She Who Became the Sun
- Author: Shelley Parker Chan
- Genre: Fantasy
- Publication Date: July 20, 2021
- Publisher: Tor Books
- Series: The Radiant Emperor #1
CONTENT WARNING: violence, misogyny, murder, death of a parent, death, homophobia, blood
To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the 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 to stay hidden from her fate.
And claim her brother’s given destiny as her own.
I’ve heard great things about this book, and been encouraged to read it by a fellow blogger whose recommendations I value (check out her blog @ Aquavenatus to see her amazing suggestions). It’s part of the sapphic trifecta of books, along with The Chosen by C.L. Clark and The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, and since I loved those two, I couldn’t pass this one up. And boy, was she right. Because I loved this one so much.
Like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, this one combines elements of Chinese history with fantasy, along with a strong, morally gray female character fighting against the odds. But that’s where the similarity ends. In this book, a young peasant girl faces her mortality early during a famine, and becomes determined to escape her fate of nothingness. When her brother, who was bestowed a fate of greatness, dies, she decides to steal his fate and disguises herself as a boy to enter a monastery. In doing so, she’s forced to conceal her identity from everyone around her, and not just hide that she is a girl, but essentially become a boy. While in 1345 they didn’t necessarily have words to describe gender identity the way we do today, she eventually isn’t a girl concealing that she’s a girl. She becomes something else, not quite a man and not quite a woman, and it’s discussed by both herself and others. This really hit me, and I was so glad that she had some people around her that completely accepted Zhu for who she was, not the body that she was in, even as she struggled against people who tried to hold her back based on gender roles.
“Now, as she looked at the person standing before her in a body like her own, she saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind. The promise of difference, made real.”
“How could her body be a woman’s body, if it didn’t house a woman? Zhu wasn’t the grown-up version of that girl with the nothing fat. They’d parted the moment Zhu became Zhu Chongba, and there was no going back. But now Zhu wasn’t Zhu Chongba either. I’m me, she thought wonderingly. But who am I?”
The story was absolutely engrossing. I was caught up right away, and it was more than just a tale of one girl who was fighting for survival. It was a world in upheaval, with Chinese people rebelling against brutal Mongol rule, ordinary peasants struggling to survive amidst famine and bandits, and amidst all of this, Zhu trying to fulfill a destiny that wasn’t originally hers. There’s a constant push and pull against fate, which takes on the sense of a sentient force in the story, And overshadowing everything is Zhu’s singleminded desire to become great as foretold, even if it wasn’t exactly foretold her her, no matter the cost.
“This was the price of desire: to ask those she loved for their suffering, again and again, so she could get what she wanted. And at the same time she knew she wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop.”
I absolutely fell in love with this story, and despite Zhu’s morally gray nature, I couldn’t help but love her as well. There’s just something about her that makes her easy to love, even as she does some morally reprehensible things. However, I can understand why she makes the choices she does—she’s trapped in a brutal time with nothing but difficult choices to make, where her decisions can literally be the difference between life and death, not just for her but for the people that she cares about, and she always lets her own moral compass be her guide. After finishing this, I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book!
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 12
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