“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
I was given an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Upon finishing She Who Became the Sun, I gently placed my e-reader down, laid down on the ground, and just let gravity and the implications of the story’s ending bear its crushing weight upon me. What a book, She Who Became the Sun is. I cannot adequately express my pleasure over the fact that She Who Became the Sun was one of my most highly anticipated books of 2021 and, in its phenomenal storytelling and unforgettable characters, delivered, and more.
She Who Became the Sun is a queer reimagining of the life and ascension of Zhu Yuanzhuang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. In a poverty-stricken village, two children are given fates: the boy, named Zhu Chongba, is ordained a destiny of greatness, while the girl is fated to become nothingness. When tragedy strikes, the girl survives; determined to defy her fate, she takes her brother’s name, thus claiming his fate of greatness to be her own.
Inspired by real events in history, She Who Became the Sun is a deep dive into 1300’s China, following the person who would become the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Except, in She Who Became the Sun, Zhu Yuanzhuang is reimagined as a female monk who endeavours to claim the Mandate of Heaven. She Who Became the Sun succeeds in its reimagining not simply because Zhu is not a man, but more because of how Zhu’s gender is deeply intertwined to the story’s exploration of identity. The push and pull of two specific characters explore how the intersections of gender and identity can be transcendent but can also limiting, empowering but also a cage. The gender and queer themes are a fascinating undercurrent to the story and the characters’ journeys, culminating to a choice that will determine their paths and also their identities – and isn’t it incredible that there is choice and clever that it is reflective of their identities?
In the title of this book review, I describe She Who Became the Sun as a story about ambitious desires – while I think this is what the story encapsulates to some degree, I also feel like Zhu Chongba’s story is more than just desire. To say that Zhu’s story is primarily about desire, in which she wants and therefore she takes, would be diminishing the depth of this story. Rather, the momentum of this book is Zhu’s understated fear of her fated nothingness; a fear so visceral that it is at the core of her every decision, her every action, and thus the book’s every twist. And yet, Zhu isn’t hapless, evading fate by a hair’s breadth. Rather, Zhu is cunning, intelligent, astute, and agentic in her goals. As such, we witness a story where there is no higher cost than losing oneself to their fate. How far is someone willing to go to fight fate? What lies before the path of greatness in a time of war?
Though She Who Became the Sun is largely Zhu’s story, we also follow the perspectives of a few other characters. Most notably, we also follow Ouyang, a eunuch general of the Great Yuan army, Esen, a Mongolian prince, and Ma Yingzi, an empathetic woman engaged to a merciless and cruel man. All three characters are well-realised, different in their motivation, defiant in their own ways in a time of blood and power. The way that the four perspectives come together is seamless and takes the story to new – sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender – heights.
She Who Became the Sun is a story that unravels slowly, and therefore needs to be enjoyed slowly and patiently. The writing in this is exquisite; thoughtful, deliberate, and precise, we are fed tiny morsels of foreboding which, by its end, you will feel fed and satisfied. In saying that, the story can be grim and heavy (which is not a criticism of the book), and even the small moments of joy are, though joyous, feel in a way that joy feels in wartime. The ending isn’t explosive in a ceremonious way, but is a gentle knife through the heart. By the end, I felt drained yet fulfilled. Take my advice: it’s easier to scream in your head because you don’t need to pause for breath.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
She Who Became the Sun did not disappoint, and I am excitedly waiting to see what happens next yet solemnly anticipating the pain that awaits me with the sequel. Glorious yet brutal, She Who Became the Sun is a tour de force that will elevate the historical fantasy genre, a beacon of what all historical imaginings should aspire to be.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A girl destined for nothing seizes her brother’s fate, and rises in power.
Perfect for: readers who love sweeping historical fantasies; readers who love complex and morally grey character-driven stories.
Think twice if: you’re not really in the mood for something heavy and dark.
Genre: adult historical fantasy
Trigger/content warning: death, physical violence, themes of war, murder, alcohol consumption, graphic sex, death of children.