She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Blurb

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty 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.

Book Stats

Format: ebook arc
Length: 416 pages (kindle edition)
Published: 2021
Publisher: Mantle
Source: NetGalley

Goodreads

Review

Thank you to NetGalley for a free copy of this title in exchange for an honest review. 

When I first came across She Who Became the Sun, I thought it was a fantasy novel. But it’s actually historical fiction.

I know very little about the history of China, so reading She Who Became the Sun gave me an idea of the history of the country, at least in the relevant time period (14th century). Shelley Parker-Chan’s writing is so atmospheric that I felt like I had stepped inside 14th century China. I felt like I was walking in the main character’s shoes. 

The main character is Zhu, the sister whose fate the fortune teller foretold as nothing. She has a fierce will to survive. So she takes on her brother’s destiny and finds her way to the monastery her family promised her brother to. From there, she keeps surviving, keeps becoming her brother in order to convince Heaven that she is him. Through this process, Zhu, never named in her own right, rejects her female body. Throughout the novel we see her struggling with who she truly is. 

Gender identity is a strong theme in the novel. The other point of view character is a eunuch, a soldier harbouring a burning desire for revenge at what those whom he serves did to him and his family. He’s an interesting character, and I’m not quite sure what to make of him. I didn’t enjoy his perspective as much as Zhu’s.

She Who Became the Sun is a long book but I never felt bored or like Parker-Chan was dragging the story out. The story builds up steadily, slowly taking its time to reach the climax. I enjoyed watching Zhu find her way throughout the story. Though the novel has an epic backdrop, the story does very much feel character-driven. It’s about Zhu’s growth and discovery of who she really is, rather than about war and the politics of China. 

Though I don’t fully understand the discussions around gender in this novel, I enjoyed it enough that I will pick up the second book. I hope I come to understand what is happening as I read more. 

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