He Who Drowned the World (The Radiant Emperor #2) by Shelley Parker-Chan
Published by TOR Books
Adult Historical Fantasy
Release Date : August 22nd 2023
How much would you give to win the world?
Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, is riding high after her victory that tore southern China from its Mongol masters. Now she burns with a new desire: to seize the throne and crown herself emperor.
But Zhu isn’t the only one with imperial ambitions. Her neighbor in the south, the courtesan Madam Zhang, wants the throne for her husband—and she’s strong enough to wipe Zhu off the map. To stay in the game, Zhu will have to gamble everything on a risky alliance with an old enemy: the talented but unstable eunuch general Ouyang, who has already sacrificed everything for a chance at revenge on his father’s killer, the Great Khan.
Unbeknownst to the southerners, a new contender is even closer to the throne. The scorned scholar Wang Baoxiang has maneuvered his way into the capital, and his lethal court games threaten to bring the empire to its knees. For Baoxiang also desires revenge: to become the most degenerate Great Khan in history—and in so doing, make a mockery of every value his Mongol warrior family loved more than him.
All the contenders are determined to do whatever it takes to win. But when desire is the size of the world, the price could be too much for even the most ruthless heart to bear…
Watch me destroy the world.
ARC provided by the publisher TOR Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
A heart wrenching sequel that challenges the concept of gender expectations. A queer story that champions identity, unbending will, and delicious painful yearning. He Who Drowned the World is the ending of all endings that makes every page worth relishing.
When the new year rolled in there was only one book that I am anticipating in 2023 and that book is He Who Drowned the World. It is the sequel to one of the three in the Sapphic Trifecta that grabbed the attention of the fantasy enjoyers, She Who Became the Sun. A debut that challenged the strict gender roles implemented within the historical background of China under Mongol rule. Following the extraordinary journey of the rise of a nameless peasant girl that took on the fate and name of Zhu Chongba, her brother, carving their path of greatness challenging the fates.
Since the initial release of She Who Became the Sun in 2021 the book has been recognized and highly acclaimed amongst readers. Shelley Parker Chan has won multiple awards and the debut book achieved the #1 spot on the Sunday Times best sellers list and translated into 15 languages. When He Who Drowned the World was announced during the end of 2022 many readers, including myself, were excited to read the conclusion of The Radiant Emperor duology.
Personally, the first novel blew me away and left me awestruck as one of the best books I’ve ever read in my lifetime. When I received a digital ARC from TOR through NetGalley I had to prepare myself mentally before diving into the book. I tried starting the book in March but decided to delay it until now. From the stars that are included in this review it is safe to say that He Who Drowned the World is an absolute masterpiece.
He’d found his fate and his end, and with it he’d made all his suffering—his pain, and betrayals, and sacrifices—worth it.
Before diving into the review I would like to appreciate the cover artists that contributed for the US and UK covers of the book. For the US cover it is done by Jung Shan, the same artist that has done the cover for She Who Became the Sun and other books such as: The Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang and The Avatar book series, The Rise of Kyoshi and The Dawn of Yangchen by F.C. Yee. For the UK cover it is done by Lucy Scholes, a senior illustrator and designer at Pan Macmillan UK. Readers are treated with these two beautiful covers to decide which to include into their collection or maybe just get both (like what I did). If you have preordered He Who Drowned the World there is a preorder incentive of an exclusive adult short story featuring Wang Baoxiang and General Ouyang. Though this short story is fan fiction and isn’t canon. Submit the preorder receipt here.
For readers that have not read She Who Became the Sun and are interested in starting because of this review please check out my review here. Also this will be the point when I will tell you to not read any further to avoid being spoiled because I will be mentioning events that happened in the first book. For readers who are continuing the series I would like to happily inform you that the first two chapters of He Who Drowned the World includes a bit of recap of what happened and all relevant to the players that are involved. A trigger warning is due as well as He Who Drowned the World contains some graphic descriptions and scenes of rape, self harm, torture, death, etc. For a full detailed list of the trigger warnings please click this link.
It was a single pulled thread snarling other threads; a whole structure, beginning to distort. It was all as it should be.
Chan’s writing is still as beautiful as it was in She Who Became the Sun. There is no decline in the quality of prose in this sequel compared to its predecessor. Passages upon passages I highlighted because of how masterful Chan’s writing is in narrating this epic tale. Chan’s ability to write such emotionally charged inner monologues for the characters added layers to the characterization that made them more fleshed out. There isn’t a moment that these monologues felt as though it was dragging the book, it is full of intent and purpose in giving shape to the characters journey towards their end. Things unfolded satisfyingly from start to end as the stakes became gradually more tense and stressful with each turn of the page. Even with the long chapters Chan’s writing never fails to pull me back into the world and characters. As vile as the characters are in this series I was entertained by them as each of them are fleshed out masterfully and they each get a conclusion that is worthy of their journey.
In He Who Drowned the World there are more aspects of magic compared to She Who Became the Sun. The form of magic incorporated in the series is the glowing proof of the fates called the Mandate of Heaven. As mentioned in the first book, people who are deemed worthy by the fates to become Emperor are people who possess the mandate. The magic of this mandate wasn’t explored much aside from the ability of seeing ghosts and spirits. For this sequel Chan shows the mandate being used by the characters for certain things and it also takes on different shades in colour depending who is blessed with it.
This was what he had now. It was exactly what he wanted, and when the rest of it was finished: it would feel just as good as this. It would make everything worth it.
The main theme in He Who Drowned the World centres more on the characters’ psyche after the things that happened in the first book and preparing for more mental toll to come. Each character experiences a form of mental trauma from what they did, directly and indirectly, to be a step closer towards their goal. As readers we get to see each of them go through more pain and trauma as they come to the result in their painstaking work to achieve their goal, even though the result isn’t always what they expect.
He Who Drowned the World also included some entertaining battle scenes that are interesting and explosive in delivering the climax of the book. The essence of this series at its core is the military machinations and strategies that became the background for the broken characters. Zhu is still as creative and eccentric as ever in inventing solutions during a pinch. The scene that makes this book is a certain nautical battle that feels like a throwback to the river battle in She Who Became the Sun. But this battle is much more brutal and emotionally palpable on page that left me gasping for air because of how tense Chan writes the scene unfolding.
In my review of She Who Became the Sun I praised Chan for writing a story that is a love letter to the queer community regarding gender. It is no different now because if She Who Became the Sun is a direct challenge towards the ideas of gender roles and expectation, in He Who Drowned the World it is the weaponization of gender expectations by the characters and a direct attack towards the idealisation of the very concept gender. To simplify it is a big f-you and the most punk form of storytelling that takes characters who are historically cisgender and straight yassifying them to become their most queer form. Aside from that Chan also highlights both body and gender dysphoria associated with being gender fluid, non binary, and gender queer from traumatic experiences of the characters for presenting a certain way.
He could feel the blackness leaching out of him as he lost control. It was drowning the world, and himself along with it.
At the end of She Who Became the Sun, Zhu Yuanzhang a.k.a Zhu Chongba proclaimed herself as The Radiant King to the world promising to lay waste to the empire of the Great Yuan and is on her way to expel the Mongols from the land. Now Zhu is planning her next move to achieve her goal whether through alliances or force. The key players that are a threat to her goal is Madam Zhang and Rice Bucket Zhang, Chen Youliang, and a few other new characters within the Great Yuan and an unexpected character that is moving behind the scene, a personal favorite of mine, Wang Baoxiang (the younger brother of Esen Temur and the new Prince of Henan).
There are multiple POVs in He Who Drowned the World compared to She Who Became the Sun that mainly focuses on Zhu and Ouyang with a scattering of POVs from other characters. In this sequel two other POVs will take center stage, joining Zhu and Ouyang, is Wang Baoxiang. As Chan has mentioned Wang Baoxiang is the reason why they titled the sequel He Who Drowned the World. The introduction of Wang Baoxiang into this sequel as a main character gives the story a whole new colour. In the first book Wang Baoxiang’s presence was minor but had a huge impact in the plot. It was clear that Chan setup Wang Baoxiang as a character to be reckoned with and oh boy.. he delivered until the end.
Wang Baoxiang’s characterization took a turn for the unhinged, wretched, and full blown insanity. In a way Wang Baoxiang’s manifestation of pain, grief, and trauma propelled him to embrace his identity to its fullest, though it leans more towards the twisted side. What led Baoxiang on his path of destruction is the countless times he was shunned for being different and ridiculed by his closest family for not being the man they expected him to be. In the first book he was beaten, insulted, tormented, and pushed to his limits which made him completely snap at the end. Everything in the first book led Baoxiang to become who he is in He Who Drowned the World, a person who is hungry for destruction and is out to defile what the world deems as a worthy image of a man.
Baoxiang’s motivation crackled with a darker form of ambition and drive that is fueled by the rawest form of pain and suffering. He used everything about him (by everything I mean EVERYTHING); from his skills in governing, his flamboyant attitude, his not so masculine body, people’s perception of him, and so many more, to his advantage. And Baoxiang is willing to do anything, even if it’s against his true nature as a person if it means achieving his goal.
“Our suffering wasn’t a payment. It was a gift. We gave it to you so you can achieve your fate. And your fate isn’t just the throne, or greatness. It’s greatness enough to change the world.”
The two main characters that run parallel with each other, Zhu and Ouyang, as foreshadowed by Chan in the previous book, in He Who Drowned the World their fates finally collided. The collision, though I expected it, is presented through an in depth lense. Chan peels back each layer of their characterization showing aspects of themselves that are vulnerable and presenting them through their POVs as they come to realisation of each other. Their euphoria in finding part of themselves in each other was a glorious display of Chan’s masterful lyrical prose and writing. Their characterization achieved a new level of realness compared to She Who Became the Sun, before they seemed mythical in their grandiose will, but now they show a more human side underneath their veneer.
A character which POV is a breath of fresh air to step into is Ma Xiuying. Even though compared to She Who Became the Sun her presence is much less stronger than before but her role is still crucial in achieving the throne for Zhu. Ma’s characterization from the start is consistent from the first book as the character that carries more empathy amongst the anger and cruelty of the other characters. Personally, I adored Ma Xiuying in the first book and it is no different in He Who Drowned the World. Ma is the only character that retains her sanity and humanity throughout the story. She delivered some lines that sets the mood and ties in the fates of every character in the story to convey hope of a new reign.
Those losses and sacrifices now formed the soil from which her new world would sprout.
Final thoughts, He Who Drowned the World is the gloriously painful ending to an unapologetically queer historical fantasy reimagining that solidifies Shelley Parker-chan’s status as one of the best modern fantasy writers. There are so many memorable moments in The Radiant Emperor that left me feeling all kinds of emotions. I highly recommend this series to anyone that wants to read a historical fantasy that is hardcore queer, intense and high stakes, beautifully written, and is just screaming with yearning so painful that it will make you feel like you ran a marathon.
Reading the conclusion of The Radiant Emperor series is a bittersweet moment that I will remember for a long time. This series has formed an attachment with me since I read the ARC of the first book and now that the second book will be released.. I am sad yet excited for other readers to experience the same brain rot. For readers that have read She Who Became the Sun, if you think that book was like a stab in the heart this book will pulverise every aspect of your mental and emotional being.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
About the Author
Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian Australian former international development adviser who worked on human rights, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights in Southeast Asia. Their debut historical fantasy novel She Who Became the Sun was a #1 Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into 15 languages. Parker-Chan is a previous winner of the Astounding Award for Best Debut, and the British Fantasy Awards for Best Fantasy Novel and Best Newcomer. They have been a finalist for the Lambda, Locus, Aurealis, Ditmar, and British Book Awards. They live in Melbourne, Australia.
Shelley’s pronouns are they/them.