by Shelley Parker-Chan
“They were two things of the same substance, their qi ringing in harmony like twin strings, interconnected by action and reaction so that they were forever pushing and pulling each other along the path of their lives and towards their individual fates.”
China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother after bandits steal the last of their food, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery when Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place.
She Who Became the Sun is a loose historical fantasy set in the transition from the Yuan dynasty to the Ming, in the mid-1300s. After nearly a century of foreign rule, the Mongol grasp on China is slipping, with famine and peasant revolts fueling the belief that the Khans have lost the right to rule, known as the Mandate of Heaven. The subtle fantastical elements are drawn from Chinese mythology and folk belief, including Zhu’s ability to see the hungry ghosts that linger in the human world after death.
Zhu Chongba’s chief antagonist, General Ouyang, has something of the stereotype of the devious, scheming eunuch who is preoccupied with what has been stolen from him. For many years he has bided his time as the most capable general of the Prince of Henan, serving the very Mongol overlords who executed his family to the ninth degree, and ended his family line by castrating him. He has fought alongside the Prince’s eldest son as his brother in arms, and his accolades surpass those of the younger son, an embittered scholar who prefers to serve as the province’s chief accountant and administrator. Despite my initial reservations, I found Ouyang to be a complex and fascinating character even in his villainy, particularly when set alongside Esen and Lord Wang to show the different facets of (toxic) masculinity in this world.
Both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are grappling with the tension between what they believe to be their immutable fates, and the evidence that they might have agency over their own destinies. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. Yet Zhu struggles to accept those strengths, worrying that to draw upon them is to attract the attention of the heavens, and have the gods realize that an imposter has slipped into Zhu Chongba’s shoes. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.
General Ouyang, on the other hand, believes that his is a fate that has always been waiting for him, from the day that the Mongols killed his family. It was a slumbering but inevitable giant, waiting to be roused, and it is Zhu Chongba who has awoken it. For Ouyang—who is more than a little in love with Esen, eldest son of the Prince of Henan—this is an unforgivable catalyst that will harm the only person he cares about. What he fails to realize is that it is his own shame and self-hatred that is the true root of this destruction. His love for Esen is both humanizing and tragic, poisoned as it is by his preoccupation with fate and vengeance.
I was drawn to this novel expecting a Chinese historical fantasy, but in the end the aspect of the story that grabbed me and would not let go was juxtaposition between Zhu and Ouyang, two gender nonconforming characters who recognize one another as being “of the same substance.” They can each see things that the people around them miss with their binary view of the world, but still differ in their ability to accept the ways in which they themselves do not fit in. She Who Became the Sun has a satisfying arc for a single novel, following both characters to pivotal moments in their narrative, but I am also tremendously looking forward to the planned sequel. In addition to following Zhu and Ouyang to their fates, I am particularly hoping to see further development of Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a disgraced Red Turban warlord who marries Zhu after her fiancé also falls from grace. Unfortunately, the sequel currently has no confirmed title or release date.
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