Yep, this book was ALL THE THINGS I was expecting it to be and then some. I can’t believe it’s over. While this book is compared to Mulan, I think it’s far from it. If anything, this read more like The Poppy Wars by RF Kuang.
Here’s more about She Who Became the Sun
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.
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.
If you’re a fan of literary fiction, historical fiction, military fantasy, stories with gender identity, queer relationships, or even stories that will flip you on your head, then I invite you to read this book. This is THE book and it was massive and lush and powerful and so damn surprising. I’m going to have some spoilers in here (nothing too wild, but hinting at some bigger events in the story), so proceed with caution.
Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve read a book of this magnitude and I need to shout it from the rooftops. This is one of the best books I’ve read all year. This is definitely a character-driven story more than it is plot-driven, but the characters were so utterly realized and felt so real and flawed that I couldn’t stop reading. It’s a bit of a slow burn as well, so be prepared to sit down and take your sweet time getting into this story. It’s also not for the feint of heart. There’s no lovely romance between two characters. There’s no designations between “good” and “evil” characters. This is about ambition, drive, and the ability to overcome any obstacle in your way to a greater purpose.
There’s two sides of this story because there’s two different groups of people fighting each other for supreme reign of the kingdom. There’s the Red Turbans and the Mongols. There’s also two main characters; Zhu and Ouyang. Zhu represents the Red Turbans (who first starts off as a monk) and Ouyang is a Mongol. I was a little confused when I started reading because Zhu had such a strong opening, but Ouyang doesn’t come into the picture until a bit later. When Ouyang started having his own perspective in the novel, I was thrown a bit. But once I started realizing that there’s two main characters, then things started to make sense.
Your first main character, Zhu Chongba is a red turban, but she didn’t become a red turban as quickly as you could imagine. No, she first started as a terrified young girl who’s father and brother just died. I absolutely loved reading where Zhu came from. From being a starving peasant to becoming a monk and then finally the commander of one of the red turban factions, Zhu has been fighting all her life to survive; to become something more than the nothing fate she was handed at birth. Zhu was probably one of the most complex characters I’ve read. She was born with no name, no fate, and no reasons to live other than to serve her father and brother. She originally took her brother’s name in order to survive, but the fact that he was fated to be great, she internalized that and ruthlessly fought her way to the very top. What started off as a means to survive drove her to become the leader of her own empire.
And her fight was brutal. Filled with backstabbing and betrayal, Zhu did everything in her power to get what she wanted. She’s constantly fighting herself as well trying to push out the nothing fate she was dealt and living the great fate her brother was handed. It was really interesting to see Zhu’s psychology while she did the things she did.
The other character worth noting is Ouyang. OMG Ouyang and I hope no one sleeps on him because he’s truly such an interesting character. He’s first seen at Zhu’s monastery as the Mongols destroyed and disbanded all the monks living there. Ouyang is described to be an effeminate man who could easily pass as a woman. Ouyang was enslaved to Esen (the Prince of Henan’s) family, but over time he earned his way to becoming his general fighting alongside the Mongols despite his people actually coming from their opponents. Ouyang is also a eunuch not by choice. No, his family was slaughtered and was told by the Mongol Emperor that there would never be another Ouyang produced ever again. His past is brutal and it fueled him for years as he plotted his revenge.
But the most interesting part of his story is that he’s also absolutely in love with Esen (his captor, his best friend, and his commander). The man who has enslaved him and helped slaughter his family is also the love of his life and I can’t even imagine the turmoil that must have gone through Ouyang’s head and heart as he enacted his revenge. OMG, the emotions running through me as he struggled with his own emotions.
There is a relationship between Zhu and Ouyang that does play out. Being on opposite sides of this great fight, there was going to be some derision, but at the same time I felt like they saw a little bit of themselves in each other. It was interesting to see.
There is a slight fantasy element to the story. It was surprising how subtle it was because I imagined people using magic or there being some magical creatures. But the fantasy components were interesting and the way they designated people as “Heaven’s Mandate.” It’s like any monarchy that believes they’re appointed by a higher being and the fantasy elements in this book were that appointment. I thought it was interesting, especially the way it plays out towards the end of the book.
It surprised me utterly to find out that this was based on real people and the real Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. I don’t know much about this point in Chinese history, but digging around the Internet after reading the book, I thought it was fantastic that Shelley Parker-Chan utilized these characters to create a story all their own. It was truly masterful.
I will say that the pacing was a bit slow for me. I wanted there to be a few more battles or conflicts between bouts of strategizing and plotting, but being a character-driven story, the focus was more on the people rather than the events.
Overall, this was quite a story filled with history and culture and some of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a while. I’m really excited for book two and I will probably end up reading this one again in the future.
Thanks Tor Books for the gifted read. My opinions haven’t been influenced by the author or the publisher.