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The Radiant Emperor #1

She Who Became the Sun

Win a free print copy of this book!

7 days and 11:11:26

5 copies available
U.S. only
Rate this book
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.

416 pages, Kindle Edition

First published July 20, 2021

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About the author

Shelley Parker-Chan

6 books2,907 followers
Shelley Parker-Chan (she/they) is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her writing owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. Her debut historical fantasy, SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN (The Radiant Emperor #1), is forthcoming from Tor (North America) and Mantle (UK/Commonwealth) in July 2021.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 9,197 reviews
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 493 books402k followers
October 26, 2021
Another wonderful book I found thanks to the reviews of Rebecca Roanhorse, who has never yet steered me wrong! She Who Became the Sun tells the story of Zhu Chongba (early SPOILER: or rather, the story of his younger sister, who assumes his identity after his death). The new Zhu, passing herself as a boy, rises from the lowest of peasant beginnings to become a monk, and then . . . well, her fortune urges her to rise ever higher at ever greater risk in the war-torn world of Yuan during the reign of the Mongol emperors. A historical adventure with light touches of fantasy, a heroic tale of the most unlikely hero, a history of clashing armies and personalities in which all sides are equally brave and equally villainous, this novel was so good my only complaint is that now that I'm done, I feel at a loss. Both main characters, Zhu and Ouyang the eunuch general, are outsiders, outcasts with huge secrets to hide. Both face impossibly tragic lives and loves. They circle each other less as enemies than as counterweights to each others' inexorable fates. The writing is beautiful and evocative. The ruminations on the nature of gender and societal roles are elegant and poignant. The story keeps the pages turning, and the lovely queer romance makes the story all the more real, heartfelt and believable. Highly recommended and I can't wait for the sequel!
Profile Image for jessica.
2,533 reviews32.4k followers
April 16, 2021
forget ‘the song of achilles’ comparison you just read in the synopsis/publisher pitch. just pretend you never saw it because it will be doing you a disservice. this is not that kind of book.

this is more similar to ‘the poppy war.’ its a dark, brutal, unforgiving tale about characters who will do whatever they can in order the achieve what they believe is their fate.

there is no soft, wholesome love in these pages. there are antiheroes who use people and connections in order to serve their purposes.

go into this ready for well-written war-heavy descriptions, dense strategic and political maneuvering, unexplainable ghosts, complex characters, interesting motives, and an emotionally charged plot.

this is the kind of book it truly is. its one of history and magic and destiny.

thank you tor books for the ARC!!

4.5 stars
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews153k followers
July 31, 2022
[puts head in hands] oh god this novel spins out the most beautiful and wounding words about the febrile nature of queer desire, the terrible gnawing feelings of gender dysphoria, the habitable sorrows of unbelonging, and so many moments of fugitive tenderness between unresolvable opposites, and I'm absolutely never going to emotionally recover from it
Profile Image for megs_bookrack.
1,536 reviews9,779 followers
March 19, 2023
**3.5-stars HEAVILY rounded up**

I'm slightly scared to write this review, but I am just going to do it. Bite the bullet, say what I have to say, perhaps ticking a couple of people off along the way.

She Who Became the Sun was one of my most anticipated releases of the year and I fully expected to give it 5-stars. Unfortunately, that's just not the experience I had.

The first 25%, I was hooked. We meet a young girl, a peasant of the Central Plains of China, who adopts her brother's identity after he tragically dies.

He was fated for greatness while she was fated to die, yet the tables have turned. Now owning his identity, she is able to enter a monastery as a young male novice.

More importantly, she commits to seizing Zhu Chongba, her brother's, greatness for herself. She will make her fate a choice, instead of a chance.

The last 25%, I was so engaged. There's a lot of action, brutal deceptions and pivotal moments that tied me right back into the story.

The central portion, however, was a mixed bag for me. I couldn't focus, my eyes kept glazing over; to be honest, I was bored.

I felt like a ton was happening, while simultaneously nothing was happening. Trust, I understand this makes zero sense, but it's what I experienced.

With my disappointments out of the way, I will say that Parker-Chan's writing deserves a full 5-stars.

Their ability to create a beautiful sense of place, evoke strong emotions with their characters and seamlessly incorporate multiple perspectives into one linear narrative, is top notch. I did feel like I was transported to 14th-Century China.

Additionally, I enjoyed the exploration of gender identity and gender fluidity. With both Zhu and Ouyang, a eunuch general in the Mongol army, their gender identity was a large part of the development of their characters over the course of the story.

Obviously, I am giving this book 4-stars. I clearly enjoyed it. Even though I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I expected, it's still a really good start to a series.

Although I am not sure how many books The Radient Emperor series is slated to be. I will definitely be continuing on.

Thank you so much to the publisher, Tor, for providing me with a copy of this to read and review. I appreciate the opportunity and am confident a ton of Readers will love this one!
Profile Image for Petrik.
674 reviews42.7k followers
January 24, 2023
I have a Booktube channel now! Subscribe here: https://www.youtube.com/petrikleo

ARC provided by the publisher—Tor Books—in exchange for an honest review.

4.5/5 stars

She Who Became the Sun has the bravery to pitch itself as The Song of Achilles meets Mulan and actually live up to it.

If you’re active on bookish social media, you should know that She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is one of the two most hyped books published by Tor Books this year; the other one being The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. Both of these books have been received praises from many people for the past few months, and with these kinds of huge praises and buzz, there’s the tendency for them to disappoint. Now, I haven’t read The Blacktongue Thief yet, but the hype for She Who Became the Sun is real and well-deserved. With such a striking cover art illustrated by JungShan Ink—the artist who illustrated the cover art to The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang—this historical fiction/fantasy debut managed to live up to all the praises.

“Becoming nothing was the most terrifying thing she could think of—worse even than the fear of hunger, or pain, or any other suffering that could possibly arise from life.”

She Who Became the Sun is the first book in Radiant Emperor duology, and it’s a reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The year is 1345, in a famine-stricken village, two children are given two fates; the boy—Zhu Chongba—is destined for greatness, and the girl is fated to become nothing. However, when a bandit attacks this village and orphans the two children, Zhu Chongba succumbs to despair and dies. The girl, with a burning desire to survive no matter what it takes, decides to take Zhu Chongba’s name and steal her brother’s fated greatness. I loved this book, and I’m genuinely impressed by how well-written this book was, especially remembering that this is a debut novel. The themes of destiny, war, gender, identity, desire, love, and duty were delivered efficiently with much impact; the importance and freedom in our power as an individual to choose, regardless of our circumstances, were spectacularly elaborated. Seriously, I would be lying if I say that I didn’t feel invigorated by Zhu’s resilience.

“Monks were supposed to strive for non-attachment, but that had always been impossible for Zhu: she was more attached to life than any of them could have understood.”

Yes, the main character, Zhu Chongba was undoubtedly the main highlight of the book for me. Her resilience, her cunning, and her desire to live were nothing short of inspiring to me. I’m not saying that I agree with all of her decision, but Parker-Chan’s way of crystallizing Zhu’s motivation to the readers was so superbly-written that I can’t help but felt that I understood Zhu. Zhu is overall a pragmatic character, and she’s willing to do everything in her power to defy fate, fight, live, and most importantly, she refuses to become nothing. I loved her character’s arc; her moral is colored in grey rather than black and white, and her storyline just felt so believable to me.

“So I always knew you had a strong will. But what’s unusual about you is that most strong-willed people never understand that will alone isn’t enough to guarantee their survival. They don’t realize that even more so than will, survival depends upon an understanding of people and power.”

Honestly speaking, Parker-Chan did such an excellent job on Zhu’s characterizations, and it made the beginning of Part II worrying for a while. Here’s the thing, Part 1 of the novel centers entirely on Zhu’s coming-of-age story, and she was the only POV character during this section; the sudden shifts to a multi-POV narrative in Part 2 of the novel took a bit of time for me to get used to, and for a while, I was terrified that this storytelling decision would end up diminishing the quality of the narrative. Fortunately, my worry was unfounded; the novel only became better because of the change to the multi-POV structure. Ma, Ouyang, and Esen are the other three main characters that, in my opinion, significantly improved the depth and emotions of the novel. Similar to Zhu, these characters have character development and characterizations that felt so organic and well-realized. The character’s respective motivations, agendas, and backgrounds that complex their emotions, relationships, and sense of duty further were so incredible that I couldn’t even imagine how the novel would be like if it was told solely from Zhu’s perspective.

“Desire is the cause of all suffering. The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself. With all her will, she directed the thought to Heaven and the watching statues: Whatever suffering it takes, I can bear it.”

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the characters and story in this novel won’t be a happy-go-lucky one. As I said at the beginning of this review, She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the rise of the emperor of the Ming Dynasty; if you’re familiar with the history of The Red Turban Rebellion and Zhu Yuanzhang, I’m sure you’ll recognize some—not all—characters involved in Zhu’s story. I personally think it’s more accurate to call She Who Became the Sun a historical fiction—or maybe historical fantasy—than a straight-up fantasy novel; rather than having me barraged you with essays and paragraphs of information regarding the inspirations, I think it would be better for me to give you the link to the author’s website—I advise you to check these only after you finished reading the novel—on the subject of the historical figures instead: https://shelleyparkerchan.com/histori...

But regardless of genre classification, there’s one thing for sure about She Who Became the Sun; it is written lyrically and wonderfully.

“Learn to want something for yourself, Ma Xiuying. Not what someone says you should want. Not what you think you should want. Don’t go through life thinking only of duty. When all we have are these brief spans between our non-existences, why not make the most of the life you’re living now? The price is worth it.”

Parker-Chan has an immensely desirable writing style that displays her proficiency for storytelling in practically every scene of the book. Tensions, dialogues, atmosphere, and emotions were conveyed efficaciously, and the pacing of the narrative flowed naturally without hindrance. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is a novel destined for greatness, and greatness will be achieved when the publication date has been reached. Although this is the first book in a duology, rest assured that there’s no cliffhanger, and the book worked well as a standalone. There are still 5 months before this wonderful debut comes out, and I’m already so looking forward to seeing how this duology will be concluded. Claim greatness for yourself. Claim She Who Became the Sun.

Official release date: 22th July 2021 (UK) and 20th July 2021 (US)

You can pre-order the book from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Book Depository (Free shipping) | Bookshop (Support Local Bookstores!)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can find this and the rest of my reviews at Novel Notions

Special thanks to my Patrons on Patreon for giving me extra support towards my passion for reading and reviewing!

My Patrons: Alfred, Alya, Annabeth, Ben, Blaise, Devin, Diana, Edward, Hamad, Helen, Jimmy Nutts, Joie, Lufi, Melinda, Mike, Miracle, Nicholas, Seth, Shaad, Summer, Zoe.
Profile Image for Sofia.
258 reviews6,442 followers
May 1, 2021
This was probably my most anticipated read of 2021, and I was bitterly disappointed.

She Who Became the Sun reminds me of Mulan and The Poppy War, with none of the humor of the former and none of the weight of the latter. Zhu was like Rin, if Rin had less ambition and less personality. There were two characters named Chaghan and Altan, which reminded me of TPW. And a certain character lost a hand, just like in that series... But maybe I'm looking too much into it.

The only character I liked was Ma. Her gentle acceptance of Zhu was touching, and her perspective was the most interesting one to me. The way Zhu finally felt like herself with Ma was beautiful.

Zhu, on the other hand, was a very boring character to follow. She was described by other reviewers as ambitious and power-hungry, vicious and merciless. But I didn't get that. The only time she felt ruthless or clever to me was at the monastery. I'm not sure if I read a different book, but to me, Zhu hardly deserved what she got in the end. She won a battle and all of a sudden, everyone loves her. She didn't do anything to prove herself worthy.

I did like how we never learned Zhu's real first name. That aspect of SWBTS reminded me of Rebecca. It was intriguing to read about how the Zhu of before was considered worthless and how the Zhu of after was something special. However, I didn't like much else about her character. She's let off the hook too quickly when she gets into trouble. Her problems are solved by plot convenience, and it felt far too easy to me.

Everything happened to quickly, in fact. The pacing was abysmal. Battles were over in a few pages, and I was left with whiplash, wondering what had just happened. And then there would be long stretches where nothing happened at all. The plot was directionless and aimless. The main goal felt murky to me. It was just confusing to read, overall. I felt like I was constantly missing something important, even when I wasn't.

The exploration of gender and sexuality was perhaps the best part of this book. But other than that, I was very disappointed. The characters were dull, the plot was weak, and the pacing was dreadful. I wanted so badly to rate this five stars, but I just couldn't.

2 stars


Uneven pacing, poorly developed plot, lackluster characters, and a healthy dose of convenience come together to make one of the most unsatisfying books I've read this year.

~ review to come ~

I was provided with an eARC of this book through NetGalley by Tor Books. Thank you!
Profile Image for may ➹.
480 reviews1,937 followers
December 21, 2021
— find this review and others on my blog!

4.5 stars

Just from reading the first few chapters of She Who Became the Sun, I could tell it would become an instant favorite. And it quickly did, with its reprehensible yet loveable characters and devastating finish. A tale dipped in tragedy and written in exquisite prose, this historical fantasy is epic in all senses of the word; it will captivate you with its intricate character work and unpacking of destiny and gender, and then break your heart.

She Who Became the Sun follows Zhu Chongba as the reimagined emperor of the Ming dynasty rising to power. As a peasant girl, she is fated to amount to nothing, until her brother dies and she snatches the opportunity to cloak herself in his identity and take his own destiny of greatness. She soon becomes a monk and slowly climbs the ranks of the rebel army against the Mongols, thrust into a world of slippery politics, betrayals, and high-stakes battles. 

Desire is the cause of all suffering. The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself. With all her will, she directed the thought to Heaven and the watching statues: Whatever suffering it takes, I can bear it.

So much of She Who Became the Sun is brilliant, particularly its characters. Though Zhu and Ouyang are certainly morally questionable and wretched, and they commit terrible acts, Parker-Chan manages to make you root for them. It’s an even more impressive feat considering that you want both of them to succeed, though they are on opposing sides of a war and it will inevitably result in defeat. The exploration of themes like destiny and ambition through their arcs is careful and complex, and if the plot is slow-moving at times, you are never once allowed to hold your breath as you watch the characters evolve.

Zhu’s ambitions of greatness manifest from an intense desire to live and transform into a ruthless determination to achieve what she wants, no matter the cost. It’s riveting to watch her move through the story, to watch her grow in power and hunger, and though you sense that she is slowly falling into corruption, you still can’t help but be awed by her cunningness and want her to reach her goals. Her relationship with Ma was also a delight for me; I found it so sweet, and the ending made me incredibly excited to see what direction their romance will head.

Ouyang, on the other hand, is the eunuch general of the Mongol army driven by his perceived need for revenge against the family who stole his own family from him. And even though he is a raging misogynist... I love him! He is such a tragic figure, repulsed by himself, his body, and his longing for Esen (a result of internalized homophobia but also how he is supposed to hate Esen), and it makes for such compelling anguish in a character. The romance—more like extreme tension and yearning—between him and Esen was honestly torment to read but only exacerbated Ouyang’s internal struggles.

She saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind. The promise of difference, made real.

She Who Became the Sun is immense in all it encompasses. It builds an expansive world and sets up intricate politics, and the scheming and backstabbing are just as exciting to read as the epic battles. It also takes on several themes like destiny, choice, power, ambition, and gender. The premise of this book with Zhu having to be her brother to realize her ambitions works so well for studying Zhu’s relationship with her gender, and Ouyang’s feelings about gender intersect brilliantly with his self-hatred tied to his castration. There is a beautiful questioning of what gender is in relation to all the ways it is expected to be performed and how it is perceived, within a patriarchal historical setting.

Perhaps the largest theme throughout the book is destiny, and it is genius how it is portrayed through Zhu and Ouyang as foils to each other. Zhu chases after destiny, one that wasn’t hers but she will force to be, unwilling to let anything or anyone but herself dictate her fate. Ouyang, on the other hand, lets himself be shackled by his history and the revenge he believes he is supposed to carry out, however miserable it makes him. Thus, She Who Became the Sun explores the weight of destiny compared to personal desires, asking if individual choices, actions, and willpower can defy fate. It never lands on a definitive answer, instead portraying the costs both Zhu and Ouyang must pay because of their destinies.

Nobody will ever end me. I’ll be so great that no one will be able to touch me, or come near me, for fear of becoming nothing.

While the book is certainly something to savor and let seep into you slowly, She Who Became the Sun does an expert job of building up tension and suspense. Throughout the book, you get the sense that something monumental will happen, that it will be tragic too, and yet even if you think you’re ready for the ending, it still manages to shock you and hit you hard. All the buildup leads to satisfying—and painful—payoff and sets up excellently for the sequel. Though I wouldn’t say the comparison to The Song of Achilles is perfect, you can certainly see why it was made by the end, meaning: you will still be thinking in agony about the ending months after you finish.

If you like books with multifaceted morally grey characters, romance equal parts yearning and angst, or studies of power, revenge, and ambition, you absolutely need to read this. She Who Became the Sun is undoubtedly radiant and a new force to be reckoned with in the historical fantasy genre, and I am in awe of everything Parker-Chan managed to masterfully tackle in her debut book. Pick this up, feel my lingering pain and astonishment, and join me in the agonizing wait for the sequel.


:: representation :: Chinese and Mongolian cast, genderqueer lesbian MC, genderqueer gay MC, wlw LI, mlm LI

:: content warnings :: war themes, murder, death, violence, child murder (off-page), starvation, gender dysphoria, misgendering, internalized homophobia, ableism, amputation, misogyny [more details]

Thank you to Tor for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

All quotes are from an advance copy and may differ in final publication.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,167 reviews98.2k followers
September 18, 2022
[2022] had to bring my favorite book to see some of my favorite humans (it was a little too fitting... hehe) <3

[2021] my favorite book of the whole year :]

ARC provided by TOR - thank you so very much!

this was truly so magnificent, and will for sure make my best books of 2021 list (if not my favorite book of the year, too)! but i truly am simply just a ouyang apologist.

Content and Trigger Warnings: starvation, loss of a loved one, death, murder, mass murder, gore, war themes, brief mention of cannibalisms, hurt to an animal, death of an animal, mention of slavery, non-consensual castration in past, mention of vomiting, plague, mass illness, quarantining, off-page torture, bombs, many mentions of alcohol consumption/maybe alcoholism, off-page death of a child, depression depiction, fear of being outed, misgendering (always in a negative light), and just a lot of internalized body/gender feelings - this book can be heavy at times, so please use caution.

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Profile Image for Rebecca Roanhorse.
Author 59 books7,603 followers
June 23, 2021
An absolute stunner. Move this to the top of your TBR pile and buckle up. First, a note about the comps. Comps are funny things, and the industry loves them, and some readers love them, too, but I'm not sure the comps on this one (Mulan and Song of Achilles) do this book justice. Yes, there's a girl who disguises herself as a boy and becomes a general but not out of duty or honor or any of that noble stuff. She does it because she covets. She wants. She sees a destiny meant for another and seizes it as her own, and she continues to take and take in ways both horrifying and laudable until the ending which will make you gasp and wonder about the cost of it all. Definitely not Disney.

The second plotline (the Achilles plotline) in the book belongs to the "enemy" but that's such an oversimplification that I'm embarrassed I used it. And oh, what a doozy of a story it is. It had been a long time since I've seen a character as complex and nuanced and infuriating and heartbreaking as this one. In a word, I loved him. I wish I'd written him, he's so good. But clearly it was meant for Parker-Chan to bring him to life as only she could. (Also, Patroclus could never.)

The story, much like the characters, is ambitious and clever and the depth of emotion Parker-Chan is able to tap into without ever becoming maudlin is astounding. I caught my breath more than once and had to stop and read whole paragraphs to my husband they were so good. (He's not a reader, but I like the think he appreciated them.) There's war and violence and betrayal (oh the betrayal) and destiny both embraced and defied. Incredible work. Cannot wait for the next one.
Profile Image for Robin.
309 reviews1,423 followers
September 24, 2021
↠ 4.5 stars

This was pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, and it was that and so much more. A glorious epic in every sense of the word. Fate is a tricky thing, and after hearing a fortune teller give reference to her brother's destiny for greatness, the girl expects to hear very much the same. However, her own destiny is revealed to be just that: nothing. While her brother is fated to rise up and leave his mark upon the world, she is expected to fade from view, unremembered. Starving and desperate, an unexpected event changes the trajectory of her entire future. She takes her chance, seizing her brother's identity and assuming his fate in the process. Under this new circumstance, she may just find freedom, glory, and a way to change her destiny forever.

She Who Became the Sun is, simply put, a masterpiece of a debut. It’s a powerful, evocative, and brutal high fantasy that will leave you utterly wrecked and begging for more. Parker-Chan blends history with fiction in this sweeping story that chronicles Zhu Yuanzhang’s ascent to power and the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 14th century China. It’s the perfect novel for anyone looking for complex characters set amid a backdrop where loyalties are tested and the stakes are high. The lyrical prose paints a vibrant picture of a war-torn period, reimagined, but ultimately true to its roots. Right from the get go, I was pulled into the ambitious nature of the narrative amidst its definitive passion and decisive action. I straight up devoured this in under a few hours and then realized I would have to suffer in silence since none of my friends had finished reading. What it means to be an arc reviewer am I right? The exploration of gender and gender identity, tied up in a story that is so brilliantly queer, is the true hero of all of this though. There was a very nuanced conversation taking place within the novel, that I appreciate and can tell will be carried over into the next installment. To see a character that was not only flawed and determined, but honest with themselves about their own identity and who they are, was incredibly powerful to read. Looking forward to seeing just how that evolves in the next book. And my God, that ending. So devastatingly beautiful it may just keep me up for the next few nights. If we're lucky, otherwise I may not ever get to experience sleep again.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing this arc in exchange for an honest review

Trigger warnings: starvation, death, abuse, public execution, mass death, misgendering, ableist language, dysphoria, life-altering injury, offscreen murder of a child.
Profile Image for Althea ☾.
623 reviews1,952 followers
March 15, 2022
*ARC sent by the publisher -Tor/Macmillan- for review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.*

This is the queer epic fantasy we all needed.

At its heart, this book was about grief and perseverance... and how both can mean something different and is showcased differently on individual people.

“However tired I am, however hard it is: I know I can keep going, because I’m alive.”

Before reading, I didn’t know what exactly to expect with “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles” but it is just that, while being so painfully aware of it’s own setting that reminds me more of The Poppy War with its brutal nature. Accompanied by a unique perspective, charming yet complex cast, lyrical prose, and immersive writing style that hits all the right emotions.

— overall thoughts: 4.5 —
if you are sensitive to triggering content please read the end of this review for content warnings

This did still feel like it was opening to a broader world and I honestly cannot wait to see where Shelley Parker Chan goes with the rest of the books. If you are looking for an in-depth and intricate magic system, I should say that you won't really be getting that for this first installment at least. There's still a magical/fantastical element to it but it's more on the backdrop and used to propel character development.

She Who Became the Sun is a character-driven story that explores the internal politics of a ruling body and economics of war that highlights the journey these characters experience and while it does deal with heavy and dark themes— this read like a historical c-drama (in the best way possible) packed with a truck load of thought provoking moments that was brilliantly tied together while being so unflinchingly queer

At it’s core, it’s about people trying to believe in their own fate in a society that sees them different ⚔️ The way discussions on gender roles and gender identity were weaved into a plot about war was just *chefs kiss* with nuanced conversations that will keep you reading

The dual POV was incredibly intriguing since you get to see the conflict progress from both sides progress. One of my favorite aspects was the fact that our two main characters weren't each other’s love interest. Shelley Parker Chan could have so easily made it a star-crossed lovers scenario and I’m so happy they didn’t. It benefitted the war narrative and made for way more interesting romances anyway.

some other details you can find:
-morally grey characters... villain origin story style
-14th century china
-yearning generals
-forbidden romance
-platonic relationships
-complicated relationships
-family drama

↣ If you're looking for a fast-paced, emotional, and dark fantasy that revolves around war (just the way I like it) that is built on solid themes, high stakes, and will keep you turning the page while entrancing you the whole way through... here you go ☀️ I have too many words and I don't know if I got across how much I loved this book but I can’t wait to see how the rest of the story plays out 💛 ↢

This was a refreshing historical fantasy debut and further deepens my love for this niche of a genre. I already know this is going to be iconic.

content warnings// Ableism, Amputation, Castration (non-consensual, pre-existing), Death, Dysphoria, Homophobia (internalized), Misgendering, Murder (child), Physical Abuse, Public Execution, Sex (Consensual), Starvation, Torture (non-graphic), Violence

✧ you can find this review and more on my blog

(2/20/21) [ at this point, i think half of my copy is highlighted ]

(1/9/21) I can't believe I'm saying this but... I got an ARC

[ there's this one scene that i really want to quote but i can't until i have the finished copy... i really hope it makes it until then because it was so hard hitting for me and i feel was a pivotal point for our main character. no spoilers but all you need to know is it's about a friendship and i'm a sucker for those. ]

(12/4/20) you can’t pitch a book as “will wreck you and you will be grateful” and be ANOTHER ASIAN INSPIRED BOOK without expecting me to be interested. Not possible.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,962 reviews293k followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
March 2, 2022
DNF - pg.192

Can anyone tell me if this book picks up again? I was really enjoying Part 1, up until about page 80, and now we've skipped some time and introduced several new characters who are constantly talking about winning battles. It's very dry and boring. Does it get any better?
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
531 reviews58.5k followers
June 25, 2022
(3.5) This book started so strong, I thought this was going to be a new favorite book and an easy five stars.

Sadly, I had issues with the pacing (even had to go back a couple of times because I thought I had missed something). I wasn't invested in the political intrigue as much as I would have wanted.

I did root for the romance (for once!) but
Profile Image for Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin.
3,460 reviews9,615 followers
November 11, 2021
MY REVIEW: 4.5 Stars ⭐️

I loved the main character, Zhu! She does whatever she has to do, disguising herself as her brother, to survive and make her claim to fame so to speak. (Turns out the seerer was correct, read the book)

There are other wonderful characters in the book, even the villains are fleshed out nicely. And everyone in the the book has some kind of underlying issues.

Some would say Zhu is a villain of sorts but she just does whatever she has to in this world and to me, I just can’t not like her!

There are battles, I mean obviously. I would just recommend reading this book so you can meet some great characters for yourself. You just might find your next gem!

*I would like to thank Tor for offering me to read this book through, Netgalley. I’ve never been offered to read a book from Tor so I greatly appreciate it and that you to Netgalley.

Mel 🖤🐶🐺🐾

Profile Image for Melissa ~ Bantering Books.
204 reviews782 followers
August 20, 2021
Be sure to visit Bantering Books to read all my latest reviews.

3.5 stars

It was a rocky start. And a rocky middle. But Shelley Parker-Chan’s historical epic fantasy novel, She Who Became the Sun, won me over in the end.

At least enough to where I want to read the sequel.

Set in an alternate China, She Who Became the Sun is a fantastical, genderqueer retelling of the founding of the Ming dynasty. The story follows the female monk, Zhu Chongba, from childhood to early adulthood, as she assumes her dead brother’s identity and fights to claim his destiny as her own.

It’s a big story with big characters and a lot of big things happening in it.

And I struggled with it. I struggled to connect with Zhu, to stay engaged in the story, and to NOT pick up a different book instead.

Because She Who Became the Sun is just too big for its 400 pages. Being relatively slim in size for an epic fantasy novel, its shortish length cramps the development of the story and Zhu’s characterization.

For starters, way too much of the plot occurs off page. We are blind to almost all climactic events, whether they occur during Zhu’s monastic life or during the war, and we hardly ever see any action. Momentous incidents at the monastery and battles between the Red Turbans and Mongols are skimmed over, with Parker-Chan never taking the time to tell the story of any of it. It’s as if important pieces of the puzzle are missing.

And then there’s the problem of Zhu.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get inside her head. Very little of the narrative is devoted to her childhood and formative monastic years, and her skimpy backstory keeps the reader at arm’s length. And thanks to the stunted plot, Zhu comes across as flatly one-dimensional and less realized than the secondary characters. It’s extremely difficult to ever truly know her.

Typically, I’m not one to think, “The longer the book, the better.” But in this case, I do believe She Who Became the Sun would’ve been better had it been longer. There’s just too much good story here and too few pages. It’s an opportunity sadly wasted.

But I’m hanging in. Through it all, Parker-Chan managed to sufficiently hook me to where I can’t let Zhu go quite yet. I must see how her story ends.

Fingers crossed the second half is a tad bit bigger.

My sincerest appreciation to Shelley Parker-Chan and Tor Books for the physical Advance Review Copy. All opinions included herein are my own.

Bantering Books
Profile Image for Shelley Parker-Chan.
Author 6 books2,907 followers
June 24, 2021
Hello friends, this contains content warnings for SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN.

SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN is a book about gender identity (amongst other things). While the two genderqueer protagonists reflect aspects of my own experiences of genderqueerness, this doesn't mean these perspectives are necessarily affirming to any other LGBTQIA+ identifying persons. Please read the warnings if you're concerned, and take care of yourselves.

Most violence occurs offscreen, and the level of depicted blood and gore is in line with that of your average 15+ historical TV drama.

It is an adult book, not YA.

Content warnings:
* Dysphoria
* Pre-existing non-consensual castration
* Misgendering
* Internalised homophobia
* Life-altering injury (amputation)
* Ableist language
* Non-graphic depictions of death by torture
* Major character death
* Offscreen murder of a child
* Scenes depicting extreme hunger/starvation
* Graphic depiction of a person burning to death

If you have read the book and believe additional warnings would be useful to the community as a whole, please contact me.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
743 reviews11.8k followers
December 26, 2022
I think it all comes down to me not being an ambitious person. I could not care less about desiring “greatness” for the sake of power, especially if the path to that power is paved with bones. I don’t care if future degenerations would know my name — who the hell cares when you’re dead and are worm food?

And that probably where my issues with this book lie. Determined pursuit of “greatness” and power at all costs as well as storylines centered on obligation for revenge tend to leave me cold.

“But even as the thought came to her, she knew she wouldn’t give up greatness. Not for a child’s life, and not even to prevent the suffering of the people she loved, and who loved her. Because it was what she wanted.”

I suppose this can be a story of beginnings of a ruthless ruler, a tyrant, or at least the now-popular ambiguous shades-of-grey character. But even then the relentless march to the goal did not touch my heart, although intellectually I appreciated a few narrative turns and decisions. But once we move from survival to power grab, my attention began to wane. And once an interesting character ended up revenge-obsessed, my attention really wandered off.

“Becoming nothing was the most terrifying thing she could think of—worse even than the fear of hunger, or pain, or any other suffering that could possibly arise from life.”

The setting of a 14th century Mongol-occupied China in the middle of Red Turban rebellion was quite interesting. Two protagonists with identities forged by circumstances — Zhu, a young woman due to circumstances willingly adopting a male identity and Ouyang, a eunuch slave moving on up to become a general and best friend to the son of a ruler who castrated him, and two standout secondary characters - Ma and Wang — made for a very compelling set-up. (Yes, an unexpected random fisting scene made for a cringeworthy moment, but that’s okay). The politics were not too boring either, even if at times all the scheming seemed too much, and Zhu’s ascent often appeared to hinge too much on sheer luck, coincidences and handwaving in the absence of actual tactical or military skills.

But still it just didn’t touch that special place in my heart that makes me go all goooogoooo over a story.

Which is too bad. But really, it’s a case of “It’s me, dear book, it’s not you”.

And I still may try a sequel. Maybe there will be more Ouyang and less Zhu in it.

3 non-ambitious stars.

“She found herself searching desperately inside herself for any alien sensation that might harbor that red spark—the seed of greatness, pressed into her spirit by Heaven itself. But to her despair, there was nothing new to find. There was only the same thing that had always been there: the white core of her determination that had kept her alive all these years, giving her the strength to keep believing she was who she said she was. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was all she had. For a moment she felt that old vertiginous pull of fate. But she had already launched herself in pursuit of it; there was no going back. Don’t look down as you’re flying, or you’ll realize the impossibility of it and fall.”
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 58 books8,105 followers
December 10, 2021
Absolutely tremendous alt-historical epic with a touch of magic. A nameless unwanted peasant girl takes on her dead brother's name to become a monk, a warrior, a leader. Tremendous sweep and narrative drive with a beautifully drawn cast, especially the profoundly fucked-up eunuch general Ouyang, who is heartbreaking, and a lot of pure rage at patriarchy and misogyny, and a great deal on what power really means, and is worth, and is for. I should have waited to read this before doing my Best of 2021 book list: it would have been on it. A barnstormer.
Profile Image for Ellie.
575 reviews2,114 followers
August 15, 2021
She Who Became the Sun is one of my Top 5 Anticipated Releases of 2021, and the first of those 5 that I've read. And I'm utterly delighted that it did not disappoint at all.

A historical retelling that follows a lowly girl as she steals her brother's name and illustrious fate to rise from peasant to monk to military commander (and in the sequel, emperor), it is a book that shines with Zhu's desire for the fate of greatness.

full rtc to come when it's not 2am.

(will say I'm not entirely sold on the use of The Song of Achilles as a comp title and I wonder why they used it, as the only similarities are that they're both loose retellings with strong military aspects . . . also pretty queer . . . also some trauma and heartbreak that made me cry . . . okay maybe I see it, a bit)

- still, my comps for this would be The Poppy War (determined heroines, military aspects, both influenced by Chinese history), Sistersong (both reimaginings with leads that engage with gender identity), and And I Darken (another historical reimagining where a prominent male leader is reimagined as a woman).

> 4.5 stars!


This contains SO MANY OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS that I’m vibrating of excitement

- founding emperors!!
- the Ming dynasty!!
- (kinda) Ancient China!!
- lots of long, billowing sleeves
- it was comp’d to THE SONG OF ACHILLES so I’ll be crying in sorrow by the end I imagine
- the author likes the untamed so they’re my favourite person now
Profile Image for Samantha Shannon.
Author 26 books19.6k followers
April 2, 2021
Magnificent in every way. War, desire, vengeance, politics – Shelley Parker-Chan has perfectly measured each ingredient of this queer historical epic.

Glinting with bright rays of wit and tenderness, yet unafraid to delve into the deep shadows of human ambition, She Who Became the Sun, like Zhu, is unquestionably destined for greatness.
Profile Image for Ellie.
189 reviews701 followers
August 13, 2021
2/5 stars

This was my most anticipated book of the year and FUCK I’m disappointed. I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it either, and I was SURE I was going to love this book the second I saw that beautiful cover. Alas … this book was simply okay.

Now when I heard about it, I was thrilled: a reimagined story about the Ming dynasty’s rise to power with fantasy elements and an ambitious female protagonist? Take all of my money! This synopsis actually feels a bit like false advertising. Zhu (our reimagined Emperor) was only one of many POVs in this book. We get POV chapters from Ouyang, a eunuch general forced to serve the Prince who slaughtered his family, Esen, the son of said Prince and best friend to Ouyang, and Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a rebel warlord.

So in total, the character and story I mainly signed up for only accounted for maybe a third of this book. My American hardback (the Australia/UK cover of this one was hideous when compared to the beautiful art on this edition) doesn’t even mention any of these other people in the synopsis on the cover. It only mentions Zhu and her desired rise to power. I feel betrayed and lied to :(

But this isn’t the book’s only problem: the pacing was absolutely awful. Chapter 1 of this book was beautiful, perfect and everything I wanted. I was very excited. And then the rest of this book happens and …. What the hell? We get ZERO battle scenes! We simply skip past them! In fact, we skip past MANY events that I would have liked to read about.

And the political scheming was nowhere near compelling enough to make up for this. There were no scenes of political machinations and the characters being sneaky and conniving. Things just happen in between the scenes we see. This book is quite short for this kind of story (about 400 pages long) which definitely didn’t help. It felt like scenes were missing from the story. Everything felt so surface-level. We get almost no scenes of characters just reflecting and thinking about their actions or their plans or their relationships to others. Because of this, I didn’t believe the depth of pretty much any of the relationships in this book.

Ouyang obviously loves Esen but we get no proof of that or any scenes of them just chilling and showing their relationship. Ma and Zhu are quite good and believable, but I don’t believe Ma is as devoted to Zhu as the story would have us believe. Ouyang and Zhu supposedly have this incredible bond ordained by Heaven but they barely interact or know one another. This bond exists just because.

This book desperately needed MORE. My plan is that Brandon Sanderson gives some of his character page-time from Rhythm of War to this book and boom the world is in alignment.

I will still read book 2 because I’m intrigued about what’s going to happen and eager to learn more about this part of history, but I’m nowhere near as excited about it as I should be.

So, sadly, 2/5 stars. This was no certainly no Poppy War and I am genuinely disappointed by that. Let’s hope for some actual characterisation in book 2.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
695 reviews1,073 followers
September 22, 2021
“You won’t be the one to make me nothing.”

3.5 ⭐️

I was gripped in the beginning but started losing interest by the end.

There was a lot to love in here. Zhu begins her life in severe poverty, with her father and brother in a world where girls are worth absolutely nothing. When her father and brother die Zhu chooses to take on her brothers identity and in turn his fate, rather than face her own fate of becoming nothing.

I loved Zhu’s determination, her absolute refusal to give up, whatever it takes.
She manages to get into a monastery and become a monk.

I was pretty enthralled, but about half way (ish) when she joins the war and becomes a commander I starting fading out. There is a lot of talk of war strategy, and a lot of names.

I loved the focus on gender, and how Zhu sees herself, it was a really interesting perspective.

I did like it, hence the 3 stars. Just not enough to push it to 4.

““I might not know your name…but I know who you are.”

I wanted to be petty and not read this book.
I was offered an ARC by the publisher and was then promptly ghosted.
I wanted to sulk and think “screw you then.”

1. Much as I like to kick off in my head. I’m not really a petty or grudgy person irl.
2. Not the authors fault their publishers are out of order.
3. This book does sound flipping great.
4. My library has a copy available so why the heck not?!
Profile Image for Hilly.
701 reviews1,261 followers
August 20, 2021
3.5 stars

History, gay romance, ambition, war, backstabbing and dead people everywhere 💀

This book was so elaborate, so complex, with exceptional historical representation and I’m shocked this is a debut. The talent™!
The choice of putting these characters with contrasting personalities together was also very smart: I mean, a prince loved by everyone and a broody introverted general? That’s an easy win. A cold-hearted sarcastic resolute monk and a kind altruistic maternal woman? No need to say more.

I found the subtle discourse on gender identity to be just awesome. Having two characters on the opposite specter but dealing with their bodies and society norms in a similar way was pretty clever. You see two sides of the same coin which definitely makes you appreciate a bigger picture of the issue.

When I started this book I had no idea what I was getting into. Part 1 has a very different feel from the rest of the book. During the period at the monastery you have the time to get to know Zhu while she grows up and I really enjoyed seeing the way she changed through the years (which I now know that was only the tip of the iceberg, so you have way more shenanigans to look forward to than that 😬).
From Part 2 the book completely changes direction and goes deep into war and brutal politics. I love that at one point I started wondering if anyone would stay alive by the time the end would come around.

Despite having liked this book, the writing and I.....let’s say we didn’t mesh well. It’s elaborate and complex, and it perfectly complements the historical setting, but it was too dense for my tastes. These are some issues I had during my reading experience:
- The writing was very descriptive but I still had trouble visualizing places and characters in my head.
- I wasn’t able to really warm to any of the characters because they felt too distant.
- Some elements of the plot/world building are given for granted (in particular a thing that concerns Ouyang) and there’s nothing to do apart from ignoring that it’s not explained and getting used to it. Those are big plot points though, and not understanding where they come from is confusing and very far from ideal.
- There are a lot of time skips after the first 50 pages and at that point the narrative started to feel kind of diluted for me because I couldn’t directly read about the struggles the characters were going through. This happens especially with battles: you rarely see them actually fighting, you only learn about the outcome.

I’m pretty sure this is a duology and with the way this ended I’m really interested to see where the conclusion will go. Those last chapters were wild! “I can’t believe what Ouyang did,” she says staring into space.
However I’m going to have to find the courage to pick it up because this one took me a month and it’s only 400 pages lol. I hope the next one has more magic, this first book was centered a lot on history rather than fantasy.

I received an advanced reader copy through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.


I’m blaming it on The Poppy War for making me this hungry for new fantasy takes on Chinese history... who do I have to bribe for this one?
Profile Image for Ilenia Zodiaco.
260 reviews13.3k followers
January 9, 2022
Un fantasy storico che riscrive in chiave fantastica, queer e femminista la storia di Zhu Yuanzhang, il contadino ribelle che nella Cina del XIV secolo cacciò i mongoli, unificò il Paese e divenne il primo imperatore della gloriosa dinastia Ming.

Debutto ambizioso quello di Parker-Chan, scrittrice australiana, di origine asiatica, ex-diplomatica con un’esperienza decennale nella lotta per i diritti civili, la parità di genere e la cancellazione delle discriminazioni a danno della comunità LGBT nel sud-est asiatico.

In “Lei che divenne il sole” mitologia occidentale e orientale si mescolano vivacemente all’esplorazione del folclore della società cinese del 1300 (senza diventare un pasticciaccio di luoghi comuni), ma non è nell’accuratezza storica che dobbiamo cercare i meriti del romanzo, non privo di tentennamenti e forti fragilità strutturali, a cominciare da un intreccio che si dispiega in maniera piuttosto inverosimile con svolte narrative acrobatiche e coincidenze degne del Dottor Zivago in cui la Russia zarista sembra ridotta ad un territorio grande come un pugno chiuso e in cui assistiamo a continui incontri (s)fortuiti. A Pasternak si perdona tutto perché compensa con picchi di lirismo malinconico e disperato tra i più alti della letteratura mondiale, Shelley Parker-Chan invece si difende grazie a una costruzione sapiente di personaggi queer marginalizzati ma talentuosi ed è proprio la rinuncia al vittimismo e all’afflizione che rendono il libro un godibilissimo intrigo fanta-politico: la scelta di raccontare una storia sulle mille sfaccettature dell’identità di genere e sulle potenzialità di ogni individuo è il focus della trama, la tessitura di relazioni non convenzionali e lo sviluppo di personalità – se non propriamente complesse – diverse dai canoni, che non si posizionano in schieramenti binari, divisi tra bene e male ma che lottano per la sopravvivenza come strateghi, abituati a scelte poco condivisibili e fuori dagli schemi di una società repressiva e autoritaria.

Nessun miracolo letterario anche perché il grande difetto del romanzo è l’incertezza nel tono di voce – a tratti drammatico ed epico, a tratti umorista ma senza una chiarissima definizione di un registro stilistico distintivo -ma rimane un romanzo perfetto per chi ama Mulan. Con una bella dose aggiuntiva di morti.

SPOILER: BTW, sono l’unica ad essere rimasta delusa dalla mancanza di approfondimento sui fantasmi? Ah, certo, dimenticavo di dirvi che è una serie. Quanto detesto le serie.
February 18, 2023
| | blog | tumblr | ko-fi | |

This book OBLITERATED me 🙃

Desire is the cause of all suffering. All Zhu had ever desired was to live. Now she felt the pure strength of that desire inside her, as inseparable as her breath or qi, and knew she would suffer from it. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the awful magnitude of the suffering that would be required to achieve greatness in the chaotic, violent world outside.”

While I can see why She Who Became the Sun has drawn comparisons to Mulan (we have Zhu ‘posing’ as a man), The Song of Achilles (we have a ‘close’ bond between two soldiers, one a lord the other a general), and The Poppy War (harsh backdrop + war/battles + main characters who do questionable things), what this novel really reminded of Mary Renault’s historical novels (like her Alexander the Great trilogy). But brutal. I mean, x1000 more brutal (so, think Mary Renault + you are being sucker-punched).

“All of it had been nothing more than the mechanistic motion of the stars as they brought him this opportunity: the path to his fate. And once he stepped upon it there would be no turning back.
It was an opportunity he wanted, and at the same time it was the very last thing he wanted: it was a future too horrible to bear. But even as he prevaricated and agonized, and shrank from the thought of it, he knew it wasn’t a matter of choice. It was his fate, the thing no man can ever refuse.”

In this reimagining of the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant-turned-emperor founder of the Ming Dynasty, Parker-Chan transports her readers to Mongol-occupied imperial China. Famine, poverty, plagues From the very opening pages we are plunged into a harsh and unforgiving world. In 1345 the Zhu children, a boy and a girl from the famine-stricken Zhongli village are given opposing fortunes. The boy, Zhu Chongba, is promised ‘greatness’, his “deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to [his] family name”. The girl’s fate? “Nothing”. Yet, after a bandit attack leaves them orphaned it is the boy who is unable to recover while the girl refuses to succumb to despair. After his death, the girl claims his name and fate. The ‘new’ Zhu Chongba refuses to accept her former fate and will do whatever it takes not only to survive but thrive. Zhu goes on to become a novice at the Wuhuang Monastery, and as the years go by the more her conviction that she will be great is cemented.
When the unrest against Mongol rule grows Zhu, now a monk, joins forces with the Red Turbans, a group of peasant rebels. In her ruthless quest for greatness, Zhu will stop at nothing. Driven by the certainty that she will be great, Zhu slowly rises among the ranks of rebels, demonstrating time and again that to win a war one needs more than swordsmanship or physical strength. The more powerful Zhu becomes the more she craves, but how far is too far?
We also follow Ouyang, a eunuch of Nanren blood, formerly a slave and now a general in the Mongol army (the people responsible for exterminating his family and enslaving him). Ouyang too is following what he believes to be his fate, even if he knows that this path will lead in pain (my pain, Parker-Chan, if you are reading this you broke my effin heart).
As the narrative progresses, Zhu and Ouyang’s fate become irrevocably and terribly entwined. One is hungry for greatness, the other, revenge.

She Who Became the Sun is an epic historical fantasy and probably one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. While I was not familiar with this era/setting (predictably, the little I knew about Mongolia concerns ‘the’ Genghis Khan, aka Temüjin, and I knew next-to-nothing about 14th century China—I love wuxia films but they are not entirely reliable) Parker-Chan does a fantastic job in immersing her readers in this period of Mongolian/Chinese history. In that way, she brought to mind Renault who also excelled in evoking ancient cultures and peoples without making her readers feel overwhelmed or confused.
Parker-Chan does not shy away from portraying the grim realities faced by people like Zhu and Ouyang. In addition to famines and plagues, we have battles between Mongols and the Red Turbans who seek to free themselves from their cruel rule. Rather than portraying either faction as inherently good or bad, Parker-Chan populates her story with characters who are all varying degrees of terrible (Ma, daughter to a Red Turban general, and Xu Da, Zhu’s monastery ‘brother’ are perhaps the only not-so-morally ambiguous characters).
Zhu and Ouyang are no heroes. They are, to different extents and purposes, self-serving, and willing to commit acts of horrific violence to fulfil their fates (even if it means betraying their loved ones). Yet, given what we learn about them, in other words, their circumstances, readers will have a hard time condemning or judging them.

Parker-Chan’s unadorned prose perfectly complements the severe world inhabited by Zho and Ouyang. For all its apparent simplicity, Parker-Chan’s writing packs a punch. We have emotionally charged dialogues, precise and clever descriptions about the characters (their motivations, fears, natures), and some fantastic fighting sequences. It just goes to show how talented a writer Parker-Chan is but I was gripped by scenes focusing on military strategy (something I am not usually all that wowed by). There are also surprising moments of humor that offer brief yet desperately needed moments of levity (Zhu’s ‘pious’ act was a delight to read). The narrative is otherwise fraught with tension. The fantasy elements were also very well-done. Although they are seamlessly incorporated into the historical backdrop they did add a certain atmosphere to the story.
In addition to a gripping storyline and a detailed historical setting Parker-Chan also brings to the table a complex cast of characters. Their shifting allegiances and dynamics made the story all the more captivating. Zhu is no hero(ine). She is hellbent on getting what she wants (greatness) and while she isn't wholly morally reprehensible she is not afraid to get her hands dirty. Her relationship with Xu Da and Ma were wonderfully compelling, even heart-rendering.

Aaaand, now I have to talk about Ouyang and I cannot even. Dio mio. This man is terrible but that did not stop me from loving him. I swear, I felt ‘all the feels' each scene he was in. The man is literally haunted. His tortured self-loathing reaches highs not even Adam Parrish would dream of. My heart broke for him, time and again. His storyline managed to be even more devastating than Zhu’s one. I am never going to shut up about him. Just thinking about him makes me wanna curl in a ball and cry.

At its heart, Parker-Chan’s novel is about power, survival, and fate. Parker-Chan pushes Zhu and Ouyang to their limits, putting them in impossible situations and pitting them against each other (we have more than one scene where I could not for the life of me root for either Zhu and Ouyang, hoping against hope that they could just set their weapons aside and become best buds...I am delusional I know). In addition, Parker-Chan subverts traditional gender roles and notions of masculinity and gifts us with an A+ queer romance and a complicated relationship with a lot of yearning (when their hands brushed I was a goner).

It took me 40 pages or so to really get into the story but once I was ‘in’ I was 100% invested in both the story and the characters. This novel is gripping, brutal, poignant, distressing and full of jaw-dropping moments. The betrayals and political intrigue made the novel all the more engrossing. I don’t often use the word epic to describe a novel but She Who Became the Sun demands it.

ps : i am both terrified and desperate to read the sequel

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Em Lost In Books.
871 reviews1,759 followers
April 1, 2022
If I divide this book in 3 parts then first and last were fantastic but middle was dry and boring in comparison to the other two.

Characters of Zhu and Ouyang bound me to the story but others characters didn't impress me as much. The world building was good but I have read better.

If you are looking for a page turner, this is not it.
Profile Image for Henk.
848 reviews
November 16, 2021
Nominated for both the best debut novel and best fantasy/sci-fi category in this year’s Goodreads choice award!

Epic, convincing, with multiple sides and characters to root for and as much drama and blood feuds as the Illiad
Pure emotions are the luxury of animals and children.

Enjoyed this a lot, very epic, with both the gender bending and the Chinese background executed effortlessly and convincingly. She Who Became the Sun tells the reimagined rise of the Ming dynasty (for anyone interested: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd...).
Starting of viscerally with hunger and deprivation, including some horrid choices people need to make in respect to their children, the main character takes over the role of her dead brother and his path to greatness. This might give some Mulan vibes, but the road to greatness is paved with a lot of uncomfortable decisions and there is no change to keep one's hand clean.
Also Shelley Parker-Chan her writing gave me some vibes of Avatar The Last Airbender, with references to a spirit world.

Starting with a power move against her tutor in a monastery, the protagonist is soon drawn into the conflict between the failing Mongol dominated Yuan dynasty and factions of Han Chinese that strive to reclaim control over the Middle Kingdom. Soon the main character finds themselves in a viper nest, and needs to pull off inventive ways to gain the upper hand to better equipped and larger armies. Using the spirit world and modern inventions as weapons, and being constantly underestimated as a monk.

Against them a general of the Yuan, eunuch and also a kind of third gender with a infatuation to his master, has its own schemes, leading to truly epic confrontations and scenes befitting Kill Bill.
There is immolation, flaying alive, book burning, accidents with jittery horses, banishment, people ripped apart by 5 horses, the brutality of the pre-modern world is not sugarcoated in any way.
I did start to wonder a bit what the whole ideology/philosophy of the great Yuan is, besides offering stability. But overall the conflict is depicted in a spectacular fashion and one can root (or at least understand) both sides.

There is so much callousness, between everyone: ambition and the possibility to shape one’s one fate through sacrifices to one's very soul seems the key motives in this book.
While reading I had most affinity with Lord Wang his rants on the importance of economic sound administration, and in general I feel that many of the side characters are very well drawn, with only Ma the pure and innocent being a bit annoying.

This would be a great anime or a series like Game of Thrones, while being a very solid book. Looking forward to part 2 and any adaptations of this great story.

Bad ass quotes:
It wasn’t something she wanted so much it was an escape for what she feared.

You may have ended this, but you haven’t ended me.

He had a wound as heart.

Feeling safe meant feeling hidden.

What someone is, means nothing about what kind of person they are.

I presume you understand how much I dislike you?

I did what I had to do.

They regarded an asset, not a person.

Even the most glorious future if its desired has suffering at its heart.

He served his purpose.

You said you would be different.
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