If you were told you were destined for nothing, what would you do to prove your prophecy false?
Shelley Parker-Chan’s new release She Who Became the Sun begins with destiny at its forefront. A fortune-teller stands over two siblings, a brother and his sister. The boy is promised greatness; the girl, nothing at all.
Then the boy dies. And instead of letting herself waste away into the nothingness the world set up for her, she takes on the identify of Zhu, joins a monastery, and vows to achieve the greatness her brother never would.
She has no idea what achieving greatness will truly ask of her until everything goes wrong.
Parker-Chan’s book has been described as “a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty,” and it lives up to its promises. You don’t often see “queer” and “fantasy” in the same book description, which is why I added it to my NetGalley wishlist in the first place. (It nicely lives up to that specific promise, too, in case you were wondering). And while this branch of fantasy isn’t generally what I gravitate toward, I like to extend myself beyond my comfort zone when reviewing books as much as I can.
Otherwise, I’d only read contemporary YA, and while it’s a delightful genre, you can’t survive on dessert alone. (You COULD, but you’d be missing out on plenty of other wonderful things. How did I somehow manage to turn this into a discussion about food? On brand as always, I suppose.)
While there were points I personally struggled to connect to the book’s characters and story beats, the more I reflect on the book the more I’m reminded it’s possible to take away meaningful messages even from a story that wasn’t made with your individual tastes in mind.
I, too, have lived much of my life feeling as though I’m exhausting myself chasing someone else’s destiny. I, too, have felt the dull chronic ache of existing in a body I feared couldn’t serve my ambitions in the ways I most needed it to.
We can’t ignore the seamlessly incorporated representation brilliantly woven throughout the story — an LGBTQ+ relationship featuring a main character and descriptions of gender dysphoria (while I am not personally familiar with the latter, I do recognize how important it is to include the harshness of that reality for a more general audience). These aren’t things traditionally depicted in fantasy, though it’s becoming more commonplace, as it should.
This book is dark and brutal and at points you may be left wishing its main characters could catch a break (feel free to cleanse with a lighter read afterward if necessary). But at its heart, it’s a story of an undervalued human who refuses to let the world’s general mistreatment of her kind stop her from pursuing what she knows she deserves.
Zhu will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and this makes her a flawed but realistic character. We’ve all been told we couldn’t be more than what we seemed, and we’ve all wondered what it would take to prove the masses wrong.
Perhaps, in this story, you will find an ounce of hope to carry on, to choose all the hardships that come with adventure to reap the rewards.
Meg is the creator of Brain Rush, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words, and Not a Book Hoarder, celebrating books of all kinds. She is an editor, writer, book reviewer, podcaster, and photographer. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about nonsense and Star Wars.