Title: She Who Became the Sun
Author: Shelley Parker Chan
Genre: Fantasy/Historical YA Fiction
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
She Who Became the Sun (SWBTS) is a fantasy-historical novel with elements of war, adventure and romance. It follows Zhu Chongba, a girl born into nothing, who takes on her brother’s name and fate in pursuit of greatness. Set in the late 1300s, the storyline is Mulan-esque, but with intricacies and characters that make it stand firm in its uniqueness.
This book is complicated. There are many characters and the perspective continually shifts between them. However, it is written in a way that is easy to follow, with descriptions that make each character distinctive. There were a few intricacies to battle politics that were definitely lost on me, but I found this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.
I did get lost with some of the lore surrounding the concept of ‘the mandate of heaven’ in SWBTS. ‘The mandate of heaven’ is the idea that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at a time, and that this ruler had the blessing of the gods. In SWBTS it is represented as a powerful and spiritual light that exudes from whoever possesses more power. It is an integral part of the story, and I think my ignorance towards Chinese culture and folklore let me down with fully experiencing this aspect of the book.
One thing I really enjoyed was how this novel engaged with bodies and gender. Both Zhu – our protagonist – and Ouyang – the main antagonist – occupy the space between the gender binaries. I appreciated how Parker-Chan handled this concept in a way that slotted perfectly into the flow of the story. While the novel addressed elements of body dysphoria and sexuality, this wasn’t the central conflict, and readers were positioned to see occupying the space-between as a powerful act: “As she looked at the person standing before her in a body like her own, she saw someone who seemed neither male nor female, but another substance entirely: something wholly and powerfully of its own kind.”
In the acknowledgements of this novel Parker-Chan writes “this book began life during a series of brainstorming sessions with friends, in which we all decided to write the books we longed for but could never find.” This statement encompasses exactly what I was thinking while I read it. SWBTS is so delightfully different and unafraid – I would definitely recommend for anyone who, like me, has been waiting for positive and diverse representations of people of colour and queerness in fiction.