Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-ChanShe Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Series: The Radiant Emperor #1
Published by Tor Publishing Group on July 20, 2021
Genres: Action & Adventure, Fantasy, Historical
Pages: 416
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased

Two-time British Fantasy Award Winner
Astounding Award Winner
Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Hugo Award Finalist
Locus Award Finalist
Otherwise Award Finalist

"Magnificent in every way."—Samantha Shannon, author of The Priory of the Orange Tree

"A dazzling new world of fate, war, love and betrayal."—Zen Cho, author of Black Water Sister

She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor.

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.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

A reimagining of the rise of the Ming Dynasty, She Who Became the Sun is a historical fantasy novel that deftly explores destiny, gender, duty, desire – and the age-old thirst for greatness.

In a famine-struck village in 14th century China, two siblings are given their fates: the boy—Zhu Chongba—is destined for greatness, and the girl – nameless – is fated to become nothing. When her family is killed, the girl remains, fuelled by a burning desire to survive. In a desperate act, she takes the name Zhu Chongba as her own and steals her brother’s fate. But can one girl – fated to become nothing – really fool the eyes of Heaven?

With a setup like that, it’s no surprise that Zhu Chongba is an incredibly compelling character. Zhu is clever and resilient, with a single-minded desire to succeed. From a dusty orphan to a learned monk to a trusted military commander, Zhu’s rise is meteoric. But will alone isn’t enough to thrive, so Zhu learns to spot talent – and then make them allies. As much as Zhu values those allies, I got the distinct feeling that anything can and will be sacrificed to make dreams reality. The entire novel gives me “villain origin story” energy, but I guess we’ll find out for sure in the duology’s conclusion.

Zhu's life so far gives me “villain origin story” energy, but I guess we’ll find out for sure in the duology’s conclusion.

As much as I loved Zhu, there are other characters to root for. While the first part of She Who Became the Sun is narrated entirely by Zhu, the second adds the perspectives of Ma, Ouyang, and Esen. Each of them is involved somehow in the fight for control of the empire, and their perspectives expanded the emotional depth, upped the stakes, and fleshed out the political scope of the story. These characters have less page time than Zhu but Parker-Chan is still able to give them solid characterizations and growth. As a brilliant man nonetheless scorned for enjoying “feminine” pursuits, Wang Baoxiang especially captured my attention. He’s clearly going to play a major role in the series finale and I cannot wait to see where his fate will take him.

At times incredibly brutal and dark, we also have some wonderful moments of light sprinkled throughout. There’s a tender romance that blossoms between Zhu and Ma, made especially complex because of the gender of those involved (and the times they were in). Born a girl, living as a man, Zhu struggles with gender dysphoria. Zhu’s body doesn’t match up with their self-image and certainly doesn’t conform to their chosen fate. Combine that with feelings of desire for women and you’ve got yourself a deeply queer, heart-wrenching yet lovely exploration of gender, desire, and love.

I don’t typically go in for fantasy novels that feature lengthy descriptions of war, battles, and so forth, but I couldn’t help but be swept away by Parker-Chan’s incredible prose. She Who Became the Sun is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve read in a long time, and a favourite of the year for sure. Highly recommended.