By Shelley Parker-Chan
Rating: 4 Stars
Goodreads Rating: 3.72
Publication Date: February 22nd 2022
Format Read: Ebook
Goodreads Summary: 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.
I first decided to read this book because it was the book club book for Lavender Literature, a “sapphic book club hosting queer/wlw events”. It’s based out of Toronto, but they also have a Discord and have Zoom meetings so regardless of where you live you should check it out! I, classically, did not attend a single meeting despite purchasing and reading the book, because somehow none of the time slots worked out quite well enough for me and also I fell behind on the chapters pretty right out of the gate.
That being said, I loved this book!! I haven’t read a lot of fantasy recently because I think it’s hard to find good fantasy that isn’t targeted at middle grade / young high school, but this book drew me right back into the genre. I originally thought it was YA, but then May and the rest of the internet informed me that it was in fact an adult book. Which makes sense given the graphic-ness of the sex scenes!
She Who Became the Sun is about a young child who was born a girl in a very poor village and ends up taking on her brother’s identity after he dies of hunger. The fortune teller had shared that the girl’s fate was “nothing” but her brother, Zhu Chongba, was destined for greatness. The girl becomes Zhu Chongba, and takes on a whole new identity, somewhere between girl and man. The author of this book is nonbinary and uses she/they pronouns, and I believe that Zhu Chongba is written to also be nonbinary, although they are young in the start of the novel and so it is a journey of self discovery. Regardless of their gender identity, this book is very queer!
Like I said, this was a journey of self discovery for Zhu Chongba. The character development in this book was actually so amazing I cannot speak highly enough. Each and every character, no matter how minor, was brought along over the course of the story and given a fully fleshed out life, backstory, and emotional state. I felt like I was really there getting to know each and every one of these characters. Although we’re primarily in Zhu Chongba’s perspective, Parker-Chan uses perspective change sooooo smoothly to give us extra details that we need to better enjoy the story.
In terms of plot, I did feel like the beginning of the book was a little slow, hence me falling behind on my book club reading! It took a lot longer than I would have liked to get out of the village and start on our adventure. That being said, there’s a lot that happens in this book but the entire thing is pretty slow and laden with detail, so maybe regardless of how soon we started our hero’s journey it would have taken me a bit to get into it. If you don’t like attention to detail and prefer action packed bang-bang books, this probably won’t be for you, but I was really here for the character development aspect. The plot was quite compelling, but this was mostly character driven.
I’m pretty sad that this is a series because now I have to remember what happened and also find the next book, but I’m also excited because I’m in love with Parker-Chan’s writing and I would read anything that they published. It takes a lot for me to get into fantasy (although I am deeply in love with historical fiction, so the historical aspect of this book was right up my alley) and they really made me love it!
Anyways, 12/10 would recommend this book and loved the queer representation that just flowed so naturally and wasn’t overly focused on at all!! This was 4 stars for the slow beginning, but the latter 2/3 of it was 5 star worthy.