Considering a book of scholarly articles about the history Chinese international relations, I wrote that it was “chock full of implied stories” and looked forward to the day that I could read some of them. Shelley Parker-Chan chose a later inflection point from Chinese history to tell the story of She Who Became the Sun, but it’s a similar notion, and part of a welcome trend in fantasy writing: opening the genre to historical backgrounds that aren’t just warmed-over England. Parker-Chan sets her novel at the turn of Chinese dynasties, when the last heirs of Chinggis Khan faced growing rebellions in the south that eventually toppled their rule.
Dynasties, marching armies, the fate of millions: all of that is far away from the book’s beginning. It starts with a poor family, Zhu, and their second daughter who only vaguely knows her age in a time of famine. Parker-Chan leaves the girl nameless as she describes the privations that have reduced the Zhu family from 13 people to three: father, daughter and favored son Zhu Chongba. He is the eighth boy in his generation of male cousins, considered lucky even though all his brothers have perished. For his twelfth birthday the father takes him to a fortuneteller, who trembles at the greatness that he sees in Chongba. Emboldened, the girl asks for a reading of her fate, too. “Then, as if from a distance, she heard the fortuneteller say, ‘Nothing.'” (p. 20)
But when their village is raided — soldiers? bandits? is there a difference in a time of civil war and famine? — and father Zhu is killed, it is not Zhu Chongba who seizes greatness. He soon lies down and dies. His sister is incredulous. How could he, to whom greatness had been promised, choose nothingness? A thought soon appears: “If he took my fate and died … then perhaps I can take his, and live. … She took off her skirt and put on Chongba’s knee-length robe and trousers; untied her hair buns so her hair fell loose like a boy’s, and finally took the amulet from his throat and fastened it around her own.” (p. 26) Having taken all that, she takes his name too, and takes herself off to the Buddhist monastery where their father had once promised to send Chongba to be a monk when he was old enough.
Once there, she gains admission with a display of stubbornness the likes of which the monks had seldom seen before. Once inside, she has to make her way as a junior monk from nowhere all while hiding her secret. She wins over some teachers through diligence and talent, makes one close friend who divines her secret while harboring some of his own, and has foreshadowing encounters with certain imperial officials. Background material about Parker-Chan says that while working as a diplomat in Southeast Asia, “she became addicted to epic East Asian historical TV dramas. After a failed search to find English-language book versions of these stories, she decided to write her own.”
She Who Became the Sun is that story, with the advantages and drawbacks of a historic epic where the author chooses the most significant personages as her main characters. The tale that begins in a dusty village grows to have vast scope, ranging from fighting across southern China to the Mongolian steppe, where the Yuan dynasty have their summer capital. On the other hand, the action as a whole can and does sometimes feel programmatic. Once a reader has realized that the Red Turban rebels in the novel are the same ones from history, the course of several events becomes clear in advance, and the eventual resolution of the story — spoilers for 750-year-old history — is not in doubt.
Parker-Chan’s retelling has fantasy elements, though the magic that does appear is ambiguous and uncertain. One key aspect is that the Mandate of Heaven, a form of legitimacy that’s important in Chinese history, is literal and visible. The Mandate held by the Great Yuan is fading, while the Prince of Radiance in the Red Turban camp has a strong and clear Mandate that shares the color of the previous native dynasties. Zhu Chongba can see ghosts, and apparently gain certain favors from the gods and ancestors, though she is also always careful use her talents to help herself along so that it’s not just divine (or authorial) favor that makes her feats possible.
Parker-Chan also changes gender roles, first and most importantly by casting Zhu Chongba as a girl and then young woman, and second by having as her main antagonist a eunuch who is in love with the Yuan prince he serves. As she nears the peak of her ascent in this book, Zhu Chongba marries a woman. Ouyang, the Han Chinese eunuch, loves Esan, the Mongolian prince whom he serves. His love is not unrequited, but it is unconsummated, and bluff, military Esan is mostly confused.
Like A Memory Called Empire, She Who Became the Sun is a novel whose measure depends on which stick I am using. The story has to go the way that history points it, and very few authors can make that surprising. Dorothy Dunnett and and Patrick O’Brian set a high bar, and even they don’t choose protagonists who eventually become emperor. The major characters are offset from their historical counterparts or typical leads in a fantasy novel, but beyond that I found them confined by their roles: Ouyan is conniving, Esan is brave and strong but clueless, the bookish Yuan prince is alienated from the martial emperor and plots his revenge, and so forth. They’re fun characters, and the events are exciting, but they’re close to single notes.
On the other hand, She Who Became the Sun is Parker-Chan’s first book, and by that measure it’s a terrific achievement. The opening scenes in the village and the longer segment in the monastery are particularly strong and affecting. She juggles the mechanics of moving her characters around adeptly, and even though Chongba’s ascent is clear from the outset, getting there is more than half the fun.