Book Review : She Who Became the Sun

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : She Who Became the SunShe Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor, #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan
Published by Tor Books on July 20th 2021
Genres: Drama, Fantasy, Historical, LGBTQ
Pages: 416
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Source: NetGalley

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.

She Who Became the Sun is astonishingly, a debut novel, written by Shelley Parker-Chan, which feels like a Chinese historical drama, complete with all the political scheming and social climbing, and combined with interesting fantasy elements. But the real beauty of She Who Became the Sun is the characters. My god, are these characters developed, nuanced, and complex. The pain these characters feel emotionally is absolutely palpable, touching, and makes for a heart wrenching read that hurts (in a good way). She Who became the Sun is marketed as a mix between Mulan and Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, but I have seen the former, and read the latter, and I have to say that She Who Became the Sun blows both out of the water easily with its beautiful prose, heartfelt characters, and representation.


She Who Became the Sun follows a main character on the rise, disguised as a man, and later identifying as nonbinary, who seeks the greatness of fate. (Reviewer’s Note: I refer to the main character with pronoun ‘she’, as that is the pronoun she uses in regards to herself consistently throughout the novel. Other characters, who believe she is a man, refer to her with the pronoun ‘he.’) Growing up as the unwanted and unappreciated daughter of a starving family, she watches as her father is killed by bandits and her brother, who a fortune teller announced had the fate of greatness bestowed upon him by Heaven, succumbs to despair and also dies. Determined to survive, “the girl” takes her brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, as well as his gender, and strives to achieve the fate of greatness that he was supposed to have. Her ambition is her only driving force throughout the entire novel, and as time goes on, Zhu becomes more and more ruthless in order to accomplish her goals of greatness. 


“‘Clever people know when to give in,’ Ma said bitterly….”


From the get-go, I really admired Zhu’s calculations, scheming, and sheer bravery to accomplish everything that she did. There were times when I wished she would’ve turned back or made different decisions, but the entire time, Zhu single-mindedly kept sight of her goal. Author Parker-Chan does a splendid job of detailing her motivations and her transformation to a character less bothered by morals as She Who Became the Sun progresses. Definitely towards the end of the novel I liked Zhu a lot less than I had in the beginning. This was due to many of her decisions, but I can still really appreciate how deftly the author wove this transformation and how much sense the development made for the character.


“‘But you’re going to fail…’

She said, hardening, ‘Heaven doesn’t will my failure.'”


I think my main issue with Zhu and her journey towards greatness was how smoothly things went for her at times. While this can be chalked up to her fate of greatness or even the Mandate of Heaven, I struggled with watching someone with no military strategy training or political training becoming an important leader of a rebellion. I also struggled with what I will deem her “entitlement” to her fate, which she constantly uses to justify many of her abhorrent behaviors and decisions near the end of She Who Became the Sun. As I said though, even with my personal dislike for who Zhu grew into, I felt that that development was a purposeful choice by Parker-Chan and was one that was built up incredibly well throughout the novel.


‘She couldn’t understand how someone could want anything so much that he would face the impossible for it. It wasn’t that [Zhu Chongba] thought himself infallible, she thought. That would take stupidity and for all [Zhu Chongba] pretended naivete, he wasn’t stupid. It was almost as if his desire were so fundamental to him that the thought of letting it go was more dreadful than any risk to pursue it. Ma found it unsettling. If your desire was the most important thing in the world, what wouldn’t you do to achieve it?”


I also really enjoyed the portrayal of Zhu as a non-binary character and reading all of her thoughts involving her gender identity. It made so much sense that someone who was hated for her birth gender would grow up to identify as neither male or female, as Zhu grows to feel she’s not the woman she was born as or the man she disguised herself as either. Her lesbian relationship with her future wife was really empowering as well, as Zhu taught the woman that she didn’t have to be held back by the yoke of being a woman in times where women could only be wives and mothers. Zhu told her wife to want things for herself, and not to just accept what society expected. I really liked that the character Zhu entered a relationship with is not only such a clever woman herself, but also an incredibly empathetic woman. This made her wife a great foil to Zhu, who becomes more and more callous as time goes on.


Though I really enjoyed their relationship, which was developed on the grounds of mutual respect and support, as well as their individual characterizations, the standout of the novel for me by far was everything pertaining to the eunuch Ouyang. God, I just loved this character so much. The constant torment and pain he feels over his forced castration and the ableist society he lives in that views his mutilation as an abomination was so palpable that it leapt straight from the page. His anger, resentment, and conflicting feelings over his relationship with the son of the man who castrated him and killed his family is just incredibly poignant.  I was really rooting for Ouyang to deepen this relationship with the son, called Esen, throughout the whole novel, despite the emotional turmoil and guilt I knew it would cause Ouyang. I felt guilty as a result, but I also couldn’t help but to root for this relationship anyways.


“Esen never meant to hurt, and Ouyang had always taken care to pretend matter-of-fact acceptance about his exclusion from family life. Why should he blame Esen for not reading his mind to see the anger and pain there? But the truth was: he did blame Esen. Blamed him even more than he would a stranger, because it hurt more that someone so beloved should not see the truth of him. And he blamed and hated himself, for hiding that truth.”


I sincerely wanted Ouyang to have some small piece of happiness for all he had suffered and hoped for some sort of salvation for his unbearable pain, yearning, and longing for vengeance.  Regardless of the outcome, Ouyang is an unbelievably complex character and I lived for any time the character appeared on the page. His contemptuous relationship with Zhu Chongba is similarly riveting. The two characters connect on a different level than the characters can with others, as they both see themselves as “other” or as outsiders. I enjoy all of their interactions, whether hostile or ones of uneasy comradery. 


“Destroying what someone else cherished never brought back what you yourself had lost. All it did was spread grief like a contagion. As he watched Esen, Ouyang felt their pain mingling. There seemed to be no beginning or end to it, as it were all they could ever be.”


I honestly cannot say enough good things about the characterizations and relationships in She Who Became the Sun. I was so invested in all of the characters, down to the side ones, due to how well the author writes! I honestly cannot believe She Who Became the Sun is a debut novel, as Parker-Chan’s work is so polished and beautiful, often especially when describing the agony of its own characters. Take this quote from the novel, which left me utterly speechless:


“All Ouyang’s life he had believed he was suffering, but in that instant he knew the truth that every past moment had been a candle flame compared to this blaze of pain. It was suffering that was lit around without shadow, the purest thing under Heaven. He was no longer a thinking being that could curse the universe. or imagine how it could have gone differently, but a single point of blind agony that would go on unending. He had done what he had to do, and in doing so he had destroyed the world.”


I found the prose of She Who Became the Sun to be poetic, and hauntingly beautiful, but also not too over the top. The author struck the perfect balance between this mesmerizing and atmospheric prose that effortlessly depicts the time period of 14th century China and beliefs as well, but never sunk into distracting and unnecessary purple prose. And just as the prose was often indicative of this time, with characters typically saying things, such as “this unworthy monk will not fail,” etc., I do want to mention that the novel as a whole reads more like a work of historical fiction than anything else. She Who Became the Sun does have some fantasy elements, but they are truly not the focus of the novel. So if historical fiction isn’t your thing, you may not care for this novel as much. I personally love historical fiction as well as fantasy, so I really enjoyed this “historical fantasy” novel. 


The only other thing, beside Zhu’s kind of uncanny success, (I still feel that the Mandate of Heaven and having iron will can only get you so far without proper military and strategy training, etc.,), that I did not care for in the novel is that She Who Became the Sun often switched names when referring to its characters. For example, sometimes the novel referred to characters only by their first names, and then switched to exclusively calling them by their last names. Other times, characters were called by their titles or positions rather than by their names, only to switch back to their names. Unfortunately, this made it really hard for me to keep track of who was whom and I often had to take moments out of reading to at least attempt to piece it together. There is also no appendix or list of characters in the back of She Who Became the Sun to help distinguish characters. I certainly wish there were!


She Who Became the Sun is definitely a book where the characters weren’t always likeable, were more antiheroes than anything, and go through a lot of personal devastation and leave even more in their wakes. So if you don’t like intense drama, you may want to steer clear of She Who Became the Sun. And I cannot help but wonder if the ruination will get even more painful for the characters in the sequel. Perhaps, now that we’ve seen the rise of Zhu Chongba, we will also see the fall of her in the next book.  Ultimately, if you love complex character development, queer representation, historical fiction, heart wrenching drama, and beautiful prose, She Who Became the Sun is, without a doubt, the novel for you.

Book Review : She Who Became the Sun - Blogging with Dragons

Posted June 7, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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