Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.
To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything
“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 takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
As a new year begins the Fantasy book community quickly build their lists and start their shouting on whatever platforms they use to hype up their most anticipated books to come out over the next year, the excitement ripples out through the community as we hear about books we might not have existed, we are reminded of releases we weren’t expecting and series we had forgotten about from years before that are finally getting their long-awaited continuation. 2021 is an exceptional year for Fantasy and has a lot of books the community and myself, are really excited for. However, a few books really stood out and I’ve been lucky enough to read them already and get the opportunity to write my own jumbled viewpoints down for you to read. Todays book is She Who Became the Sun, easily one of the top 5 books of 2021 and one that appeared on nearly every list I saw, and having been spun as Mulan meets the Song of Achilles, why wouldn’t it?
Was the hype all it lived up to be?
She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the Rise of the Ming Dynasty which took place during the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty followed the collapse of the Mongol led Yuan Dynasty which in turn followed the collapse of the great Mongol Empire roughly 100 years before that. I would like to quickly point out that even though I’ve seen people describe this as “epic fantasy” this is very much historical fiction, Parker-Chan even taking the time to write an article (you can find on her website) showing the historical figures she based her own characters on. The year is 1345, the land and its people struggle daily under famine, drought, and illness. In a small village named Zhongli, two children are given their fates, the first son of this small family, Zhu Chongba is named for great things, the second, a second daughter of zero worth is destined for nothing. However, when bandits strike and the children are suddenly orphaned, Zho Chongba doesn’t survive the following days and succumbs to a different fate, to become nothing. The girl, grasping to life with every little bit of strength decides his fate will be hers, she will be Zhu Chongba and take his greatness for himself, the story we follow is Zhu Chongba on the path to taking that greatness.
She Who Became the Sun has all the classic needs of a good fantasy book, a beautiful and interesting world, a well thought out and written plot, but this is 100% a character driven book and the reason you can’t stop turning pages is all down to Parker-Chan’s incredible writing of Zhu. In Zhu we have a deeply complex character that you as a reader, can’t help but be completely enthralled in, and not even in the way you expect. Zhu is a survivor through and through, she clings to life with a passion that burns like the sun and will do anything to achieve her goals, everything she is sings to the reader and I would find it hard to believe that every person that reads this book doesn’t in some way relate to Zhu. You understand her because nearly every one of us has at some point felt that need to cling to life, has fought to keep going in some way, however small or large that may be. Parker-Chan’s writing of Zhu is absolutely stunning because she feels so incredibly realistically human. She is smart, cunning and her need to survive makes her fall in this very morally grey area allowing for a believable story with much more interesting plotlines than if we just had this classic black and white character, I fully believe this to be one of the best Female protagonists I’ve had the joy of reading when it comes to Fantasy.
“Becoming nothing was the most terrifying thing she could think of—worse even than the fear of hunger, or pain, or any other suffering that could possibly arise from life.”
The story starts of as a single POV plot where we follow just Zhu, however, after the first part of the book we move into a multi-POV story, allowing glimpses of the characters that surround Zhu’s life. This is normally something I would hate in a story, I’ve made it clear in the past I love single POV books, especially when you have a character as beautifully written as Zhu, and to be honest the change in story telling can be jarring in other experiences I’ve had. However, Parker-Chan does a phenomenal job of transferring her skills into what is the perfect supporting cast for Zhu’s story. Each of the three other characters we see perfectly balances Zhu’s story, Ma adding the much-needed realism and metaphorical and literal slap to the face Zhu sometimes needs to help draw proper clarity, Ouyang is a rival that really drives Zhu to heights that maybe she would never achieve without his intervention and Esen shows us the other side of this beautifully crafted world we don’t learn about under Zhu’s POV. All books need some kind of supporting cast to help drive it along but sometimes those characters don’t always feel fully part of the story or like they are needed to help achieve the main protagonists goals, She Who Became the Sun wouldn’t be the book it is without these essential additions, written any differently and it wouldn’t be the beautiful book we have.
“Desire is the cause of all suffering. The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself. With all her will, she directed the thought to Heaven and the watching statues: Whatever suffering it takes, I can bear it.”
I can’t believe I’m going to write this sentence, for me this is blasphemy and if you’ve read any other post of mine, you will understand why this is so, but I loved the lack of action in this book. I loved that we didn’t spend pages going over the battles of the Red Turban Rebellion, this book wasn’t meant to be an action oriented epic and I’m glad Parker-Chan didn’t try to make it that way, instead spending that extras space expanding on what was important to her story which is Zhu and her story. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t able to write action, we got small glimpses later on in the book, Zhu’s desperate retreat and a wonderfully written duel that showcased the authors ability to portray tense and gripping action scenes and I think the path the book takes means we might get to see some of those big set pieces later in the story.
If I haven’t made it clear already, Shelly Parker-Chan is an exceptionally good writer, and in case you didn’t realise that, the final thing I would like to discuss is just how much of an exceptionally good writer Shelly Parker-Chan is. While writing this review the worst thing is that because I was so bloody captivated by this book, I barely took notes, I didn’t highlight passages, I hurried to turn each page so I could be witness to another gorgeous prose, every page being enthralling and truly captivating. There wasn’t a chapter of this book that felt drawn out, a conversation that felt cold or unhuman, a sentence that didn’t have the exact number of words needed.
“Learn to want something for yourself, Ma Xiuying. Not what someone says you should want. Not what you think you should want. Don’t go through life thinking only of duty. When all we have are these brief spans between our non-existences, why not make the most of the life you’re living now? The price is worth it”.
These beautiful sentences pop out in Zhu’s moments of seriousness, her humour and sarcasm deflecting from her inner feelings at time, but sometimes disappearing long enough to let us see these breath-taking moments. The fact this is a debut novel is just insanity, it happens more than I realise but brand-new authors releasing books this good will forever amaze me, with so many authors you can feel their talents progress as they write more and more books, Mark Lawrence being a prime example of this for me, his writing continues to get better and better and it excites me to think what Shelly Parker Chan will be writing in five, ten years from now, if she follows the trend.
She Who Became the Sun is as radiant as its namesake, Shelly Parker-Chan has written a book that sings with the grace and beauty that is so often attached to the culture she has written about, this book will leave you aching for more and lucky for us all, this is a duology. Zhu Chongba will return to seize the rest of her fate in book two of The Radiant Emperor.
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