don’t make me want to want’ tattooed on my forehead.
The conflict between the Mongols and the rebels who oppose them is a constant threat, but the majority of She Who Became the Sun focuses on the conflicts between the various factions within these two groups. There are so many people vying for power in a world that feels as though it’s on the brink of change, but I never felt lost or confused; this may be Parker-Chan’s debut, but it’s already clear that she can guide her readers through this rich tapestry of intrigue, power and divine magic with ease. There are times when her writing is very simple, and yet the impact of certain scenes is in everything she doesn’t say.
I honestly don’t know what to say about this book. It’s one of the best pieces of historical fantasy I’ve ever read, if not the best, so now I guess all I can do is sit and wait impatiently for book 2…