Thursday 27 October 2022

CBR14 Book 31: "She Who Became the Sun" by Shelley Parker-Chan

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Star (Zhu might be described as something of a rising star within the Chinese power structure of the day, and also the sun is literally a star. I'm so very clever).

Back in the 14th Century, the Mongols had conquered and ruled Imperial China. In a small village, drought and famine have killed the majority of the population. A nameless girl (one of the few children left in the village) has managed to stay alive thanks to her ingenuity. When her older brother, who had been prophecied a glorious future and her father die, the girl is has the choice to accept death as well, or to fight fate itself by assuming her dead brother's identity and striving to achieve the greatness likely. Zhu Chongba walks to the nearest monastery and despite all of the monks' attempts to drive her away, waits patiently outside, taking no food nor water for three days and three nights, until the monks relent and take her in as a novice.

Several years later, when novice Zhu Chongba has just been anointed as a monk, the Mongol's infamous eunuch general comes to the monastery and demands enough tribute in support of the ongoing war that the abbot there flatly refuses, and as a result the general orders the whole place burned to the ground. Zhu survives and has to seek out the Red Turban rebels, the Chinese warriors who oppose the Mongols. Small and ridiculed, Zhu ends up in the army vanguard as they are off to fight the Mongols, and through a combination of cleverness and pure luck (or is it the fates looking out for her), Zhu sets in motion a series of events that lead to a very unlikely victory for the Red Turbans. Zhu Chongba's rise toward success continues.

Zhu may be smaller than most warriors (and obviously hiding a big secret), but she is very intelligent and uses her smarts to maneuver the intricate politics of the Red Turbans, steadily rising in the ranks, until she is leading a large part of their army herself. Again and again, her path seems to cross with that of Ouyang, the eunuch general, and with each encounter, Zhu relentlessly finesses herself closer to her ultimate goal, the greatness her young, long-dead brother was promised. 

This is Shelley Parker-chan's debut novel, which she herself described as" a queer reimagining of the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. It’s also a fun story about gender". So She Who Became the Sun is a fantasy retelling of actual historical events. Some of the people in my book club thought the book was almost more of a straight historical fiction with some fantastical elements (there are ghosts and a smattering of magic) rather than a straight fantasy. Even if the book title hadn't given a pretty strong hint as to how our protagonist is going to fare (it's not called The little peasant girl who died nameless and forgotten), history itself may provide some spoilers. The novel has been nominated for a number of big literary awards, like the Locus, Aurealis and Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. Parker-Chan is the first Australian author to be nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novel, and while the book didn't win that award, it won both Best Newcomer and Best Fantasy Novel at the 2022 British Fantasy awards. 

The book was the September book in my local fantasy and sci-fi book club, and we had a record number of attendees for the actual meeting, with the majority of participants having really liked the novel. The discussion continued way longer than the normal hour we usually spend because so many people had interesting things to say about it. Some of the readers thought that a lot of the Chinese terms and descriptions of the culture were a bit complicated, and could have been explained better. It was pointed out that similar things happen in more Euro-centric fantasies all along, with no one batting an eyelid, and the fact that the author just assumes that the readers will figure out what terms like "the Mandate of Heaven" entails, and how Mongol and Chinese cultural norms and values are similar or different from context clues was one of the book's strengths. 

It was very interesting to read an unashamedly queer novel where two of the central characters, our protagonist Zhu Chongba and her antagonist General Ouyang are both fascinating, complex, ambitious, and driven. Both are rather amoral and at times very unsympathetic, willing to sacrifice pretty much everything to achieve their goals. In Zhu's case, this is to achieve the greatness that was promised to her dead brother, to be able to fool heaven itself into letting her assume his identity. In the case of the general, an ethnically Chinese man who was enslaved by the Mongols, and castrated rather than murdered along with the rest of his family for perceived treason, is seemingly loyal to the Mongols but has secretly been plotting to avenge his kin by overthrowing his Yuan masters. 

Very few people realise that Zhu is a woman assuming the identity of a man, and she doesn't really embody any of the virtues and qualities her society ascribes to women. She's also described from the start as small and ugly (frequently like a cricket) Meanwhile, General Ouyang is described as uncommonly beautiful and despite his gift for strategy and his military successes is reviled and mocked by the majority of the Yuan elite. He fights his attraction to his best friend (unfortunately also the son and heir of the man who killed his family and enslaved him) and strives to be the epitome of masculinity. Another interesting contrast to Zhu Chongba is Ma Yingzi, the woman Zhu ends up marrying. Also very intelligent and observant, and sadly ignored and overlooked by most people in her life, Ma fulfills the more traditional feminine ideal in society. 

There are a lot of interesting explorations of identity and gender in the book, which is also a relatively fast-paced and action-packed novel that explores a period of history in a part of the world most Western readers certainly rarely know a lot about. In my book club, several people commented that they were surprised at how short the section where Zhu is in the monastery ends up being, while the plot moves our protagonist into the company of the Red Turban rebels and starts charting Zhu's uncommonly rapid progression through the military ranks until she is a Commander. 

If I'm not mistaken, this is the first in a duology (although I won't exactly be surprised if it ends up being a trilogy - it wouldn't be the first time), and based on this, I'm very much looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. 

Judging a book by its cover: There are two main covers for this book, both in shades of yellow and orange. I much prefer this one, with its big windy Chinese dragon, to the other one, where you see the silhouettes of a bunch of horse-mounted warriors, led by a shadowy figure. There's a big orange sun in the sky and some dark banners floating in front of it. I much prefer the dragon cover. I'm not super happy about the "tag line", as I'm really not sure the third part - hero, is applicable to anyone in this story, certainly not Zhu.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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