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  • Ninay Desai

She who became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She who became the Sun is a historical fantasy novel about desire, destiny and the desire to alter one’s destiny. Published in 2021, this is Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel and the first book of The Radiant Emperor series. She who became the Sun is a reimagining of the rise to power of the Hongwu emperor, better known as the founding ruler of the famed Ming dynasty. The twist in this reimagined tale is that it is the story of a girl who is foretold a life that will amount to nothing while a glorious future is predicted for her brother. This girl, who remains unnamed (in a deft touch by the author), so little does she matter, goes on to survive, then thrive and eventually conquer. All this, while she fears the wrath of Heaven for stealing her brother’s destiny.

A copy of She who became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan lying on a small round wooden table next to a game of chess and a chocolate brownie on a plate.  In the background are other tables and chairs in a coffee shop. Photo by Ninay Desai

I surmise that Parker-Chan was influenced by elements of the legend of Mulan which is the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man to serve as a soldier during the Northern and Southern dynasties era (4th to 6th Century CE) of Chinese history. Though the similarities end there, the plot of a woman literally fighting her way through a man’s world lends itself well to talking about identity and gender roles which is something that She who became the Sun does well without being preachy or unmindful of the time period depicted.

As in any work of historical fantasy, world building plays an important role in She who became the Sun. It helps readers get a better understanding of the characters and their circumstances as well the rules and laws under which they operate. Though She who became the Sun is not the kind of fantasy which has flying dragons and other mythical creatures, we still need to be able to imagine a world far removed from anything we’ve seen. The descriptions are immersive without being excessive and precise while being fresh.

“The feasting and drinking had begun several hours ago, and the air was greased with the aroma of stone-roasted lamb.”

An image like that is evocative with a kind of sensory specificity, making all one’s senses come alive to conjure up the scene.

She who became the Sun is a very engaging tale spun expertly. Shelley Parker-Chan’s novel is spread over decades and varied locations and is narrated through the perspectives of multiple characters. Add to this some pithy lines and you’ve got a historical saga on your hands.

“To win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the pinnacle of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of skill.”

To me, these lines sound like they just stepped off the pages of Sun Tzu’s military treatise, The Art of War, bringing with them the atmosphere of that era as well as establishing She who became the Sun as a tale about the battles of life and empire.

One of the primary perspectives in the novel is that of Zhu Chongba (the unnamed protagonist who adopts her brother’s name). Incidentally, Zhu means ‘red’ in Chinese which is the colour for good luck while Chongba refers to ‘double eight’, another good luck charm. Zhu is resourceful and a quick learner with the good sense to hide her searing ambition under a shroud of detachment and humility befitting a monk. Her journey takes her from a starving child to a monk to a soldier and eventually, a commander in the rebel army of the Red Turbans fighting against the Yuan emperor’s rule.

The other POV characters in She who became the Sun are Yuchun, a common thief turned soldier and Ma Xinying, a woman whose future appears to hold not much more than being the wife of a commander even though she is a natural diplomat and tactician herself.

The perspective, however, that holds a sway equalling that of Zhu Chongba is that of General Ouyang, the eunuch general in the army of the Prince of Henan who fights for the Yuan emperor. The character of General Ouyang is a fascinating one – a man with the beauty of a woman who fights alongside Esen, the heir of the man (the Prince of Henan) who massacred his family and left only Ouyang alive but castrated to serve as his son Esen’s slave. In terms of backstory, General Ouyang is reminiscent of Shakuni, the conniving uncle of the Kauravas in the transcendent Indian epic, The Mahabharat.

The characters of General Ouyang and Zhu Chongba act as foils to each other with the threads of destiny pulling them ever closer, both to each other as well as to the ends that each of them believe is their predestined fate.

One of the strongest elements of She who became the Sun is the dialogue. Parker-Chan uses it exquisitely to reveal character, especially of those who hold their cards particularly close to their chests. Sample this excerpt between Lord Wang, the Prince of Henan’s adopted but barely tolerated son, and General Ouyang.

“Lord Wang, who relished his own pain, had always known how to wound others. When Ouyang didn’t respond, Lord Wang said with a bitter kind of understanding, ‘My brother’s an easy person to love. The world loves him, and he loves the world, because everything in it has always gone right for him.’
Ouyang thought of Esen, generous and pure-hearted and fearless, and knew what Lord Wang said was true. Esen had never been betrayed or hurt or shamed for what he was – and that was why they loved him. He and Lord Wang, both in their own different ways. They understood each other through that connection, two low and broken people looking up to someone they could never be or have: noble, perfect Esen.
‘He was born at the right time. A warrior in a warrior’s world,’ Lord Wang said. “You and I, General, we were born too late. Three hundred years before now, perhaps we would have been respected for what we are. You as a Manji. Myself as someone who thinks that civilization is something to be cherished, not just fodder for conquest and destruction. But in our own society’s eyes, we’re nothing.’
…But Ouyang and Lord Wang were alike. For a moment they stood there in bitter acknowledgement of it, feeling that likeness ringing through the space between them. The one reviled for not being a man, the other for not acting like one.”

In an exchange that takes up little more than a page, Shelley Parker-Chan fillets two characters to reveal their innermost desires and regrets while alluding to the strengths of a third. All this while, each character stays consistent to their nature. In some books, but more often movies, one gets the feeling that certain bits of dialogue are being spoken only for the reader/viewer’s benefit. A sort of artless dumping of information to get the reader/viewer up to speed. In contrast, the dialogue in She who became the Sun is a fine blend of characterization, exposition, cultural attitudes and genuine conflict between characters, making the exchanges feel real instead of performative.

Likewise, the themes of identity, gender roles and destiny are woven in seamlessly as the warp along with the weft of the plot in the fabric of She who became the Sun. There are quite a few strong female characters who manage to outmanoeuvre the straitlaced paths set for women thereby creating their own spheres of influence. And of course, there are the obvious parallels of the dual identities of Zhu Chongba, a girl disguised as a man and General Ouyang, a man who has been robbed of his identity as a man.

I thoroughly enjoyed She who became the Sun and do recommend that you get your hands on a copy. I’d like to end with a morsel of information that caught my eye. Parker-Chan worked as a diplomat in South-East Asia, where she became addicted to epic East-Asian historical TV dramas. To feed that obsession, she searched for English-language book versions of these stories. She didn’t find any and so, decided to write her own. Thus, emerged She who became the Sun.

Gentle Reader, let it never be said that watching shows or movies won’t get you anywhere. The webs of one interest can often tangle with those of another to form a third. And some may call that destiny.

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Hi, sounds like a an interesting book to read with the theme of survival.. so true for any age of history.

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai

Hi Zafran9! Couldn't agree more with your assessment. Do read it. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

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