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Posted on 24 Nov 2022 in Fiction, SFF |

SHELLEY PARKER-CHAN She Who Became the Sun. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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Australian Shelley Parker-Chan’s historical fantasy has won a Hugo Award for Best New Writer and two British Fantasy Awards.

Shelley Parker Chan’s debut novel reimagines the rise to power of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty in fourteenth-century China. During the brief Yuan period, when China was ruled by the Mongols, two poor village children have their futures read by a fortune-teller. The boy, Zhu Chongba, is said to have greatness awaiting him. But when his sister asks about her fate, the answer is simply: ‘Nothing.’

She finds this hard to believe of her lazy brother. As native Nanren (i.e. ethnic Chinese, as the book explains), they can hold no status above peasant, and are currently starving in the midst of a terrible drought. But when bandits attack and Zhu Chongba dies, his sister assumes his identity. If he took her fate, then perhaps she can take his:

Her brother’s face swam before her eyes, kingly with entitlement. Useless girl.

Some new hardness inside her answered: I’ll be better at being you than you ever were.

As Zhu, she finds shelter in a monastery for a time. But when her safe haven is destroyed and she is once again left with nothing, it seems her only choice is to chase greatness, wherever that road may lead.

As a child, Zhu takes everything life can throw at her with heartbreaking innocence and persistence:

He turned back to the children and said with quiet ferocity, ‘One day soon our ancestors will intervene to end this suffering. They will.’

The girl knew he was right. He was older than her and knew more. But when she tried to imagine the future, she couldn’t. There was nothing in her imagination to replace the formless, unchanging days of starvation. She clung to life because it seemed to have value, even if only to her. But when she thought about it, she had no idea why.

We never actually learn her original name. Zhu is simply known as ‘girl’ or ‘you useless girl’ by her family. Later, her determination to claim her older brother’s grand destiny means that she tries not to think of her past and is revolted by the body she hides. She fears that simply claiming his name won’t be enough and she must believe herself to be him strongly enough to fool even Heaven above. This adds another unexpected, noteworthy layer to Zhu’s identity struggle throughout the book.

Zhu shares the limelight with other characters as the story demands, most of whom are outsiders in some way. From a noblewoman who serves tea to the rebel leaders and understands strategy better than anyone wants to acknowledge, to a eunuch general in the Mongol army despised for not being a ‘real man’, these characters have as much to say about living up to expected gender roles as Zhu herself.

Another central theme in this story is the tragedy of believing too strongly in fate, and it illustrates this point particularly well. Overall, this tale is beautifully written, with evocative, elegant prose:

When [she] looked up her luminous face was wretched with anguish. It was so pure that Zhu felt an unexpected pang of the particular combination of awe and pity that one gets from seeing fragile pear blossoms in the rain.

There’s a brief historical primer at the start of the book which is helpful. I appreciated the opportunity to learn a bit more about ancient Chinese culture and Buddhism. The irony of monks striving for inner peace while also caning children for minor infractions is not lost on the author either. The various historical references in the story led me to do a little bit of research about Empress Wu and learn more about the sensational exploits of China’s more ruthless imperial rulers.

She Who Became the Sun immerses the reader in a fascinating historical period and fully realises its premise of a woman living as a man. While it can stand by itself quite easily, a sequel is promised.

Shelley Parker-Chan She Who Became the Sun Tor UK 2021 PB 416pp $19.99

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

You can buy She Who Became the Sun 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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