In a famine-stricken village on a dusty plain, a seer shows two children their fates. For a family’s eighth-born son, there’s greatness. For the second daughter, nothing.
In 1345, China lies restless under harsh Mongol rule. And when a bandit raid wipes out their home, the two children must somehow survive. Zhu Chongba despairs and gives in. But the girl resolves to overcome her destiny. So she takes her dead brother’s identity and begins her journey. Can Zhu escape what’s written in the stars, as rebellion sweeps the land? Or can she claim her brother’s greatness – and rise as high as she can dream?
There’s so many words to describe how brilliant this debut is. She Who Became the Sun is full of picturesque prose illustrating harsh landscapes and brutal war. From the opening chapters to the closing lines, I was transfixed by how intriguing the politics was, and following the characters fight to make their own fate was breathtakingly captivating.
The world building felt ancient and vivid, and the political landscape was intriguing to say the least. I never knew what was going to develop next. From backstabbing and coups, to sieges and executions, Parker-Chan did not hold back. Honestly I’ve now got a complex about appearing to support war because of how epic it was to read this book’s scenes?! The rows of men, undergoing training and sparring sessions, preparing for war with their anxiety palpitating off the pages, with the horror, brutality and violence of war, all the while scheming their own schemes to seize power. It was just fantastic.
The characters were cleverly crafted and unforgettable. It was excellent reading the lengths Zhu would go to achieve a great fate, made even more enjoyable that we follow Zhu from adolescence into who they become by the novel’s end. As Zhu passes off as a man and embraces that identity, it grew a little tedious reading chapter upon chapter of Zhu’s worries about overstepping in the guise and being discovered. It felt like the author manifested the weight of Zhu’s burden onto me, which while impressive, was also incredibly exhausting.
We also follow the perspective of Ma who was full of compassion, yet always perceptive, even more so than many men. Her character, along with her relationship with Zhu brought a tenderness to the story although they certainly didn’t lack some spice (wink, wink).
The other main character is Ouyang. To avoid death at the hands of the royal family, he became a eunuch and as a grown man serves the same family as a general of the army. Ouyang was definitely my favourite character. I have nothing but love for him. My heart was with him in every embittered thought and tickle of anxiety about his resentment of those who looked down on him for being a eunuch, for hatching his own plans for his own agendas and for trying to resist how his traitorous heart beat for his enemy. I loved his and Esen’s chapters. At the height of turmoil, I couldn’t breathe and just kept reading and reading. They made this book a true page turner.
The concept of fate is crucial to the story and was probably my second favourite detail of the entire book. On the one hand, you’ve got Ouyang who feels his fate is set in stone and it must be followed until the end of the line. And on the other hand, you’ve got Zhu, who’s purpose of living is to bend the boundaries of what fate means for oneself. The contrast of these two characters, considering their parallels too, was beyond impressive. In fact, I still think about it months later, that’s how powerful it is.
Parker-Chan’s writing style is something I’ll appreciate for years to come. From how illustrative and easy to imagine some moments were, to how deeply moving and lyrical some passages were, it wins the book I’ve saved most quotes from in 2021. If I hadn’t struggled with some rigid dialogue here and there, I’d go so far as to class it flawless. Even still, remembering its a debut, my eyebrows go above my hairline and my socks remain blown off.
She Who Became the Sun will go down as one of the best publications of this decade. It feels as epic as it is to read long after finishing, and guarantees I’ll be putting whatever Parker-Chan writes next at the top of my TBR priority list. I’ve preordered both US and UK copies because ✨covers✨ and that’s how much I enjoyed this book.
P.s. definitely give any final maps and character lists a look over before reading. I was a little confused at first understanding royal titles and wish I’d thought to utilise the list (its at the back of the book).
Thank you kindly to the publishers and Netgalley for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for this honest review.