Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun

By Shelley Parker-Chan

 

I received an ARC of She Who Became the Sun from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.

 

If this review were a car, I would equip it with sirens and flashing lights and then crash it into your social feeds like Vin Diesel in a Fast & Furious film. “Oh no!” you might say, spotting me wide-eyed and white-knuckled behind the wheel of this review. “Are you okay?” At which point I would stumble out of the metaphorical car, blood trickling down my face, and ask if you’ve heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan.

“I’ve seen some buzz online,” you say, shrugging. You offer me a drink. “Have you read it?”

“Yes! It’s the best book of the year.”

“But the year isn’t over yet. Maybe you should hold off on hyperbolic proclamations until—”

“It’s the best book of the year!” I shriek, passionate but clearly delirious.

“Okay.” You gesture to a plush armchair; I sit down gratefully, sipping my drink. “Tell me why. The description says it’s like Mulan meets The Song of Achilles?”

“Yes and no. That’s not technically inaccurate, but I’d say it’s something closer to ‘The Poppy War as written by Frank Herbert with input from Steven Erikson.’”

“Oh?” You arch an eyebrow.

“Yeah! She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century—but in this version of the story, Zhu Chongba is a young woman who has taken the place of her deceased older brother and masquerades as a man, first as a monk and then as a military leader during a bloody rebellion against Mongol rule. Zhu brings to mind Rin from The Poppy War or Kvothe from The Name of the Wind; she is ruthless and hypercompetent, unwilling to tolerate anyone who impedes her ascension to greatness, which makes her sometimes (and with increasing frequency) unsympathetic but always compelling to witness. She is like, well, the sun—a force of nature, impossible to look at directly but equally impossible to ignore. The book exists wholly in her gravity.

“But Zhu is not the only celestial object in this sky of similes. The novel intersects the orbits of several other characters, the most prominent of which being Ouyang, a eunuch general for the Mongols who frequently comes into conflict with Zhu. He is the Joker to her Batman; although her enemy, she is drawn to him as a kindred spirit (we’re moving past the Batman metaphor now) in the liminal spaces of gender—not a man but not a woman either, an outcast and an outsider, uniquely equipped to see the world in ways that others cannot but also unable to fully be a part of that world. Ouyang is a rich and textured character, cruel and savage like Zhu yet imbued with so much humanity he’ll make your heart ache. I would describe them as yin and yang, but that comparison is built into the text of She Who Became the Sun; the book quite explicitly pushes back against it and arguably deconstructs it outright.”

“All right,” you say as I pause to take a drink. “I understand why you thought of The Poppy War. Why Frank Herbert?”

“The transparency of information. Zhu and Ouyang occupy the core of the novel, but it flits between several other characters, including Ma, a woman who becomes tangled up with Zhu, Esen, a Mongol who has spent many years campaigning with Ouyang, and Esen’s adopted brother, Wang Baoxiang. At no point was I uncertain as to the motivations of these characters—even when I was disappointed, exasperated, or frustrated by their actions, I always knew exactly why they did what they did and could understand what drove them to make those choices. Parker-Chan (wisely) trusts the conflict between the characters to push the story forward rather than relying on withheld information to generate tension. It’s the same type of storytelling Herbert used to great effect in Dune, and it works wonders here.

“When multiple POVs are in play, there is also always the risk of one (or more) being less interesting than the others; we’ve all read books in which we get to the perspective of That Character™ and feel a twinge of disappoint before trudging through their section. Not so here! I was genuinely thrilled to read about every character in this novel, and I can say with complete confidence that any one of them could have carried the story on their own. I would happily read an entire book from the perspective of Ma, or Esen, or Baoxiang—they are truly that engaging.”

“Makes sense! What about Erikson?”

“I bring up Erikson because of the writing, primarily in regard to Parker-Chan’s ability to establish a sense of place (something Erikson particularly excelled at in the early novels of The Malazan Book of the Fallen). There’s a real sense of weight to the physical environments in She Who Became the Sun; I always felt like I was fully present in the world of the story, and that’s important to me as a reader.

“The Erikson comparison also applies to the density of the text, which is packed to the gills with story. So much happens in every sentence. This is a book best savored slowly, absorbed rather than inhaled. Once I started reading, I don’t think I breathed until the end of the first chapter—it’s raw and relentless, almost a self-contained short story that functions as a prelude to the sweeping epic that follows. And it doesn’t stop there. The first quarter of She Who Became the Sun feels like the equivalent of an entire novel, and I’m exaggerating only slightly when I say that I’ve read entire series in which less happens than in this one book.” (This is the part where I surreptitiously side-eye The Wheel of Time.)

“I’m not sure that’s a positive,” you say. “The pacing might be too fast. Does it give the characters a chance to develop?”

“Yes! I was concerned about that too. The pacing is certainly unconventional, stretching some scenes out across pages and then breezing by seemingly major moments in a paragraph. But it works. Parker-Chan is concerned only with what is best for this story; if it’s important, it gets the time it needs. There is no filler in this book. It’s lean, it’s mean, and it has precisely zero interest in wasting your time—there are veteran authors who could learn a thing or two from She Who Became the Sun. This is a debut novel, by the way, a fact which I find mildly frightening.”

“This seems too good to be true. There must be something you didn’t like.”

“Okay, fine; it’s not perfect. The final chapter feels slightly rushed. There’s one relationship that develops and escalates a bit too quickly, especially given the culture in which it takes place and the characters involved. Apart from those, my only other complaint lies with the occasional clumsy sentence. Perhaps once every chapter or two I ran into a line in which I had difficulty deciphering who was speaking or which character was being referenced, and I was annoyed at having to pause and reread several times just to figure out what the sentence was actually saying. It’s a minor problem and I wouldn’t bring it up in almost any other review, but this book is so good I’m searching for nitpicks under a microscope (and since I read an ARC, I should point out that these lines may have been edited for clarity prior to publication). This novel has been polished to near-perfection. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I can’t find much to criticize.” I shrug.

“Wow! What else can you tell me?”

“Well, I could go on at length about how this book explores the nuances of gender, how it portrays culture and religion, and how the exceedingly light touch of its speculative fiction elements give it an enjoyably ambiguous flavor (I spent a significant portion of the novel convinced that it was historical fiction and didn’t even qualify as fantasy), but I believe those conversations are best saved for discussions amongst readers who have finished the book.”

“That sounds great! In that case, I’ll be sure to pick up a copy of She Who Became the Sun when it comes out on July 20th, 2021. I can’t wait to read it!”

“Fantastic,” I say, standing up. “I’ve got some other books to review, so I have to head out. Sorry for barging in like this—I normally knock or slide my reviews under the door, so I don’t know if you saw them, but Shelley Parker-Chan may have written the best debut novel I’ve ever read. She Who Became the Sun heralds the arrival of an astounding talent in the world of literature, and I wanted to make sure you knew about it.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” You indicate the dried blood which now crusts my face.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine.” I wave negligently as I get back in the car, then screech away down the street with the sirens screaming. I call back: “Hope you enjoy the book!”

“Huh,” you say.

 

Review by Erin Larson

She Who Became the Sun will be published July 20th, 2021.

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