So for my first review, I’ve chosen She Who became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. Not perhaps the most obvious choice, but one I consciously decided on for several reasons: it’s masterful and enthralling story, the multiple character perspectives, the queer-normative relationships, exploration of gender and identity… I could go on and on, so I’ll jump right in:
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty plain, a seer shows two children their fates. For a family’s eighth-born son, there’s greatness. For the second daughter, nothing.
The first thing that struck me about this book, was that it truly gave everything over to the girl who would become Zhu Chongba. It’s refreshing in that yes, it has a strong female protagonist, but also that things really, really do not start out well for her. At all. In many stories, we see the ‘day in the life’ being disrupted and the loss of the life before, catapulting the story forward to regain something that was lost or triumph over some enemy.
Not so here. At least not so obvious. For the girl, all odds are against her survival. It’s everything – and it’s enthralling.
Her character is absolutely fascinating – she cannot be herself, she must become Zhu Chongba. I don’t even recall her name – I’d have to go back over the first few chapters to check, but I doubt it is even mentioned, so firmly was it obliterated from my memory. She was the girl.
Even after the inciting bandit attack that sees her lose everything, it’s intensely gripping to see her desire for survival, for greatness unfold like some lethal razorblade; beautiful but utterly ruthless in the extreme – as I soon found out.
I had to get used to the perspective and cultural differences which took me a little while and the initial scene setting was a bit dry (pun intended), but once I was over that and immersed, the subtle fantasy elements really sold the setting, rather than disrupting the realism that Parker-Chan built up.
The gritty themes of hunger, extreme inequality and thirst for survival thoroughly ground the story at the start and by the time that those issues have been overcome, the wonderful lore is deeply threaded through the entire narrative and makes the whole story shine.
Even when switching to another character perspective, of which there are three in total (Zhu and two others, whom I shall not spoil for you), Parker-Chan really manages to make each character stand out with their unique voices, exploring how their role in society shapes them despite how they strain to be more. The fact that they are also interlinked in eerie mirrors and gender roles also is something I’ve not come across before, but definitely want to see more of. If anyone has any recommendations, I will gladly take a look!
Suffice to say, Zhu Chongba’s story is one I am still keenly interested in. What will come next? The whole novel is absolutely gorgeous and I find very little fault with it at all. The only part I find difficult to rationalise – mainly due to the tone of the rest of the novel and the sudden, unexpected juxtaposition it creates – comes from one very memorable scene (which I discovered during breakfast with half a slice of toast in my mouth – let me tell you, that was something I did NOT expect to read first thing in the morning! The tea came in handy for my survival.) which broke me away from the story and I wasn’t sure it was truly needed.
That said, it was absolutely gorgeously written and I have zero complaints about the subject matter!
Overall, I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in historical, queer or female empowered fantasy. You’ll want to see just how the girl will shine.
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars.