She Who Became the Sun
By Shelley Parker-Chan
Genre: Historical Fiction/Speculative Fiction
QUILTBAG Main Character: Yes
QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes
Main Character of Color: Yes
Bechdel Test: Yes
Summary: In a small town devastated by drought, a young woman stands on the edge of starvation. Her brother, Zhu Chongba, the lucky eighth son, is told of his fate as a great man. While the girl’s fate is a simple word: nothing. Desperate to escape her fate, she takes a dangerous chance after the death of her brother and father leaves her alone in the world. She takes her brother’s name, dresses in his clothes, and goes to seek safety as a monk in the nearby monastery. She hopes to fool heaven into believing her to be Zhu Chongba, to take his fate, and to become the hero that name was meant for. Spanning years, She Who Became the Sun weaves together Zhu’s story with that of a not-so-pious monk, a betrothed woman longing for a way to show she is wiser than the men think, and a eunuch on the other side of a war. Zhu will change the fate of all of them and, indeed, the world.
A Little Bit of a Disclaimer: I received an advanced reader copy (ARC) of this book from Tor in exchange for an honest review. The fact that this was an ARC in no way changes my review or how I felt about the book.
Let’s Get A Little Deep:
What books do you think of when you think of epics? What TV shows? What movies? Do you think of Lord of the Rings? The Iliad? The Divine Comedy? Maybe you think of shows like The Untamed, or Journey into the West. If those last two ring a bell, you probably have an idea of what kind of story to expect from She Who Became the Sun.
Spanning over a decade, She Who Became the Sun is a slow-burn of a novel, moving at a pace perfectly suited for the kind of story it is telling. After all, Zhu’s story is not a simple one. It is a series of small moments and large ones, each setting a stone in the path of Zhu’s fate. Of course, Zhu has some idea of this. She has taken her fate from the cold, literal dead hands of her brother, whose name she has stolen. Fate is a game, one she will win. Indeed, fate in this novel is as mythic as the ghosts that follow Zhu, as legendary as the battles she will fight and win.
There is so much to love about this book. The details of the world are exquisite, the world-building immaculate, and the characters perfectly and tragically flawed. Every twist works perfectly to add to the story, making those surprise moments hit with a bluntness that leaves the reader reeling. The plot points are dominos, falling easily one after the other until the inevitable conclusion that still, somehow, comes as a surprise.
While all of those aspects contribute to the overall value of this novel, what makes this a five-star read for me is how the flaws of the lead characters, both perceived and real, inform the characters themselves. Zhu believes the only way to survive and thrive is to be her brother. It is not enough to take his name, bind her chest, and live as a man. She must think like him, act like him, even when it goes against what she naturally knows is easier or better. Her mind must be that of her brother’s, the better to fool heaven into giving her what she wants.
Over the course of the novel, Zhu is forced to see herself as she doesn’t want to but as she must. She sheds the layers of her brother that she believes have kept her safe and, in doing so, becomes more herself than ever. She is more fierce, more worthy, than her brother ever would have been. Her fate is her own to decide.
Zhu is not the only character who must carve out her own fate. Every character is caught between social ideas of fate and their own desires. Some of these characters are able to shed these ideas, freeing themselves to carve their own path. Others are, for good or for ill, ultimately tethered to the past, to what they believe that are fated for, regardless of what they might actually want. The intricate and subtle ways that society, destiny, and choice unfold around these characters make for a captivating and unique story that is, certainly, an epic.
She Who Became the Sun is out July 20th, 2021. It is the first in what promises to be an addictive series. It is well worth your time and money to preorder it now. I suggest doing so from your favorite indie bookstore. May I suggest Bel Canto Books? What is your favorite indie bookstore? Leave me a comment and I might feature it! located in Long Beach?
Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love She Who Became the Sun? Leave a comment telling me your what makes a story epic for you. You can also find me on Instagram @booked.with.grace and on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@ynbushehri) for editing my posts.