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Posted on 31 Oct 2023 in Fiction, SFF |

SHELLEY PARKER-CHAN He Who Drowned the World. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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Shelley Parker-Chan’s award-winning tale of an alternate ancient China continues in He Who Drowned the World.

‘… the most dangerous person in a game is the one nobody knows is playing.’

Dive back into the fascinatingly complex alternate ancient China of Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun in this sequel. After freeing southern China from Mongol rule, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, sees her path to the imperial throne more clearly than ever. Nothing will be easy, however, when she is far from the only person with a burning desire to rule. Madam Zhang is no longer content with controlling a mere section of the country through her dim-witted husband, and yearns for greater power. Wang Baoxiang, likewise, has his own plans to take the ultimate revenge against a society that does not value him; he plans to make a mockery of the Empire by rising to become Emperor of All China, the Son of Heaven, when he considers himself unworthy.

To defeat them, Zhu needs a bigger army, and the only way to achieve that is to ally with Ouyang, the eunuch general who betrayed his Mongol masters. Zhu can only hope that Ouyang’s need for revenge on behalf of his slaughtered family will overcome his personal hatred of her. With a new challenge around every corner and an unknown enemy pulling strings from the shadows, Zhu questions just how badly she wants the throne and whether the price of victory might finally be too high to bear.

The book begins with a thoughtful recap of the factions and politics from She Who Became the Sun, which is a relief for readers who may have forgotten all the details, and useful as different aspects of characters’ pasts come up in this story.

Parker-Chan has a distinctive direct yet poetic writing style, filled with vivid imagery and delightful character observations:

Baoxiang noticed, idly, that Lady Ki had taken care to fall so her dress presented her to her best advantage: she lay amidst the rippled silk like a maiden in a field of marigolds.

In fact, the images the writing evokes can be so vivid that at times I had to put the book down briefly. I’ve read more gruesome books but there was just something about how well this was written that made it too easy to imagine how something would feel. This was particularly true for scenes of abuse and self-harm.

Something else that Parker-Chan does very well is to subtly wring sympathy from the reader for even the most despicable characters, showing them to be very human. Moreso than in the previous book, Zhu shares the limelight with General Ouyang, Wang Baoxiang and the magnificently cunning Madam Zhang. It was great to see more of the story from Madam Zhang’s perspective as well, and see how she was made to think of her femininity as a curse and so turned it into a weapon; forgetting along the way that it could ever be anything else. This is contrasted well with the gentle strength of Zhu’s wife Ma Xiuying.

Besides Zhu, most of the main characters are imprisoned in some way by their society’s ideas about gender roles, and this aspect of the story is quite thought-provoking. Zhu has grown comfortable with her own body the way it is, even if she needs to hide that aspect of herself from others in order to achieve her destiny, as evidenced by Zhu being referred to as ‘she’ in this book. There’s one point where she needs to disguise herself as a woman, and the man she’s travelling with is impressed that a fellow man is able to fake femininity so well. Zhu’s explanation says a lot more about all of this than he can imagine:

 ‘I don’t mind. I know who I am. Wearing a dress doesn’t change that.’

He Who Drowned the World is highly enjoyable and brings the story to a satisfying, believable conclusion. It really highlights the tragedy of yearning for the distant horizon at the expense of what is right in front of you.

Shelley Parker-Chan He Who Drowned the World: The Radiant Emperor Book 2 Mantle 2023 PB 496pp $34.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy He Who Drowned the World from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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