She Who Became the Sun

by Shelley Parker-Chan

Cover image

Series: Radiant Emperor #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-62179-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 414

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In 1345 in Zhongli village, in fourth year of a drought, lived a man with his son and his daughter, the last surviving of seven children. The son was promised by his father to the Wuhuang Monastery on his twelfth birthday if he survived. According to the fortune-teller, that son, Zhu Chongba, will be so great that he will bring a hundred generations of pride to the family name. When the girl dares ask her fate, the fortune-teller says, simply, "Nothing."

Bandits come looking for food and kill their father. Zhu goes catatonic rather than bury his father, so the girl digs a grave, only to find her brother dead inside it with her father. It leaves her furious: he had a great destiny and he gave it up without a fight, choosing to become nothing. At that moment, she decides to seize his fate for her own, to become Zhu so thoroughly that Heaven itself will be fooled. Through sheer determination and force of will, she stays at the gates of Wuhuang Monastery until the monks are impressed enough with her stubbornness that they let her in under Zhu's name. That puts her on a trajectory that will lead her to the Red Turbans and the civil war over the Mandate of Heaven.

She Who Became the Sun is historical fiction with some alternate history and a touch of magic. The closest comparison I can think of is Guy Gavriel Kay: a similar touch of magic that is slight enough to have questionable impact on the story, and a similar starting point of history but a story that's not constrained to follow the events of our world. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan doesn't change the names of places and people. It's therefore not difficult to work out the history this story is based on (late Yuan dynasty), although it may not be clear at first what role Zhu will play in that history.

The first part of the book focuses on Zhu, her time in the monastery, and her (mostly successful) quest to keep her gender secret. The end of that part introduces the second primary protagonist, the eunuch general Ouyang of the army of the Prince of Henan. Ouyang is Nanren, serving a Mongol prince or, more precisely, his son Esen. On the surface, Ouyang is devoted to Esen and serves capably as his general. What lies beneath that surface is far darker and more complicated.

I think how well you like this book will depend on how well you get along with the characters. I thought Zhu was a delight. She spends the first half of the book proving herself to be startlingly competent and unpredictable while outwitting Heaven and pursuing her assumed destiny. A major hinge event at the center of the book could have destroyed her character, but instead makes her even stronger, more relaxed, and more comfortable with herself. Her story's exploration of gender identity only made that better for me, starting with her thinking of herself as a woman pretending to be a man and turning into something more complex and self-chosen (and, despite some sexual encounters, apparently asexual, which is something you still rarely see in fiction). I also appreciated how Parker-Chan varies Zhu's pronouns depending on the perspective of the narrator.

That said, Zhu is not a good person. She is fiercely ambitious to the point of being a sociopath, and the path she sees involves a lot of ruthlessness and some cold-blooded murder. This is less of a heroic journey than a revenge saga, where the target of revenge is the entire known world and Zhu is as dangerous as she is competent. If you want your protagonist to be moral, this may not work for you. Zhu's scenes are partly told from her perspective and partly from the perspective of a woman named Ma who is a good person, and who is therefore intermittently horrified. The revenge story worked for me, and as a result I found Ma somewhat irritating. If your tendency is to agree with Ma, you may find Zhu too amoral to root for.

Ouyang's parts I just hated, which is fitting because Ouyang loathes himself to a degree that is quite difficult to read. He is obsessed with being a eunuch and therefore not fully male. That internal monologue is disturbing enough that it drowned out the moderately interesting court intrigue that he's a part of. I know some people like reading highly dramatic characters who are walking emotional disaster zones. I am not one of those people; by about three quarters of the way through the book I was hoping someone would kill Ouyang already and put him out of everyone's misery.

One of the things I disliked about this book is that, despite the complex gender work with Zhu, gender roles within the story have a modern gloss while still being highly constrained. All of the characters except Zhu (and the monk Xu, who has a relatively minor part but is the most likable character in the book) feel like they're being smothered in oppressive gender expectations. Ouyang has a full-fledged case of toxic masculinity to fuel his self-loathing, which Parker-Chan highlights with some weirdly disturbing uses of BDSM tropes.

So, I thought this was a mixed bag, and I suspect reactions will differ. I thoroughly enjoyed Zhu's parts despite her ruthlessness and struggled through Ouyang's parts with a bad taste in my mouth. I thought the pivot Parker-Chan pulls off in the middle of the book with Zhu's self-image and destiny was beautifully done and made me like the character even more, but I wish the conflict between Ma's and Zhu's outlooks hadn't been so central. Because of that, the ending felt more tragic than triumphant, which I think was intentional but which wasn't to my taste.

As with Kay's writing, I suspect there will be some questions about whether She Who Became the Sun is truly fantasy. The only obvious fantastic element is the physical manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, and that has only a minor effect on the plot. And as with Kay, I think this book needed to be fantasy, not for the special effects, but because it needs the space to take fate literally. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan does not use the writing style of epic fantasy, but Zhu's campaign to assume a destiny which is not her own needs to be more than a metaphor for the story to work.

I enjoyed this with some caveats. For me, the Zhu portions made up for the Ouyang portions. But although it's clearly the first book of a series, I'm not sure I'll read on. I felt like Zhu's character arc reached a satisfying conclusion, and the sequel seems likely to be full of Ma's misery over ethical conflicts and more Ouyang, neither of which sound appealing.

So far as I can tell, the sequel I assume is coming has not yet been announced.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-03

Last modified and spun 2022-07-04