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She Who Became the Sun by Sheller Parker-Chan made my 2021. I was absolutely blown away by the sheer power and writing of this book. Have you ever read a book that as soon as you finished it, you wanted to re-read it? This. This is what She Who Became the Sun did to me.
Even as I write this review, I cannot get over how brilliantly written the characters are. She Who Became the Sun is an adult historical fantasy retelling that slapped. Will I get over this book? Probably not. So, here’s my review for this stunning masterpiece.
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.
GOODREADS // STORYGRAPH // AMAZON // BLACKWELL’S
TRIGGER WARNING: Dysphoria, Pre-existing non-consensual castration, Misgendering, Internalised homophobia, Life-altering injury (amputation), Ableist language, Non-graphic depictions of death by torture, Major character death, Offscreen murder of a child, Scenes depicting extreme hunger/starvation, Graphic depiction of a person burning to death
I RECEIVED AN PHYSICAL COPY OF THIS BOOK FROM THE PUBLISHER IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW.
THE CONCEPT OF DESTINY AND GREATNESS IN SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN
She Who Became the Sun is one of the strongest written books I have ever read. From its sharp prose to its engrossing character study and commentary on gender and identity, Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut book is beyond spectacular. This book is an unflinching look at the lengths one will go to to achieve greatness. She Who Became the Sun is a genderbent retelling of the rise of the Ming Dynasty which ruled China from 1368 to 1644 A.D.
The opening scene of the book was enough to root me into the story. It’s first line establishes the desperation and helplessness of the young girl we come to know as Zhu Chongba. When her brother and her go to a fortune teller, her brother’s fortune is one of great power while hers is nothingness. But when her brother succumbs to starvation, she makes the choice to take his fate.
If he took my fate and died…then perhaps I can take his, and live.She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan
Destiny and greatness are mentioned very often in She Who Became the Sun; that it almost feels like a physical object one could wrap their hands around. Despite it being Zhu’s driving force, her sheer willpower is what actually brings her from death to the monastery to the rebel group. She doggedly pursues her brother’s prophesied fate. At the monastery, she not inly has to keep up with the other children but she also to surpass what her brother might have been. Her pursuit of survival is all claws and fangs.
This, we see reflected in General Ouyang. He is a eunuch whose family had been murdered by the people her serves. As a young boy he had been castrated and enslaved by Lord Esen. He eventually rose in ranks to become Lord Esen’s personal bodyguard and closest friend. Being a eunuch, Ouyang’s fate is also one of nothingness. He is driven by anger and vengeance, by the ghosts of his ancestors who demand revenge. All this, he pursues and schemes, despite his affection for Lord Esen.
General Ouyang and Zhu Chongba so deeply believe that their fate is set. Both of them are haunted by their past – Zhu fears Heaven finding out who she really is, while Ouyang cannot escape the violence exacted on his body. A girl and a eunuch did not have a bright future, but they defied it. Both of them living a life of deceit – the girl as Zhu Chongba and Ouyang as a loyal general, and their determination to hold on to this identity leads them to make terrible choices.
ENGROSSING CHARACTER STUDY
The perspectives of Ouyang and Zhu Chongba are very discernable to readers. The prose is not flowery but often veers into introspection that is full of longing and ambition. Taking time to explore the chaotic emotions of their character, the author’s prose shifted easily from Ouyang to Zhu. Where one was driven by rage and confusion, the other was calculated and cold. In many ways, Ouyang and Zhu were so similar – driven by survival and the determination to defy their fates. These were characters who were not content to let fate or their identities determine their place in life. They would bend fate to their will or die trying.
It’s their willpower that makes you root for them. As I read this I celebrated their achievements and their cunning. Wide eyed and shocked, I accepted the questionable actions they took. You see, to these characters, there was no moral complexity to murder or betray. It was a ‘me or them’ choice and for these characters who had nothing handed to them, who had pulled teeth to be where they are, there really was no choice. Their survival mattered more than their morality. This made for a fascinating read. I love characters who are so driven and set that they know what needs to be done, who do not chew on their actions but actually do it.
Nobody will ever end me. I’ll be so great that no one will be able to touch me, or come near me, for fear of becoming nothing.She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan
The rivalry between General Ouyang and Zhu is another driving force. Their first meeting changes the trajectory of their lives, going so far as to catapult Zhu to a revered position in the rebel group. The narrative pacing in She Who Became the Sun was neither fast or slow, nor did it follow the three act structure. To be able to tell the story of two very complicated characters, the author showed us how a decision on one end influenced the life of the other. It was engrossing to watch this happen especially when the two characters did not interact for a long time and yet, their lives where shaped by the other.
Don’t walk into this book expecting a lot of fight scenes as the majority of this book focuses on the politics. The fighting scenes focused more on the character’s cunning and wit to win. Personally, I thought this was handled really well and it didn’t jar the story for me at all.
THEMES OF GENDER & IDENTITY IN SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN
One of my favourite themes in She Who Became the Sun is its deconstruction of gender and identity. It challenges readers to question exactly the notion of gender and how it influences our lives. When Zhu first claimed her brother’s identity, it was not wholly because of the promise of greatness. Rather, it was the promise of survival. Born as a girl, she would have succumbed to nothingness but as Zhu Chongba greatness was easier to grasp. As a eunuch, Ouyang was considered neither man nor woman. Had it not been for Lord Esen, he might have even remained a slave.
This book asks us: what is gender? Why should our entire lives be determined by what our biology is? Do our bodies really define who we are and what our fate will be? What about the way people see us? Is that what sets our life’s trajectories?
In Zhu Chongba, Ouyang sees what he wants to be and by misunderstanding this, he furthers Zhu’s destiny. In Ouyang, people only see him as a eunuch – what he is holds more importance than who he is. Both Ouyang and Zhu experience body dysmorphia but also use their bodies to their advantages. There is so much to unpack in She Who Became the Sun regarding gender and identity.
“Inside her there was only the perfect, blank brightness of belief and desire. Desire is the cause of all suffering. The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself. With all her will, she directed the thought to Heaven and the watching statues: Whatever suffering it takes, I can bear it.”She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan
It was compelling to read the different parallel moments the characters went through. Zhu and Ouyang may not be the most likable characters but knowing where they come from, the actions they take are understandable. After all, is destiny something that is given to us or do we take it?
Overall, I absolutely adore this book and think it’s a very strong debut. It was so intricately written with very strong characters and relationships that will charm you. If you enjoy books that feature morally complex characters, genderqueer representation, political fantasy and historical retellings, She Who Became the Sun is a must-read!
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🌸 Have you read She Who Became the Sun? What did you think of it?
🌸 What other historical fantasy retellings have you enjoyed? Are there any you’d recommend?
🌸 Don’t forget to check out my review for The Unbroken by C.L. Clark!
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