“I refuse to be nothing…”
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.
*I was sent an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review – a massive thank you to Macmillan / Tor books for sending me an early copy! I’ m so grateful for the chance to read ahead of time!*
She Who Became the Sun is an intricate, brutal and gorgeous high fantasy which will be sure to linger in a readers mind long after the last page is turned. I can’t quite believe this is a debut novel in the genre because it’s so self assured and just all around incredible.
There’s so much I enjoyed about this novel, the first being the characters themselves, they’re so complex, well written and so beautifully realised. Our two main characters, who find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict; Zhu and Ouyang. We start our story with Zhu, as she lives a dreary existence, caring for her father and brother, where she has no prospects and life grinds on – until everything changes and she takes the opportunity for growth and greatness upon herself and forges herself a new path.
I loved Zhu so much, her ambition, her bravery, her loyalty, just everything about her as a main character was so well executed, making for such an intriguing narrative. Even in the most morally grey moments, where Zhu makes questionable and almost impossible decisions, it feels true to this character and their motivations – which are above all to pursue ambition and greatness. I’ve noticed a new trend of sorts in fantasy with characters who are ambitious and unapologetically so and I’m enjoying it a lot. I think at times it can be a bit difficult to understand Zhu’s motivations, in terms of why actually she craves this power so intensely but it’s understandable when you examine the weight of the prophecy she was told at the start. In being told she was destined for nothing, it made Zhu even more determined not to let this come to pass.
Ouyang too, his life and existence being a constant reminder of the subjugation of his people and having to live and serve the very family who killed his own is such a fraught but fascinating dynamic on the page. Ouyang has added stigma due to factors outside of his control and reading as he navigates these and what he feels he must do to restore his honour and avenge his people is tragic and compelling. Especially as he has grown up alongside Esen, who despite being his best friend and the person he loves the most , is also a daily reminder of everything he has lost and the life he cannot possibly have. The yearning in this book is unparalleled and utterly heart wrenching.
Many of the characters in the novels are in the attempts of figuring themselves out; their choices, their identity, their next moves and Parker-Chan has such a deft touch when it comes to these issues. Issues such as gender, queerness and identity are reflected in such an unapologetic and impactful manner, there are few books out there which manage to do this and it’s amazing to read.
I also enjoyed the heavy political and military focus, and how Zhu, Ouyang and the other characters find themselves entrenched in machinations and power struggles. I also enjoyed how both of them were such vital and major players in it all, they were on the front lines and their actions have such far reaching impacts, on each others stories and the wider world. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the repercussions of what happens in this book are felt in the next instalment, because that ending blew my mind.
Overall, I know this is a book I won’t get over anytime soon and I’ll be thinking about the characters and that ending – because wow just wow – was just something else. I can’t stress how much I recommend this book, especially if you’re into sweeping historical epics, this is one you won’t want to miss.
Until next time,