**I received an ARC from the publisher through Netgalley. These are my honest opinions, and in no way was I compensated for this review.**
Book: She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan
Release Date: July 20, 2021
My Rating: 4.25 stars
Rep: Chinese and Mongolian cast, nonbinary sapphic protagonist, gay protagonist, lesbian main character, bisexual main character; (nonbinary biracial (Chinese, white) author)
CW: violence, war themes, mentions of torture
Summary: 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.
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.
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.
From its announcement, I knew that this book was one that I needed to read. I love that we’re beginning to get more non-Western historical epics written by authors of color with this book having a particularly interesting alternate take on history. Bold and radiant, She Who Became the Sun follows two people determined to claim their destinies on their terms, regardless of what is fated for them.
In 1345 China, a girl is destined for nothingness while her brother is given a fate of greatness. When he dies, she decides to claim his name, Zhu Chongba, as well as his fate. She takes his place at a monastery, eventually becoming an ordained monk who eventually turns to war when her monastery is destroyed. Meanwhile, Ouyang is a Nanren (Chinese) general in the Mongol army, favored by the Prince of Henan despite being a eunich. He has plans for his own fate, one that takes him down a secretive, destructive path.
I should begin by clarifying that I will refer to Zhu with she/her pronouns, which are what is used in her point-of-view. However, this is not another crossdressing Mulan retelling; rather, Zhu, having taken her brother’s place for so long, does not identify with being a woman yet knows she is not a man. This is addressed in the narrative a few times and handled with care.
The plot of this book unfolds over a decade or so, beginning in 1345 when the Mongols ruled over China. Throughout this story, we see the tide turning against Mongol rule with the Nanren rebellion beginning to win more victories against their army. This was a slow plot but one that still intrigues as it also sets aside time for the characters’ own plots.
Amidst the battles, we follow Zhu as she lives in the monastery and later rises in the ranks of the Red Turban rebellion army. On the other side, Ouyang seeks revenge against the people who ordered his family’s executions while he also fights for the Mongol army. Meanwhile, we also get to read other characters’ points-of-view, such as Esen, Ouyang’s master and close friend; Ma Yingzi, a girl who gets to know Zhu more; and Yuchun, a thief who eventually joins the Red Turban army. I liked following all of them and seeing how their different perspectives added to the story.
I don’t have to end you . . . but oh: I will.
The characterizations are also so strongly established. Zhu is determined for a fate of greatness, whether she has to wrench it from heaven herself or not. Her desire for something more is so great that she will do anything to stay alive and get what she wants. Similarly, Ouyang is constantly brimming with anger and determination. His need for revenge is years in the making, and he will stop at nothing to accomplish his own plans. Ma, meanwhile, is compassionate and emotional in a setting that calls for no empathy.
I loved the writing; Parker-Chan’s prose is easy to follow amidst the twists and turns of the plot. As I said, the characterizations are well established, which is due, in part, to the clear-cut nature of the writing. Also, I couldn’t put this book down!
She Who Became the Sun was a thrilling story of chasing one’s fate. It was a strong series opener, and I cannot wait to read the sequel! I loved the characters and how the plot unfolded. I definitely recommend She Who Became the Sun if you’re looking for an epic historical novel full of ambition and desire and greatness.
About the Author: Shelley Parker-Chan (she/they) is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her writing owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. Her debut historical fantasy, SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN (The Radiant Emperor #1), is forthcoming from Tor (North America) and Mantle (UK/Commonwealth) in July 2021.