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.
When I sat down to write out some thoughts on She Who Became the Sun by soon-to-be-everyone’s-favorite-writer, Shelley Parker-Chan, the word “ambitious” kept coming to mind. More to the point, ambition, the will to act, the refusal to become nothing, and it’s that last point you’ll easily recognize as the primary theme in this journey of a book. So, if Shelley and her lead Zhu Chongba have anything in common, it’s that they’re both ambitious, because how else do you describe the scale of this book and her main character’s pursuit of greatness?
Pretty damn auspicious debut from Shelley and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that She Who Became the Sun, the first book in the Radiant Emperor duology, is the type of book that will have most booktubers, bookstagrammers, and the twitter crowd going absolutely batshit crazy with delight. And the reasons can be both straightforward and complex because this is a book that really does work on many levels. From token seeking quest adventure to surrealistic pilgrimages activating the unconscious mind, from plain speak to wild abstraction, from historically relevant reimagining’s to outright fantastical fiction, this book has more layers than a 7-layer burrito.
And although I doubt this is the case, it very much seems like Shelley thought she’d have one crack at it and decided to write her opus, and if your Spidey-sense is tingling and you’re sensing the start of a ramble, your instincts are correct. But what it boils down to is that this grimdark adult historical fantasy is a fabulous bit of storytelling and you should look to add it to your TBR as soon as humanly possible.
She Who Became the Sun is a novel for adults in both genre and depiction and Shelley takes full advantage with a long list of content warnings in tow. In fact, the book is utterly humorless, even void of any gallows humor, which is appropriate given what’s at stake and the amount of violence you’ll encounter. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve reading anything this morally grey since R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War books, and if I’m bringing up that trilogy, understand that She Who Became the Sun is amidst VERY good company. To be blunt, I believe The Poppy War series to be greatest historical fantasy trilogy of all time, so yeah.
She Who Became the Sun is a queer reimagining of the life and rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty in the year 1345, Zhu Yuanzhang. How much you know about Zhu and this time in history seems irrelevant to me as Shelley will give you the “need-to-knows”, or at least enough to get you out the door. Also, being a student of history doesn’t always make for an enjoyable reading experience if you are unable to separate the two, the fact from the fiction. So try to remember, this is a reimagining of events, it’s “historical fiction/fantasy”, not a history book and shouldn’t be treated as such.
This biggest difference and the impetus of this story, is that Zhu is reimagined as a female monk who undertakes the unenviable task to claim the title of Emperor. Starting with about as dire a situation as you could muster, this land and its people are caught in the crossfire between heaven and hell, and the book goes through several stages of the feverish nature of humanity as Zhu goes from destitute to would-be Emperor, and all that that entails. It’s very nearly Zhu against the world as most of the men in the book are typically both self-serving and power mad, and the rest are desperate enough to be just as dangerous. So don’t look for too many moments of elusive benevolence between scores of people trying to do the right thing or a series of running gags, you’ll find neither.
I think this is a smart move on her part, not to force any levity into this story, and this is not to say there aren’t moments of tranquility, and even the odd bit of tenderness, but satire this isn’t. Even the romance is unconventional and void of any grand gestures that might normally incite swooning or squeeing. But in a book full of professional survivors, many of whom are afraid of the sun, it’s a mix of those trying to scorch the earth, and those trying their best to maintain what’s left of their humanity. And since no one WANTS to feel awful, Shelly subverts the many instances of awfulness with eternal optimism, no matter how placated it may be. Yes, in a book with breakneck lows and where logic will definitely break your heart, many of its best moments are saved for when characters find strength and joy in the little things. But in a world full of pain, even that has its limits, as later in the book a key character is told, “Even the most shining future, if desired, will have suffering at its heart.”, so, yeah.
It’s a decent sized cast with an overabundance of second tier roles so I won’t bother going through each one, but understand that in this time period, with violence more a currency than a solution, there are many bad actors. Having said all that, there are two storylines which should be the focus of your attention, with each one offering a different take on a genderqueer protagonist. These are the monk Zhu Chongba, and the eunuch Mongol General, Ouyang, let’s start with Zhu who is the books main character after all.
Shelley subverts any and all expectations as far as Zhu goes, who is unlike any other lead character you’ll encounter this year. Sure, there’s certain aspects of her that will ring familiar and itch a little, but she is the sum of her many parts and identities, and acts with a singular purpose. And there’s comfort in that, knowing she’s single-minded in her pursuits, obstinate to the end. In a world where nothing makes sense and loyalties come and go with the winds, you can count on that. Zhu is the most one-dimensional three-dimensional character you’ll ever meet, who says what she means, and means what she says.
As you can imagine this puts her at odds with most everyone else around her, but it’s her honest straightforward approach, this candidness in a world full of deceit, that is in many ways the source of her power, her truth. This is except for one not so small fact, Zhu isn’t a man, monk or not. This gender twist is more than just undercurrent; it speaks to Zhu’s willingness to see her true path revealed amidst a female dysphoric wasteland which poisons the very earth. Yes, the intersectionality of gender and identity are not simply devices for Shelley to fill out a character sheet, this annihilation of a gilded cage society expedited by male conceit is the very blood that runs through She Who Became the Sun, and I’m here for it. Zhu isn’t simply accepting her fate, she’s driven to show the world that the notorious inequality between the genders is a work of pure fiction, and that she’s ready to blow it the fuck up. And it’s not by accident that as Zhu gets more comfortable in her gender neutrality is when she begins to really level up.
For balance, Shelley gives us Ma Xiuying, hoping her less downtrodden attitude will make us feel slightly less beleaguered. No fool, Ma is clever, kindhearted, and empathetic, and unfortunately was born in a time when those qualities aren’t very useful or profitable. When we first meet Ma in Anfeng, the capitol of a nasty bunch known as the Red Turban rebels, she is betrothed to a real piece of work named Guo “Little Guo” Tianxu, whose ambition is only trumped by his indifference and poor treatment of Ma. At this point, Ma accepts her womanly fate as all but certain, and her heart is filled with holes and emptiness, but self-medicating through gentle acts of kindness, she lives mostly day to day. To dream any bigger is foolhardy, that is until a small Monk named Zhu comes barreling into town.
Next, we’ve got perhaps my favorite character in the book, General Ouyang, whose pulsating energy radiates off the page, and like that of those around him, commands your attention. I particularly enjoyed the unconventionality of his character arc, basically, there isn’t one. Sure, things happen, important things, but because of the way Shelley writes from his point of view and the way in which he’s presented, who he is by the book’s end isn’t much different from when we first meet him, in many ways he’s already fully formed. However, I strongly suspect we won’t be saying the same by the end of book two, as you can already see the roots of what’s to come for him beginning to form.
Similar to Zhu, he is single-minded in his pursuits which for most of the book are violence and revenge. That’s good news for those he temporarily aligns himself with and bad news for those who oppose because he happens to be very good at the art of war. But despite the perception of freedom and respect that he enjoys, those around him will only ever think of him as a Mongol and eunuch, simply a tool reduced to a life of indentured servitude.
He is the trusted and loved first mate to Lord Esen-Temur, the Prince of Henan’s heir and leader of the Great Yuan’s armies in the south. Esen, similar to Ma, was probably born in the wrong era, preferring to enjoy the nuance of life that his status affords him, things that his power-hungry peers take for granted. He can’t help his destiny anymore than Ouyang can however and is on a path of destruction and blood because he’s in line to take over after the untimely death of his father. He and Ouyang care for one another despite their differences and as things move along, that admiration and wanting, will be tested in the most difficult of ways, even from within. Because both men are surrounded by sycophants, liars, traitors, thieves, schemers, and usurpers, and as the story unfolds their trust in each other will be tested beyond its limits, but will it bend, or will it break? I can’t say any more about their relationship but understand that “it’s complicated” doesn’t do it any justice.
Like I said, there’s a host of other characters who play important roles and will have a say in the outcome but there’s one last person I feel it’s important to mention, although I won’t give too many details. In a time when superstition and dogma reign supreme and many men are more afraid of the sun than the sword, the Prince of Radiance is an interesting character who represents more than just the material incarnation of light. Sure, those who claim to accompany this manifestation will say it gives them the Mandate of Heaven, the blessings of the gods to reap and sow, and in more practical terms, a huge tactical advantage militarily.
And because the Prince of Radiance symbolizes a new beginning and a new direction, whoever wields this celestial being assumes their authority, their way, is the only way, the righteous way. That’s a hell of a lotta hubris right there, and we know history is written by the victor, not the righteous, so is this person’s Mandate a sure sign of victory? Many will think so, many will pray so. But one thing that’s very important to understand in all of this, is that despite the enchanting nature of it all, there are rules, and the rules say there can only be one Mandate of Heaven, something to think about.
“As long as we show Heaven we’re worthy of its Mandate, how can we lose?”
And that’s really the gist of it, isn’t it? Zhu, and most everyone else, are products of this time and place, who, thanks to both fortune and favor, slowly carve out an existence. The quality of life varies of course, some will rise, some will fall, some will live, most will die, but apart from a small few, a life well lived just isn’t a determining factor. And that’s because for every Ma there’s a thousand Guo’s, who take, and take, and take, and when there’s nothing left for them to take, they simply move on ready to take some more. It’s a thirst nearly impossible to quench, and a hunger rarely satisfied.
And hope is a cruel and bitter emotion in this world that tends to persist even if you try to let it go, because it never let’s you go. But Ma doesn’t let it hamper her from adequately preparing for negative outcomes, because as a woman, negative outcomes is all she’s known. And yet, she holds onto hope, “for the world as it should be, not the one that existed.” Listen, there’s a lot of agendas in She Who Became the Sun and a lot of sides to choose from, some louder than the others, some more courageous than the others, some more powerful than the others. But, after considering all my options and remembering that the fate of the world is at stake, I think I’ll stick with Ma.
All these paths, some parallel, some not, mostly move in a straightforward direction with the timeline more of a suggestion than discernable fact. But in an era when even things such as information move slowly, Shelley chooses to remove the fluff, keeping only what’s relevant and discarding the rest. The result is momentum, and this story snowball that increases in mass and energy, is tightly wound. This makes She Who Became the Sun, despite its length, a quick read, and it’s plotted well so you’ll move quickly from one key moment to the next, never struggling to keep your feet apart and your shoulders square.
This is meant to be a non-spoiler review so the less I say the better, and I think this is as good a place as any to stop, but understand this book is a dense 400+ pages and functional information is to be found on nearly every single one of them. There’s very little exposition that isn’t valuable to the plot in some way, so it behooves me to tell you to be prepared to either take some notes or get your tabs ready.
And like her main character, Shelley has this sucker under control and will make you believe that the outcome won’t be anything other than what she desires it to be. She Who Became the Sun is an incredible debut and book two cannot come soon enough.
She Who Became the Sun is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!
About the Author:
Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender.