Title/Author: She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Publisher: Tor Books
In a nutshell (Publisher):
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.
Once again (the first was The Poppy War), I was drawn to the cover and just had had to read it, only to realize later this was going to be a series, (a duology, I think)!! Anyway, She Who Became the Sun, which was marketed as a combination of Mulan and The Song of Achilles, was a strong debut. I enjoyed it overall.
This novel was a retelling of a history based on the Red Turban Rebellion that took place between 1351 and 1368 in China, with a genderqueer, Zhu, as its protagonist. I don’t know much about the Red Turban Rebellion, so off to Wikipedia I went. In short, the Red Turban Army, originally started by Guo ZiXing and followers of the White Lotus was to resist the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. One of its prominent leaders was Zhu Yuanzhang, i.e. the main character of this debut, although the latter had a very different back story. According to the author, she took full creative license with the reimagination of this history. You might want to read the history to know more before/after reading the retelling.
Ok so now, I was really expecting to enjoy this because of its rave reviews and stunning cover. It had a really promising start with the introduction of an intriguing protagonist, a female who adopted her brother’s identity after his death, who, according to a fortune teller, has a future destined for greatness. Assuming his identity, she was determined to achieve it, no matter the cost. With that, she managed to enter a monastery (which I enjoyed reading about) while keeping her real identity hidden.
Part two, if my memory serves me well, was the longest among the three parts, slowing down the pace. But I was able to learn more about the other secondary characters as the story shifted to their POVs. I would be fine with that had it added depth to the story, or kept me engaged, but it didn’t, not really. What I did appreciate though, was that the fighting scenes were less descriptive as compared to The Poppy War (hence not so graphic). I think I’m in the minority here, preferring my fighting scenes to be over and done with in a page or a few paragraphs. But I guess this was also why nothing really stood out in this book.
Also, I found Zhu’s intention to survive turning into a desire and greed to achieve greatness was just too big of a leap; too sudden, making it a little unconvincing. And her resolutions to her problems were so easy and convenient, with hardly any tension or challenges. I found it hard to empathize with her. Ouyang’s character on the other hand, was more believable. In fact, if I had to choose a memorable character from this book, it would be Ouyang, whose life was saved and changed after becoming a eunuch. He struggled with his identity, of not being treated like a man and not getting the respect he deserved. His struggles between wanting to avenge his family and serving his master whom he was infatuated with, were deeply explored.
Reading this, for me, was like watching a Chinese kung fu drama/series (which is a good thing, because I used to watch and love them) – with lots of cunning plotting and revenge, just minus the drama/suspense. Why? Because I didn’t feel like there were any cliffhangers or parts that kept me totally engrossed, making this a difficult book for me to rate.
That said, overall it was still a good read, one I didn’t regret reading, I think mostly because of the writing and the characters in general.
Would I want to read the sequel? Yes! I’m curious to see if the sequel will fare better, and I’m confident that it will!
TW: violence, death, misgendering, sexism, homophobia
Themes: fate, body acceptance, gender identity, love, revenge
Thank you NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Let me know your thoughts!