It’s only as I write this that I realize that I am a complete idiot and the title of this book, She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, is the mother of all puns. It’s about a woman who rose to fame and fortune by shining brighter than the sun, by pretending to be the son in her family. Apparently, I am super dense. This book was billed to me as a Disney’s Mulan retelling, but it’s actually much more closely related to the original Chinese fable. The only thing it really shares with the Disney version is it features a female protagonist that hides her gender to blend into a man’s world. It’s less fun training montages and more doing anything possible to crawl out of abject poverty.
She Who Became The Sun is about fate. Early in the story, we meet a sad daughter of a poor family. She is given a fortune that she will be nothing, while her brother Chongba is fated to have a grand destiny. When Chongba and the rest of the family are struck down, the daughter believes that if she assumes Chongba’s identity, she can steal his fate. As long as she doesn’t get discovered, she can trick the gods and claw her way up from nothing to greatness.
She Who Became the Sun is a very strong debut, one of the best Dark Horses I have reviewed in my years on this site. It’s got beautiful poetic prose, a wonderful blending of classic Chinese and modern epic fantasy storytelling, a great cast, and an engrossing plot that keeps the reader heavily invested. Parker-Chan does a wonderful job blending history with fiction as they cover Zhu Yuanzhang’s ascent to power and the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 14th century China. It has deep and complex characters as well as some of the best political machinations I have read this year. Chongba is always trading up, stabbing his/her way to the top, and seizing every opportunity to advance their destiny while balancing on a knife-edge between success and ruin. Chongba is constantly switching sides, double-crossing people, and clawing their way ever upwards.
All of this is coupled with a layer of magical mystery that expands the worldbuilding beyond just a piece of historical fiction. The story is also helped by the supporting cast all being likable and memorable. Every person Chongba discards on their way to their fate is someone you care about and it paints them as this morally grey character that you both love and hate. The prose is super dense, but also poetic. It paints a vibrant picture of a war-torn period and pairs nicely with the grim and awful world that it is describing.
The major theme of the book is self-reflection and self-realization, a topic that is wonderfully examined through Chongba’s messy identity and the surrounding supporting cast. There are conversations around personal identity, familial identity, gender identity, and societal identity. To top it all off there are actually some pretty good action sequences.
The one drawback of She Who Became the Sun is the pacing, which can be erratic. Some sections feel super exciting and fast while others are a very slow burn. Couple this with the fact that the prose is dense as concrete and you get some sections that really can drag. However, they are few and far between and an easy issue to overlook with all the great other things the book has to offer.
If you are looking for a Chinese-inspired fantasy, She Who Became the Sun has been my favorite so far. It feels distinctly culturally different from everything else I have read lately, yet not so foreign to me that I struggled to understand the context. The prose was beautiful, the themes were meaningful, and watching the character arcs was extremely satisfying. To top it all off, the plot was great and ended on a cliffhanger. Now I am just sitting here impatiently waiting for the next book. Go check this one out.
Rating: She Who Became the Sun 8.5/10