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 takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
I walked into Waterstones with that most wonderful of things; A gift card given by my cousin for a recent birthday. I walked in knowing that one of those books would be mine, but not yet knowing which one. It was a delicious moment.
While browsing I was having trouble finding a book that I really wanted to take home with me that day – I searched all of my usual favourite genres, looked at the seasonal recommendations, I perused the newly published sections and for some reason nothing stuck. That day they all felt like stories that I had read before, and I just couldn’t commit to any of them.
And then I found this book.
Something about it felt fresh and new, something that I hadn’t already seen and it appealed to me – I went home with it and had started reading it by the time I was sat in the car. I read it in the bath, I read it curled up in my bed, I read it lounged on the sofa, soon discovering that I could not rush to the end to discover what happened next. This was a book that demanded that you take your time with it, that you listen and enjoy.
The authors website ( https://shelleyparkerchan.com/ ) and other sources describe this book as ‘Mulan meets The Song Of Achilles’, a queer retelling of the Trojan War. The book has two genderqueer protagonists who grapple with their fates and identities, pushing themselves further towards the fates that are assigned to them, or chosen by them. Zhu, the girl who took her brothers fate and identity after he dies, is our main character for the majority of the book.
Zhu surprised me as the story progressed; the thing that I love most about this book having finished it is the way that I could not have predicted how it was going to unfurl. In some books the suspense is lost because there is a very obvious end point, and a clear line to get there which the author must follow in order to achieve the standards set by the genre they are writing for. This was not one of those books, and I relished the uncertainty.
The blurb mentions the callousness of some of Zhu’s actions in the book, and the lengths to which she will go to pursue her fate. The book is filled with fresh, vibrant occasionally violent characters, some of whom display a ruthlessness which shocked and appalled me at times. It is a book which strongly follows the themes of desire, fate and identity; it absolutely fascinated me.
At the end of the book, Shelley Parker-Chan writes “This book began life during a series of brainstorming sessions with friends, in which we all decided to write the books that we longed for but could never find.” GoodReads lists her as “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”, and that experience is well represented in the work of art which is She Who Became The Sun. It is a beautifully written story which covers gender identity in an Asian historical fiction setting and while I cannot speak for whether this is the book that the author longed for, I can certainly say that I personally have never found one like it before. It was brilliant.
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