Book Reviews · Fantasy · Fiction

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Rebel. Warrior. Hero.

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty plain, a seer shows two children their fates. For a family’s eighth-born son, there’s greatness. For the second daughter, nothing. In 1345, China lies restless under harsh Mongol rule. And when a bandit raid wipes out their home, the two children must somehow survive. Zhu Chongba despairs and gives in. But the girl resolves to overcome her destiny. So she takes her dead brother’s identity and begins her journey. Can Zhu escape what’s written in the stars, as rebellion sweeps the land? Or can she claim her brother’s greatness – and rise as high as she can dream?

Thank you to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the eARC in exchange for the honest review.

She Who Became the Sun is a book so full of longing that it pulled at my heart. The lead characters are driven by such want that it’s a little overwhelming, but if any story were to be like this, it would the one about a young girl who takes up her brother’s place, pursuing the fate of greatness given to him as a child to try and escape the fate of nothing she was predicted. When the girl who becomes Zhu Chongba watches the last of her family give in and die, she discovers a burning desire to survive, which pulls her on and leads her to the monastery her brother had been destined for.

‘To be Chongba she would have to run as fast as he would have run, think faster than he would have thought, look how he would have looked.’

The first section of the book follows Zhu as she grows in the monastery, trying to find solutions to things such as bath day, sharing a pallet with another novice, and the changes in her growing body. This is where we get to know Zhu the most, the way she wrestles with her memories of a small girl in a dusty village and her identity as the young man Chongba, and we see how, even at an early age, she will do anything to keep her secrets and continue on her fated path. In fact, when her monastery is attacked and destroyed by the eunuch general of the Mongol forces, Zhu travels to Anfeng to join the rebellious Red Turbans, knowing that it is through this conflict that she will rise and become known to history.

The eunuch general Ouyang also feels the pull of his fate, however, and when these two characters cross paths their lives are inescapably tangled. Ouyang has grown up in the household of the Prince of Henan, who is part of the Mongol empire, yet he himself is Nanren, and the last surviving member of his family, put to death by the Prince of Henan himself. And though Ouyang is now like a brother to the Prince’s son Esen, he has never forgotten who is responsible for his fate, and the way people skirt around him because of what he is.

As she stared, a peculiar vibration started in her liver and spread outwards, as though she were a string sounding in response to its twin being plucked somewhere else in the room. She knew it as instinctually as one knows the sensation of heat, or pressure, or falling. It was the feeling of two like substances coming into contact.’

Ouyang and Zhu are each the catalyst for the other, and while this book is set within an environment of war, rebellion, and conquest, the true focus are the characters, and the way the actions of one individual can change the course of history; the way one person’s pursuit of glory and power leaves so many lives upended in its wake. This is definitely a strong theme within Parker-Chan’s work, and with neither of the book’s two central characters fitting within one gender binary, the other major element is the dissection of gender and sexuality, which I found fascinating. I absolutely loved every moment spent inside the minds of Zhu and Ouyang, and relished every small victory, every small moment of tenderness, and was cut by every bitter defeat and moment of shame. Parker-Chan’s writing is so visceral that you can’t help but feel everything as intensely as her characters.

She Who Became the Sun is a powerful debut, and I think it will appeal to a wide range of readers – fantasy fans who enjoy the historical setting (though there is minimal magic present), fiction fans who relish character-driven story telling, and history fans who will hopefully appreciate the author’s interpretation of such a tumultuous period in China’s past. I thoroughly enjoyed it and eagerly await the next installation.

‘If your desire was the most important thing in the world, what wouldn’t you do to achieve it?’

Book Info

Published: 22nd July 2021, by Pan Macmillan
Genre: historical, historical fantasy
Pages: 416
Series: The Radiant Emperor Duology, book one
Narration style: third person past tense, multiple points of view
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: castration, death, torture, starvation, misgendering, internalised homophobia – the author has a complete list of content warning you can find here, but I have included some of the main ones.

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