Summary: 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.
Believe me when I say every 5 star review for this is absolutely worth the hype. I can’t even begin to sum up all my thoughts about it despite having read it three weeks ago. The fact that She Who Became the Sun was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases and it lived, no—surpassed, my expectations brings me immense joy.
She Who Became the Sun is unlike anything I’ve ever read, or will ever read. Asian representation? Check. Genderqueer characters? Check. Uniquely fleshed out plot? Check. Impactful and emotional moments? Check.
Glorious in every sense, She Who Became the Sun is a queer reimagining of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant-turned-founding emperor of Ming Dynasty, in which Shelley Parker-Chan transports us to 14th century Mongol occupied imperial China, where in a famine stricken village two children are made aware of their fates — the boy, Zhu Chongba of greatness and the girl, Zhu Yuanzhang of nothing. That should be enough reason for you to buy this book but let me indulge you in a couple more reasons:
One of the main strengths of She Who Became the Sun is its writing. Shelley Parker-Chan’s writing packs a punch, one which makes a debut novel so impressive. The writing combines brutal action, powerful dialogues and the character’s internal emotions and struggles perfectly without making it feel like too much to absorb or disturbing the pacing. It flows smoothly. Its exquisite—the tension, the angst, the desperation all bleeds out into the pages and makes the atmosphere and characters feel so real. The writing style gives you a sense of foreboding that made me eager as to what page turning event occurs next. When She Who Became the Sun was described as “bold and lyrical” they weren’t lying, the politics, the changing alliances, the military strategies, all were included in the story cleverly.
❛It wasn’t that she didn’t have it; it was only that she didn’t have it yet.❜
My god. The characters. We follow the story of several characters whose stories are intertwined with the path taken by the two main characters — Zhu Yuanzhang who takes on her brother’s identity in order to survive and defy her fate and her foil, General Ouyang leader of a Mongolian army. Watching Zhu grow from a peasant to a monk to one who controls an army and all the pieces in play to make way for herself was an experience. I was sucked in by her strong will, immediately rooting for her, she’s just a girl who doesn’t want to be nothing. And it was equally terrifying and satisfying to watch her be calculative and cunning, to ascent to power, knowing that in her feat to achieve greatness she stops at nothing. Its not her descent to villainy or anything, she simply takes all necessary, yet extreme, decisions to turn the tide (did SWBTS readers catch that reference) and keep it her favour.
Ouyang on the other hand, is burdened by his fate and extreme self loathing and believes he has to carry out his revenge for his family while literally being haunted by the ghosts of his past. His character is exceptionally done, as all his raw emotions, feelings and intense conflict seep through Shelley’s writing. His story is brutal and heartbreaking.
Both of them, so different but also so ambitious. I loved to see their predetermined fates entwined, while Zhu takes on desperate measures to change hers, Ouyang reluctantly succumbs to his. Their fates are what present amazing parallels between them and also their deep rooted rivalry, making them perfect foils of each other in so many ways. The scenes where they face off have got to be my favourite.
And the best part? Shelley Parker-Chan makes you root for them. So bad. Even with their questionable morals, even as you’re internally screaming at them.
We’re also introduced to the POVs of Xu Da, Esen and Ma Xiuying, all so wonderfully characterised and important to the events that go down, I’m awe of how Shelley included their personalities and motivations. No doubt, they too are entangled in the play of fate between Zhu and Ouyang. And I personally appreciated the multiple POVs because you see the effect of each and every action on their lives. But I loved the different relationships that developed—Xu Da and Zhu’s friendship, the intense yearning between Ouyang and Esen, Zhu and Ma’s love as they saw each other’s true selves, Baoxing and Esen’s complicated brotherhood (Baoxing is a little shit but god did I love him).
❛He had no idea if it was a yearning for or a yearning to be, and the equal impossibility of each of those hurt beyond belief.❜
a fresh take on chinese history
I grew up watching Indian historical shows so She Who Became the Sun taking up a spin on Chinese/Mongolian history automatically made it all the more interesting to read. I’m in awe of how Shelley creatively blends history with fiction and prophecies to craft this book. The detailed historical backdrop, like how the rebel group, The Red Turbans, sought to free themselves of the Mongol rule, is simply *chef’s kiss* I found myself googling the characters and history throughout the book! You can find more historical context and figures mentioned on the author’s site, here.
themes of gender and identity
In addition, Shelley handles the genderqueer representation so brilliantly. Zhu, born female, who chose to identify as a man to survive and Ouyang, an eunuch who was seen as a lesser man in a society that takes pride in being masculine. And this theme also extends to Zhu’s relationship with Ma. In both of their POVs we see their discomfort with their bodies and identities and how people perceive them. I love that Shelley included this nuanced exploration as well as the internalised misogyny as a part of the book, one that felt so genuine to read about that you know the author wrote it from their heart.
Fate and desire are well imbued throughout. At its heart, She Who Became the Sun is about how far is one willing to go to defy their fate and if individual desires and choices can actually sway one’s destiny. All the buildup leads to a definitive yet painful ending that paves way for a sequel.
While I sit here and go over the happenings of this book and wait for its sequel to wreck me all over again — if you’re into character driven, angsty, historical and political fantasies please do yourself a favour and read She Who Became the Sun and claim your great fate.
❛She saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind. The promise of difference, made real.❜
Thank you Netgalley and Tor Books for the ARC!