A Discussion around She Who Became the Sun & the Importance of Visibility in the Marketing of LGBTQ+ Books

If you’re familiar with my bookstagram or blog, you might know that Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun is one of my favorite reads this year. I recommend it often simply because I love it. It’s a book about destiny and ambition, war and vengeance, and at the heart of the story is a nuanced exploration of gender identity. 

I’ve never put much thought into how the book was marketed, but I recently had a conversation with someone who thought the LGBTQ+ advertisement of the book was “kind of manipulative and off putting”. 

I was bewildered. The two relationships in the book are afab (assigned female at birth) with a woman, and amab (assigned male at birth) with a man. Gender and sexuality are significant aspects of the story, so it was difficult to fathom how the LGBTQ+ marketing of a book about genderqueer characters was manipulative.

Here’s the thing–they never read the book. They argued that the synopsis didn’t give the impression that the book was LGBT, therefore the LGBT advertisement was a manipulative gimmick used by publishers to reach the bestsellers lists. 

Although we were unable to see eye to eye, the conversation made me examine the consumer perception of how books are advertised, and I wanted to emphasize the importance of visibility in the marketing of LBGTQ+ books, as well as open the discussion to the rest of the book community. I’ll address the points they made and offer my own thoughts.


1. Books have to have “gimmicks” for publishers to advertise or it doesn’t go to the top of the bestsellers list.

The two examples they used as “gimmicks” were the LGBT advertisement of SWBtS and the autism representation of an unnamed author’s books. 

The identities of characters are not gimmicks. Marketing a book for having LGBTQ+ rep or autism rep is not a “gimmick” that magically gets the book to the top of the NYT bestsellers. These are central themes of the stories, and oftentimes a reflection of the author’s own experiences. Books SHOULD be marketed with their Own Voices identity. Why would such a significant part of the book be left out?

Not to mention, reducing all the efforts of an author’s achievement to just advertising “gimmicks’’ is unfair and unfounded. Imagine months upon months, years upon years of hard work, pouring their heart out into these stories, only for their success to be minimalized as an advertising trick. Don’t get me wrong, a great marketing campaign can certainly get a book a lot of exposure, but there’s so much more to it. 

2. Publishers are just using this “advertising gimmick” to chase the LGBT audience.

Is it to chase an audience or is it for the intended audience to find these books? If you are queer, writing about queer characters, who do want your book to be read by? Many queer readers want to read queer stories; queer trials and tribulations, queer joy and triumphs. Authors want to share these stories. Publishers are accurately marketing these books so that they can be found.

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen people say they wish things were more explicitly marketed as queer so that it would be easier to find. This reminds me of an incident a webcomic creator had with someone telling them to exclude identity and orientation when promoting their story. 

In the words of LySandra Vuong, the creator of the webtoon COVENANT, “how will queer ppl find my story if i dont tell them its queer”.

3. “Not a fan of such labels…people are just people regardless of designation or other issues. I mean everyone has issues.”

Yes. Everyone has issues, but the issues LGBTQ+ people face are not the same issues that straight cisgender people face. She Who Became the Sun is about gender dysphoria. It also deals with internalized homophobia and self-hatred that stems from the disconnect between body and gender identity. Just because these issues don’t directly affect you, doesn’t mean they’re not important narratives. 

4. “There have been great books about LGBT and autism and other representation for ages. And none of the publishers bothered to point it out. LGBT is not exactly new.”

LGBT is certainly not new, but historically, literature with LGBT themes have faced backlash, bans, and censorship. Writers have faced persecution. This might explain why publishers weren’t as open in explicitly marketing those books in the past. In 2016, The American Library Association noted that half of the most challenged books in the United States had LGBTQ+ content. (ALA)

The publishing landscape is finally evolving to be more inclusive in the books that are published and the advertising of those books, but there’s still a long way to go. We should be pushing for progress, not dwelling in past practices. 

5. Advertising SWBtS as LGBT is “very targeted advertising on the part of the publisher when I’m sure the author had a story they just wanted to tell.” 

Shelley was kind enough to share her thoughts on how SWBtS was advertised and the story she wanted to tell:

“We want to tell a story, and we also want that story to reach the audience we were speaking to when we wrote it…She Who Became the Sun is a queer work—its central theme is a queering of history—and I wrote it for a queer audience. Sure, it might be read outside of that core audience, but the queer audience is the one that’s going to understand it best. And it’s the only audience I personally care about.”

“The pitch for my book was always “a queer reimagining of the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty.” And (part of) the reason I chose Tor over other publishers is because I knew they ‘got’ its queerness. I knew they weren’t going to try to market my book as a feminist retelling without mentioning the queerness. The marketing allowed my book to find its true audience, and that’s what was most important. And if it turns out that there’s a vibrant queer audience that happens to be hungry to see themselves in fiction, and that enthusiasm sends queer-marketed books to the top of the charts (which I don’t think is as straightforward as that, but that’s a separate issue)—well, it’s about time that queer books got their moment in the sunlight after barely existing for the entire lifetime of modern publishing.”


Now, more than ever, we should be celebrating LBGTQ+ stories and voices. These books deserve to be visibly marketed so that they can be seen and heard, so hungry readers can find them and see themselves in books. 

Thank you to everyone who replied to my story on Instagram to talk about SWBtS with me, and to Tiffany (QuillTreeFox) for reading over this and giving valuable feedback! Of course, a special thank you to Shelley for sharing her own process and experience as well.

My dms are always open over on bookstagram if anyone wants to discuss more about this!

“It’s about time that queer books got their moment in the sunlight after barely existing for the entire lifetime of modern publishing.”

Shelley Parker-Chan

Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker-Chan

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.

ARC provided by Tor Books in exchange for an honest review!

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.

Mood board by @fang.

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.