Monstrous but compelling characters; a lovingly-crafted and hellish political (and geographical) landscape; a narrative that rings with a fate that resounds deep inside the reader: these are all aspects of She Who Became the Sun. This historical fantasy novel, written by the emerging author Shelly Parker-Chan, was not impactful for the reasons I had guessed. I had presumed that the setting, ancient Mongol-ruled China, would be its focus. I was dead wrong. Although its setting was compelling, what was most powerful about this novel was not its setting, or the political intrigue, or even the battles and mental games; it was the characters, by a margin. The central characters of this novel were moving, written to be complex and deeply relatable, and they are the novel’s true focus—particularly the protagonist, Zhu Chongba, and the Eunuch General, Ouyang, who both struggle with their identity and act as natural foils to each other. I could feel their pain, brought on by the inevitability of fate, as though it were my own pain, and their struggles with identity felt true and raw. Even I have not struggled with identity to the degree of the characters in She Who Became the Sun, this novel accomplished the goal of any successful piece of fiction: it allowed me, the reader, to empathize deeply with them. In essence, this character-centered novel achieved three things: first, it entertained through elegant prose and a convincing depiction of Chinese fate and culture; second, it gave a telling glimpse into gender dysphoria; and third, it presented characters with individual and deeply-personal struggles in the shape of their identities.
She Who Becomes the Sun is set in historical China during the rule of the Mongols, around the 14th century. The story follows Zhu Chongba, who has stolen her deceased brother’s name in the hopes of surviving the bleak, poverty-and-hunger stricken hellscape of China. Disguising herself as a male, Zhu Chongba rises in power and faces clever foes, among them her foil, the Eunuch General Ouyang.
An extensive review of this novel should begin with a peek into its engrossing prose and setting. Both of these narrative features serve to make reading She Who Became the Sun, not only heart wrenching (where its characters are involved), but also thoroughly entertaining. I considered choosing one of the many beautiful or haunting descriptions this book provides, but instead, I chose the following quote (for context, Chongba is the protagonist’s brother, whose fate and name she steals):
Greatness. It was the kind of the word that didn’t belong in Zhongli. The girl had only ever heard it in her father’s stories of the past. Stories of that golden, tragic time before the barbarians came. A time of emperors and kings and generals; of war and betrayal and triumph. When she looked at Chongba, his ugly face was radiant. The wooden Buddhist amulet around his neck caught the candlelight and glowed gold, and made him a king.
This passage does not convey a beautiful landscape, but it drives home a concept that is hammered in our minds throughout the book: fate and purpose, the most important themes in the book since both the protagonist Zhu and her foil Ouyang grapple with their fate. Fate is mentioned in nearly every other chapter, until it becomes the mantra of the novel; but I never tired of it while reading. It felt right. Like molten steel filling a mold, the prevalence of fate felt natural to the narrative, and although the story’s engrained system of fate felt very foreign in a cultural sense, it was all the more interesting for it.
The next topic is a difficult one to grapple with, especially considering my intended audience and my own views. This novel struggles with gender dysphoria and characters that do not feel they belong in their bodies, and so they question their birth-assigned genders and move into new concepts of gender. Whether the reader is conservative or progressive, however, is of little importance. Both political aisles should be able to recognize that gender dysphoria, and the subsequent shifting into a new sense of gender, is a real issue. Not once did I feel the author was too heavy-handed in trying to push an agenda. As Zhu Chongba’s inner thoughts posit, “[Zhu Chongba] saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind. The promise of difference, made real.” This shows a struggle with more than gender dysphoria; it reveals a struggle with gender roles on the whole, and the suppression of women and the emotional-boxing-in of men in this historical setting. I sympathized with the characters, I felt their struggles, confusion, and their new-found confidence. Furthermore, I feel even the most hard-core of conservatives could do the same. In other words, the way this book handled gender dysphoria inspired empathy, and I feel I’m better off for it.
Gender dysphoria and a struggle with identity may seem to be inseparable, and despite tying together like the “strings of fate,” I feel they definitely belong in different categories. This novel was perhaps most powerful in its depiction of identity and purpose. The manner in which Zhu Chongba and the Eunuch General Ouyang dealt with growth into new identities, sacrificing those things they love and even their own innocence, was more than deeply moving – it was heart wrenching. Although one criticism of this novel could be directed at its often flat supporting characters, the two most important characters were dynamic, displaying incredibly complex motivations and personalities. When these characters suffered, I suffered, and when the strings of fate, sharp as blades, pulled them into their identities and made them bleed, I felt as though I was bleeding with them. The book creates strong connections because you’ve been with the characters since the beginning, and you feel for those characters, as the following passage shows:
“Where's the fun in suffering by yourself?" Xu Da said in his good-natured way. Surprised, Zhu realized he was probably her friend. She'd never had a friend before. But she wasn't sure suffering could be shared, even with one's friends. Watching her father and brother die, digging their graves, kneeling for four days in front of the monastery: all of them had been acts of exquisite aloneness. She knew that when she came down to it, you survived and died alone.
She Who Became the Sun folds perfectly into itself in its conclusion, the afore-mentioned fate strings wrapping into a nice and neat bow. However, (if you’ll forgive me the dramatism) the strings are slicked with blood and tears. To get to the end, the novel takes you on a gruesome but inspiring journey, and it pulls no punches. It allows you to be devastated, to mourn alongside its characters, and to feel every stroke of the blade, both metaphorical and literal. She Who Became the Sun, first, engaged the reader through prose littered with the invocation of fate; secondly, allowed an empathetic viewpoint into changing gender identity; finally, depicted a human struggle with identity. What She Who Became the Sun accomplished, in short, was what any fictional story worth its salt strives to accomplish—to allow a reader and author to share one mind, and to love.