Hello again, book lovers! This review was intended to be part of our Beltane theme and in honor of Asian Heritage Month, but thanks to a crazy work schedule, I’m a little late.
But better late than never, right? Let’s get to it!
Genre: Historical Fiction / Military Fantasy
Category: Emotional Read
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RATING: 3/5 Stars
Plot: 3/5 stars
Characters: 3/5 stars
World: 3/5 stars
Pairing: Wan Dou Huang (pea flour cake) + green tea
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.
When I first heard about this book, I was immediately interested in the premise and excited to break out of my comfort zone with a Mulan-ish historical fantasy that features ghosts. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the premise more than the actual plot.
The story starts out strong; I was immediately drawn in by the imagery and the struggles of an unwanted girl fighting to survive, as well as her blinding fury at her circumstances and the injustices of the world at large. The writing is beautiful and atmospheric, but the plot got weaker as it progressed, becoming boring in the middle.
Despite this and the unexpected introduction of a second main character/perspective partway through, I became intrigued by Ouyang’s schemes.
I also appreciated reading from the perspectives of characters with different identities: Zhu as a male living in a female body and Ouyang as a eunuch. Even so, it got confusing with the author referring to Zhu as “she” for the entire book despite Zhu and other characters seeing and identifying him as "he." I still find myself perplexed about which pronouns to use—the character's or the author's?
The ending left me full of mixed emotions. I went from rooting for Zhu to feeling disappointed with them. Of course difficult and terrible decisions have to be made in war, but I was saddened by Zhu’s final act to become an undisputed ruler, and saddened that Ma’s choice will require her constant compromise and suffering. I was also saddened by the impossibility of Ouyang living happily, Esen’s heart being broken by betrayals and loss, and Wang’s constant fight to be loved despite always being seen as not enough.
While I wasn’t completely satisfied with the plot, I do think I'll give the sequel a chance to redeem the story and my opinion of Zhu, especially as this was Parker-Chan’s debut.
Despite the plot's boring middle, I stayed with Zhu’s story because of how they allowed their struggles to strengthen them, and for the defiance with which they faced down impossible odds. I admire their clever mind, sheer force of will, the immense depth of their emotion, and their awareness of their own shortcomings.
At the same time, Zhu’s lack of depth, their selfishness, and their desire to rule at any cost made me feel disconnected from them. Their actions at the end gave me mixed feelings—while I was glad to see Zhu succeed after such an awful childhood, I was upset with their methods, which weren't so different from the cruel politicians Zhu dealt with throughout the story. Especially considering Zhu said they wanted to marry Ma for her compassionate heart and council, only to act without consulting Ma, even when Zhu knew their actions would bring Ma suffering. I really hope the subsequent book(s) will redeem Zhu.
As for the others, they also lacked depth, but I felt more for Esen and Ouyang in the end. Esen was just privileged and pitifully ignorant, while Ouyang’s sad backstory made me want him to succeed in his plots. In many ways, my favorite part of the story was Ouyang working to take down his family’s destructors from within while allowing them to think they had his complete loyalty and submission. Ouyang falling in love with the son of his oppressor added another layer of tragedy. While it’s heavily implied he will die in the sequel, I'd still be interested in seeing his story through.
I also liked Xu Da—his chipper and joking personality as a child, the way he accepts Zhu’s chosen identity and calls them “Little Brother," his remorse at having to break his monastic vows, and his constant loyalty to Zhu make him an endearing character, despite being as flat as the others.
The dichotomy between Zhu and Ouyang is interesting and goes deeper than their appearances. Ouyang is beautiful on the inside, yet has allowed his traumas to distort him; Zhu is considered ugly and has also been traumatized since childhood, but they have allowed each struggle to strength their resolve and their sense of self after living so long as someone else. Zhu is also able to see ghosts but is not haunted by them, while Ouyang is blind to the dead yet aware of their constant presence around him.
I also enjoyed the mystery surrounding Zhu’s born identity. Not once is Zhu’s birth name mentioned, because it isn’t important; what’s important are the identities Zhu takes on, first to survive and then the one they choose for themselves once Zhu learns their strength and becomes the leader they always desired to be.
I enjoyed reading a story set in 1300s China, especially the imagery. The lore behind the red flowers in the ruins is a sad and beautiful addition. What disappointed me was the ghosts, which have little to no impact on the story. As a result, the fantasy aspect of the novel was very much lost. This is another aspect I hope is remedied in the next novel.
She Who Became the Sun is a story of conquered kingdoms and peoples, belief in self, desire, identity, gender roles, ghosts (literal and metaphoric), heartbreak, enslavement, family, duty, faith, politics, betrayal, and revenge. While a historical fiction / military fantasy isn’t something I would normally pick up—and the fantasy aspects were few and added little to the story—I was glad to break out of my comfort zone and read this book, despite parts of it falling flat, and I will probably give the sequel a chance.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, morally gray characters, and/or queer romance stories.