She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor #1)
by Shelley Parker-Chan
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 28, 2021
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I'm conflicted in my opinion of this book. Shelley Parker-Chan's debut novel is an historical fantasy, well written, with interesting characters and scenarios, but I still struggled to embrace it as so many other readers and reviewers have. It's based on true events that led to the establishment of China's Ming Dynasty in 1368, but with a twist. We don't get to that point in this first book of a projected duology, and since it will be just one more I will likely read it, thus I gave this page the series title of the Radiant Emperor. The story begins in 1345, in the famine and drought-stricken village of Zhongli. We never learn the name of the ten-year-old girl, since shortly after her father is killed by bandits, and her brother's death quickly follows, she travels to Wuhuang monastery, where she declares she is Zhu Chongba (her brother's name). Previously, a seer had declared Chongba would grow up to do great things, but the girl would be nothing. Even earlier Chongba had been ill, and his father prayed that if his life was spared he would enroll him in the monastery. The girl did not want to be nothing, so she claimed her brother's fate instead.
A girl who strives to rise to greatness in a male dominated world is inspiring, even if this story is not historically accurate. The publisher's blurb says it's "Mulan meets the Song of Achilles." It's still debatable if Mulan was a real person, possibly an amalgamation of several individuals. Still, her story was set approximately a thousand years prior to this. How a young girl could fit into a male monastery in secret is puzzling. The author conveniently skips over several years, within the same chapter, and makes only the smallest mention of menstruation. How could Chongba hide that? What did she do with the blood-soaked rags and robes? How could she go through ten years with only one person realizing her secret? She is lucky it is her bunkmate Xu Da, and that he chose to keep the secret. She impressed as a novice, and became a full monk at twenty, or at least that is her assumed age, she's actually a year younger. Shortly after that, a eunuch general in the Mongol army burns down the monastery, and Zhu flees to the nearby town of Anfeng, which is under the control of Nanren rebels, southern Chinese intent on driving out the Mongols. She manipulates her way into the army, not to be a warrior, but she sees a way she can use her skills to help without killing. She gets her first chance against that same eunuch general. She is successful, but the results were different than she expected, and over ten thousand enemy soldiers were killed, drowned downstream of the dam she destroyed through harmonics.
Zhu had only meant to destroy a bridge, but justifies the deaths by saying it was inadvertent, she was not aware of the soldiers fording downstream to outflank the rebel forces. Her next accomplishment is infiltrating a Mongol town, convincing the widow of the former governor to oppose the new governor, and since the widow is Nanren she allies with the rebels. Yes, lives are lost there too, but Zhu accepts that as inevitable, and she did not do any of the killing herself. Slowly but surely, she moves toward more direct violence, but she's hardly the only one. Both sides in the war have conflicting factions. There are fewer large battles as in a lot of epic fantasy, and what we see is not that graphically described. But there is constant backstabbing, deceit, and betrayal, it's surprising anyone could maintain control of enough remaining troops to stay on top. This includes Zhu. She has an abiding faith in the destiny she chose for herself, and since she acknowleges it was originally to be her brother's fate, she has to maintain the fiction that she is a man. To think of herself as a woman would be to invite the wrath of heaven. She manipulates others to obtain the result she desires. You'll notice I've referred to Zhu as she. This is written in third-person, and when it is from Zhu's perspective that pronoun is used, even in her own thoughts, but to the outside world (for the most part) she is a he. When the story is from someone else's perspective, Zhu is assumed to be a man, so others use he. By the end of this book, two others (that we're aware of) know the truth, including Zhu's eventual bride, Ma Xiuping. Zhu later declares her name to be Zhu Yuanzhang, whom wikipedia identifies as the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, and that his wife was Empress Ma. No indication there that Yuanzhang was actually a woman.
So, there is queer representation, both with Zhu and Ma, as well as in the thoughts of Ouyang, the eunuch general, who vacillates between love and hate for Esen, the Mongol prince who was once his owner. Chinese history and culture is also explored, including the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which supposedly indicated who was destined to rule. I know those themes are relevant to many, representations they don't see often enough, and they are interesting for me as well, but sometimes things like that don't overcome some of my reservations as to plot and character actions. The current Mandate, known as the Prince of Radiance, is allied with, or controlled by, take your pick, the Nanren rebels. The Prince has magical abilities, but so does Zhu. They both can see ghosts, and also manifest a light from their bodies. The Prince's light is blue, Zhu's is white. Zhu's assumed fate dictates that she be the one declared to possess the true Mandate of Heaven. Whether true or not, she claims it at the end of the book, and Ma pledges her allegiance. My conflict with the book is not with Parker-Chan's prose. It's exciting and suspenseful, full of meaningful themes. My problem lies with caring about Zhu, based on what she has done to get what she desires. I was sympathetic to her plight in the beginning, even thinking she was honorable and worthy, but she proved as ruthless as everyone else. Perhaps that is a statement on masculine temperment, but Zhu is only pretending to be a man. Maybe she pretended too well.
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