She Who Became the Sun has garnered a lot of attention as one of fantasy???s summer must reads. To say there has been a lot of attention is a little bit of an understatement. Along with The Jasmine Throne, it has had praise heaped upon it from many notables of fantasy fiction, and there has been a bit of a superstar hype around the book. Obviously, opinion can go either way, as one of the problems with books that have this kind of hype attached to them, they can disappoint as expectations can be quite high.
She Who Became The Sun is the first in The Radiant Emperor duology and revolves around both a reimagining of the story of the rise of the Ming Emperor in middle ages China.
I have to say that the book starts off pretty bleak in all honesty. There is not a shred of pomposity about the main characters or the epicness of the story. It starts with famine and death. We are initially introduced to the girl, who is a resourceful little creature, but is considered worthless by her family. Her father is a harsh, contemptible thing who, after taking the son to a fortune teller, believes that he is destined for greatness. However, things do not go as planned (do they ever!) and fate decides that it is going to have a starring role and when some bandits attack the girl???s family home, killing their father, who happens to be a shining beacon of fatherhood, and offers his daughter to the bandits in the hope that they will take her and leave the hope of their life alive.
Following the death of their father, they are subsequently orphans. Zhu Chongba is totally hapless and has to have the girl looking after him, but he subsequently gives up on life and dies.
With a burning desire to survive, the girl throws on the mantle of her brothers identity and seizes the fate that was promised to her brother and becomes Zhu Chongba.
With her new determination to grasp whatever fate has set down for her brother, Zhu Chongba takes his place at the local monastery, and after four days of stubbornly refusing to remove herself from the front steps of the monastery, she is allowed admittance, and thus begins the story of Zhu Chongba
Now I have to say that I was perplexed with this novel initially. So much so that I was teetering on the brink of throwing in the towel and putting it on the DNF shelf. There were loads of things that weren???t clicking for me. I am not saying at all that there is a fault with the book, but I just wasn???t getting it?????? at all!
Yes, the writing is excellent. The character of Zhu Chongba is good, and she has a case of astounding resilience going on there, but I was not getting the fantasy element or what it was about. At times, I was totally lost as to what the heck was going on and who these people are. I found the sheer volume of people in this book just totally blew my mind and I could not keep up. Another thing was that I was not getting the fantasy element. This seemed to be a historical novel, with supernatural elements, but I wasn't getting any fantasy from it, that ???s for sure.
However, I did decide to stick with it, got past my reservations that I had with it and ended up enjoying it.
Obviously, there has been a lot made of the main character???s identity in relation to their gender fluidity, but for me I felt that there was a wider discussion happening in the book about the acceptance of role. Whether that is in relation to gender, sex, duty, expectation, marriage, the role that fate decrees etc. Throughout the book, Zhu is constantly questioning if these roles should be accepted and to strive to be more than a role assigned to you. And you can see it highlighted in this quote from the book
???Learn to want something for yourself, Ma Xiuying. Not what someone says you should want. Not what you think you should want. Don???t go through life thinking only of duty. When all we have are these brief spans between our non-existences, why not make the most of the life you???re living now? The price is worth it.???
In addition to this, I found that there was an extremely positive feminist vibrancy to the book. Again, whilst Zhu is constantly questioning roles she is also empowering women to move beyond the constraints of the male dominated society and to take power for themselves, and there is a really excellent scene in the book where instead of using force and epic battles to get what she wants, Zhu uses alternative methods and empowers a woman to take power in a quiet revolution kind of way.
As you can see, I ended up having a little epiphany about the book and liked it more than I first thought I was going to.
We have to mention other characters for whilst Zhu is the star of the show, there is a full cast of characters in the book. And we need to mention Ouyong and Esen. Ouyong is a eunuch in Esen???s army. He was initially a slave, whose father was some kind of traitor to the Mongol Khan and Esen???s father was tasked with deposing of the traitorous family to the ninth degree, and subsequently having Ouyong castrated so that the family line could not go on and also leaving Ouyong to live in shame. Ouyong is in some ways the opposite of Zhu. However, not only is he an angtagonist in some ways, he enables Zhu to fulfil her role and become what she thinks she should be.
You are never sure about who the antagonist in the story actually is, in all honesty, because every character (inc Zhu) is neither good nor bad. And for me, it again plays with that idea of role, and does the antagonist of the story need to fit into the archetypal role of the villain, and similarly with the protagonist. Again, they shift, and you are as equally fluid in your sympathies to each character.
In the end, after I had got over my difficulties with the book, I ended up enjoying this one.