Monday, July 19, 2021

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is historical fantasy set in China during the Mongol rule. Famine has emptied villages and the rest are killed in endless campaigns between the Emperor and the rebellious Chinese armies. To survive is to will it happen.

The protagonist starts as a nameless, scorned ten-year-old girl who survives on scraps her father and sole living brother of eight leave her, and her ingenuity. A fortune teller predicts greatness to her brother Zhu Chongba and nothingness for her. But when bandits attack, it’s the brother who dies while she survives.

She’s already learned that a girl is nothing, but instead of accepting it like other women around her, she finds the situation unfair. Spurred on by her will to live, she assumes her brother’s identity and outstubborns monks to be admitted to a monastery as a novice. But she assumes more than his name. She assumes his destiny to greatness too. For it to come to pass, she has to completely believe that she is Zhu and that his fate is hers, to fool the gods to grant it to her.

The story unfolds in a brisk pace. Years are skipped, and only the important scenes are told. Zhu is successful in becoming her brother, resorting to devious stunts to keep her true gender a secret. She’s becoming complacent though, believing that her greatness is found in the monastery. So when it’s destroyed, she needs to find a new way to make it happen.

She becomes a warrior, leading troops to victories against the Mongols. But it’s not enough. She needs to become the leader. And there’s nothing she won’t do to stay on her path to greatness. Nothing can stop her, not even death. It frees her from being her brother, and allows her to assume greatness as herself. The book ends when she’s halfway to her goal, to becoming the emperor.

But Zhu isn’t the only one with fated destiny. In the Mongol army, there’s a Chinese eunuch general, the right-hand man of the warlord’s son. Seemingly working towards the goal of crushing the Chinese rebels, he harbours a hatred towards the warlord and is biding his time to avenge his family’s deaths on him.

Zhu’s actions force him to act faster than he would’ve wanted, but like Zhu, he believes in the inevitability of his fate. And they share a goal: to crush the Mongol emperor.

This was a brilliant book. The pace was fast, the stakes were high, and the historical details wonderful, depicting a cruel, believable world. I wasn’t familiar with the true historical events the book is based on, but it didn’t matter at all.

The characters were oddly likeable, despite being awful people. Zhu especially manages to convey a sense of serene rightness while manipulating the events to her liking or killing people outright. She ends up marrying a woman who she repeatedly hurts by her actions, yet Ma stays by her side. The option would be worse, because at least Zhu understands what it is to be a woman without protectors. 

Not that Zhu quite accepts that she’s a woman, even after admitting to herself that she’s not her brother, nor is she quite a man either. She’s Zhu Yuanzhang, the radiant one, the one who will be the emperor. I’m looking forward to reading the conclusion to her journey.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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