Book Review: SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan

Title in black on yellow below an orange Chinese dragon
Genre: Historical
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 5 stars
Series: yes - first book

Synopsis:

Book cover for SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN: title in black on yellow with an orange dragon curled around it

She’ll change the world to survive her fate . . .

In Mongol-occupied imperial China, a peasant girl refuses her fate of an early death. Stealing her dead brother’s identity to survive, she rises from monk to soldier, then to rebel commander. Zhu’s pursuing the destiny her brother somehow failed to attain: greatness. But all the while, she feels Heaven is watching.

Can anyone fool Heaven indefinitely, escaping what’s written in the stars? Or can Zhu claim her own future, burn all the rules and rise as high as she can dream?

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Review:

SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN was a great debut, retelling the life of first Ming Emperor by reimagining Zhu as someone born a girl who decides to take another destiny for herself. It is a brilliant exploration of identity and taking on a world that would erase you if it had its way.

I know some marketing has called this a historical fantasy, but there’s so little of the fantastical in this book – a few ghosts and the odd flame flickering in the hand. That it doesn’t feel fantasy enough for me to call it historical fantasy, because these elements are frequent enough or integral to the story/driving the plot along. For me, it’s historical fiction with a scattered few fantastical elements.

It’s a gorgeously written book, using such inventive and lyrical ways of describing surroundings that really bring it to life. The pacing in slower, but that often is used to mimic the slow continuation of the monastery or the trudge of an army, and it is such beautiful writing that I just didn’t care. If anything, a slower pace left for more time to admire it.

There are many POVs in this book, though the first section is only from Zhu’s, charting how she came to be in the monastery and then growing there until its destruction. Then, as Zhu is forced back into the world, the story flies open and the other POVs come flooding in the fill the scope of the book.

I’d already guessed from the author’s promotional pieces that Ouyang, the eunuch general, would be a fascinating character, but I wasn’t prepared for how well he stole scenes. The twisted mess of hatred for the family that caused his family’s deaths and this humiliation was tangled up with his mangled love for one of the sons, a desire that he hated and feared, was fascinating and made for such compelling character dynamics.

The next book in the series (I think it’s a duology?) cannot come soon enough.

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