Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel, “She Who Became the Sun,” is a gripping and dazzling read set in 14th century China when there was Mongol rule. Citizens of the Yuan Dynasty suffered from famine and roaming gangs of bandits the further they were from the Emperor’s army. It is in one of these famine-stricken villages that we meet our protagonist.
She is a slight, homely girl who lives with her father and brother. Parker-Chan makes it clear that this girl is oppressed by the weight of expectations of her gender in society; a cruel fortuneteller says her fate is Nothingness. On the flip side, her brother is assigned the fate of Greatness. When her brother and father die, she sees her brother’s fate as hers for the taking. And so, she takes his name: Zhu Chongba.
The power of names and fate is a recurring theme in “She Who Became the Sun.” As nine-year-old Zhu goes to a monastery and rises up to monkhood, she holds on fiercely to the destiny that was supposed to be her brother’s and now claims it as her own. Zhu slips into becoming him, learning to read and write and keeping her secret under wraps.
War soon infiltrates her life at the monastery, brought on by General Ouyang, a foil to Zhu throughout the story. Ouyang is a southern Chinese Nanren — the lowest class in the Yuan Dynasty — who was formerly enslaved by the Mongol Empire and has now ascended its ranks. The two find themselves on opposite sides of the growing war between the rebel Red Turban faction and the Yuan Dynasty.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s somewhat based in history. The characters, and many of the historical events, are real. This is a queer retelling of the end of the Great Yuan kingdom and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, which was founded by a real monk named Zhu Chongba who ousted the Mongolians from power and, under the name Emperor Taizu, helped bring about modern-day China. Parker-Chan explores the question of what if instead of a cis man, Zhu was a genderqueer woman, disguising herself as a monk? From there, perspectives shift: not only of who Zhu was but also the entire Dynasty.
The world is sprawling; Parker-Chan takes us from the steppes where the Mongolians cut their teeth to the cities where politicians rule the kingdom to the vast plains where villagers struggle to make ends meet. She does a particularly excellent job detailing the differences in ethnic groups and the contingents that spring up from them, based on ancestry, class and geographic location.
Through this framework, Parker-Chan includes compelling representations of gender and sexuality that readers don’t typically get in historical fantasy. She weaves the personal and political in a society that doesn’t have the same language around identity as we do today. Zhu and Ouyang are not only on opposite sides of the war, but of their exploration of sexuality and gender. When Zhu takes her brother’s fate, she also takes on a male identity in public and finds comfort in it. Zhu is clear through the book that, while she has a feminine body, she doesn’t think of herself as a woman.
When Zhu finds herself drawn to another woman, she once again embraces it. Everything that Zhu does involves forcing life to bend to her will and desires rather than bowing her head. She uses her double life between and in-between genders to better understand people and what they want, and how she can further ascend to the greatness she hungers for.
Ouyang is a man, but when his family was killed as punishment by the Khan, he was castrated as a child and forced to be a slave. Ouyang feels he is a man in a feminine body and face against his own will and self-perception, and he violently resents the life he has been given. Because he is treated as “less than,” Ouyang is also repulsed by women and femininity to the point that he is virulently misogynistic. He does not understand women and distances himself as much as possible from them. Where Zhu takes advantage of the skills and secrecy women operate in, Ouyang fails to acknowledge or even notice the world they inhabit.
To this end, despite his intense feelings and yearning for his former captor, friend and prince, Ouyang is resistant to his own feelings and his fate. Ouyang is faced time and time again with the heartbreak that the prince will never truly understand him, and how he navigates gender and the Mongol idea of masculinity. He is also weighed down by filial responsibility, where Zhu does not feel any towards a family that discarded her. To Ouyang, the idea of meeting his destiny is a bitter thing for him, and it brings him no joy throughout the story.
Zhu and Ouyang are inexplicably drawn to the otherness they both embody. They are presented as opposite ends of a magnet, and their destiny will always draw them to meet again. They have both suffered greatly and experienced immense loss; through this juxtaposition, Parker-Chan shows two different ways of coping with the cards dealt.
Ouyang and Zhu are not the only characters wrestling with the direction of their lives. Parker-Chan also gives a voice to those history has most often left behind, such as homemakers, women and the poor. She writes compelling supporting characters that paint the society richly without bogging down the story. She swings between the different points of view effortlessly, weaving and connecting the different characters.
“She Who Became the Sun” has been marketed as “‘Mulan’ meets ‘Song of Achilles,’” which is such a disservice to the depth of the story Parker-Chan has carefully crafted for readers. She writes intriguing dialogue that is at times very funny and compelling characters who drive home the horrors of war and vengeance. With “She Who Became the Sun,” I believe Parker-Chan has established herself as a force to be reckoned with in adult fantasy. Fans of historical drama, fantasy and queer literature will find a home in her writing. Parker-Chan inspires readers to look at fate not as something to be endured but to be seized.
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Aug. 4-10, 2021 issue.