‘She Who Became The Sun’ is a reimagining of the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove the Mongols from China and became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It has a few epic fantasy elements, but at its core is historical fiction. It provides a fascinating look at Chinese history and culture, along with intriguing explorations of gender identity and gender roles. This is the author’s debut, and it has a few weaknesses, but overall its a worthwhile and enjoyable read.
In Mongol-occupied China, a young peasant girl is foretold of an early death, while her brother is destined for greatness. However, when her brother unexpectedly dies instead, she decides to steal his identity and claim his fate for her own. The new Zhu joins a monastery, going from monk to soldier to commander in the rebellion against the Mongols. However, her life depends on her continuing to fool Heaven that she is truly her brother. Can anyone truly claim someone else’s destiny?
Zhu – known as Zhu Chongba for the majority of the book – is a brilliant morally-grey protagonist. Her sheer determination and will to live is inspiring and keeps her alive through the hardest of challenges. Zhu is intelligent, observant, and willing to obliterate all the rules to get what she wants – the greatness her brother was always destined for. However, that comes at a cost. Zhu must always think and act like Zhu Chongba – not Zhu Chongba’s sister. Anyone who comes close to discovering her secret must be silenced. And greatness, even destined greatness, is not an easy path – a path filled with far more enemies than friends.
Identity is a major theme throughout the book. The complexity of Zhu’s identity grows as the novel goes on – while she uses female pronouns in her internal thoughts, she mostly thinks of herself as somewhere in between male and female. Shelley Parker-Chan has stated that Zhu is genderqueer – this language didn’t exist in 14th century China, but she manages to make it clear regardless. Zhu isn’t the only character with a complex gender identity – her greatest enemy, General Ouyang, has a similar struggle, and the two have a strange kinship alongside their hatred. Ouyang was born male and strongly identifies as male, but is a eunuch. His appearance is feminine and those around him treat him as something other – not truly a man or a woman. Again, his difficulty with his outward gender identity and not being treated as a man is beautifully written, and its interesting seeing how Zhu and Ouyang’s battles with identity differ.
Another major theme is destiny. This is a very common theme in Chinese history and folklore, with everyone living a foretold fate based on their actions in past lives and their choices inevitably leading them there. Reading about how the characters view destiny, and how this affects different characters in different ways, is fascinating – reconciling a predestined fate withautonomy is easier for some than others. However, personally I found it made certain sections unsatisying. One of my favourite aspects about epic fantasy is the crafting of magic systems. ‘She Who Became The Sun’ doesn’t have a true magic system, but it has a couple of elements derived from destiny – the mandate of Heaven – and this is never explained beyond that it marks those chosen for greatness. I would have liked a little more information on this mandate and how it works, and why it gives its particular set of abilities.
One of the book’s highlights is how well Shelley Parker-Chan writes relationships. Growing up in the monastery, Zhu has a best friend – an older trainee monk named Xu Da – and their friendship is beautifully written, going from a tentative connection to a relationship more akin to brotherhood. Later, Zhu becomes friends and later more with Ma, one of the rebel’s daughters, and again the change from a light friendship characterised by teasing banter to a strong romantic relationship is beautifully done. On the flipside, Ouyang has an intensely complicated relationship with Esen, the eldest son of the Prince of Hesan and commander of his army. Esen is the height of masculinity and trusts Ouyang implicitly, and its never quite clear to what extent Ouyang wants him or wants to be him – even to Ouyang himself. Esen’s adopted younger brother, Wang Baoxiang, is another outsider, seeing himself and Ouyang as very similar – but Ouyang despises him, and the evolving relationships between Ouyang, Esen, and Wang Baoxiang are expertly written.
The main downside is the lack of connection between the reader and the characters. Each individual character is well-written, complex, and intriguing, but also seems to be kept at a distance. Each character forms wonderful relationships with other characters, but to an extent is shrouded from the reader. This is on the shorter side for an epic fantasy novel, lending it pace and easy readability, but it means the reader doesn’t have time to connect to all the characters given a perspective. Even Zhu, the overall protagonist who gets the vast majority of page time, never commands as much emotional investment from the reader as they should.
Overall, ‘She Who Became the Sun’ is a strong historical fantasy debut, heavy on the history and light on the fantasy, with an intriguing cast of characters that give a fascinating insight into Chinese history and culture. It also explores identity in a very nuanced way, taking a different approach to a common fantasy trope. The minor niggles only detract a little from an otherwise strong story. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy, Chinese history and folklore, LGBTQIAP+ fiction, and morally grey characters.
Thanks to NetGalley and Tor UK for providing am eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Tor
Hardback: 22nd July 2021