Back in the 14th Century, the Mongols had conquered and ruled Imperial China. In a small village, drought and famine have killed the majority of the population. A nameless girl (one of the few children left in the village) has managed to stay alive thanks to her ingenuity. When her older brother, who had been prophecied a glorious future and her father die, the girl is has the choice to accept death as well, or to fight fate itself by assuming her dead brother’s identity and striving to achieve the greatness likely. Zhu Chongba walks to the nearest monastery and despite all of the monks’ attempts to drive her away, waits patiently outside, taking no food nor water for three days and three nights, until the monks relent and take her in as a novice.
Several years later, when novice Zhu Chongba has just been anointed as a monk, the Mongol’s infamous eunuch general comes to the monastery and demands enough tribute in support of the ongoing war that the abbot there flatly refuses, and as a result the general orders the whole place burned to the ground. Zhu survives and has to seek out the Red Turban rebels, the Chinese warriors who oppose the Mongols. Small and ridiculed, Zhu ends up in the army vanguard as they are off to fight the Mongols, and through a combination of cleverness and pure luck (or is it the fates looking out for her), Zhu sets in motion a series of events that lead to a very unlikely victory for the Red Turbans. Zhu Chongba’s rise toward success continues.
Zhu may be smaller than most warriors (and obviously hiding a big secret), but she is very intelligent and uses her smarts to maneuver the intricate politics of the Red Turbans, steadily rising in the ranks, until she is leading a large part of their army herself. Again and again, her path seems to cross with that of Ouyang, the eunuch general, and with each encounter, Zhu relentlessly finesses herself closer to her ultimate goal, the greatness her young, long-dead brother was promised.
This is Shelley Parker-chan’s debut novel, which she herself described as” a queer reimagining of the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. It’s also a fun story about gender”. So She Who Became the Sun is a fantasy retelling of actual historical events. Some of the people in my book club thought the book was almost more of a straight historical fiction with some fantastical elements (there are ghosts and a smattering of magic) rather than a straight fantasy. Even if the book title hadn’t given a pretty strong hint as to how our protagonist is going to fare (it’s not called The little peasant girl who died nameless and forgotten), history itself may provide some spoilers. The novel has been nominated for a number of big literary awards, like the Locus, Aurealis and Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. Parker-Chan is the first Australian author to be nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novel, and while the book didn’t win that award, it won both Best Newcomer and Best Fantasy Novel at the 2022 British Fantasy awards.
Full review here.
Bingo #2: Snake (Slippery Creatures), Bodies (Fangirl: the Manga, vol 2), Star (this), Gaslight (The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes), Elephant (Her Unexpected Roommate)