She Who Became the Sun, the striking debut novel by Shelley Parker-Chan out July 20, makes it official: it's a very, very good time to be a fantasy fan. A genre in which anything is possible should be a genre in which every story is told, and fantasy is finally starting to live up to that billing.
A creative reimagining of the founding of the Ming dynasty, this sweeping historical fantasy is set in 14th-century China, where a young girl is left for dead in her dusty, famine-stricken village in the Central Plains. A fortune teller once told her that her life would amount to nothing, and those words seem about to come true.
Instead, the tenacious protagonist assumes the name and identity of her dead brother, Zhu Chongba, hoping that by doing so, she will also take on his foretold fate: to achieve the type of greatness that will span centuries. Clever and determined to live, Zhu blends in as a novice in a misty monastery, where the monks are forced to navigate between the harsh Mongol rulers of their land and the ragtag rebel army determined to oust that regime. When the balancing act fails, Zhu flees to meet her stolen fate in a dizzying and improbable rise to power that flings her across the land and to the front lines of battle.
And that's just the barest outline of a plot that includes ruthless political maneuvering, heart-rending betrayals, and brushes with a ghost-ridden spirit world that haunts Zhu throughout her travels. Then there's Ouyang, a vicious general whose relationship with his Mongol prince — the son of the man who mutilated Ouyang and killed his family — is as complex as it is tragic. The contrast between fierce, gritty Zhu and cold, self-hating Ouyang couldn't be more stark, but Parker-Chan flits between their two perspectives (and a few others) in a way that propels the jam-packed plot forward.
There's so much to like about She Who Became the Sun: the exploration of gender and sexuality, the sensuous romance, the vivid world-building, the flashes of tongue-in-cheek humor and human emotion set up against the epic plot. There are close, intimate scenes and climactic battle sequences that made me feel like I was watching a movie. For Zhu, failure to achieve her stolen fate of "greatness" equals death, and her utter refusal to accept defeat makes the book flare with power. Original and absorbingly detailed, She Who Became the Sun explores the strength that we find within ourselves, and inspire in others, when we rebel against expectations and take fate into our own hands.
"He fell silent for a moment. 'I wanted to live, so I took a life. And after I joined the bandits, and they started to follow me — I took more lives. Deliberately. Even though I knew that I'd be reborn into suffering, life after life.' . . .
"She slung her arms around Xu Da's broad shoulders and pulled him against her. His muscles ticced under his skin like a distressed horse. With her other hand she turned his face towards her, so close that their foreheads touched, and told him fiercely, 'All that means is we have to make this life count.'"
Where You Should Read It
Nighttime. Candles. Something warm to sip. Epic instrumental music in the background. Set the scene and dive into this vibrant world.
I laughed out loud during one scene, then cried a hundred pages later. This book will play with your emotions and keep you reading past bedtime; expect painful tragedy but also tender romance and friendships, and be prepared to root for characters on both sides of the conflict.
Read This If You Like . . .
This book lives up to its "Mulan meets The Song of Achilles" tag line, but what it really reminded me of was C.S. Pacat's epic Captive Prince trilogy: the political intrigue, the rich world-building, the queer romance, and the sharp, sweeping style.
POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Prompt(s)
If you're reading this one for the 2021 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge, use it for these prompts:
- A book published in 2021
- A genre hybrid
How Long It Takes to Read
This book is over 400 pages long and dense in that detailed and plot-rich way that fantasies often are, so give yourself a week and a half to two weeks to fully savor it!
Give This Book to . . .
Anyone who loves fantasy TV series like Game of Thrones or epic East Asian historical TV dramas — which are what inspired Parker-Chan to write this novel in the first place.
The Sweet Spot Summary
Shelley Parker-Chan's debut novel, She Who Became the Sun ($23), is a vivid historical fantasy that reimagines the founding of the Ming dynasty in 14th-century China, full of characters that push the boundaries of gender, fate, and societal expectations to grapple for their ambitions and survive in a harsh, war-torn world.
Image Source: Harvard Wang