“She didn’t just want greatness. She wanted the world.”Shelley Parker-Chan
Pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, She Who Became the Sun is a gender-bent re-imagining of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who drove out the Mongols, unified China, and became the founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 14th century China.
In a famine-stricken village lives a nameless peasant girl who (has a burning desire to survive but is stuck with a fate of nothingness and thus) assumes her dead older brother’s identity and his fate of greatness with it. As Zhu Chongba, she claws her way to the top, rising first from peasant to monk, then from monk to military leader in this dark and brutal high fantasy tale that blends history with fiction.
“The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself.”Shelley Parker-Chan
Parker-Chan’s world and character building are immaculate. There are a lot of names, places, and events to keep track of; Parker-Chan brings it together seamlessly. Zhu is the central character and protagonist, and she is brilliantly fierce and determined to the point of suicidal. Alongside Zhu Chongba, two others tell this historical epic: General Ouyang, a Mongol slave, turned eunuch general who despises his commander, and Ma Xiuying. Ouyang is brutal and tortured; Ma possesses gentle empathy. Ouyang is Zhu’s opponent; Ma becomes Zhu’s fiercest supporter. But just because one presents violent opposition does not make Ouyang inherently unlikeable; there are layers upon layers to the characters here. And Ouyang is perhaps the most complex of all. Zhu and Ouyang find themselves on opposite sides of the war — one is destined (if we’ll stick with the theme) to lose, the other to win, but readers will not want either character to walk away defeated. There is a resilience to both of them that (though both operate in areas that are definitely no longer morally gray) will leave readers rooting for them.
“However tired I am, however hard it is: I know I can keep going, because I’m alive.”Shelley Parker-Chan
A fantasy epic for the ages — an instant classic.
What’s more to love: lovable antiheroes galore; epic battle scenes; powerful themes of destiny, ambition, and found family; tormented romance; intricate political scheming; genderqueer lesbian MC, genderqueer gay MC.
She Who Became the Sun is book one in the Radiant Emperor duology.
Trigger warnings: life-altering injury, amputation, public execution, starvation, off-page murder of a child, violence, gender dysphoria, ableism
Book: She Who Became the Sun
Publication Date: July 22nd, 2021
Pan Macmillan South Africa kindly sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion, rating, or the content of my review.