She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Lady Rui’s jaw was tight with the same intensity Zhu had glimpsed earlier: a compressed rage that had at its heart the female desire to survive all that sought to make her nothing.
Zhu was born in a small, drought- and famine-stricken village. Her mother and siblings dead, save for her elder brother, the double eight Zhu Chongba, and her brother. The soothsayer gives her father his children’s fates: greatness for Zhu Chongba, nothing for the girl. But after a bandit raid takes their father, Zhu Chongba stares his destiny in the face and…dies. Leaving the girl with nothing except her ambition to become more. So she takes her brother’s name and goes into the world seeking his fate.
There are no kind solutions to cruel situations.
How do I begin to sum up this brilliant book?
Firstly, with the thought that as hyped as it was, I almost DNF’d due to the writing style in the beginning. It was too fable-y, too formal/stilted, but thankfully I pressed and either I grew used to the writing or it became looser, because I fell into the prose and the story.
This is the third book in the 2021 Adult Fantasy Sapphic Trifecta (a term coined by Your Tita Kate), and like the other two in the trifecta (The Unbroken by CL Clark and The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri), this was a brilliant feminist and sapphic story dealing with misogyny, colonialism and strength with a dash of magic. And this this one, there are two puns in the title, one of which I caught right away (due to the magic), the other which took me until I saw a twitter post and was like I don’t get it and then was like
I didn’t mean to be cruel…But I want what I want, and sometimes I’m going to have to do certain things to get it.
I really, really liked that Parker-Chen had no compunctions in toning down the characters to be likable or whatever. Each character—save one, and even she sacrifices some of her morales—does what they believe needs to be done to survive. In Zhu’s case, it means doing whatever it takes to not just survive but thrive—from her time in the monastery to the battlefield to rising through the ranks of a fractious rebel force. Because her people are at war with the Mongol conquerers, and with themselves.
In case you hadn’t realized, I’m going to horrifically botch this review. There are so many things to say, so I’m going to say some of them poorly and not try to bother with the rest.
There’s a huge cast of characters and POVs, most important of which is the eunuch Ouyang, the Mongolian general introduced as Zhu’s foil—one a literal nothing pretending to be a man, the other a man reduced to something less in the eyes of men, both striving for something outside themselves.
While Zhu’s story was fascinating because of her ruthlessness and brilliance (I did like that she wasn’t clueless in running an army or dealing with politics—she’d been taught for several years by the Abbot, a wily and pragmatic man who saw the same things in Zhu as he did in himself—and she took those skills and honed them to a fine point), I was drawn to Ouyang’s story. His own fascination towards his lord, Esen, the brilliant and shining son of the prince of their province, and his strained rivalry with Esen’s adopted brother, Lord Wang.
There is a quality of jealousy that you could only feel it for people who were like you. Ouyang could no more be jealous of Esen than he could be of the sun. But Ouyang and Lord Wang were alike. For a moment they stood there in bitter acknowledgment 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.
I loved how the concept of manhood and manliness was portrayed, both with the rebels and the Mongols. Zhu skirts many of the conventions of manhood through being a monk (although there are exceptions, proven with her womanizing friend Xu Da), but Ouyang and Lord Wang are each invested in the trappings of imperial manhood. As a eunuch, Ouyang is forever an outsider, always reminded of the horrors he faced at the hands of Esen’s father. No matter how many battles he wins, how well he fights, how austere he lives, he will never be enough. Which rankles him that Lord Wang has all of the ability of being an actual man (read: a manly man who fights and brawls and does all the horse-backy riding and womanizing things that Mongol lords are supposed to do), and instead does shit like poetry and paperwork and logistics.
Which is hilarious in a sense, because while Ouyang and Esen and the prince are riding throughout the countryside with their armies and their people and destroying, Lord Wang is the one literally holding the province together with a complex yet industrious bureaucracy. He’s the one getting the bills paid, keeping the lights on (so to speak), the roads paved, the villagers more or less alive and productive. And yet, because he refuses to fight and adopt the mannerisms of a traditional warrior, he’s seen as inferior and unaccomplished.
At times, I was like, Ouyang, stop being an idiot and look at what Wang is actually doing, and then I had to sit back and realize how deeply entrenched Ouyang—and everyone else—was within the misogynistic views of the world.
In this world, there is only one way towards being a man—and therefore being worthwhile—being a warrior. Warfare is the only way to power, the only power of worth, and in this world, the ends always justify the means if you come out on top.
“If only one of them would bear a son, that would put them in order,” Esen complained. “But at the moment all of them think they have a chance to be on top. It’s a nightmare. When I’m here they treat me like nothing but a breeding stallion.” He added indignantly, “They don’t even serve me tea!”
However, this is a story of women claiming their own power. I’m not going to spoil this by saying how or why, just that power doesn’t necessarily mean warfare or brute force. And that quote doesn’t really spoil it, either.
Ma is by far my absolute favorite and I wanted more of her, and also more of Lady Rui, of whom very little is seen but very much is expressed. Same with Madam Zhang and countless other women—who are humanized even as they are diminished by the men surrounding them. I wanted more of their stories, and it’s very clear that their stories are just as important as the glory-chasing men surrounding them.
Into that silence fell a single beat. One drum, beating like a heart. Then another picked up the rhythm, and another. From the west, an answering cadence. The Yuan and Zhang armies speaking to each other. Readying themselves.
The depiction of warfare itself was just stunning. From Zhu on the bridge to the strategy of siege warfare and tactical retreats and logistics, I was enthralled. This is the good shit right here—war is not glorified in any way, but the brilliance in tactics and strategy and maneuver and good leadership and training is not lost.
Not to mention the different approaches in leadership and loyalty, and the heartbreaking routes to power and preservation and winning.
I cannot wait for the second book.
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.
She Who Became the Sun releases July 20, 2021 from Tor.