She Who Became the Sun


Shelley Parker-Chan


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 30, 2022

he Who Became the Sun is a book that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next. It is marketed as a "historical fantasy" - I don't recall encountering that sub-genre before. It is set in 14th century China, when Mongols rule the country. I don't know enough Chinese history to know if the cities, rulers and battles described are actual events, or are analogues in a parallel universe. (Is Bianliang actually Beijing?) There are only two magical elements in the novel: ghosts that can be seen by only a few characters, and fiery light that emenates from Chinese rulers signifying that the heavens have given them the right to rule, they possess the Mandate of Heaven. The ghosts don't seem to do much, they just hover, unseen, around certain individuals.

The tale begins in the fourth year of a devastating drought. A young girl has lost most of her family to famine. All that remains is her father and one brother, named Zhu Chongba, who is one year older than her approximate ten years of age. Most of the other villagers have also perished, but the girl shows a fierce will to survive - she captures crickets and sets traps to snare creatures (such as lizards). One evening, her starving father brings Zhu Chongba to the village fortune teller, with the girl tagging along. The father gives the fortune teller part of the family's last melon, and asks to know the fate of his sole remaining son. The fortune teller is amazed - he proclaims that Zhu Chongba is destined for greatness! Overwhelmed with joy, the father and son head back to their hut. The daughter remains behind and boldly asks the fortune teller what her fate shall be. The fortunate teller dismisses her with just a single word: "Nothing".

Bandits raid the Zhengli village. The Zhu family has nothing worth stealing, and the father is kicked to death. Locked in hopeless despair, the brother gives up, and soon perishes beside his father. After laboriously burying them in a shallow grave, the young girl decides to steal the fate of her brother's greatness for herself. She puts on her brother's clothes, takes his name, Zhu Chonga, and heads to the monastery, where a few boys are permitted to enter each year. She believes that the heavens will be fooled by her identity switch, and will grant her the greatness that was fated to be her brothers.

Much of the book follows the girl who has assumed the identity of Zhu Chonga (I don't think we are ever told her real name, perhaps as a mere daughter she was not worthy of a name). We see the risks she takes, the courage and cleverness as she strives to achieve greatness. Secure in the belief of her destined greatness, she takes on seemingly impossible tasks. By the end of the book, Zhu is not as likeable a character, as the reader sees what lengths she will go to (pretty much anything) in order to achieve her promised fate. I liked her better at the start of the journey.

She Who Became the Sun also shows the Mongol leaders, their princes and generals. They too are arrogant and ruthless, full of betrayal and lust for power. Everyone in this novel is willing to do anything for power. It made for some interesting reading.