Two starving children are orphaned by bandits in 1345 Mongol-ruled China in Shelley Parker-Chan’s “She Who Became the Sun” (Tor, 416 pp., ★★★½ out of four). The brother, Zhu Chongba, is the supposedly lucky eighth-born child, but he soon dies. It is his nameless sister, with “none of the roundness that makes children adorable,” who survives their ordeal. She assumes her brother’s identity – down to his very name and male gender – and enters a monastery in his stead. Over the course of this ambitious, sweeping novel, Zhu works her way into positions of greater power, until control of all of China is within her grasp.
The jacket copy of “She Who Became the Sun” describes this epic as “Mulan” meets “The Song of Achilles,” but the fantasy hit that it most resembles is “A Game of Thrones.” The world Parker-Chan has built is structured by ambition above all else, and the characters within manipulate, murder and connive to get ahead in a hardscrabble world.
In the book’s opening chapters, Parker-Chan masterfully balances poetry and tension, keeping the reader flying through the pages as they watch Zhu gain a foothold in life. Whether lugging around slopping washbasins or binding her breasts to prevent exposure, Zhu is sympathetic and resilient. Parker-Chan doesn’t establish Zhu’s male gender expression as merely a trick to survive; it is very much a part of her identity. When Zhu comes to desire a woman in her circle, we get a fuller portrait of how queer lives might have been lived in 14th-century China.
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Zhu’s rise to greatness is complicated by the equally compelling journey of General Ouyang, who was forcibly castrated as a child. His tortured relationship with his eunuch status drives him to similar levels of ambition, as he navigates his own years-long plot to gain revenge, even as he’s romantically drawn to his handsome fellow general. The book’s two queer main characters are pulled into a collision course as their ambitions lead them into inevitable conflict. Though Ouyang’s characterization references old queer villain tropes (his “sexual wrongness” inspires him to murder and revenge), it’s rescued by the richness of other LGBTQ representation in this novel.
Scenes of kindness and compassion are nearly absent from “She Who Became the Sun,” and this restricted emotional range makes the long middle feel surprisingly stagnant, despite what ought to be juicy conflicts. Tonally, too, the poetic language of the book’s opening chapters feels less well-considered in its second half.
Despite these slight missteps, this is an important debut that expands our concept of who gets to be a hero and a villain, and introduces a pair of gender disruptors who are destined to change China – and the LGBTQ fantasy canon – forever.
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