Book review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

For an epic fairy tale, this story is exceedingly personable and nuanced. It features interesting characters with strong arcs, but also vast empires in exotic locales and cultures. Add to it a little bit of magic, some more faith in fate, and you have a mixture that is a pleasure to read. There are a few rough spots, which I hope will be ironed out in the sequels, but overall, I’ve had fun reading this book.

The story takes place in 14th century China. The Mongols rule the land, and only small bands of rebels and the occasional bandits stand in their way. Human life has no value, and during a severe famine lasting years, villages are getting depopulated. One of the last holdovers is a man with only two of his many children left, a boy and a girl. One day, he calls a fortune teller to tell him the future of his son. The fortune teller is flabbergasted at the good fortune of the boy; he will become the ruler of the world. The girl asks about her future and is rebuffed, finding out that she’d amount to nothing.

A while later, a group of bandits invades their home. In their rage that they don’t find anything worthwhile, they kill the father. Out of shock, the boy falls into a catatonic state and wastes away. The girl is left to bury them. She then decides to take the boy’s name and pursue his destiny, and thus she becomes Zhu Chongba.

She travels to a Buddhist monastery to which the real Zhu was pledged, and after a few days manages to enter it and is admitted among the novices. Slowly, she gets educated and trained, while trying to hide her femininity, until the day when she ascends to monkhood. That ceremony is interrupted by a Chinese general in Mongolian employ, the eunuch Ouyang, who burns the monastery to the ground. Zhu escapes and joins the Red Turbans, the rebel movement that Ouyang is set to destroy, and which secured a reincarnated holy child, giving the rebels legitimacy. Zhu promptly joins the fighting and serves a major defeat to Ouyang.

Ouyang sees this as a trigger for his own destiny. His entire family had been executed by the Mongols, and he had been kept alive as a slave only after he had been castrated. He now begins setting in motion his revenge against everyone who harmed his family. In the meantime, however, he has a score to settle with Zhu, and he must defeat the rebels.

Through lengthy palace politics, Zhu rises in the ranks of the Red Turbans until she commands an army. However, she is sent on a suicide mission, and on the brink of defeat, she offers her life to Ouyang for the safe passage for her army. Ouyang cuts her hand off and rides away. Zhu, not deterred, recovers, and joins the fight later, where she approaches Ouyang and plots with him to determine the outcome of another major battle between the two of them. The battle results in Zhu rising to the head of the Red Turbans and Ouyang avenging his family, taking over the army under his command and promising to march against the Mongolian emperor.

For a book of its size, the plot is quite sparse, with no branching stories. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand, this lets the author to focus much more on characters, their development and interaction, and in this Parker-Chan is doing an excellent job. On the other, this also significantly slows down the pace of the book, and some sections may drag on for too long.

On the character development side, the author has established plausible character arcs for both Zhu and Ouyang. They both develop throughout the book, Zhu from sympathetic and relatable little rascal to the despicable antagonist, and Ouyang from a cold, vengeful henchman to a human being with strong motives and a will to carry them out. Side characters are far and between, but those that reoccur more often all have their own personalities, motivations, and one may hope that they’ll develop further in the sequels. Unfortunately, one significant aspect of the characterization has been a complete miss, in my opinion.

Zhu is a Mary Sue. No matter what she does, it seems to be enough for her to believe in her destiny (as long as she pretends that she is her brother, and his destiny is actually hers) to excel at anything she touches. When she gets into a tight spot, she miraculously has a vision of the solution, which always works, and she walks away unscathed. She is also perfect in her timing, and all this allows her to skate through palace politics and emerge on the top, beating career politicians three times her age. I could not, for a single second, root for her. Towards the end, the author threw a curveball by having Zhu denounce all destiny and proclaim that she’d forge her own way. This made me curious enough about her future path to want to pick up the next title in the series.

The pacing of the book is not perfect. It drags at places, then jumps ahead months or even years. However, I appreciated the leisure stroll through 14th century China. One side character served expositions on history and culture of various regions and kingdoms, and in combination with actual cultural and social events in the story, I appreciated a glimpse into a fictionalized version of that part of the world. Parker-Chan’s almost poetic prose further colored the environmental description, to the point where I sometimes felt like I was watching the cities and rivers out of my window.

One place her language failed, however, is a personal gripe of mine. The Red Turbans refer to themselves as rebels. They never seem to use any other word. In the real world, this description is in the eye of the beholder. It is said that while one may view a person as a terrorist, someone else may see them as a freedom fighter. This should be true in this book as well: the rebel moniker is used by the Mongols but is also readily adopted by their enemies as well. I would have expected a different description from the Red Turbans: revolutionaries, freedom fighters, even Chosen Ones, something more uplifting than what the empire calls them. This made me pay attention to other terms in the book, and I found the same issue. It was as if the author was indeed a historian, keeping her distance from the events. Unfortunately, this also put some distance between me and the setting, and I didn’t feel so intimately involved with the story anymore.

Speaking of historical events, after reading the book I have learned that this title presents a reimagined history to the real world rise of the Ming Dynasty in China. I know next to nothing about Oriental history or mythology, so I can’t tell how much of the book is real (apart of small magic and the ability to see ghosts) and which parts have been invented. As a result, I can’t pass judgement whether this is speculative fiction or a popularized version of real events, but it makes me wonder whether the title should have qualified for speculative fiction awards. Regardless, I have enjoyed reading it so much that I am genuinely interested in its sequel.

She Who Became the Sun is a solid, enjoyable book of historical fiction. I appreciated the slow pacing, and I was pleased by the character development. I’m a big fan of the protagonist/antagonist switch in a story, and here that switch was so natural that I’m looking forward to its conclusion in the sequels. The main character suffers from being unrealistically capable, and the pacing is off at places, but those can be chalked up to the author’s lack of experience, and I am hopeful these issues will be polished out in the future. The book will not be for everyone: historical fiction fans may scoff at the occasional magical elements, while fantasy readers may be put off by the historian’s tone of writing, but I personally enjoyed my time with this story.

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