SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan – READALONG Week 2
Welcome to the second week of our 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
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 2: Ch. 5 – Ch. 11
Hands up – who was hoping the narrative would pick straight up from the end of Part 1? How are we feeling about the question of what happened at the monastery going unanswered? What do we think happened to the monks?
Beth: If I’m totally honest, this did throw me out of the story a little and it took me a while to settle into the new points of perspective.
Nils: I felt exactly the same. We are told Ouyang burnt the monastery but no other details are given. I was desperately wanting to know if any of the other monks had escaped, if any had died. What happened to the Abbot?
Beth: Do you find it a little strange that Zhu doesn’t mention the abbot at all? Or is that a coping mechanism of hers, as she doesn’t mention anyone else she’s lost either. I got to the end of this second part quite frustrated that we still don’t know exactly what happened. I loved Zhu’s reunion with Xu Da, but of course he hadn’t been at the monastery when the attack happened, so it still doesn’t give a lot of insight into how Zhu escaped and what happened to the other monks. At one point, I think it’s Ma who says something to Zhu about Wuhuang monastery being a wealthy one, but nothing is said of its fate!
Nils: I’m guessing she doesn’t mention the abbott because he survived? She hasn’t seen him as a ghost. I don’t think. As frustrating as it is to be left hanging about the other monks, do you think this is Parker-Chan keeping us in the dark because they will play a part later on in the story?
Beth: It’s hard to know for certain, isn’t it! I hope it does come back and play a part, even if it’s just so we discover what happened.
The first new perspective we find ourselves in is General Ouyang’s, the eunuch causing so much trouble at the end of the last part. Thoughts?
Beth: Once I stopped sulking, I did begin to find Ouyang a very interesting character.
Nils: Haha, so I wasn’t the only one who sulked then? I actually found the first one or two chapters in part two rather slow paced compared to Zhu’s time in the monastery in part one. But yes I agree, when I got to Ouyang’s chapters later on, I began to really appreciate his perspective.
Beth: He sets a great deal of rules for himself, he seems to place a great deal of importance on what’s right, and on his dignity – which seems a natural enough reaction to being held to such a low standard by everyone else, to being told all his life that he’s a “thing”, and unnatural. I think it would have been easy for Parker-Chan to write this character as angry and hateful at everyone, but his complexity is far more realistic and fascinating to read.
Nils: That’s a really good point Beth. I think Ouyang bears a level of anger at what has been done to his people and his own mutilation, but instead of projecting it on everyone he lets it burn for one man alone, The Prince of Henan – Chaghan-Temur. He’s a real nasty piece of work isn’t he Beth?
Beth: He reminds me a little of Prefact Fang in his narrow-minded view of how things should work, and his opinion and treatment of people who fall outside that.
Nils: Absolutely! They’re very similar in that regard.
I loved the moment when Ouyang is prostrated on the floor with Chaghan’s foot beneath his chin and Ouyang declares his real mission is revenge, that’s when I had a whole new level of respect for him. I assumed he was on the Mongol’s side previous to this, but when we were chatting about it on WhatsApp Beth and you said you think he’s on his own side, I completely agree with you. This makes Ouyang’s story arc interesting as I can’t wait to see what direction it takes.
Beth: That was definitely the moment I really started to get a lot more interested in his character!
What are our thoughts on Ouyang and Prince Esen’s relationship?
Beth: On the face of things it seems like a friendship, but by the end of our chapters for this week, it seems their relationship is more complex than a simple friendship developed between servant and master. Is Esen acting out of guilt for his family’s actions against Ouyang and making him an eunuch? Is Ouyang reacting to the kindness from Esen as the only kindness he’s been shown? But then they do also seem genuinely attracted to each other too. I find myself shipping them and looking forward to seeing where their relationship goes.
Nils: Do we know the age difference between them? I kind of started to feel that Esen might be attracted to Ouyang too, but I wasn’t sure whether to be comfortable with that because I feel Ouyang is much older than him. Or maybe I’m wrong and Ouyang is just much wiser.
“That was a long time ago. You were just a child.”
Sixteen years ago. More than half their lifetimes. “So were you.”
The impression I had of this was that they’re of a similar age and they’ve grown up together? But Ouyang definitely comes across much wiser, and I suppose he’s had a lot more lessons to learn over the years than Esen, he’s had a lot more trauma.
Nils: Oh yeah that quote definitely would suggest they are of similar age. Perhaps Esen just comes across as younger because as you said Beth, he’s led a less traumatic life. However I do like the kingship they have with each other, they are both oppressed by the same man. Although Chaghan may be more lenient towards his son, Esen still cannot disobey him outright. He takes a huge risk in interfering when Chaghan threatens to execute Ouyang for the loss of his soldiers on the bridge, and that was the point where I knew Esen genuinely cared for him. I’m just hoping Ouyang would protect him in the same way should the time arise. I’m not altogether sure he would.
Beth: I think he would? I don’t think his feelings for Esen will stop him on his path, but I think he’ll do whatever he can to avoid hurting Esen?
Nils: I really hope he doesn’t hurt Esen.
Beth, what did you think of the two brothers—Esen and Wang Boaxiang? At first I really didn’t like Wang, I thought he was going to be malicious for the sake of being malicious, but Parker-Chan is much more clever than that. Wang is crafted as the polar opposite of Esen, a scholar rather than a warrior and for that his father feels shame towards him. I can see why the two brothers have a conflict even though I feel Wang is a little too cruel towards him. I also love the connection between Wang and Ouyang, and their perspectives on ‘masculinity’.
Beth: This story is such a clever exploration of the notion of gender and its different representations and expectations, and Wang is a great example of the contradictory notion of masculinity for different cultures. Within his own family, there would have been nothing wrong with being scholarly and administrative, but in his adopted Mongol family, he is constantly derided for not being a warrior and therefore “manly”. Ultimately though, Wang holds a great deal more power in his hands that Changhan and Esen can even begin to appreciate.
Do we think The Prince of Radiance is who he claims to be?
Nils: I’m suspicious!
Beth: That’s like the tagline for Grimdark Readers Anonymous.
Nils: That’s so true!!
So initially during that scene where the child Prince is on fire and blesses the soldiers, I thought the fire was fake, but having read over that part again I think I misinterpreted. Nonetheless, I think perhaps the Red Turban army pin their hopes too much on The Prince of Radiance and this makes me believe the child is being used for symbolism rather than him actually being holy? We’ll see I guess. I actually think our Zhu might turn out to be The Prince of Radiance, and I know Beth you said you think she might make people believe she is?
Beth: Well so far throughout the whole story Zhu has fought against her “fate” – to be nothing. Despite what the fortune teller told her, despite what society demands of her, despite what her religion expects of her; she bends the rules in order to forge a way for herself. So I believe that, if you need the Mandate of Heaven to rule, she’ll find a way of making others believe she has it, whether she actually does or not. I’m a very cynical reader (thank you Abercrombie) so I’m not sure how much I believe the child is actually the prince of radiance, or whether it’s something the Prime Minister has faked to secure his position of power.
Nils: That’s exactly my suspicion too.
Were you surprised to see the return of Xu Da? What was your reaction?
Beth: I was so pleased they were reunited! There’s so much darkness in Zhu’s life, she’s so focused on survival that there’s no room for the thought of anything else. I was so relieved for her that she had someone there to cover her back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say someone she can be herself around, as I think she’s so far passed the notion of “self” and trying to be what she thinks is someone else, but who is actually, like you said before, more herself than what her brother might have potentially become.
I hope he doesn’t die. Please don’t let him die.
Nils: Oh my god, please don’t let Xu Da die, he’s too precious. I wasn’t surprised to see him return as from the very beginning he seemed like an important figure in Zhu’s life, one who she needed, as you said Beth, to cut through all the darkness, someone to confide in as much as someone like her can. I just hope Xu Da doesn’t become a character Zhu uses, a pawn in her path to greatness. I really hope their friendship and bond stays true.
Let’s return to the morals of our monk and discuss this slope she’s slipping down. Thoughts?
Nils: BETH SHE KILLED THE GOVERNOR OF LU! We were just discussing in part one about whether she would go as far as killing someone and I really hoped she wouldn’t but then she did!
Beth: Our little murder-baby is growing up Nils!
Nils: Are we proud?!
Beth: I’m not sure! I want to be disappointed that she didn’t find a way to think her way out of the problem, like she’s some kind of Chinese Sherlock. But I guess it comes to a point where she has to evaluate what’s important to her, and what lines she’ll cross for it.
Nils: I guess just like Lady Rui’s desire for power, Zhu’s desire for greatness will always drive her to do what she thinks will achieve her goal, damning the consequences, damning her moral compass. I guess this is why the monks saw desire as such an evil concept.
Beth: Ooh great point Nils! I think it raises an interesting criticism on the fact that they teach desire is evil; in stifling the populace’s desire, they’re effectively teaching people against striving for something better and it reinforces the differences between the social hierarchies.
But as for Zhu’s personal morality, I found it really fascinating that she struggled more with the death of the one man at her own hands (in such a violent manner, I might add – that was never going to be a quick death!) than the death of the ten thousand men from her actions.
Nils: That’s a really interesting point Beth, I love how this book is bringing up so many points of discussion. I think in this instance she was able to separate herself from the killing of ten thousand Mongol soldiers because, A) they are the enemy and B) although it was her intent and actions which caused it, her hands didn’t physically kill them, therefore it was easy to see their deaths as the will of Heaven (or the Mandate).
I also think watching the Governor die right before her eyes as her hands squeezed the life out of him shocked her into realisation of exactly what she was capable of and how far she was willing to break her vows as a monk.
“Learn to want something for yourself, Ma Xiuying. Not what someone says you should want. Not what you think you should want. Don’t go through life thinking only of duty. When all we have are these brief spans between our non-existences, why not make the most of the life you’re living now? The price is worth it.”
And alone of all that crowd, Zhu knew exactly what they faced. Who they faced. Through that strange quiver of connection to the Yuan’s eunuch general, she had seen beneath that carved-jade mask to his shame and self-hate and anger. He had a wound for a heart, and that made him a more dangerous opponent than anyone here realized.
We hope you enjoyed our discussion for week 2. Don’t forget – be sure to tag us if you join in!
Next week we’ll be discussing Chapters 12 – 17