I’m not a masochist by any means, but my favorite books tend to hurt. As much as I love a happy ending (they’re a must in romance), bittersweet endings are far more impactful, far more memorable to me. They linger in my mind, consuming that liminal subconscious space between sleep and awake. Emotionally compelling books with a vaguely tragic undertone just hits different.
You might’ve seen the Mulan meets The Song of Achilles pitch but I’d like to add one more title to that: The Poppy War. Much like The Poppy War, this book destroyed me, and I loved it. Tragedies and triumphs and all. I love the feeling of being so invested in a character that their grief and pain causes in visceral reaction in me. It’s the mark of masterful writing. And that’s exactly what this book is: a masterpiece.
She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the rise of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. It follows a peasant girl who was destined for nothing, but had the innate, unfaltering ambition for greatness and glory—a fate that belonged to her dead brother. Zhu takes his identity and joins a monastery to survive, and there begins her journey from monk, to warlord, to a king who would be remembered for thousands of years to come.
❝I’m going to be great. And not a minor greatness, but the kind of greatness that people remember for a hundred generations. The kind that’s underwritten by Heaven itself.❞
Zhu might just be my favorite protagonist this year. She’s an anti-heroine whose sheer determination and desire for greatness overrode her own fate. The parallel between her literal hunger from starvation in the beginning to her metaphorical hunger to claim a destiny that wasn’t hers was so fantastically done. Her desperation was palpable, and she was willing to do whatever it took to survive because nothingness was the most terrifying thing she could imagine; worse than all the pain she’d endured. She’s not a heroic character by any means, in fact, she does some terrible things in her rise to power (without remorse might I add), but it’s fitting for the narrative. I really loved her character arc; how cunning and astute she became in a quiet, unassuming way, with an underlying propensity for ruthlessness.
❝Keep looking at the moon, little brother. It will be better that way. And when you’re reborn centuries from now, make sure to listen for my name. The whole world will know it.❞
The story is also told from the perspective of the opposite side of the war; Ouyang, the feared general of the Mongol army. Just thinking about his story makes my chest ache. Like Zhu, Ouyang is no stranger to suffering. His father tried to rebel against the Mongols and failed, leading to the execution and punishment of his entire family. He was the only one spared; a boy weeping in the blood of his family. Mercy came in the form of mutilation.
Thus began his singular path of revenge, his own determination to fulfill his filial duty, and the tragedy of his fate written in the stars. One rages against their fate, and the other accept the shackles of destiny. Zhu and Ouyang are irreversibly connected even though they’re enemies, fighting with different motivations. I couldn’t help but root for both of them, even though I knew that only one could truly rise triumphant.
Ouyang’s relationship with Esen is reminiscent of The Song of Achilles. It’s beautiful in the most painful way. The internal conflict and the yearning, the self-hatred and the tenderness. Esen had always tried to protect Ouyang, keeping him by his side as his general, but he was the son of the man who executed Ouyang’s family, and Ouyang was on the path of destruction down to the bitter end. I’ll admit that I teared up towards the end.
❝Her eyes slid over General Ouyang’s shoulder and met the stares of his ghosts. She had wondered, before, what bound them to him. But it was the opposite: he bound himself to them. That was his tragedy. Not being born to a terrible fate, but not being able to let it go.❞
She Who Became the Sun is epic in every way; the ambitions of our anti-heroine Zhu, the incredible world building, the nuanced exploration of gender identity, the themes of war and vengeance and fate. Emotional devastation aside, I finished this book feeling awed by how intense, how powerful the story was. I went into this book with the feeling that it’d become one of my favorite reads this year and I was not disappointed. Expect to see this historical fantasy debut in my Top Reads of 2021 round up at the end of the year.
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.