Thank you to Tor Books for sending me an advance copy of She Who Became the Sun for review!

“Denying desire only made yourself vulnerable to those who were smart enough to see what you couldn’t even acknowledge to yourself.”

When a fortune-teller gives her brother the fate of greatness, a girl expects to hear the same. Instead, her destiny is nothing. While her brother’s destiny is to leave his mark upon the world, she will fade away, unremembered. When her brother dies, however, Zhu takes his place and his fate.

Using his identity to enter a monastery, she soon becomes entangled in a war that is much bigger than her. Zhu seizes every opportunity; she’s determined to do whatever it takes, no matter how cold or calculating, to escape her fate of nothingness.

On the other side of the war is Ouyang: a Nanren eunuch, formerly a slave and now a general for the Mongol army that wiped out his entire family. He too believes he’s following his fate, even if it will only lead to pain. As their story progresses, Zhu and Ouyang become terribly entwined: one hungers for greatness, the other, revenge.

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She Who Became the Sun is a difficult book to review without giving too much away (although this might not be an issue if you’re familiar with the Ming Dynasty’s rise to power). That being said, Shelley Parker-Chan successfully portrays the grim realities faced by people like Zhu and Ouyang. There are famines and plagues, battles and betrayals. Neither faction is entirely good or bad. Both feature members that are complex and often terrible.

Parker-Chan also sensitively handles tricky issues with a deft touch. She Who Became the Sun touches on questions of identity, consent and gender in a way that makes it more than just a war story. Zhu must become her brother in all ways until she isn’t sure who she truly is.

Ouyang’s feelings about gender and sexuality intersect brilliantly with his self-hatred tied to what happened to him. Parker-Chan does a beautiful job questioning what gender is in relation to how it’s perceived and performed, especially within a patriarchal historical setting.

Powerful and complex, She Who Became the Sun is a book without heroes. People do terrible things to achieve their destinies, and they know that they’re terrible. Despite this, you will root for them. If you enjoy morally gray characters, studies of power or stories of revenge and ambition, this debut is perfect for you. I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of The Radiant Emperor books!

She Who Became the Sun is out now from Tor Books! You can order it from your local independent bookstore or online at Bookshop.org.

TW: starvation, abuse, death, mass murder, war, misgendering, ableist language, dysphoria, plague, depression, gore, life-altering injury, castration (remembered), quarantining, death of an animal, mention of slavery, public execution

This article was originally published on 7/20/21.

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Alex Faccibene
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