Review: She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Jul 3 19:59:54 PDT 2022

She Who Became the Sun
by Shelley Parker-Chan

Series:    Radiant Emperor #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing:  2022
ISBN:      1-250-62179-8
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     414

In 1345 in Zhongli village, in fourth year of a drought, lived a man
with his son and his daughter, the last surviving of seven children.
The son was promised by his father to the Wuhuang Monastery on his
twelfth birthday if he survived. According to the fortune-teller, that
son, Zhu Chongba, will be so great that he will bring a hundred
generations of pride to the family name. When the girl dares ask her
fate, the fortune-teller says, simply, "Nothing."

Bandits come looking for food and kill their father. Zhu goes catatonic
rather than bury his father, so the girl digs a grave, only to find her
brother dead inside it with her father. It leaves her furious: he had a
great destiny and he gave it up without a fight, choosing to become
nothing. At that moment, she decides to seize his fate for her own, to
become Zhu so thoroughly that Heaven itself will be fooled. Through
sheer determination and force of will, she stays at the gates of
Wuhuang Monastery until the monks are impressed enough with her
stubbornness that they let her in under Zhu's name. That puts her on a
trajectory that will lead her to the Red Turbans and the civil war over
the Mandate of Heaven.

She Who Became the Sun is historical fiction with some alternate
history and a touch of magic. The closest comparison I can think of is
Guy Gavriel Kay: a similar touch of magic that is slight enough to have
questionable impact on the story, and a similar starting point of
history but a story that's not constrained to follow the events of our
world. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan doesn't change the names of places and
people. It's therefore not difficult to work out the history this story
is based on (late Yuan dynasty), although it may not be clear at first
what role Zhu will play in that history.

The first part of the book focuses on Zhu, her time in the monastery,
and her (mostly successful) quest to keep her gender secret. The end of
that part introduces the second primary protagonist, the eunuch general
Ouyang of the army of the Prince of Henan. Ouyang is Nanren, serving a
Mongol prince or, more precisely, his son Esen. On the surface, Ouyang
is devoted to Esen and serves capably as his general. What lies beneath
that surface is far darker and more complicated.

I think how well you like this book will depend on how well you get
along with the characters. I thought Zhu was a delight. She spends the
first half of the book proving herself to be startlingly competent and
unpredictable while outwitting Heaven and pursuing her assumed destiny.
A major hinge event at the center of the book could have destroyed her
character, but instead makes her even stronger, more relaxed, and more
comfortable with herself. Her story's exploration of gender identity
only made that better for me, starting with her thinking of herself as
a woman pretending to be a man and turning into something more complex
and self-chosen (and, despite some sexual encounters, apparently
asexual, which is something you still rarely see in fiction). I also
appreciated how Parker-Chan varies Zhu's pronouns depending on the
perspective of the narrator.

That said, Zhu is not a good person. She is fiercely ambitious to the
point of being a sociopath, and the path she sees involves a lot of
ruthlessness and some cold-blooded murder. This is less of a heroic
journey than a revenge saga, where the target of revenge is the entire
known world and Zhu is as dangerous as she is competent. If you want
your protagonist to be moral, this may not work for you. Zhu's scenes
are partly told from her perspective and partly from the perspective of
a woman named Ma who is a good person, and who is therefore
intermittently horrified. The revenge story worked for me, and as a
result I found Ma somewhat irritating. If your tendency is to agree
with Ma, you may find Zhu too amoral to root for.

Ouyang's parts I just hated, which is fitting because Ouyang loathes
himself to a degree that is quite difficult to read. He is obsessed
with being a eunuch and therefore not fully male. That internal
monologue is disturbing enough that it drowned out the moderately
interesting court intrigue that he's a part of. I know some people like
reading highly dramatic characters who are walking emotional disaster
zones. I am not one of those people; by about three quarters of the way
through the book I was hoping someone would kill Ouyang already and put
him out of everyone's misery.

One of the things I disliked about this book is that, despite the
complex gender work with Zhu, gender roles within the story have a
modern gloss while still being highly constrained. All of the
characters except Zhu (and the monk Xu, who has a relatively minor part
but is the most likable character in the book) feel like they're being
smothered in oppressive gender expectations. Ouyang has a full-fledged
case of toxic masculinity to fuel his self-loathing, which Parker-Chan
highlights with some weirdly disturbing uses of BDSM tropes.

So, I thought this was a mixed bag, and I suspect reactions will
differ. I thoroughly enjoyed Zhu's parts despite her ruthlessness and
struggled through Ouyang's parts with a bad taste in my mouth. I
thought the pivot Parker-Chan pulls off in the middle of the book with
Zhu's self-image and destiny was beautifully done and made me like the
character even more, but I wish the conflict between Ma's and Zhu's
outlooks hadn't been so central. Because of that, the ending felt more
tragic than triumphant, which I think was intentional but which wasn't
to my taste.

As with Kay's writing, I suspect there will be some questions about
whether She Who Became the Sun is truly fantasy. The only obvious
fantastic element is the physical manifestation of the Mandate of
Heaven, and that has only a minor effect on the plot. And as with Kay,
I think this book needed to be fantasy, not for the special effects,
but because it needs the space to take fate literally. Unlike Kay,
Parker-Chan does not use the writing style of epic fantasy, but Zhu's
campaign to assume a destiny which is not her own needs to be more than
a metaphor for the story to work.

I enjoyed this with some caveats. For me, the Zhu portions made up for
the Ouyang portions. But although it's clearly the first book of a
series, I'm not sure I'll read on. I felt like Zhu's character arc
reached a satisfying conclusion, and the sequel seems likely to be full
of Ma's misery over ethical conflicts and more Ouyang, neither of which
sound appealing.

So far as I can tell, the sequel I assume is coming has not yet been

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-03


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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