Series: The Radiant Emperor #1
Published by Mantle on July 22, 2021
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Fiction, Historical
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She’ll change the world to survive her fate . . .
In Mongol-occupied imperial China, a peasant girl refuses her fate of an early death. Stealing her dead brother’s identity to survive, she rises from monk to soldier, then to rebel commander. Zhu’s pursuing the destiny her brother somehow failed to attain: greatness. But all the while, she feels Heaven is watching.
Can anyone fool Heaven indefinitely, escaping what’s written in the stars? Or can Zhu claim her own future, burn all the rules and rise as high as she can dream?
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is a re-imagining of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu was the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and became the founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
A historical Chinese fantasy focusing on political warfare and intrigue, She Who Became The Sun was one of my most highly anticipated books of the year. Especially given it’s comparison to The Poppy War, which also happens to be one of my all time favourite books.
So what is the book about?
There are two distinct parts to the book, the start, where we see Zhu living out her childhood and then being trained as a monk. When her family tragically dies from starvation and bandits, she seizes the opportunity to take on her brother’s identity, who, according to a fortune teller, has a great fate ahead of him.
In the second part of the book, Zhu has carved a fate for herself in the Chinese army, fighting against the Monguls. As we see her exert her influence from a lowly monk to a Commander, it’s incredible and sometimes shocking to see the lengths she goes through to achieve her destiny.
We’re also given the perspective of an eunuch called General Ouyang, who is somewhat of an archnemesis to Zhu. Although he’s on the opposing side, I actually found his perspective to be quite fascinating and ended up preferring it to Zhu’s. Through both of these characters, we see the internal workings of both armies and the rise and fall of different Generals and the influence that they have on the armies themselves.
Themes of gender queer identities
Set in ancient China, the world in She Who Became the Sun has a very rigid, male-dominant system of power. Males who are strong, soldiers and fight are heavily favoured, even over government officials who keep the place running (which is seen through the Mongul side of the army).
As someone stealing her brother’s identity and essentially living a male life, Zhu continually struggles with her gender queer identity in the book. She binds her female body and is in fear anyone discovering her secret, in case she tempts fate who has given her a second attempt at life. However, throughout the book, she finds that she emphasises with other strong females, including a love interest Ma, who she feels empathetic towards. This further adds to her confusion as she attempts to reject the female side of her.
Ouyang on the other hand, being an eunuch and not having male appendages, is also heavily underestimated by the people around him. Despite being a capable, intelligent and heavily plotting General, the other Generals around him see him as a bit of a plaything or simply as a companion of one of the Generals. He’s sometimes described as being feminine and pretty, which others tend to poke fun at. This isn’t helped by his own internal misogyny in the book, when he feels shame when navigating female spaces.
Heavy political intrigue
As you may have guessed, the plot is heavily centered around the political intrigue of the Chinese and Mongul armies. From the Emperor who has the mandate of heaven to rule, to the different royal families and the influence they have on the army, the power dynamics and the resources they need to allocate to win battles, there is a lot to take in. Because of the immense detail centered around this, I found myself struggling to keep up with the plot at times. Some scenes would happen extremely quickly, even in a few sentences (for example, key scenes such as a wedding would occur in a paragraph or so). Multiple battles would also be fought over a few paragraphs.
The romantic subplot actually takes a back seat to everything else happening in the book, which I didn’t mind given the complexity of it. There’s Ouyang, who has unrequited feelings for his Commander and closest companion. The sapphic romance is with Zhu and the soft, emphatic betrothed Ma, who is her only shot at humanity.
There’s no doubt that She Who Became the Sun is an ambitious book, covering the Ming Emperor’s rise to power from peasantry. I’m impressed with the scale of the story told here and the amount of detail given to the plot and the world. For a stunning debut set in 14th Century China featuring political warfare, gender queer characters and morally grey characters who you can’t help but root for, definitely pick up She Who Became the Sun.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia for sending me a review copy!
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