She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan
Title: She Who Became the Sun
Author: Shelley Parker Chan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Mantle
Published Date: July 22th 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy, Adult Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+, etc.
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.
I will immediately say that the cover and the hook got me initially, okay? That cover and that mix of Mulan and The Song of Achilles. I mean, I am weak, okay? I have recently got introduced to and started reading wuxia novels and some historical novels, mostly webnovels from China. It is translated, of course, and it’s not officially translated either as the books simply aren’t available outside of certain areas and they are not at all translated. However, I am glad that I got some taste of what wuxia novels are like to thoroughly enjoy this book.
That’s not to say that this is wuxia because it’s not. I don’t think so. It’s more historical fiction leaning than fantasy but that’s totally fine with me. This is the first book in the Radiant Emperor duology, it’s the reimagining of the founding of Ming dynasty. It’s 1345, there’s famine and there are two children whose fate is told to them. A boy who has greatness in his future and a girl who has no future at all. Then comes bandits in their little village, their father is killed and the boy dies in despair. The girl decides to take on the name of her brother who had greatness in his future, so Zhu Chongba comes out of the village. This story is so well written and told at such great pace. It deals with a character that’s clearly very ambitious and cunning and determined to be great but Zhu Chongba has more in the personality to make for a terrible combination.
There’s so many themes at play in this book, from war, destiny, gender, duty and love. So many themes at play that I don’t think I can list them out. But! Let’s talk about Zhu Chongba because as a main protagonist, there’s so much to unravel! Right from the beginning of the book, we can see Zhu Chongba as this absolutely resilient person who’s determined to survive and wants to find some value for herself. She’s absolutely cunning and ambitious and some of her decisions are not quite ideal but boy, she gets where she wants to be in life by hook or crook. She’s pragmatic and she’s level headed and I loved that about her because it shows her ruthlessness wrapped in her pragmatism. Her morality is so grey and I absolutely love that about her, her will to fight and live is something that’s absolutely believable and someone you can admire but at the same time, have mixed feelings about.
There’s one part of the book that might work or not work at all for some readers. It’s the POVs, in the first part of the book, it’s only through Zhu Chongba’s POV and mostly her coming of age and that’s great on its own; however in part two, there’s multiple POVs and I wasn’t prepared for it, if I am being honest. However it worked for me in the end and I am grateful for that. The other POVs, Ma, Ooyang and Esen worked for me because they were fleshed out so well. They each had their own agendas and hopes and motivations and their background stories blended so well. This story is full of people who are not the ideal heroes but they are absolutely powerful and ambitious and cunning. This is clearly not a super happy story, I mean, it’s the time period this story is set in that kinda sets the tone. I am sure that I will definitely lose some context if I tried to put words to my thoughts about the Red Turban Rebellion, the Ming Dynasty and Zhu Yuanzhang. I did a little research as I was reading the book. That added a bit more flavour; however it’s not needed, I think.
Overall, I think this book could work as a standalone but it’s just so good that I can’t wait to read more about these characters and how much more messed up they would be in the next book! The pacing works so well, the writing is amazing, the characters flawed and so well fleshed out. So, yeah, please, if you are a fan of people who are not quite the heroic people we expect in books like these then, give this one a chance. It won’t disappoint.