She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1) by Shelley Parker-Chan
Published by Tor Books
Adult, Queer, Fantasy
Release Date : 22th July 2021 (UK) and 20th July 2021 (US)
“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 is flung back onto a collision course with her lethal fate. Her one chance of escape is to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness. Searching for a path to power, Zhu joins the rebellion—only to find it under existential threat from the Mongols’ most feared general: an enslaved eunuch whose beautiful female face conceals a heart as merciless as jade and ice.
For a monk with no martial skills, the front line of a war’s losing side is a bad place to be. And worse yet, Heaven is watching for any sign that Zhu might not be the true owner of the fate she has been audacious enough to claim…
Trigger Warning : violence, mass murder, mentions of death by torture, off-page murder of a child, amputation, scenes of extreme hunger/starvation, gender dysphoria, misgendering, ableist language, homophobia (listed by Hiba – Twitter | Goodreads – check out her review as well!)
“She shivered with awe, and with her feverish desire for something she had never thought she would desire. Her fate.“
ARC provided by the publisher TOR Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
A new fantasy power house debut that brings a historical story about one person’s rise to greatness. A journey fueled by unbending ambition and want that demands heaven’s attention. She Who Became the Sun is the radiating epic fantasy debut that’s burning with greatness.
If you follow me on Twitter or if you’re one of my closest friends you would probably know how badly I wanted to read the ARC (Advance Readers Copy) for She Who Became the Sun. After seeing plenty of my friends reading and loving the book, the desire to read the book just grew stronger with time. With help from Jo (The Books are Rising) of finding the right email for the publicist I managed to secure an e-ARC. It became my highest priority and I have to immediately get to it.
Before I start my review, I would like to appreciate how beautiful the US cover is. Done by Jung Shan Chang the same artist that also did the cover for The Poppy War trilogy by R. F. Kuang and The Rise of Kyoshi by F. C. Yee. Designed by Jamie Stafford-Hill.
This book is marketed as a combination of Mulan and The Song of Achilles, blurbed “…bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty..” as advertised on the Macmillan website. After reading the book I can verify that it is more than that. In the words of Rebecca Roanhorse author of the critically acclaimed book Black Sun, “Patroclus could never”. And oh boy! Patroclus and Achilles would be weeping for Ouyang and Esen. Mulan and Zhang would drop dead in the presence of Ma Xiuying and Zhu Chongba. Mushu who? Xu Da is knocking at your door.
“If he took my fate and died . . . then perhaps I can take his, and live.”
She Who Became the Sun is the first book of The Radiant Emperor duology and debut by Shelley Parker-Chan. The base of the story of She Who Became the Sun is the reimagining story of the founding Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols and unified China.
The story takes place in a small village struck with famine and death, the year is 1345, as a family of three struggles to survive. The three are the only survivors in their family, a father and his two children, a boy named Zhu Chongba and a girl. Zhu Chongba is destined for greatness while the girl is fated to be nothing. After a group of bandits attacked their home and kills the father, Zhu Chongba numbed with grief and despair, dies. The girl however remains steadfast with her desire to live and survive. Burning with the blinding flames of desire she took it upon herself to claim the fate and the name of her dead brother.
“Learn to want something for yourself, Ma Xiuying. Not what someone says you should want. Don’t go through life thinking only of duty. When all we have are these brief spans between our non-existences, why not make the most of the life you’re living now ? The price is worth it.“
The way Shelley Parker-Chan delivers their prose is like no other author. From start to end Parker-Chan delivers their prose marvelously, everything that is written has meaning and purpose in the overarching story. I think I highlighted whole pages of this book because of how amazing and consistent the writing is. The quality of writing is just *chef’s kiss*.
There are many underlying themes in She Who Became the Sun but there is one that stood out to me. The impactful themes of gender and identity that is prominently present in the story arcs of Parker-Chan’s characters. It is one of the most major themes that will spark conversations about gender expectations, gender roles, gender identity, and so many more.
Honestly, reading She Who Became the Sun it feels like a love letter to the queer community especially for those who identify as gender fluid, gender queer, and non binary. Seeing characters in a story that breaks the boundary of gender is refreshing to see.
Adding to that Parker-Chan weaves in the importance of acting upon ones desire and to not be held back by societies expectations regarding ones purpose and mission in life. How individuals have the power to control and choose their own destiny in their current life. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my hands were shaking with excitement while reading this book, there are so many beautiful lines that left me breathless because of the sheer emotion the writing emanates.
“If you want a fate other than what Heaven gave you, you have to want that other fate. You have to struggle for it. Suffer for it.”
The main character Zhu Chongba drives the story forward and pushes the narrative towards her eventual greatness. Zhu’s unrivaled ambition to claim her brother’s destiny and to defy her own is invigorating. Achieving the impossible with her cunning tenacity refusing to back down no matter what or who it is that stands in her way.
Zhu isn’t written to be the most likeable protagonist, even though she lends her skills to the Red Turban Rebellion, her morals and motivations is grey. Zhu’s pragmatism is apparent in her actions, anything that stands in Zhu’s way she will do what needs to be done for him to get what she wants or where she wants to be.
Shelley Parker-Chan did a magnificent job in fleshing out Zhu’s character, there is something intensely raw and blinding about Zhu’s motivation. I just love her character all around, I didn’t expect such growth showing in book one and it surprises me that Zhu’s story arc came full circle in the end. It is truly jaw dropping to witness!
“You never realized that it wasn’t your name they were going to call, exhorting you to reign for ten thousand years. It was mine.”
The story starts off from Zhu’s perspective in part one that shifts to a multi perspective narrative. This sudden shift into a multi POV narrative amplifies the story by adding in more characters with new agendas and motivations that adds a level of complexity and depth to the story.
The three added perspectives from Ouyang, Esen, and Ma Xiuying are as amazing as Zhu’s that elevates the narrative making it more whole. Each one of them showed growth and believable development that by the end of each of their arcs they become a new version of themselves. Saying that Shelley Parker-Chan’s characterization is great is an understatement it is bloody AMAZING!
All of them have motivations, agendas, personalities that are distinct, and they all come from a variety of backgrounds. The one character that has a strong presence rivaling Zhu’s is Ouyang’s. The way Ouyang’s character is crafted is masterfully done. The savagery and raw emotion of blinding vengeance that bleeds out of the page as you read is heartbreaking and cold.
Reading the book I shivered a few times at how detached Ouyang is from the world, the only thing that’s holding him is Esen and his motivation to deliver his vengeance. I hope to see Zhu and Ouyang to cross paths in the sequel as it feels like Shelley Parker-Chan is building the tension between two for something that probably will involve both of them.
“Every time the world turns it face from you, know it was because of me.”
She Who Became the Sun is based on a story of a prominent historical figure that contributed in the rise of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. In this book Parker-Chan reimagined his story and breathed new life into the other characters that is also rooted in history. Reading the book the fantasy element of it isn’t as strong as other fantasy books I’ve read. The world is the main part of the story with added fantasy element that takes the form of a prophecy. If you wanna know what that is you should read the book because I’m not spoiling anything.
For historical context on the characters from the book, Shelley Parker-Chan has made a post breaking down each historical figure (click here). I highly advise you to check out the historical context after you read the book because it might spoil the experience of reading the book.
“She had been nothing, and lost everything, and become someone else entirely.”
Final thoughts, She Who Became the Sun is a wonderful book that took me on a bold, lyrical, and queer trip into the reimagining story of Zhu Yuanzhang. A story that defies gender roles, celebrate queer love, and a story with well fleshed out yearning gender queer characters.
For a good part of the book I can feel the crackle of tension between the characters that it was a joy to read. Fair warning this book is not at all happy go lucky and there are a few graphic moments, so please check out the trigger warnings before reading. The conclusion of this first book is excellently done, Parker-Chan closed the ending without leaving readers with a frustrating cliff hanger.
Personally, I’m thoroughly excited for the release of She Who Became the Sun. I can’t wait for other readers to experience the sheer goodness of this book. Pre order it friends! I’ve pre ordered my copy. There are two versions of this book, with equally amazing covers. Choose your fighter, links here : US Version & UK Version. It will not disappoint. Shelley Parker-Chan is destined for greatness! She Who Became the Sun is destined for greatness! Now it’s time for you to claim your destiny.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.