Thank you to NetGalley and the Publishers for providing me with an ARC in exchange of honest review.
“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.
“Becoming nothing was the most terrifying thing she could think of—worse even than the fear of hunger, or pain, or any other suffering that could possibly arise from life.”
I am sure no one will be surprised when I say that I have been dying to read this book. And this book has been well received by almost all of my trustworthy friends and reviewers.
‘She who became the Sun’ by Shelley Parker-Chan is a glorious and epic first book to ‘The Radiant Emperor’ duology.
It is a historical epic set in 14th century China that reimagines the fall of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty and the rise of the Ming Dynasty with a genderqueer reimagination.
The story follows two captivating and prominent characters on opposite sides of the spectrum. On one side we have Zhu Yuanzhang, a girl living the life meant for her dead brother Zhu Chongba, who was destined to the fate to greatness; and on the other side we have General Ouyang, the eunuch general of the army of the kingdom of Great Yuan.
“To win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the pinnacle of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of skill.”
I personally really enjoyed the ambitious nature of our main character Zhu. Despite not having any kind of experience in fighting or privileged support, her faith, resilience and determination to not just live, but achieve greatness was so mesmerizing to me. That being said, I didn’t always agree with her decisions and actions. She is morally grey in all the sense and will do anything that works for her own good. The layers of Zhu is what I think makes her a great character.
The other main character we follow is General Ouyang. He is the Eunuch General working under Esen of the great Yuan. He is the only remaining descendant of his ancestral line and the mutilation has left him humiliated. He has detached himself from the world and the only thing that keeps him running is his drive for vengeance.
Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang’s story start at the very opposite end but the way their fate colliding was so very fascinating to watch.
Apart from these two main characters, we also get to see side characters such as Esen, Ma xiuying, Xu Da and Baoxing. All the characters are praiseworthy but my favorites definitely were Ma xiuying and Baoxing. Ma xiuying’s tenderness and Baoxing’s love for books really made me have a soft spot for them.
“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.”
Parker Chan’s ability to create complex characters and their relations with each other was really commendable. Xu da and Zhu’s friendship, Yuchun’s undeniable loyalty to Zhu, Baoxing and Esen’s complex brotherhood, ouyang and zhu’s rivalry and the yearning between them all !
And one of my favorite themes of the book undoubtfully was the exploration of gender. It was so heartwarming and realistic to watch our characters continuous push and pull towards their identity.
“You never realized that it wasn’t your name they were going to call, exhorting you to reign for ten thousand years. It was mine.”
Shelley’s writing is immensely stunning. The lyrical prose paints a vibrant picture that made me highlight a line or two from almost every page. The writing conveyed emotions and atmosphere graciously and also added so much to the already layered and complex characters.
The debut definitely deserves all the love it is receiving and so much more. But, that being said I did have some minor problems that I would like to address –
First was how our main character Zhu who had zero experience whatsoever in military but so easily achieved the things she wanted and climbed up high. I loved her determination and was definitely rooting for her but it did seem a lot easier than expected.
Second was maybe my fault idk but I was so confused with character names? Because a few times the characters were addressed with their first name and then sometimes by their second name and other times also by their designation. It took me quite a bit of time to get the hang of it.
Trigger warning – violence, mass murder, mentions of death by torture, off-page murder of a child, amputation, scenes of extreme hunger/starvation, gender dysphoria, misgendering, ableist language, homophobia.
‘She who became the Sun’ overall is a very well-crafted and praiseworthy debut that is devastatingly beautiful and boldly queer. And I am definitely looking forward to the sequel.
Thank you for reading !