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.
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.
Thank you very much to Pan Macmillan-Tor/Forge for providing a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
She Who Became the Sun is set for publication 20 July, 2021
Content warnings: mass murder, gore, war themes, castration (off-page), plague, torture, discussion of body dysmorphia
You may have ended this, but you haven’t ended me, she thought fiercely at him, and felt the truth of it shining inside her so brightly that it seemed capable of igniting anything it touched. Nobody will ever end me. I’ll be so great that no one will be able to touch me, or come near me, for fear of becoming nothing.
I can’t even begin to describe what kind of book She Who Became the Sun is. All I can say is it drew me into the story, kept me glued to the page for hours on end, and then gutted and devastated me by the end of it. This debut novel is going to be the book of 2021, I’m calling it now.
The novel, inspired by the life of the founder of the Ming dynasty, follows a nameless girl, growing up in a tiny, famine-stricken village that has already claimed the lives of her mother and grandparents. She lives there with her father and older brother, Zhu Chongba — a brother whose future is read and said to hold a great destiny, while hers is to become nothing. But then, her father dies in a bandit attack and her brother not long after him, destroying any hope of a so-called destiny. Left alone, the girl almost succumbs but finds within her the strength to continue living as she travels to a nearby monastery and begs to become a student. There, she becomes Zhu Chongba, stealing her brother’s identity. Zhu does whatever it takes to survive in the monastery, and does so for many years, but when it’s burned down for not supporting Mongol rule, Zhu uses the chance she has been given to steal her brother’s destiny as well.
How do I explain the experience that is Zhu Chongba? She is so ambitious and purposeful, but so cheeky and sweet as well. As we read her time in the monastery, you can’t help but adore her: from her fear of being discovered as a woman at any moment, to her quick thinking skills to trick her teachers, to the friendships that she makes. And when she becomes a travelling monk, you start to love her even more. This is where she becomes consumed with the idea of becoming great and wanting to ensure that, centuries from now, they remember her name. Her ambition is intense and paralleled perfectly to the other main character of this novel.
If you, like me, love villainous characters who stop at nothing to achieve their goals, then you’re going to love Ouyang, the general of the Mongolian army. Ouyang was once the eldest son of a predominant noble family, but when the Mongolian army moved in, his entire family was massacred, and Ouyang was kidnapped by the royal family, castrated and then forced into slavery. Prince Esen, the heir to the Mongol throne, becomes close with Ouyang, training together as boys and then naming Ouyang his general. Ouyang already has a devastating reputation as Esen’s feared eunuch general and when he and Zhu meet, Zhu can’t help but feel like she is connected to him somehow.
Zhu and Ouyang have many similarities between them although they are on opposite sides of the brewing war: they both have great destinies, they both feel they need to prove themselves, and they both present their genders in non-typical ways. Even though they become enemies, you can’t help but root for both of them. When Zhu is attempting to climb in social status, I was fully supporting her. And when Ouyang is attempting to get revenge on the people who destroyed his life, I was also on his side! Parker-Chan is a phenomenal writer to put the reader in such a position where they’re rooting for both sides, even though you know the outcome will end in tragedy. Both Zhu and Ouyang are working towards their own individual goals, their destinies are somehow linked and I can’t wait to find out more in the sequel.
While the novel’s plot focuses on Zhu’s physical journey from a girl with nothing to greatness, the book also focuses on Zhu’s journey to understanding her gender identity. Zhu doesn’t just pretend to be her brother to ensure she survives: she becomes him, as she doesn’t want Heaven to strike her down for lying and stealing. So the way she ensures her safety is by living her life as a man, although she uses she/her pronouns for herself (which is why I’m using them too) while everyone else uses he/him. Zhu acknowledges many times that she doesn’t feel comfortable as a woman, and I felt so connected to her slowly coming to understand herself as genderqueer (although she doesn’t use that exact word). I was able to resonate strongly with this as a genderqueer person myself, and I believe Parker-Chan also identifies as genderqueer. So you can be sure you’re going to find amazing gender representation in She Who Became the Sun!
She Who Became the Sun is a book you’re not going to be forgetting for a long, long time. You’ve probably heard this book labeled as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles so for those who are wondering, yes, I can definitely see that comparison. But when they say The Song of Achilles, they mean it. Don’t go into this book feeling connected to any characters. That’s all I’m going to say about that.