She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan – Book Review
I’m crazy about historical fantasy and She Who Became the Sun is one of the best I’ve read in recent memory, and as far removed from the previous historical fantasy novel I read, The Night Circus. Drawing the Red Turban rebellion against the Mongol Yuan dynasty into the ever so slightly fantastic, Shelley Parker-Chan rewrites history in more than one ways, the most defining that the would-be progenitor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Chongba dies at the onset of the novel, his identity—and destiny—taken up by his nameless sister, whose own fate is to become nothing. In taking up the name, Zhu believes herself capable of also claiming her brother’s destiny for herself—in some ways, She Who Became the Sun is both a confirmation of these hopes, and a renouncement of the very concept of fate.
Much about the way in which this novel is written balks at typical fantasy conventions. Time passes at a break-neck pace, events folding and unfolding with a swiftness and brutality you never quite learn to expect. Massive battles are built up to, then dismissed with a few lines, describing the outcome, concentrating on how this outcome affects the increasingly influential players on both the Mongol and Red Turban sides of the conflict. You might find this anticlimactic if you read fantasy for the gritty, visceral descriptions, the blood-pounding glory and horror of combat—for that, I’ll happily point you to Joe Abercrombie who does it better than nearly anyone else. Parker-Chan’s novel has different aims in mind—and she succeeds in those, creating characters who are heartachingly human, locked into destinies of their own making, shaped by them as they are shaped by the culture of the time.
Another way in which Parker-Chan steps outside the typical genre conventions is with PoV. Changes in point of view often come with a jolt: rather than divided into clear-cut chapters for each main character, one chapter might jump between three, four different perspectives, creating at times a stereoscopic view of key scenes. At other times, this technique stumbles, creating some confusion, even a sense of whiplash. Ultimately, I enjoyed this far more than I disliked it, though I can see how some might take issue with it.
This is excellent queer fantasy, in that it captures forbidden yearning in so breathtakingly beautiful a way. Desire is a central theme to She Who Became and for good reason—it is what drives all our main characters, as well as the novel’s finest antagonists. The will to power defines Parker-Chan’s Red Turbans as much as their fight against the Mongol Yuan dynasty, perhaps more. Zhu herself desires authority over others as much as she desires survival itself, perhaps even more. The extent to which she will go to gain a place of prominence among the rebels is neither less nor more than what others among the rebels’ leadership are willing to do. Make of that what you will.
But I was telling you about the aspects of this novel which make it queer fantasy. Much of this can be seen not so much in Zhu as in the eunuch general Ouyang, whose complex relationship with the Mongol prince Esen (Ouyang’s former owner, master, friend) has so many twists and turns as to give you even more whiplash—but in a good way. On a side note, I adore Zhu’s first impression of the general: “She saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind. The promise of difference, made real.”
Natalie Naudus narrates the audiobook. I first became acquainted with her work thanks to the narration of The Bone Shard Daughter and I continue to be in awe of the talent Naudus displays. Her range of voices, the smoothness of the delivery, the emotion she summons—it makes for truly great listening, if you enjoy the medium.
She Who Became the Sun is the first in a duology, leaving off at a place at once of triumph and of bitterness—I do not know when the second book will come out, but I know I will be there at launch, eager to listen to every last line.