SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan – READALONG Week 1
Welcome to another Fantasy Hive Readalong!
Throughout June, we’re championing non-binary and trans authors in SFF. To celebrate, we’re hosting a readalong of Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. Although it’s been on our TBR’s for some time, it’s the first time reading this for Nils and myself (Beth).
We’ll be sticking to a reading schedule, which I’ll post below; we’ll be posting discussion points and questions every Monday via social media, and then Nils and I will be sharing our responses to these every Thursday.
- Week 1: Beginning through Chapter 4
- Week 2: Chapter 5 – Chapter 11
- Week 3: Chapter 12 – Chapter 17
- Week 4: Chapter 18 to the end
For those of you (somehow?!) unfamiliar with Parker-Chan’s debut, here’s the blurb:
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
SPOILERS AHEAD: This post is a book-club style discussion of the novel, rather than a review to tempt new readers in.
We do discuss plot points, character motivations, and twists – if you have not read the book and do not want it spoiled, please do not read further!
You can find more responses to our discussion, and join in yourself, on our Google doc
Week 1: Start – Ch. 4
Welcome to Week 1 – first of all, before we get into the story itself, let’s chat about the Historical Note. Did you read it? Are you a fan of historical notes, generally?
Beth: I have mixed feelings on historical notes, I find they can be hit or miss. I read one once that was really quite patronising, and put me off the book before I even started it. Thankfully, that wasn’t at all the case here. I have read some Chinese historical fiction in the past, but I don’t pretend to have a good understanding of China’s history at all. I found Parker-Chan’s note really helpful therefore; it was concise, telling us the basic facts of what we need to know of this time period, and how our protagonist fits into it. I thought it was a good starting point.
Nils: I actually haven’t read many historical notes, but I found this one really helpful. My knowledge of history isn’t so good, so I felt that Parker-Chan offered some much needed context as to the political state of China at the time the novel is set in. Knowing how unsettled and defeated Southern China was as the Mongols had finally defeated them after much resistance, gave me more of a sense of the desperation that must have been permeating throughout the lands. The people were starving and oppressed and would go to any extremes to survive, that was what truly drove our main protagonist’s plight.
As openings go, Chapter 1 paints quite a bleak picture. What were your first impressions?
Beth: We’re really thrust straight into our main character’s world, aren’t we. Parker-Chan’s writing style hooked me straight away, it’s not lyrical as such, it’s measured, and considered, and authentic in a way I found extremely effective.
“Metal on the soldiers’ armor caught and turned the light so that the dark river sparkled as it crawled over the dun hillside. It was a sight so disconnected from the girl’s life that it seemed only distantly real, like the mournful call of geese flying far over-head.”
Nils: You’re absolutely right, Beth. Parker-Chan gives us a really fast paced opening, throwing us into the main protagonist’s life which is immediately filled with hardship, pain and a deep longing for more. The prose poignantly reflects this in its direct narrative style.
Beth: There’s definitely a lot of hardship on display. I was particularly struck by Parker-Chan’s portrayal of starving people; the fact that our protagonist isn’t capable of imagining all the different kinds of foods she would eat, but rather imagines there simply being more food, was extremely evocative in its simplicity of need.
Nils: Yes! Exactly this!! The way she daydreams of bountiful amounts of food, but in reality all she gets is a handful of crickets and even that is taken away from her by her father. The fact that she’s forced to secretly eat a lizard she caught earlier in the day was heartbreaking.
Beth: Parker-Chan does a great job showing us a situation that would drive a person to desperate actions. Finally, I think the thing that made the biggest impression on me was that our protagonist does not have an identity. She does not have a name.
Nils: Excellent point, Beth. This was very striking to me too.
Beth: We are introduced to her as “The Zhu family’s second daughter, who was more or less ten years old”. We are shown repeatedly that daughters are less important, we are told ominously that she is the last girl in her village, so whether she wasn’t given a name because it wasn’t believed she’d survive, or simply that she wasn’t yet important enough for one, isn’t made clear.
Nils: Parker-Chan reflects upon an attitude that women were often seen as lesser to men, which unfortunately has been held in Asian and Indian culture in the past. For example there is a scene when the Zhu family are eating dinner together and the men are served first and the daughter is to make do with the meagre leftovers. In Indian culture men are traditionally served first, and women sit together and eat afterwards. Although it may not be for the same reasons as in the past the remnants of those attitudes are still there.
Therefore I think Beth that the daughter doesn’t have a name because in the eyes of the men, she wasn’t worth giving one. She was clearly there to serve the men and therefore needed no status of her own.
“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.”
This quote actually brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad she went on to form an identity of her own making, even if it does begin with a life in a monastery under strict confinement.
Beth: Ooh but then that raises another discussion point Nils! Does she make the identity herself, or would you say she steals it? Identity is a really important theme; she wasn’t important enough for one of her own, and so she takes her brother’s when he dies and she spends a lot of time then worrying that Heaven will work out what she’s done. One would think Heaven can already see what she’s done, so is that fear more a manifestation of her guilt?
Nils: I think it’s the guilt. As you say Beth Heaven would know what she’s done already, so knowing that she is constantly deceiving everyone, especially the monks, is so obviously playing on her mind. I think she questions her own morality—was taking her dead brother’s identity the right thing to do? The honourable thing? Yet I don’t think she has entirely stolen his identity, I think she has stolen his name and his mannerisms but I also feel she’s shaping it into an identity of her choosing too.
What do you think the importance of her being able to see ghosts signifies? Is it a sign of her greatness or is it a punishment?
Nils: I have a theory here Beth. Do you remember she took the amulet her brother wore? I think that is causing her to see ghosts. I think there is more to the amulet than just a token from the monastery.
Beth: Oh that’s a really good theory Nils, I hadn’t really considered the amulet!
I think it does have some kind of connection to her taking on the identity of her brother, as that’s when she starts to see them – most ominously the first spirits she does see are those of her brother and father…
Nils: That’s exactly what made me think of the connection, the first time she experiences the ghosts is that of her family’s. Although I can’t seem to find any reference of whether she still wears it throughout part one. Maybe that’ll be something revealed later on.
Beth: Yeah I don’t remember anything about her losing it or something so as far as we’re aware she still wears it?
Nils: However I do think she’s given this ability for a reason, not just because of the amulet. Perhaps the ghosts will interact with her at some point and aid her.
Beth: Maybe there’s a connection there with the eunuch general too! But I agree with you Nils, I think there is a reason they can see them.
Morality of what she does to Prefect Fang?
Nils: My first thought was “clever girl, good on you!” – I’m not sure what this says of my sense of morality but I despised Prefect Fang.
Beth: Lol Nils should we be worried??
Nils: Yes Beth! Revenge is best served cold, after all! I’m all for a bit of revenge!
But seriously, Prefect Fang was one of those characters who enjoyed ruling over others, doling out punishments to the novices for the sake of exercising his power over others, with little compassion. Therefore, he deserved what was coming to him. I am glad she didn’t kill him though, I did think this may have been a step too far if she had.
Beth: When Zhu toys with the idea of killing him, I confess I began to get worried for our mc! But then, I’m not exactly sure she took the kinder route? She was terrified of leaving the monastery, with the knowledge that there would be nothing out in the world for her. Then she contrived to give Fang that fate instead, and as horrible as he’d been, I did feel sorry for him. He was petty, and clearly taking out inner turmoils on those beneath him, but I didn’t think he was evil?
Nils: I don’t think he was evil either, but he’s devout to the extreme, perhaps bordering on being a fanatic, and those strong beliefs often make people dangerous in a different way because they never see what they are doing as wrong because it’s a Holy cause. So I do believe he needed a lesson to humble him. Although I’m not sure if this has humbled him, I’m sure we’ll be seeing Prefect Fang again.
Beth: I was just about to ask if you think he’ll pop up! Probably at the most inconvenient time too, attempting to exact a revenge…
What do we make of Xu Da’s reaction?
Beth: He didn’t seem surprised that Zhu would do such a thing to protect herself. The fact he knew she was female all along, and not only never said anything but didn’t care, was such a poignant moment, it made me cry. His simple acceptance was lovely. What I found noteworthy was the fact that he knew zhu had set fang up and surmised she did it to protect herself – which speaks volumes of what he knows of her character.
Nils: Ooh that’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that.
Beth: Again, the ruthlessness of it all didn’t seem an issue for him. It wasn’t surprising, we’re already shown he isn’t exactly pious or anything. But it made me wonder if it’s an expression of how close he feels to Zhu, or a glimpse into his own morals. Perhaps he’s cut from the same cloth.
Nils: Perhaps he holds secrets of his own too? Xu Da doesn’t even condemn Zhu privately for her treachery. He accepts that she did it to protect herself and that is enough for him. There’s some friendship goals there!
Beth: I’d help you get rid of the bodies Nils ❤️
Nils: I got your back too, boo!
Beth: Seriously though, I think you’re right Nils, maybe he does have secrets that are a little more serious than his bedroom exploits!
Nils: I wonder Beth, if Zhu had gone to him with her problem what lengths would he have gone to help protect her? He obviously wasn’t going to turn her in.
Beth: I definitely don’t think he’d have turned her in, he was actually concerned when she was called to the abbots office!
What do you think she’s going to do at the end of part one, help the Abbott or switch sides?
Beth: I mentioned earlier that I didn’t think fang was necessarily evil, and I think Parker-Chan has done a great job creating a similar impression of the eunuch. We can see the roots of his anger, that his desire for power of the Abbott comes from a place of hurt.
As for Zhu’s reaction, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next – I’m not sure if this is a sign I’ve read far too much grimdark in the past, but I was absolutely expecting her to turn and slice the Abbott’s throat as a sign of compliance to the general!
Nils: It’s now my turn to be worried about you! Not every character slits throats Beth, jeez!!
Beth: I seem to read a lot of them though…
Nils: To be fair so do I! But erm… I have to admit that would have been an interesting twist. Our main character turns slightly unhinged after successfully overthrowing Prefect Fang!
You’re right though, the Eunuch is far from evil, they’ve been wronged and shunned their whole life, who could blame them for wanting to give a little intimidation and revenge back? I think it’s very interesting that Zhu sees a kinship of sorts with the eunuch. Zhu’s identity, gender and general place in this world of men with power mirrors that of the eunuch’s situation. So for her to join him is very plausible.
Beth: I think Parker-Chan’s whole approach to “evil” and “villains” will be a great topic to come back to later!
We hope you enjoyed our discussion for week 1. Don’t forget – be sure to tag us if you join in!
Next week we’ll be discussing Chapters 5 – 11