Title: She Who Became The Sun
Series: The Radiant Emperor #1
Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Published: July 20th, 2021 (Tor Books)
Synopsis: 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 uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
The year is 1345, and in a village struck down by famine on the plains of China, two children, a brother and sister are given their fates. The brother, Zhu Chongba, is told there is greatness in his future, while the sister is given a fate of simply nothing. But when bandits attack the village and kill their father, Zhu dies out of despair soon after. The girl, desperate to escape her own fate, takes on her brother’s identity and enters a monastery, determined to do whatever it takes to survive. Years later, when a rebellion rises against the harsh Mongol rule, the monastery is destroyed for supporting them and Zhu, having lived under her brother’s name all these years, decides to use this chance to also claim his prophesied future and achieve greatness.
“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.”
Somehow, I completely managed to miss this book last year and had no idea it existed until it showed up in the Goodreads Choice Awards at the end of the year. And seeing that it was compared to both Mulan and The Song of Achilles, I knew I had to pick it up, even though it was close to a six month wait for a copy to be available at my library. I know very little about the history of China during this time period, but as I understand it, this book is inspired by some real life events and is a reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. There are probably several recognizable characters and elements in Zhu’s story that those familiar with the history would recognize, but even without knowing any of that, this was such an engrossing read for me.
The writing style makes for excellent storytelling, and the narrative flowed smoothly despite there being so many storylines running in parallel. What surprised me most was that this was a debut novel and the quality of writing, world building and dialogues is to be commended. All the hype around this book is certainly well-deserved!
“Heaven doesn’t will my failure.”
Zhu’s determination and resilience was admirable, not to mention her cunning, all born first of a fierce desire to live and avoid that ominous foretold fate of nothingness, but then in a zeal to defy that fate and claim the future of greatness that was prophesied for the identity she took on, no matter the cost. Zhu was hardly a typical hero, but instead eminently practical in her choices with very grey morals. I absolutely loved her arc and the author has done such a wonderful job fleshing out this character and her motivations in such a way that as a reader, I could really understand Zhu and each part of the story felt believable. Her rise to power was such a riveting read as it begins to become clear just how far she is willing to go.
As the first part of the book was entirely told from Zhu’s perspective, I was quite surprised when it switched to a multiple POV, introducing new characters left and right. It was confusing for a few chapters, but each of the new POVs had such good character development that it was no time at all before Ouyang, Ma and Esen’s storylines became just as interesting. Ouyang, the eunuch general of the Mongol army, was a character driven by a desire to get revenge on the Mongols who killed his family. He and Zhu were clearly written to be two sides of the same coin, Zhu chasing after a destiny that is not her’s and Ouyang, who feels bound by his to carry out revenge no matter what he feels about it. I can’t wait to see what happens to these two characters going forward!
I try not to judge books before I finish reading them, but up until the 25% mark, I was fully expecting to rate this 5 stars. Except, in the middle, as new characters, motivations and politics were introduced all together, there was a lot going on, but very little action, which made the story drag. It all made sense later, but it doesn’t change the fact that I was just so bored for atleast a 100 pages there, so my rating dropped a little.
She Who Became The Sun is a masterpiece of historical fantasy. It has quite the expansive world, not forgetting the intricate politics, scheming and backstabbing, and of course, some pretty epic battles along with effectively exploring themes like fate, destiny, ambition, war and identity. I would highly recommend this book to readers of any genre!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!
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