I felt like a bit of a dumb-arse after picking up She Who Became the Sun. I don’t know if it was just me stumbling around blindly perhaps, but it took me a good long time to realise that the this book was a reimagining of the Ming Dynasty’s rise to power. The ebook version of the book didn’t have a blurb on the back cover, true, and that might have helped. But it did have a map of north east of China on one of the first pages. And that map was dated. Still, I didn’t realise that this was the fictional retelling of a certain very important historical figure’s life until over a third of way through.
This is almost inexcusable when we learn our first protagonist’s name.
This name though is one that they took on themselves. As the second daughter of a local peasant, she wasn’t given a name by her family. Her father’s hopes were all placed on the cherished older brother, Zhu Chongba, who had been foretold to be destined to greatness and to bring pride to the family name. But that doesn’t happen—Chongba dies. So the girl steals her brother’s name, and his destiny, and makes her way to the Buddhist monastery he had been promised to.
The first few chapters of the book are set in the monastery and ‘our’ Chongba’s attempts to train as a monk while hiding the fact she is not her brother. I loved this section a great deal; it’s.a smaller, more intimate setting than what we shift to later, and it really serves as an excellent set up for the rest of the novel. Also, young Chongba is ingenious and it’s very easy to find yourself supporting her in her endeavours.
But things soon become much darker with the arrival of the Mongols and Chongba’s forced departure from the monastery. This is also accompanied by a time skip, which disappointed me slightly; the previous part of the novel had ended on a cliff-hanger and I feel we are never really given a good enough explication as to how that was solved.
But it’s only after this time-skip that we realise that while Chongba puts on an excellent facade of being a monk, she not suited for the role at a very deep level. She is still pursuing greatness. And as it was not gifted to her, like it was her brother, she feels she has to chase it and grasp onto it hard. She is pursuing, essentially, her desire, and she shows less and less concern with the potential consequences, and her alignment with the rebel Red Turbans gives her no shortage of opportunities to show this. While her motivations, as they are written, are all understandable, Chongba’s more ruthless turn makes it increasingly more difficult to empathise with her.
It’s also after this time-skip that we start spending time with the high ranking Mongol eunuch, Ouyang. Ouyang is, as I can figure, as close as we get to a second protagonist. Once enslaved to the Prince of Henan’s family, he’s risen to the position of general. He also seems to be very much in love with this said prince, which is boggling when you learn about their history. He too, makes some rather brutal choices, and the parallels between his story and that of Chongba’s are very clear.
Another interesting paralell though is that of gender. Chongba has had to spend so much of her life masquerading as a man that there are points where the nature of her body a source of terror. She does start to work through this issue, but then starts question if said body actually houses a woman after all. While Ouyang is agonised everytime someone sees him as either femminine or an object. It’s clear that neither feel content with their feelings, and it is something that still feels it needs to be resolved
In addition to Ouyang and Chongba, there are a number of side characters that really made an impression on me. The first is Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a fallen general who allies herself with Chongba, and under her guidance, starts to realise she can want just as much as anyone else. And in a book where morality is grey on grey, you always have to have at least one loveable shit-head; a position gleefully filed by the Prince of Henan’s adopted brother, Lord Wang Baoxiang. He’s a delight to read about, but dear god, can this man hold a grudge.
She Who Became the Sun is the last of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel that I am reviewing and you might have noticed that I have not mentioned anything that puts this book in the realm of fantasy. I can confirm, it is, but the elements are quite subtle, and they do not really come into play until later on. The low-key fantasy elements were not the only surprise: the glossing over of battle scenes in a book focused on war was also a surprising choice. Instead, She Who Became the Sun, is is a very content to remain a highly character driven novel.
With this exception of some pacing choices, She Who Became the Sun is a very well written novel with a rather grim morality—and a rather exciting ending? Because now I find myself confessing to a case of the dumb-arse 2.0, because I had no idea this was part of a duo-logy?
I guess I’ll be staying tuned for news on that one.
(And for those of you who are still wondering, it is not Chongba that is the important name here: it’s Zhu.)
For Bingo, this is NEW. I have never read anything from Shelley Parker-Chan prior to this.