Hugo 2022 Novel: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

From 1206 until 1368 the Genghis Khan and then his descendants (most notably Kublai Khan) ruled China as the Mongol Yuan dynasty. It was a period of history in which the Mongolian military power affected the history of most of Eurasia as a continent. The empire declined as split between the descendants of the Khan and in China the last years of the Yuan dynasty were subject to famine, mismanagement and internal squabbles. The rise of a former peasant monk Zhu Yuanzhang as the leader of a Han Chinese rebellion against Mongol rule resulted in a series of military defeats for the Yuan dynasty and the eventual end to Mongol rule in China. Zhu Yuanzhang would become the Hongwu Emperor and the founder of the Ming dynasty, which would last nearly 300 years.

She Who Became the Sun is an alternate history novel (with some light magical elements) that reimagines this period of Chinese history. It starts during a terrible famine. Zhu Chongba is the last surviving male child of a peasant family that is starving to death. Born with an apparent great destiny, Zhu Chongba nevertheless gives up his fight for survival after the family is attacked by bandits. The only survivor is the young daughter of the family who is left to bury her father and her brother. The same brother who was destined to become the Hongwu Emperor.

Facing a fate of nothing, the daughter takes a momentous step. If she can take Zhu Chongba name, she can grasp his lost fate by deceiving heaven. Disguised as a boy and naming herself Zhu Chongba she heads to the monastery to which her brother had been promised when he came of age. This sets her on the path to greatness, and on the way she must use her wits and ruthlessness to hold on to the dream of glory attached to the name of Zhu Chongba.

This first book in a series takes from those early first steps of Zhu Chongba from monk to de facto leader of a rebel army. On the way, there are battles, assassinations, sex, betrayals and ghosts. We also meet Ouyang, the eunuch general of the Mongolian Prince of Yunnan. Ouyang is the alternate point of view character and military counterpoint to Zhu Chongba with his own dark past and hidden agenda.

Zhu Chongba is unusual as a central character for a fantasy novel. Their mix of cunning, charm and ruthlessness are clearly the traits needed to eventually unite the whole of China while displacing the Mongol Empire, but typically those are traits given to villains or secondary characters in Western fantasy. In many ways, Ouyang is less likeable but more sympathetic. His motives are often hidden but he’s driven by personal, emotional reasons that contrast with Zhu Chongba’s almost abstract need to avoid a fate of obscurity.

I say “fantasy novel”. For genre purists, yes its alternate history and the role of magic (ghosts and a physical manifestation of the ‘mandate of heaven’) are not key to events but the style and events of the story certainly hit the same spots of much epic fantasy. Not surprisingly, it’s been compared with R F Kuang’s The Poppy War but aside from both stories dealing with a fictionalised version of Chinese history, they are very different works. She Who Became the Sun takes a very different approach to fictionalising history and (as just discussed) has a light touch with magical elements. It also doesn’t have that subverted magical-school-journey of the Poppy War, nor is it as confronting.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It has novel but not forced thoughts on gender and fate and the role of predestination in epic fantasy. I’m sure there are other fantasy stories where the chosen one dies at the start and somebody else has to pick up the mantle but She Who Became the Sun does this in a natural way that arises out of a plausible historical context. The fictional Zhu Chongba is just fascinating and an interesting person to spend time with even when they do terrible things.

OK but is it a Hugo winner? I mean, it’s another contender for my 1 vote. It shakes up ideas about protagonists and ways of engaging the fantastical with history. Really, there is a lot to like here. I can see some Hugo voters being less keen on it because of the light touch on magic if they see it as a fantasy novel but alternate history has long been recognised as part of the broader SF&F genre family. It’s the first book in a series but it ends at a very definite point rather than a cliffhanger, so it works well as a standalone novel (although, I really want to understand one key POV character’s decision near the end).

If it wins I wouldn’t be either surprised or disappointed.


8 responses to “Hugo 2022 Novel: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan”

  1. I liked this one, though it’s a bit on the grim side. Then again, I’ve got a book of Yuan-era plays on the shelf near me right now, and compared to those brutal revenge dramas, this one is all rainbows and sunshine and happy fluffy bunnies.

    It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out with Chinese voters… on the one hand, it’s based on Chinese history, so might be popular with readers; on the other hand, it’s a queer subversive re-telling of Chinese history, so won’t exactly be flavour of the month with the government bodies….

    Like

  2. Loved this one, and it’s likely #2 on my list, as I really enjoyed how it subverted expectations with all of the main characters and how it deals with gender and queerness in ways that are really really interesting. I loved all of the characters, even the side characters who aren’t POV characters like Madam Zhang, Wang Baoxiang and more – and the character you mention whose choice was curious and should be explored in the sequel (I’m assuming that’s Ma) is really well done as a tragic figure in the midst of all of this, whereas in another book you’d expect her to be the one who prevails amidst the insanity of all the men around her.

    My full review of the book is here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2021/09/scififantasy-book-review-she-who-became.html Again I read this a while back, so this is a better explanation of why I loved this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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