Genre | Fantasy
Page #s | 416
Publishing Date | July 2021
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
She Who Became the Sun is a fantasy-lite historical fiction that centers gender and ambition against the backdrop of rebellions and war. It is utterly engrossing, drawing readers into the world’s poverty and desperation immediately. Zhu grows up as the only girl left in a starving peasant village, and her uselessness is shoved in her face by everyone all the time. When an opportunity to remake herself as her favored brother comes along, Zhu takes it, and all the world is affected.
This is a book about gender that goes far deeper than the Mulan comparison frequently thrown around. Yes, Zhu pretends to be a man to enter a monastery and later join the army. But her relation to her femaleness and maleness is very fluid and is hugely impacted by situation. Similarly, another significant character is the eunuch Ouyang. He resents his forced gender presentation, the result of violence in his childhood, but it shapes who he is and how he moves through the world nonetheless. Zhu and Ouyang shatter the gender dichotomy and, while they’re at it, turn sexuality up and down and all around as well. I don’t think it would be incorrect to label Zhu as a sex-positive asexual, which was amazing to see!
The story of She Who Became the Sun covers over a decade, so this is the kind of fantasy book that rewards investment and shows repercussions of long ago actions. I’m torn on using the label of fantasy, however. There are a couple fantastical elements – the reveal of the divine right to rule, ghosts – but they are very rare and would better be labeled fantasy-lite.
Lastly, I adored the Buddhist influence on the book. Zhu spends her formative years as a monk and reckons with her growing ambition through that lens. It was fascinating to see the Chosen One narrative filtered through a perspective that desire creates suffering…so how much suffering is Zhu willing to create in her desire to be someone meaningful?
Who Do I Recommend This Book To?
Give She Who Became the Sun to any reader who loves a deep, gritty dive into character studies and war, especially if they appreciate a uniquely gendered perspective.
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