SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan – READALONG Week 3
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 3: Ch. 12 – Ch. 17
The theme of identity is a driving one in this story: discuss!
Nils: I think this entire story focuses on identity and explores who our characters are vs who our characters are perceived to be. Wang Boaxiang isn’t the incompetent coward Chaghan sees him as, and he isn’t quite the calculated killer Esen thinks he is later on either. I do believe he really wants to help the people during this war, or perhaps he is playing a more political move but his identity is mistaken at every turn as he’s always seen as lesser.
Beth: We talked a lot about Wang in our whatsapp didn’t we! A person’s perceived identity is so closely connected to their gender. For Wang, in his heritage, it’s perfectly normal for men to be scholarly and administrative, it’s respected. But for his Mongol family, to be male is to be a warrior, so they hate and distrust him because they cannot understand him; he doesn’t align to their expectations of what it is to be a man.
Nils: Yeah, exactly. It’s a clash of cultural expectations here, and therefore it makes Wang more dangerous because they cannot comprehend his true identity so they don’t know the game he’s playing.
Then there’s Ouyang who is essentially a man, no matter his mutilation, or his appearance, he identifies with being a man and when others don’t see him that way and he bears this pain all in silence, I can’t help but feel for him.
Beth: Ouyang is another one who doesn’t fit their mould. He ticks all the boxes that Wang doesn’t, but he’s an eunuch. So it conflicts with their notion: despite how much he does to live up to their notions of “male”, he will never be a man in their eyes.
“Esen had always been good at compartmentalization. It was a talent Ouyang seemed to have lost. After a lifetime of keeping the parts of himself separate, now they all bled into each other in an unstaunchable hemorrhage.”
I loved this quote about Ouyang and his inner turmoil of trying to be Mongolian on the surface and hiding his Nanreen identity and heritage within, stoking the fires of his vengeance. His two identities are conflicted through his feelings for Esen.
Nils: Again another clash of cultural identity. Ouyang, like Wang is caught between the two.
Beth: Zhu is of course another character for whom identity is central. I loved this quote also:
“She couldn’t fool herself that it was a reaction Zhu Chongba would have had… There was something ominous about it, as though each time it happened she lost some fraction of her capacity to be Zhu Chongba.”
Zhu struggling to maintain what she thinks is her brother’s identity; but how much of that identity is true to the original Zhu anyway? Zhu focuses on what he would and wouldn’t have done as a man, but seems oblivious to the fact that he was lazy and lacked intelligence and resourcefulness. To what extent can we fight against our own nature and identity?
Nils: You make a great point about Zhu, Beth. How much of her identity is her brother’s now, how much is her own and how much is what she thinks Heaven wants her to be like? Yet I don’t believe she ever really knew her brother, not truly, because all she saw was his cruelty towards her. So I’m leaning more towards Zhu forming an identity that will best help her achieve her goal of “greatness”, but again I don’t think she’s being her actual self, I believe deep down the real Zhu would prefer to not kill or cause harm to others.
Another important theme and one which has played a large part in this week’s section is fate. What were your thoughts on this?
Beth: Zhu and Ouyang both have quite different notions of fate.
“Fate made the pattern of the world, and Ouyang was nothing more than a thread joining a beginning and an end.”
For Ouyang, everything is preordained and he is helpless upon its inexorable path. He is not to blame for his actions for they are fated – they are out of his control.
Whereas with Zhu, she is of the belief that she has cheated her fate. She desired a different fate to that shown her by the fortune teller, and believes she must constantly work to fool Heaven into thinking she is her brother following his fate to greatness. There’s a paradox here that she doesn’t seem to see.
Nils: Fantastic point Beth, I think you really hit home what Parker-Chan is expressing by her exploration of fate and belief. In the name of ‘fate’ these characters cause devastating effects on all around them, they lie, manipulate and more often than not destroy lives. Ouyang plotting against Chaghan and his path of revenge essentially hurts Esen, perhaps the one true friend he has. Zhu chasing a fate of greatness she so badly desires causes her to become a killer. This makes me question if fate is even worth pursuing for these characters? Or is it just a word/concept they hide behind because these characters actually want power and agency which the world has deprived them of?
Beth: I absolutely think they (unconsciously) hide behind it. Because otherwise they would be responsible for their actions. “It’s not my fault I’m a mass murderer, that’s just my fate.”
Nils: Yes exactly. Fate gives them autonomy to do difficult deeds.
Beth: Ma is a great contrast to this, she can’t understand why Zhu is so determined to claim this fate, and to be fair, she makes a great point. They could just run away from it all. Zhu sees her fate as being great or being nothing and there is no middle ground for her.
What are our thoughts on the death of Chaghan? How calculated was Ouyang devising that plan?!
Nils: To be honest I didn’t think Ouyang had it in him to be so ruthless in his planning of Chaghan’s downfall. Yet like most of the characters in the book, I underestimated Ouyang, he is the general of an army after all, if he couldn’t be strategic, he wouldn’t be a general in the first place.
Beth: Ha, that’s a really good point Nils, of course he wouldn’t be sloppy about it, he’s a tactician. I was surprised he went for Chaghan though, I thought he was going straight to the top of the ladder!
Nils: I was shocked too, it was quite a ballsy move wasn’t it?!
Given how horrific Chaghan treated Ouyang and his adopted son Wang Boaxiang it’s hard to feel bad about his death though isn’t it? It needed to happen, but it’s just a shame it broke Esen in the way it did. I liked Esen’s open kindness, his naivety and his faith in his brother. Now he’s a bitter shell, and I’m worried which path his character will go down.
Beth: Yeah I didn’t exactly feel sorry for Chaghan. Ouyang took advantage of his cruelty and his pride; if he hadn’t come over to shout at Wang, if he hadn’t ridden that particular horse… pride literally came before his fall. I’m with you though, I do mourn Esen, the path his grief has taken him down and the wedge it’s driven between himself and Ouyang!
How do we feel about Zhu and Ma Xingyin getting married?
Nils: I’m going to be honest here and say this came a little sudden for me. Although I could see a relationship, or at least a bond forming between Zhu and Ma Xingyin, the way she so readily agreed to marry Zhu felt rushed, and I expected her to deliberate over it for at least a while longer as her former husband had only just been executed.
“She was yielding to it, being consumed by it, and it was the most beautiful and frightening thing she’d ever felt. She wanted. She wanted everything Zhu was offering with that promise of difference. Freedom, and desire, and her life to make her own.”
However, I love the above quote and it made me appreciate Parker-Chan showing Ma Xingyin as accepting Zhu’s gender as being neither male nor female but something different, and not being taken aback by the deception. It is Zhu’s difference which draws her towards her and allows her to trust that Zhu will not constrain her in the way male figures have dominated her before.
Beth: OMG Nils I think we’re actually going to disagree on something for once!
Nils: It had to happen at some point my friend!
Beth: I thought Parker-Chan did a good job planting the seed in Ma for her to start thinking about her own desire and to want something different for herself, and her frustrations at not being able to want, at not having the freedom for that as a woman. When Zhu revealed herself to Ma, Ma could finally see why Zhu would even have such ideas, and she recognised the opportunity to have a kind of freedom she would never have in a conventional marriage. It’s very much a marriage of convenience, not romance.
What are our thoughts on Zhu believing she had entered the spirit world and the ghosts asking “who are you?”
Nils: The book in general has been low on the fantasy side, so seeing Zhu possibly able to interact with the ghosts, or they with her, has piqued my interest to delve deeper into this.
Beth: I think the fantasy element of this book is definitely something to come back to when the story ends, but I’m definitely with you on this one Nils, as the ghosts are the fantasy element, I would have liked this to be a bigger plot point, and I was really interested when they were able to see her. Zhu seems convinced they’re challenging her identity as Zhu Chongba, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s evidence for that, it feels like they’re just asking who she is, and were she to answer “Zhu Chongba” I feel that would be answer enough surely? What do you think they mean Nils?
Nils: I also agree with you, I don’t think they are challenging her, but I do think the ghosts in a metaphorical sense are asking her to face who she is, not as Zhu Chongba, not as a female nor as male. But deep down who is Zhu? Killer? Peacemaker? Survivor? I think the spirit world knows she’s as lost as they are and are trying to help her? I don’t know for sure, but that’s my theory.
Beth: Again, I felt Zhu’s fear got in her way when the Prince of Radiance reveals he can see the spirits too, and he’s noticed their awareness of Zhu. That felt like a good opportunity for Zhu to ask him about the spirit world, to make a connection with the Prince.
Nils: Yes, exactly this! We could have delved so much deeper into the fantasy element here had Zhu opened up to The Prince of Radiance and it would also have given us an opportunity to know the child a bit better too.
We need to talk about that duel with Zhu and Ouyang! How awesome was that?!
Nils: Ahhhh that bit was sooooo good!
Beth: That felt like such a meta moment, it really felt like Parker-Chan was playing with reader expectation. We know the story of Zhu Chongba – he’s the founder of the Ming Dynasty. We know Zhu’s not going to die in some valley as a rebel monk, and I loved how her conviction echoed our knowledge of the narrative. It was a moment like Bastien talking to Atreyu in The Neverending Story. So when she does get stabbed, and she has her hand lopped off, I was genuinely so shocked!
Nils: Me too! I mean so far we have watched Zhu go from a starving child, to monk, to a leader of forces in the rebel army—we have watched her rise. So when her sword hand gets cuts I was like, well how will she continue to rise now?!
Beth: I can’t wait to read the next section – what happens to her forces? How does she recover from this?
I was a little frustrated Zhu didn’t tell Ouyang she was the monk from Wuhang. Not that she’s out for revenge against him, that’s not Zhu’s mindset per say, is it? Whereas Ouyang can’t compartmentalise, Zhu is the complete opposite and is the Grand Master of locking things in boxes and never looking in them (“Zhu, involuntarily remembering the long-ago sight of someone kicked to death, felt her stomach flip”). Still, I wanted that moment between them, I hope it comes, I hope Ouyang knows how far back their connection actually goes. Despite being his enemy, Zhu seems to be the only person who does actually understand him.
Nils: Absolutely, you see Zhu and Ouyang may be on different sides and in two opposing armies, but deep down they understand each other. They have both been wronged by the Mongolian rule, both sit between genders, and although Zhu is on a path of greatness and Ouyang is on a path of revenge, their endgame is essentially the same. It would be nice to see an open discussion between them.
Beth: Also, every time Ouyang has said “the monk from the Yao river” I hear Shan Yu in Disney’s 1998 Mulan saying “the soldier from the mountains” xD
We hope you enjoyed our discussion for week 3. Don’t forget – be sure to tag us if you join in!
Next week will be our last discussion as we come to the end of Shelley Parker-Chan epic!