ARC Review: She Who Became The Sun

Title: She Who Became The Sun
Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
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.

This book has been described as Mulan meets Song of Achilles, and while usually the comp titles aren’t actually that similar to the book, I think these hit the nail on the head! I was captivated by this book, the story of a poor village girl fated to be nothing, but who dreams of power and greatness. This is a fantastical, gender-bending alternate history loosely inspired by the rise of the founder of the Ming empire from peasant to emperor. I didn’t really know about any of the historical context until after I read the ARC and received my physical copy with the historical note (UK edition only, for some reason…I wonder why the US edition left it out). Although I still enjoyed the story, I think someone with more historical context would have relished the book and the way Parker-Chan subverts the usual (anti)-hero’s journey trope more.

One really interesting thing about this book is how it explores identity and how it is rooted (or not) in gender. Zhu is not named in the first few chapters, while she is still just a peasant girl with no hope of any other life. When she decides to take over her brother’s life though, she embodies Zhu Chongba as her own identity instead of merely using it as a disguise. In order to convince the world and the heavens that she is in fact Zhu Chongba, she must believe she is her brother, and that means that she is no longer a woman. And yet, throughout her journey, she experiences flashes of empathy and kinship with women oppressed by patriarchal norms as someone who had experienced that herself. The guilt and unease she feels at being pulled out of her role as a man was really interesting, as was her inability to squash down her empathy and understanding of what it means to live as a woman.

Zhu is not the only one with a complicated relationship to gender. General Ouyang, her main adversary on the battlefield, is a eunuch general who is a little in love with a man he should hate. He believes himself to be superior to women, indoctrinated by patriarchal society as he is, and yet he feels deep shame whenever anyone reminds him that he is not a man either because of the body he inhabits. It was so interesting to see the contrast between Zhu’s ruthless self-confidence and Ouyang’s tortured and begrudging loyalty to the empire who killed his family, and their recognition of each other as one who is not defined by the body they inhabit. Parker-Chan takes the separation of body and self even further through a dramatic confrontation between these two characters, and the aftermath was not at all what I expected.

This is not a particularly cheerful book. There is a lot of violence and oppression inherent to the building and defending of empires, and this book pulls no punches. This also isn’t a book full of endearing characters; everyone is flawed and morally gray. The feeling is much more of a historical fiction book than a fantasy one, especially since the fantastical elements of the book come into play in very precise moments rather than being suffused into the world or fictional culture at large. Despite how dark this book was, especially towards the end, I didn’t find it hopeless or grim either. The ending was also really satisfying even if it was not quite a happy ending. It really makes you think about how far you will go to achieve your dreams.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in a story about empires and conflicted people.

A free eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

3 thoughts on “ARC Review: She Who Became The Sun”

  1. Wow wonder why the heck the US version left out the historical notes?! That is rude! I was so fascinated by all of it that I found myself down a Wikipedia hole re: all the key players! I really liked the story, you are so right about all the very morally gray characters. I think there is supposed to be a sequel, which should be interesting too. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I have no idea why the US edition didn’t include the historical note, I happened to order the UK version because I couldn’t find signed copies of the US edition and was pleasantly surprised. I’d learned about the dynasties of China in school but not with the level of detail that would have helped me appreciate this book, I was really surprised to learn that the Ming emperor was a peasant originally!


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