Book Review: She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker Chan Is A Gender-Bending Reimagining of Chinese History
She Who Became The Sun is the debut novel by author Shelly Parker Chan, and the start of a new series – The Radiant Emperor trilogy. This intense and vividly written fantasy novel draws from ancient Chinese storytelling traditions. But it is also a thoroughly modern reimagining of Chinese history and historical figures.
A Fantasy Story Based On Real-World Chinese History
Image via Tor/Forge
She Who Became The Sun takes place in 14th century China, at the end of the Mongolian-controlled Yuan dynasty. The history and research that went into the worldbuilding for this novel is painstakingly accurate, with a few notable exceptions that transform this from a historical novel into a fantasy novel. Perhaps the most obvious (and potentially controversial) change is the gender-bending of the main character – Zhu Chongba. Even a cursory internet search for the name will show that this character is based on the Emperor that founded the Ming dynasty in China.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In She Who Became The Sun, Parker Chan explores the impoverished origins of the character and their rise to power. But they imagine that Zhu was once a young girl, whose fate is decreed to be ‘nothing.’ She claims her dead brother’s destiny of greatness along with his identity. She travels to a monastery to seek refuge. There she becomes a monk, and begins a lifetime of hiding her gender in order to fully become the man known as Zhu Chongba.
Magical Secrets And Secret Identities In She Who Became The Sun
Photo by lee bernd via Unsplash
Zhu becomes a monk, and then later a warrior fighting on the side of the rebel Red Turbans who seek to reclaim China from the Yuan. Few know the secrets that Zhu is keeping. Not only about her gender identity, but also about the power she holds. Because Zhu can also see ghosts. This ability came to her in the moment when she claimed her dead brother’s identity. This is one of the few truly fantastical aspects of the story. Unfortunately it is not one that is explored in-depth in the text. Hopefully future books will delve more deeply into this gift/curse that Zhu lives with.
Unlike another historical gender-bending fantasy novel that imagined a young woman living as a man to become a knight in The Story of Silence, there is no historical implications that Zhu Chongba was a woman. However, this gender-bending reimagining of a major historical figure adds depth and complexity to the Parker Chan’s tale. It is a story of identity of course. But it is also a story about everything that humans desire: love, respect, and power.
Exploring The Spaces Between Male And Female
Zhu Chongba is not the only character in the book who lives in the gray area between male and female. On the other side of the struggle is the eunuch general Ouyang. The two are linked by pain and death, along with their unique interstitial identities. Ouyang is the last son of a family murdered by the Yuan dynasty. He was made a eunuch and a slave, before rising to the station of general in the same army that tried to wipe out his people. Ouyang has spent his whole life plotting his revenge. His scheme is complicated by his intense feelings for Esen – the son of the man who murdered Ouyang’s family.
Driven By Fate – The Ones We Claim and The Ones We Resist
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She Who Became The Sun is a story rife with morally grey characters. Zhu Chongba is the protagonist of the tale, but she is not always the hero. Ouyang is initially set up as a villain, and the antagonist to Zhu. However, as the story unfolds he becomes more and more sympathetic. And we see that he is not only driven by revenge, but also by duty and honor. Neither of them are truly heroes or villains. They are humans grasping for power, motivated by deep emotions. They are both struggling to find a place in the world. While also carving their names into the history books.
In the end, the two characters are more alike than even they know. They are both driven by what they perceive as their fate. Zhu has claimed her fate and moves toward it relentlessly. Whereas Ouyang has always known his fate and dreads its approach as it will change everything he has ever known. The two act as catalysts for the fates that drive them, as Ouyang sparks Zhu’s rise to power. And Zhu sets off the chain of events that will lead to Ouyang betraying the only person he seems to love and hate in equal measure.
A Brilliant Debut Novel From Shelley Parker Chan
Photo by Harvard Wang, 2018 via the Author’s Website
She Who Became The Sun is an astonishing debut novel from author Shelley Parker Chan. It is rich with Chinese history and culture, which is always refreshing in a sea of Eurocentric epic fantasy novels. The author clearly did her research on this era of history and it shows. But not only that, she is writing about her own culture and that informs the writing strongly. Parker Chan is an Asian-Australian author who “spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia,” according to her website bio. Parker Chan is also gender-queer (preferred pronouns are she/they). And has written about how this story explores genderqueer identities that reflect her own journey.
The gender politics of 14th century China are undeniably restrictive. But in reimagining the history of her own culture to be more complex and nuanced in regards to genderqueer individuals, Parker Chan is following in the footsteps of her own characters. Carving a name for herself in history, and telling a story that might change the worlds of those who read it.
She Who Became The Sun is out now from Tor/Forge. We recommend this book for fans of The Poppy War; The Bone Shard Daughter, and The Jasmine Throne. And if you’re looking for more LGBTQIA fantasy novels to add to your reading list, check out our list of queer genre novels.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.