An intense representation of a formidable figure who was tormented by an insidious yet visionary mind.
Who doesn’t like an adaptation of historical events?
Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel, She Who Became the Sun, reinvents the life of Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty. Born with the name Zhu Chongba to a peasant farming family, Zhu rose to power by claiming the mandate of Heaven in 1368. He is long remembered for his many political reforms, including harsh punishments for corrupt bureaucrats, and putting protections in place for farming communities. In this story, Zhu is a female who takes her dead brother’s identity, and lives her life as a male, determined to have an amazing destiny of greatness.
Parker-Chan starts the novel with one of the distinct moments of the early life of the real Zhu and features other life events that impacted real-life Zhu in the novel. These are essential for character development as without them, it would be impossible to understand Zhu’s relentless ambition. Coming from a farming family, being destitute, becoming an orphan then a monk, and later joining the rebels, culminates in Zhu becoming a ruthless leader and finally, an emperor.
Many of the familiar figures such as Guo, Empress Ma, Chen Youliang and Zhang Shicheng from Zhu’s real life also form part of the story. The inclusion of several characters taken from history demonstrates the depth of research that Parker-Chen undertook in the creation of this novel. Although geared for fantasy enthusiasts, this plot development will impress a reader who loves history, and/or culture.
There are several references to Chinese culture of the era, such as the little value placed on females, the role of eunuchs, the mandate of Heaven, loyalty, and filial duty. Most continuously referenced throughout the novel are the assumptions made about a female’s worth. The real-life Zhu forbade empresses from being part of court politics, a policy that continued to be maintained after his reign.
The protagonist is continuously plagued by doubts of self-worth stemming from her femaleness to the point that it feels almost like self-hatred, making the text highly emotional. This intensity was a little too much to bear at times although perhaps indicates the reality and the internal struggles some people face in owning their identity when one does not fit a conventional profile. In 2017, Parker-Chen won an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for their gender analysis piece. As such creating a protagonist that is a female living as a male, or perhaps is both genders, is something she/they do well.
She Who Became the Sun is a Hugo Award Finalist for Best Novel in 2022.
Reviewed by Rebecca Wu
This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.
Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: July 2021