Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2021

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (The Radiant Emperor #1)

It’s been well over a decade since I read an epic historical fantasy.  Back in 2003 I read Lian Hearne’s best-selling medieval Japanese trilogy Tales of the Otori but became bored with it by Book 3.  Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel She Who Became the Sun, however, piqued my interest because it’s set in an era I know nothing about, i.e. during the Yuan Dynasty in China, when China was under Mongol rule.

The author bio intrigued me even more:

Shelley Parker-Chan is an Australian by way of Malaysia and New Zealand. A 2017 Tiptree Otherwise Fellow, she is the author of the historical fantasy novel She Who Became the Sun. Parker-Chan spent nearly a decade working as a diplomat and international development adviser in South-East Asia, where she became addicted to epic East Asian historical TV dramas. After a failed search to find English-language book versions of these stories, she decided to write her own. Parker-Chan currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she is very grateful to never have to travel by leaky boat ever again.

Populated with real people and events from history, She Who Became the Sun begins in 1345, at a time when the Yuan government had failed to deal with a succession of natural disasters and there was a breakdown of control at the local level.  The power vacuum was filled by warlords, cult leaders, bandits and peasant rebellions.  The novel’s hero, a ‘worthless’ girl is barely surviving a disastrous famine when she becomes the sole remnant of her family after a bandit raid.  To survive she takes on the identity and destiny of her brother Zhu Chongha.  She dresses as a boy and is accepted into a monastery as a monk, where she gets an education but is always at risk of her gender being discovered.

(Zhu Chongha was the real life founder of the Ming Dynasty, reimagined as a young queer peasant girl in the novel.)

Events in the monastery establish her as wily, determined, ambitious and ruthless in a way that Buddhist monks are not supposed to be.  It is also there during her ordination ceremony that she first encounters her would-be nemesis the eunuch Ouyang, a brutal general in the Mongol army.  In him she recognises a kind of twinship: neither one gender nor the other but somehow both.  Ouyang is there to collect ruinous taxes and when the abbot refuses, he sacks the monastery.  But they will meet again.

Part 2 introduces the key characters of the Yuan dynasty who were fighting to defeat the Red Turban rebels (who would in real life defeat the Mongols and found the Ming Dynasty).  The power plays include jealousy, revenge, betrayal and sibling rivalry and they sow the seeds for the eventual defeat of this brutally powerful military force.  This part also establishes the reasons why ordinary people supported the rebels: the Yuan ruled through a four-caste hierarchy with Mongols at the top and the southern Chinese people (nanren) at the bottom with no hope of any improvements in their lives.  The nanren were also used as disposable cannon-fodder for the Mongols’ endless wars. (There is a succinct but helpful historical note at the beginning of the novel, and a map as well. )

Without spoilers, it’s difficult to say too much more.  Suffice to note that a pattern is established whereby the powerful assign an impossible task to Zhu, so that she will fail and be blamed, but she succeeds.  Knowing that she will overcome the impossible odds does not detract from the narrative tension, because the interest lies in seeing how success is achieved and there are always surprises in store.  There is also a romantic thread which explores the emotional and moral cost of a lust for power.

The fantasy elements include hungry ghosts (i.e. restless spirits who were not buried according to ritual); episodes of characters creating impressive spontaneous fires that establish the legitimacy of the Mandate of Heaven but do not burn, and prayers as catalysts for landslides and other events which enable victory for the rebels.

Emma at Book Around the Corner just posted about the pleasures of ‘comfort reading’ after a run of bleak books and yes, there’s definitely a place for books like this one: with a straightforward chronological narrative and short chapters, it’s not demanding or difficult to read, but it offers a challenge to the stereotyping of meek Asian women and it’s seriously good fun to read. Chan writes well, effortlessly slipping in details such as the Mongol’s alien braids and the bureaucratic reek of ink, mouldy paper and lamp oil to establish a convincing setting.

What remains to be seen now is whether Chan’s hero will succumb to power and greed for its own sake in Book 2!

Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Title: She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1)
Publisher: mantle, Pan Macmillan, 2021
ISBN: 9781529043396, pbk., 411 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. I enjoyed this one too, especially the way she keeps the historical plotline authentic and yet turns it on its head with the character.

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    • It’s cleverly done. I also liked the way she doesn’t overdo the fantasy elements so that they remain credible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have this book on my Kindle, and am looking forward to it. I loved Tales of the Otori, and have reread it. I have a full set of hard covers on my bookshelf.

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    • If I remember rightly from Book 1 (which someone gave me as a present) the hardback was beautifully packaged.

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      • Indeed! I can’t bear to part with such beautiful books.

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        • They don’t often make books like that any more.

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  3. Ohh, I love that two-or-three-word style of expertise that you’ve highlighted here. It’s so subtle, but I bet authors who come across readers like you, who’ve taken note, are grateful that you’ve spotted their skill in camouflaging their research.

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    • I confess to having picked up on it from a session at the Historical Novel Conference last weekend. The last session was about doing exactly this kind of research.

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  4. Glad you reviewed this. I liked it, particularly Zhu on gender and sexuality. As a Mongol researcher, I *did* feel that Mongol women could have been explored more to effect in this novel interested in gender. The couple of Mongol wives we saw seemed to me to have assimilated to Chinese social ways — which they well may have at the end of the Mongols’ time in China.
    It’s a big hit, anyhow, and that’s great to see given the content and subject matter.

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    • I think you’re probably right about the assimilation. Elisabeth Storrs writes well about this process in her Tales of Ancient Rome series, where the central character is an Etruscan noblewoman who has no choice but to adapt in some ways but still retains her own culture to some extent.

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