She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan – REVIEW

She’ll change the world to survive her fate . . .

In Mongol-occupied imperial China, a peasant girl refuses her fate of an early death. Stealing her dead brother’s identity to survive, she rises from monk to soldier, then to rebel commander. Zhu’s pursuing the destiny her brother somehow failed to attain: greatness. But all the while, she feels Heaven is watching.

Can anyone fool Heaven indefinitely, escaping what’s written in the stars? Or can Zhu claim her own future, burn all the rules and rise as high as she can dream?

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is a re-imagining of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu was the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and became the founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Mantle.
Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

“It would be the biggest gamble of her life. But if she wanted greatness – she was going to have to stand up and claim it.”

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan was one of my most-anticipated releases of the year. Pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, it promised an epic story and definitely delivered.

The comparisons to Mulan are obvious as we have an unnamed girl inhabiting the identity of her dead brother Zhu Chongba in fourteenth-century China when the Mongol conquerors ruled. The world-building is richly detailed and evocative with the opening description of famine and drought seared into the reader. The beautiful prose is thought-provoking and engaging, sweeping the reader along on an epic journey.

“She saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind. The promise of difference, made real.”

Fate is the prominent theme of the story, incisively interweaved by the author with the aim of exploring the idea of destiny. By taking on the identity of her brother, does Zhu also take on his prophesied fate of greatness? Is there a larger force in control? Does Heaven know Zhu Chongba isn’t who he professes to be?

Gender roles are examined through Zhu’s perspective as an individual assigned female at birth but who doesn’t identify as female. Society reveres able-bodied warrior males as the masculine ideal and women are relegated to the domestic sphere. I loved the idea of a “compressed rage” when facing “all that sought to make her nothing”. The author also explores gender identity through the character of the eunuch general Ouyang, a man moulded by self-hatred, shame, and anger stemming from his gender non-conforming appearance. 

“Destroying what someone else cherished never brought back what you yourself had lost. All it did was spread your grief like a contagion.”

Romance plays a very small part in the overall story but Zhu does have a relationship with a woman called Ma Xiuying, an empathetic and intelligent character who worked well with Zhu. The suggestion of romantic feelings between Ouyang and Esen led to a tragic climax and left me devastated. 

The military strategy and political machinations reminded me of The Poppy War and I don’t think fans of that series will be disappointed by this incredible book. She Who Became the Sun is epic, powerful, emotional and beautiful. I’d highly recommend borrowing or buying a copy as soon as you have the chance.

(Goodreads | Amazon UK | Book Depository | Bookshop.org)

3 Comments

  1. Yolanda @ Past Midnight

    21 July 2021 at 6:03 AM

    It sounds amazing and your photo is beautiful!

  2. Stephen Writes

    29 July 2021 at 5:59 PM

    Lovely review, Rachael. This book sounds wonderful and I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

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