Serena’s Review: “She Who Became the Sun”

Book: “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan

Publishing Info: Tor Books, July 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: “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.

Review: This book has been extremely hyped since news of it began circulating a few months ago. Comparisons to “Mulan” and “Song of Achilles” only helped a plot that sounded dark, tragic, and full of explorations into the themes such as personhood and the tragedies of war. I don’t have a ton of knowledge of about the real historical period of time and place being referenced (1300s China), but that was just another appeal of the book. And for once, the hype seems pretty well-founded!

Zhu’s fate is one of nothing. Neither tragic nor heroic, her life is predicted to fade from thought almost as soon as it arrives. Perhaps, for an impoverished family, this fate is not so extraordinary. However, her brother’s destiny of greatness very much is. After tragedy strikes, Zhu’s own prediction comes true as she sheds her identity, leaving it behind like so much nothing, and takes up the mantle of her deceased brother. Is this truly what fate had in mind? Can she rise to the greatness that had been assigned to another identity? Or has she simply become who she was always meant to be.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m always in for books that are compared to “Mulan” and, while I haven’t read “Song of Achilles” I know that it’s well-regarded. However, now having read this book, I’d say that a better marketing campaign would have directed readers to “The Poppy War” as the best comparison. Many of the themes are similar, and the dark, grim tone of a war-focused novel is very much the same in each of these books. Like “The Poppy War,” “She Who Became the Sun” doesn’t shy away from the bleak and challenging aspects of war. Many “Mulan” stories are so focused on the heroism of the main character, that war itself fades into the background, almost only a stagnant tool used to elevate the hero into her role. Not so here. Instead, greatness is shown to be perhaps its own burden, not any easier to carry than the nothingness that Zhu left behind.

The writing was incredibly strong, and I particularly enjoyed the well-blended mix of historical China with the fantastical elements. The story also managed to not get lost under its action-packed plot, instead giving ample time to exploring its themes of identity. Zhu’ own journey of self-exploration and acceptance is very powerful. The story doesn’t simply whip out the well-trodden lines, but instead dives into a very nuanced discussion, subtly exploring the many angles involved.

It wasn’t a perfect read, however. The book starts out with only Zhu’s POV and is very much a coming-of-age story. I really enjoyed this portion of the book, which perhaps is why I found it hard to readjust halfway through when the story suddenly expands outwards and adds in other POV characters. It was definitely a gutsy call on the author’s part, as it must has been suspected that readers would be fairly invested in Zhu by that point in the story and might struggle becoming attached to others later in the game. Luckily, the writing is strong enough to largely pull it off. But I did find myself thrown out of the book for a bit and needed some extra time to re-establish myself. This, then, threw off the pacing of the story as well, overall.

I really liked this book. The writing was confident and lyrical, truly impressive from a debut author. The themes were also well-explored and Zhu was a fantastic main character. I was a bit put-off by the sudden switch from one POV to two, but I think it ultimately did help create a more nuanced look at the overall conflict.

Rating 8: While “Mulan” is an adequate comparison, I think this is a better read-alike for fans of “The Poppy War” who are looking for a darker war-focused story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“She Who Became the Sun” is on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Queer SFF and Asian Authored Books in 2021.

Find “She Who Became the Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

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