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Monday, July 19, 2021

She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan review


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ABOUT SHELLEY: Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her debut novel She Who Became the Sun owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her family.

Publication Date: July 20, 2021      Page count: 416      Publisher: Tor Books                    Cover art: Jung Shang      Design: Jamie Stafford-Hill


OVERVIEW: She Who Became The Sun is phenomenal. Do yourself a favor and pre-order it. Especially if you appreciate unclichéd characters, excellent but restrained worldbuilding, and the author‘s gift for breaking you. The story follows a peasant girl who refuses her fate and steals her dead brother’s identity to survive. She rises from monk to soldier and then to rebel commander. Her obsession to achieve greatness against all odds drives the plot and makes her a fascinating character. 

The story reimagines Zhu Yuanzhang’s rise to power. He started out as a peasant and ended up as the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Parker-Chan’s character-driven story explores what kind of person decides to become an emperor against, well, everything. To make matters more interesting, she makes Zhu a woman in a patriarchal world that sees her life as worthless. An ugly and illiterate peasant girl from the occupied province means less than nothing to the ruling class. But Zhu’s life has value to her, and so she redefines herself. She slips back and forth between identities, names, and social roles. She starts as a relatable character trying to survive, but her desires and historical events force her to go dark side. 

The second POV character, Eunuch General Ouyang, begins as a villainous individual. Once we get his perspective, however, things get complicated. Like Zhu, he struggles with body image issues, repressed feelings, and an obsession with revenge. His fate brings pain to himself and those he secretly loves. 

Characters and their relationships make this book formidable. All of them are fleshed out, convincing, complex, and believable. I'm sure I'll remember most of them for a long time and I can't say the same about most characters I read about in fantasy.

I loved the setting. Society collapsed after natural disasters (droughts, floods, plagues). Violent rulers and invading Mongols destroyed the lives of ordinary people. At the beginning of the book, things felt apocalyptic. As the story progressed, I found some glimmers of hope and vivid descriptions of a ruined land and its people. Despite the grim setting of the story, most of the violence takes place off-screen. 

The story tackles several themes, including gender identity. It makes it relevant to the plot and character development. Both Zhu and General Ouyang have issues with their body image. In both cases, the treatment feels meaningful and nuanced. 

She Who Became the Sun is a terrific and intense debut. With its complex characters, nuanced politics, and brutal twists, it provides thoughtful and compelling entertainment.

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