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.
Firstly, I’d like to take a moment to thank Netgalley, Shelley Parker-Chan, and Pan MacMillan for the opportunity to review She Who Became the Sun.
Okay let’s talk about this phenomenal book…I have a lot of feelings. I first read this book a few weeks ago and it has been taking up space in my head, demanding attention and cognitive recognition. A book that had to have room to breathe, like a fine wine. I finally sat and down and wrote down my feelings. Was this a good sign? A bad one? In this case, it was a good one, it had shaken and impacted my psyche, had me searching for more information on such an impactful dynasty, the hunger for knowledge and understanding was a siren call, and boy did I answer it.
“I refuse to be nothing.”
I only have one proviso when recommending this book – if you get upset by the themes of misgendering and extreme scenes of hunger/starvation then you would need to decide on whether this book is for you. I believe it’s well worth the journey, it adds authenticity to a story based upon the Ming Dynasty. It’s 1345 and we are taken away from the world we know to famine and impoverished community, two children and their father are the sole survivors of disastrous conditions, they are given two different fates. Zhu Chongba, the son, is destined for greatness. The girl is fated for nothing. Bandits are as common a fate as starvation and when they come calling, the children’s father is killed leaving them orphans. Zhu Chongba is left a broken shell of the boy and dies from what I could only call a broken heart.
One thing that resonated was how Shelly Parker-Chon knitted together several societal matters of that time. It created a dark streak running throughout the story. By putting this story under a microscope we get a snippet of just how women were and still to a point today, treated in such a manner. They have no future endeavors to propel them on, their fate is nothingness. We see how family dynamics shape us and just how childhood trauma is like an itch that we can never reach. She Who Became the Sun is a story about warfare and realized potential. It’s raw and violent, necessarily so. It examines our values and just how we adapt when our landscape changes, will Zhu choose strength and resilience, or is it another obstacle that threatens to crush her.
“She was always going to be expelled into that world of chaos and violence—of greatness and nothingness.”
A testament to the authors consummate skill is the strength of character building that she injected into their being. Zhu Chongba is strength personified, she’s cunning, tactful and just utterly brilliant. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I flew from chapter to chapter, my interest and feelings became stronger, I developed an attachment and I found myself rooting for Zhu and everything she was aiming to achieve.
She Who Became the Sun has echoes of Mulan but Shelley Parker-Chan has a narrative that is all her own. Raw and spirited. Vividly sketched characters that call to be heard.