Book Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Publisher: Tor Books
Publish Date: July 20, 2021
*These are not affiliate links and I do not make a commission from any purchase made using these links.
She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor.
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.
After seeing glowing reactions and reviews to She Who Became the Sun on Twitter, this became a highly anticipated read for me. I think it’s safe to say (in my very subjective opinion) that Shelley Parker-Chan’s book lives up to the hype. Parker-Chan’s writing is phenomenal and really made me feel like I was in ancient China watching events unfold. I’m not sure I’d categorize Parker-Chan’s writing style as lyrical (e.g., The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue), but it’s full and rich with detail.
The story mainly unfolds through two points of view: Zhu Chongba and Ouyang, a general for the Great Khan’s army. Occasionally Ma Xiuying, daughter of a general for the Red Turban rebels, offers a third point of view. Parker-Chan does a great job defining each character’s worries, fears, and ambitions. If I had to pick a favorite it would either be Ma Xiuying’s or Ouyang’s stories.
Ma is very keen and able to accurately assess people’s characters. Though she understands the politics going on around her, she feels acutely for those caught in the middle of the political game–those whose lives end up forfeit for someone else’s desire for power. I often find myself thinking similarly about modern politics, so I completely empathize with her feelings. Ouyang plays the long game driven by revenge. I can’t say what drives him without spoilers. However, this makes his story and interactions with those around him incredibly complex emotionally. I admire his focus and outward stoicism, the latter of which starts to crumble once his fate actively goes into motion. Initially, the will to survive drives Zhu and she wills her brother’s identity to subsume her own. After Zhu and Ouyang cross paths at the monastery, her fate of greatness launches, transforming her drive to survive into one of ascension.
Zhu’s storyline, in my opinion, is most interesting the first and last third of the book. I think I’m in the minority here, but the middle portion of the book lagged a bit for me regarding Zhu’s storyline. I was more interested in Ouyang and Ma. Even though Zhu is the main character, her storyline overall felt the most detached. Ouyang’s and Ma’s emotions and thoughts come across clearly. I felt more aloof about Zhu’s even though I understood her motivations. However, that’s my overall impression; there are definitely poignant scenes where Zhu slows down for a moment, allowing time for self-reflection and questioning of her identity and fate.
The concept of fate plays a huge role in She Who Became the Sun. I wouldn’t say I’m a big believer in fate. So I found it intriguing how invested Zhu and Ouyang are in their own. I love how Parker-Chan wove the activation of Zhu’s and Ouyang’s fates on the actions of the other. This sets Zhu on the path to greatness and Ouyang to revenge.
From the moment Ouyang visits Zhu’s monastery she feels a strange pull towards him, a like connecting like, for neither is as they appear outwardly. Zhu has taken on her brother’s identity and appears male. Ouyang, made a eunuch in his youth, is described at first glance as woman and at second glance as someone with a “…hard, haughty superiority that was somehow unmistakably that of a young man.” Thus, they’re able to visit spaces they otherwise wouldn’t be able to in their society. This brings another level of complexity to the story: the exploration of gender and gender roles, which Biblio Nerd Reflections does a wonderful job of summarizing.
The fantastical aspects of this novel involve ghosts, the manifestation of light, and the ability to feel the intertwining of fates. Though we eventually learn why certain people can see the ghosts of the dead, I would have loved if that had been explored more. It added an eerie element to the story, but the ghosts are more of a background element. The exception, in my opinion, is an important scene involving the Prince of Radiance.
Overall, I definitely recommend this book. I wasn’t able to completely connect with Zhu, which is why my rating isn’t a 5 of 5. But no doubt there are other readers out there who will. She Who Became the Sun is a shining work of fantasy fiction that weaves together the concepts of fate and gender and how once can influence the other.
Content warnings: murder, bodily injury, hunger/starvation, death, sex
Reading format: Library hardback