TL;DR: She Who Became the Sun is an amazing work of historical fantasy reminiscent of Mulan crossed with A Song of Ice and Fire. A young girl assumes the identity of her dead brother, for whom a fortune teller had seen a great future; we follow her rise through the political landscape of 14th-century China. It’s out TODAY (July 20th). Run (don’t walk!) to the bookstore and grab a copy now – you won’t regret it!
Thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for an ARC of this book.
When I was about a third the way through “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan, I preordered it for my best friend. It’s not just because her name is also, coincidentally, Shelley Chan; I just knew that I was reading something truly special.
Sun is the story of a little girl living with her father and brother during a famine. A fortune teller informs her brother that he has greatness in his future, yet both men die. Left completely alone, she takes on her brother’s name and identity and seek to take his fate for herself. Thus begins the story of Zhu’s pursuit of greatness as she learns just how large — and cruel — the world is.
This book and Zhu’s arc utterly riveted me. I loved Zhu’s ambition and resilience, her sheer determination to survive and succeed, even as we watch her truly understand just to what lengths she’ll go to achieve it. I loved the politics and seeing characters learn to navigate those treacherous waters (hence the comparison to ASoIaF, though this book is about a hundred times better).
The “magic” in this book was focused on three interconnected things in a thrilling, weighty way: ghosts/ancestors; the Mandate of Heaven as a physical manifestation; and the ideas of Heaven and fate. They are fantastical not as creations; the Mandate of Heaven (天命/Tiānmìng), for example, was used to dictate the right to rule (it’s loosely similar to the Divine Right of Kings in Europe but includes the right to rebellion against an unjust leader). Rather, it’s their physical manifestation to (some of) the characters. I could feel the weight of Zhu’s future pressing against her so heavily throughout the book.
Finally and most of all, I love how unapologetically queer this book is, how deeply it explores love and sex and gender.
If you’re looking for a book about someone learning to use their magic, this ain’t it. There’s no magic school, no focus on harnessing supernatural abilities in the way of many popular fantasy books. But this book is about taking control over one’s own destiny; Parker-Chan makes it clear that that’s a power that’s more dangerous and difficult to wield than any spell could be.
I can’t recommend this book enough for readers who love historical fantasy, excellent queer rep, badass women, and people fighting fate. I’m so thankful I was able to read it and can’t wait to hear what y’all think of it, too.