She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

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 received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.

Review:

Yeah. This is it. This is the one. My favorite book of 2021. Doesn’t matter that I read this in January. (then re-read in June because I forgot to write a review) This book is it. The stunning prose, the characters that have prompted me to draw fanart after fanart after fanart, the genderqueer commentary, and the absolute immersion I experienced reading this book twice over. Just fantastic all around.

I must start with the writing because the prose of this book is so gorgeously crafted, simultaneously lyrical and brutal. It’s that kind of writing style that I immediately could vibe with, one where I just knew would suck me in. What surprised me, the further I read, was how much the writing style reminded me of translated Chinese historical webnovels (and this is meant in this best way possible). As a Chinese-American who has a somewhat grasp of my mother tongue, I found myself mentally “back-translating” sentences or bits of dialogue as I read, which is something I’ve only done with text written originally in Chinese. Naturally, any honorifics (ie. little, brother, etc) were always interpreted in my head as the Chinese term. Given that Parker-Chan has mentioned in several interviews that she herself doesn’t speak the language, I’m just in awe at how well she was able to nail the tone and style.

This is a multi-POV book, with Zhu Chongba the leading character. Each POV, each ‘voice’, is written so distinctly and their personalities, their strengths and fears so clearly conveyed that the writing truly brings the characters to life. None of the characters in this book can really be considered “good” people. They’re morally gray, pragmatic to the extreme, and generally people you wouldn’t want to meet IRL. Zhu is a mass-murdering monk, more than willing to kill whoever stands in her way of greatness. General Ouyang, Zhu’s primary antagonist, is a self-hating eunuch with equally strong murderous tendencies, and a flaming misogynist to boot. Yet with their POVs and internal monologue, Parker-Chan gives these characters such nuanced complexities that it becomes easy to understand their mindset, and even to sympathize with their choices.

One of the strongest themes in this book (and embarrassingly enough the one I didn’t fully pick up on my first read around) are the themes of genderqueerness. Parker-Chan uses Zhu and Ouyang as foils to express these ideas. Zhu, born female, has forced herself to don her male brother’s guise in pursuit of greatness promised to him for the majority of her life. Ouyang, born male but forcibly turned into a eunuch at a young age, lives with a “female” face in an army of masculine warriors. In both POVs, they express their discomforts with their bodies, their struggles with being not quite female and not quite male, and how those feelings tie themselves to themes of relationships with family, friendships, and love. In some ways, it’s these feelings that shape the very essence of these characters and their beliefs and interactions. Ouyang’s misogyny, for example, read as darkly humorous in the light of his struggles with being a eunuch.

I’ve touched on this once already, but as a Chinese-American reader, reading this book for the first time in January meant the world to me. This follows the rise of Zhu Yuangzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty. It thrusts readers into its world and says behold, a sliver of the rich history of China. To see Chinese idioms directly translated to text, with just enough context clues for readers to decipher, idioms I’ve used since childhood, was just such a bizarre yet joyous experience. Even if some of these idioms sound better in Chinese, trust me. Asians have long been under-represented Western media, so to see that this is the book Tor decided to spend the brunt of its marketing budget on, this wonderful piece of diaspora fiction. Just amazing.

Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Stunning prose, morally-gray characters with so much complexity and nuance, paired with strong themes of genderqueerness, agency, and relationship, set in an alt-history 14th-century China. She Who Became the Sun is a masterpiece and my favorite book of 2021.


r/Fantasy 2021-22 Bingo Squares:

  • Set in Asia (hard mode)
  • Published in 2021 (hard mode)
  • Debut Novel

Publication Date: 20 July 2021
Publisher: Tor Books
Format: print, ARC
Pages: 416
Word Count: ~132,000
ISBN: 1250621801
Buy It Here: Amazon | Google Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads

3 thoughts on “She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

  1. I love this book so much as well!! I am so excited for the release, I think I am really gonna splurge and somehow get my hands on the US copy because I adore that cover ^.^

    Liked by 1 person

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