Hi everyone! It feels like forever ago that I started reading this book and now I’m finally getting around to sitting down and writing out a review! When I heard about this book, I started really looking forward to getting my hands on it and then I was lucky enough to be approved for an e-ARC through Netgalley!
She Who Became the Sun
by Shelley Parker-Chan
Series: The Radiant Emperor #1
Release date: July 20th 2021
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Rating: ★★★★☆ .5
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.
First, I would like to point out that although this is labeled as a fantasy, the fantasy elements are very minimal. That did kind of impact my enjoyment of the book because I thought I was going into a book that was more focused on the fantasy aspects in a historical setting, especially seeing as it was compared to Mulan and The Song of Achilles. I would say this is definitely more historical fiction than anything else, so don’t go into this expecting an epic high fantasy. In fact, Shelley Parker-Chan has a great page on her website that explores the inspiration behind the characters for this book. If you don’t want to be spoiled for some of the events in the book, I would wait until after reading to check the website although there are definitely things that happen outside of those descriptions!
Even though I had completely different expectations, I definitely did enjoy reading this book! It reimagines the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 14th century China, specifically the future emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. Once I realized that this wasn’t just a book set in the past but actually inspired by historical events, I did a LOT of googling to look things up.
This story follows two main characters: Zhu Chongba (inspired by Zhu Yuanzhang), who at the beginning of the story seizes the identity and fate of her brother for herself, and the eunuch general of the current Mongol rulers, Ouyang. These two characters were just so real and raw, and their drive to survive and reach their fates was so great to read about. We also end up following a few additional side characters, Ma who is Zhu’s whife, and Esen and Wang Baoxiang who are the sons of the Prince of Henan.
Gender identity plays a HUGE role in this novel as well, with Zhu taking the identity of a man (although she is still referred to in her inner monologues as she/her and by those who don’t know her as he/him), Ouyang is a eunuch who appears as gender nonconforming while simultaneously despising femininity, both his own and that of those around him. Ma also struggles with her gender, especially with the way that women in this time period are meant to be quiet and subservient which is not what she wants to be, until Zhu shows her that she can choose her own destiny.
The writing is nothing short of amazing. Parker-Chan explores the emotions of these characters in such a way that makes you really feel for these characters, even if you don’t always know what their goal is or agree with their actions. You can also tell just how much this book means to Parker-Chan and how much love and attention went into writing this book, and it really paid off.
There are also a bunch of trigger warnings that apply to this book that were provided by the author:
This is the first in a duology, so I’m definitely looking forward to the next book and seeing how things end for these characters. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this book despite the fact that I was expecting a completely different book. Definitely worth the read. so make sure you check it out on it’s release date July 20th!