Review by Charlotte Armstrong
Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut historical-fantasy novel, She Who Became the Sun, is a queer reimagining of the inception of the Ming Dynasty in China. Zhu Chongba, the ‘she’ in question, takes on her brother’s name after his death in order to survive and, armed with it, moves to assume the ‘greatness’ the name has been foretold to carry. As Zhu Chongba, she is granted freedoms and access to spaces reserved for men: the monastery, the war room and the battlefield. Much of the novel explores Zhu’s own distance from the concept of being a ‘woman’ and the space she decides to occupy instead.
Parker-Chan uses a powerful, lyrical voice emblematic of Chinese drama, and the two major characters, Zhu Chongba and the opposing General Ouyang – a eunuch castrated by the very force he serves – have perfectly balanced opposing arcs and energies. Even the name of the incoming dynasty speaks to the book’s story: ‘ming’ can be translated as ‘bright’, and uses the radicals for both sun and moon. Ming is also used in the Mandarin word for ‘tomorrow’.
She Who Became the Sun reminded me of a riptide. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a ‘riptide’ (more commonly referred to simply as a ‘rip’) is a strong underwater current that moves out to sea, caused by a build-up of water in the shallows. There’s a variety of different kinds of rips, and they can appear anywhere. What’s important for this review are two key factors:
Firstly, rips never have waves on their surfaces, only dark water – this is the only indication you have of their presence. For She Who Became the Sun, the language and movement of the text surges like water in a rip. The third-person narration is intensely personal, focussing on the thoughts and wishes of the respective characters, yet maintaining a level of poetic distance which is crystallised in the early stages of Zhu’s journey towards becoming a monk. Zhu is described as having a light spiritual façade, concealing something harder and more tangible within. Parker-Chan maintains this lyricism throughout, which tints the events of the work into the realm of drama. Parker-Chan admits the book is stylistically based on colourful Chinese costume dramas, a structure of narrative she nails through a combination of intimacy and distance, as well as vivid and well-placed imagery. For a story that features a lot of brutality, it never revels in cruelty. Nor does it demand loud, aggressive acknowledgement of the gore. This story is harrowing because of its characters – what terrifies us are not the actions, but the people who commit them.
Secondly, people usually drown in rips because they don’t realise they are caught, and when they try to swim against the current, they tire. Much like the rip, this book’s hold on the reader is subtle; much of the story is centred on the machinations of both sides of the war, where we are placed simultaneously in both camps, watching as each force tries to outmanoeuvre the other. We see the Red Turbans and the Mongols, each with their political squabbles, failing leadership, and dramatic personal tensions. There are no divine rulers, only imperfect humans. As we flow backwards and forwards between the stories of Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang, we are pulled further into the dramatic climax of the novel. We don’t realise how intense the story is until we are right within the thick of it.
From a literary standpoint, my favourite aspect of the book is the mirroring arcs of Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang, who reflect one another in a perfect kind of yin-yang spiral. Zhu Chongba ascends because of the things that prove she’s not ‘a man’; whereas Ouyang has the inverse. Like the sun and the moon, the two move simultaneously in opposing directions until a final, dramatic collision. There is a beautiful tragedy, both directly interpersonal and throughout the entirety of China, as we see the effects of the instability of leadership and the twisting manifestations of the Mandate of Heaven, represented as coloured fire that spouts from the characters’ bodies.
On a more personal level, both in terms of my own enjoyment and the vulnerability and intimacy it grants the respective characters, I loved Zhu’s romance with Ma Yiuxing – a woman who has only ever envisioned her place as the wife of a man she barely tolerates. But through Zhu, she discovers what it means to desire. Their relationship has a fantastic quality of mutual respect and growth, and I never doubted their sincere affection for one another. It is not a flawless relationship, but it is warm and honest. I also really enjoyed the minor fantasy moments that blended seamlessly into Parker-Chan’s China – the ghosts that haunt the two main characters (both literal and figurative), as well as the physical embodiment of the divine right to rule.
This was a beautiful, lyrical read about hope, tragedy, and destiny, that posits you as the truest decider of your own fate. If you feel like being swept into a rip, then let this book wash over you and enjoy the journey.
Charlotte Armstrong is a graduate of the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. An alumnus of GSP, Charlotte has written and edited for several student publications and features in GSP’s upcoming flash fiction anthology. A fantasy fiend and lovingly mediocre Mandarin student, when she’s not appeasing the Duolingo owl, she procrastinates writing through any number of hobbies, most recently needlefelt.