The Radiant Emperor, #1: She Who Became the Sun
By: Shelley Parker-Chan
Published: July 20, 2021
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Military Fantasy
She reached out and touched the amulet. Chongba had become nothing. “If he took my fate and died…then perhaps I can take his, and live.”
Her worst fear might be of becoming nothing, but that didn’t stop her from being afraid of what might lie ahead,(1: Huai River Plains, Southern Henan, 1345).
History tells us of past incidents, events, eras, etc., many of which has influenced the world for better and for worst. There are some moments in history where an event—typically a war—could have led to a “different modern society.” The narrative, “What If…” is NOT a new concept in the speculative fiction genre, but it is not a trope that is always explored. When it is used for a story, both the narrative and the history become even more fascinating because the audience is presented with a new perspective into that specific moment in history. In She Who Became the Sun—the first novel in The Radiant Emperor duology, and debut novel—by Shelley Parker-Chan, readers are presented with the question: “What if the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty was a woman”?
The protagonist in this novel is a young girl who is surviving with her older brother and their father during a drought in their village. She is the 2nd daughter and is around 10 years-old; and, her name is a mystery to the reader(s) because neither her father nor her brother—Zhu Chongba—call her by her name anymore. Instead, she is referred to as “girl.” It so happens that “girl” is the one scavenging for food and succeeding, while her brother gains support from their father regardless of his lack of achievements. On her brother’s 12th birthday, their father brings them to a fortune teller to learn of his son’s fate. The fortune teller honors them with news that Zhu Chongba will bring pride to the family name for hundreds of generations. When the girl asks for her fate, he replies with, “Nothing.” A short time later, circumstances lead to Zhu Chongba’s death, leaving the girl with a choice: either die or take her brother’s name and fate for herself. To her, it makes sense—he took her fate, so she is taking his—because she has nothing left to lose and everything to gain from this unfortunate stroke of luck. Now, assuming her brother’s name, sex, and identity, Zhu Chongba will need all of her wits and her cunning in order to get an education and to keep her identity a secret from everybody else. After her time at the monastery—which is cut short due to unforeseen events—Zhu Chongba joins with the rebels and their army to defeat the Mongols, which will get her closer to receiving the Mandate of Heaven, and her (brother’s) fate for greatness.
There is a second protagonist, and he is part of the Mongolian army. Ouyang is known as the “eunuch general” for obvious and not so obvious reasons. He’s been waiting for the chance to gain his vengeance against those responsible for his family’s deaths. It seems the rebel army is forcing General Ouyang to begin sooner than he would like, but he is haughty enough to ensure himself he can fight for the Mongols while picking off his enemies one-by-one. General Ouyang is one of the most ruthless characters in this narrative; yet, it is difficult not to emphasize with him after everything he’s been through.
There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot follows the girl who becomes Zhu Chongba as she makes her way to claim her brother’s fate for herself. After leaving what’s left of her family home and entering the monastery, Zhu Chongba realizes 2 things: first, she must earn her way to greatness; second, no one must ever learn about her true (biological) sex. Although she does NOT identify as a female, she knows she lives in a society in an era where females are treated as second class citizens. However, the more recognition Zhu Chongba gains, the harder it gets for her to conceal her identity (she identifies as “she/her” in private, but “he/his” to everyone else)—even with the help of her 2 closest allies, Xu Da and Ma Xiuying. The second plot follows eunuch General Ouyang as he fights the rebels while carrying out his revenge against those who murdered his family. To say he is fighting the war on both sides would be an understatement because no one from the Mongolian army knows of his plans for vengeance, right? Not to mention, if he wants revenge against the Mongols, then what is he gaining from fighting the rebels (besides presenting face)? There are 2 subplots in this novel, and both of them develop alongside the plots; and, they are necessary for both plot development and character development. The first subplot delves into the concept of gender identity and who has control over it, the individual or the society they reside in? Zhu Chongba is a female, but she doesn’t identify as one besides her physical body. Just about everyone believes Zhu Chongba is a male who is trying to obtain the Mandate of Heaven. At the same time, General Ouyang is a male, but he does not possess his male “parts,” which makes him “less of a man” to those around him. Although General Ouyang displays his prowess over and over again, he continues to be mocked by the army because he is not “a real man.” The second subplot surrounds the idea of fate. Zhu Chongba truly believes Zhu Chongba—not exactly herself—is destined for greatness. On the one hand, this fortune is what motivates her to continue striving for success and for survival. On the other hand, you have General Ouyang who sees Zhu Chongba’s victories against the Mongols as a sign for him to begin his path of vengeance. Is it fate and free will combined, or are they separate entities?
The narrative is presented in the present from the points-of-view of both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang in 3rdperson limited. Readers do know what is happening within both armies, but Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang know what is happening from their location at the given time. Someone else would have to tell both protagonists what is happening elsewhere. The narrative is presented from the streams-of-consciousness of both protagonists, and we learn about their plans for their goals and their many fears as well. In fact, both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are so focused on their futures, they mention their pasts only when necessary. Regardless of this flaw—and several others—both protagonists are reliable narrators with narratives that are followed easily.
The style Shelley Parker-Chan uses for She Who Became the Sun is not new to the speculative fiction genre/community, but it is not always used. Yes, the trope of “what if” has been used within this genre. The most recognized example of this would be The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick; in which the story asks “what if” the Axis Powers won WWII. And yes, Marvel has the series, What If…?, where numerous scenarios—not universes—regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe are asked and are answered. She Who Became the Sun is similar to Dick’s novel in which the setting is based on a historic moment. Parker-Chan’s novel explores the gender bias of Ancient China while celebrating the culture (i.e. Confucius, Sun Tzu, etc.,) in tandem. The narrative points out the name of the individual—Zhu Chongba; but, there was no mention that individual had to be a heterosexual male. The mood in this novel is fate, particularly the Mandate of Heaven (or, the gods’ approval of a “just” ruler). Zhu Chongba has survived on the notion she is destined for greatness; and yet, she does not possess the Mandate of Heaven. She performs all of the actions necessary in order to gain it, but it is in the possession of another. What can Zhu Chongba do in order to possess it? The tone in this novel is agency. Both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are individuals who learn early on if they want something, then they will have to do what is necessary to gain it. There is no point in waiting for someone else to do it for them. There is a map at the beginning of this book, but it is the timeline of the events mentioned throughout the narrative readers should pay attention to the most. This is because the timeline approximates key moments from history which led to the founding of the Ming Dynasty. This is the reality within the fiction (although, I could be wrong about the timeline).
The appeal for She Who Became the Sun have been immensely positive. On Goodreads, 73% of the ratings are 4- and 5-stars; and, the book has received recognition for being one of the Best Debut Novels of 2021. This novel received more recognition as being one of the “Sapphic Trifecta” alongside The Unbroken and The Jasmine Throne, respectively. This novel is part of the historical fantasy subgenre canon; and, the infusion of Chinese culture and history expands the influence within the speculation fiction genre further. Readers who enjoyed The Sword of Kaigen, Iron Widow, and The Poppy War Trilogy will appreciate the Asian influence in this novel. And, fans of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Deep, and the Winternight Trilogy will enjoy the balance of history and fantasy within this book as well. It should be mentioned once again this is the first book in a duology, not a trilogy. Unless the author says otherwise, readers can expect the next and final book in this duology to be released sometime in the future.
She Who Became the Sun is a stunning and a unique look into the life of one of the most influential figureheads in human history. Shelley Parker-Chan takes history and culture and infuses it with identity, gender and sexuality into one of the most buzzworthy books of 2021. The path to greatness is a long and an arduous one; but, readers will root for Zhu Chongba to succeed—and, that’s with the knowledge of how the story ends!
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!