She Who Became The Sun is one of those books that come surrounded by an aura of strange, ill-fitting expectations: advertised as “Mulan meets the Song of Achilles”, greatly hyped by the same content creators that generally promote YA fantasy novels, it is actually a not really that romantic, not even so magical retelling of the rise to power of the first Ming Emperor. Even though I was aware that the blurb was somehow misleading, I still approached it expecting something lighter and cacthier than the novel was actually ever meant to be.
Title: She Who Became The Sun
Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Publisher: Tor Books, Pan Macmillan
Publication Date: 7 July 2021
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Standalone or Series: First book of The Radiant Emperor series
Synopsis: In 14th century China, a simple peasant family visits the local fortune teller, who states that their son is meant for greatness, while their daughter has nothing in her fate. Shortly afterwards, the family is attacked by bandits, and the little girl is the only survivor; wishing for less desperate future for herself, she takes on her brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, and she pretends to be a boy to find refuge in a Buddhist monastery. Several years later, the monastery is destroyed by the Mongolian army, and Zhu Chongba leaves her monastic life to join the Red Turbans, quickly rising through their ranks thanks to a series of almost miraculous victories, which only whets her growing ambition, as now her brother’s stolen promise of greatness seems to be within reach.
Analysis: The novel is told in third person limited. The first part is entirely focused on Zhu’s experience, which helps the reading building a sense of closeness to the main character. Later, her point of view shifts between different characters, allowing us both to see Zhu through different eyes, and to follow the secondary story line that is centered on Zhu’s nemesis Ouyang, an eunuch who’s now a general for the same Mongolian dynasty that once killed his family.
She Who Became The Sun is classified as fantasy, and indeed it features a few magical elements – such as the ability to see the spirit world, and most importantly the Mandate of Heaven, which in this world is a literal mystical flame that can be summoned by the rightful Emperor. However, magic is neither the focus nor the main driving force of the events, and classically fantasy themes such as that of prophecy are actually more often toyed with than played straight. Indeed, if at first fate seems to be established by some extrernal force, all we see in the novel is how Zhu hijacks, manipulates and grabs that destiny by her own sheer will (and sheer brutality if required).
This goes hand in hand with the discussion on identity: Zhu is perpetually aware she’s living a life that wasn’t meant for her, and for a long time firmly believes she has to erease all traces of her original self in order to properly “become” her brother Chongba. This in part sounds true to her real self, since Zhu doesn’t appear to strictly identify as female (N.B. I am still using feminine pronouns because so she does in her chapters), on the other hand it becomes limiting when her assumed role gets in the way of exploting her own talents and resources, if she thinks her brother wouldn’t have done the same. Gender expectations play of course a key role, in more than one way. If choosing a masculine persona allows the main character to forge a different path for herself, we also see her enemy Ouyang struggling to be recognised as a man despite being an accomplished warrior; at the same time, we see a character like Baoxiang, who lacks no physical attribute of masculinity, but is still demeaned as unmanly for his scholarly interests. Isn’t it like stereotyped expectations are bad news for everyone? Well, the message isn’t exactly unique, but it’s always worth repeating.
Now, all such themes surely make for some good moment of personal angst and self discovery; however, while the book has got its sizeable share of introspection, most of its content actually revolves on military tacticts and merciless political schemes; by comparison, personal relationships and especially romantic subplots are really subdued and even underdeveloped. Again, She Who Became The Sun may technically be a gender-swapped historical fantasy, with queer characters and magical flames, however more often than not it reads like a fairly dry historical novel – which may or may not be good news depending what you were looking for.
Conclusions & Recommendations: I may not be in the best place to properly evaluate this book, since I picked it up while actually in the mood for a lighter read than it ended up being. That said, it’s objectively well written, enough that it’d deserve a re-read in a more suited state of mind. I’d recommend it to those who love lots of plotting and politicking in their novels, even better if they have little patience for overly fancy magic powers.
Content Warning: War – Violence – Death – Child death – Sexual content – Misogyny