She Who Became the Sun definitely lived up to the hype; the characters are interesting and complex, and there is plenty of action and plot. What bothered me was that there was really only one character who stood up for general human decency, not just “I must take charge of my destiny no matter what I have to do (including murdering innocent people and not so innocent people)”.
The basic premise is pretty well known already: in a quasi historical early medieval China, a nameless girl and her family on the brink of starvation when her brother is promised a grand destiny, except that he suddenly die after their father is killed by bandits. The girl thinks it’s unfair that he gets a destiny and she doesn’t just because of her gender so she decides to take on her brother’s name and destiny, and starts by joining the Buddhist monastery he was promised to. This makes Zhu Chongba relatable, as does the struggle to fit into the monastery with its hierarchies and unfairnesses, learn the ways of being a monk, making both friends and enemies, and then watching as invading armies of the Great Khan destroy everything. Once Zhu is drawn into the court politics and wars between the Mongols trying to maintain their empire and the Chinese rebels fighting for their freedom, there’s a lot more action but Zhu gets one note. No more character development, just plotting and knowingly becoming everything you’d think a Buddhist monk would like, all the while rationalizing it as their great destiny which they never feel is really theirs. The only real redeeming thing Zhu manages to do in the second half of the novel is the relationship with Ma Yingzi, and even then it feels a little like Zhu is willingly gong against everything that relationship supposedly means to them. By the end I was getting worried that Ma was going to turn out like Zhu.
The other thread is essentially the same thing on the Mongol side; the Prince of Henan’s heir, Essen is in charge of one of the armies along with his companion the eunuch General Ouyang. Ouyang has a secret too involving the destiny he feels the need to pursue, which makes it really hard to feel bad for him when he is supposed to maybe be sympathetic when he does something he knows can and will cause him and probably a lot of other people hurt and then feels bad about it. Like Zhu, Ouyang has a backstory involving being overlooked and wants some vengeance for past wrongs, and the annoying thing is that both of them know that their stories are essentially running is parallel. The one is as bad as the other, and if they’re the main antagonists/protagonists, and they’re not very likeable or relatable for a big chunk of the story, that’s kind of a problem for me. The only decent characters worth rooting for are side characters for the most part; while yes it’s fun to see Zhu but occasionally Ouyang get the better of someone who is definitely less capable, less smart, etc.., it gets old when neither one is willing to really listen to the foils who are supposed to be essentially be their conscience(s).
The novel is really well-written, there’s some interesting moral and ethical questions asked by kind of ignored, the historical setting is intriguing although I know very little about the actual history, a lot of things I should like. I did like it, but I feel like there could have been more had so many people ended up so amoral.