Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Audiobook Length: 14 hours 36 minutes
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
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.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
The first installment in the new The Radiant Emperor series She Who Became the Sun, has been described as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles set in the beginnings of the Ming Dynasty. For me, I could see some similarities between the two comparisons, but it seemed like a disservice, as this novel has no direct resemblances. Most likely, some readers will agree with these comparisons, and others, like myself, that see a few pieces that are similar, but not enough for a full association. There is a girl masquerading as a boy, similar to Mulan, and there is a Sapphic romance with war on the horizon, similar to The Song of Achilles. I would also have some similar vibes of The Poppy War series to this tale based on some comparable vibes from the main characters.
The story follows Zhu Chongba, a peasant girl whose brother was foreseen for greatness by the village seer. When bandits kill him, Zhu decides to embrace his destiny and assumes his identity. While she is born a woman disguising herself as a man in a male-dominated world, the exploration of gender identities was well integrated into both the character and story without feeling out of place or forced. Through her story, the reader follows along her journey from peasant to monk to slowly gaining power. Similar to Rin in the Poppy War series, Zhu is determined to reach her goal at all costs. The character may not be the most likable, but I admitted Zhu’s determination and drive. She is aware of her lack of empathy and her internal insecurities, but is still calculating and ruthless.
The other perspective in the novel comes a little later with Ouyang, a eunuch general of the opposing army. He struggles with the fate put upon him after his body was mutilated and he also has an interesting relationship with the Mongolian prince, Esen. While the two stories are initially separate, the two characters collide through events. The novel includes multiple interesting explorations into Chinese history without feeling like a textbook. While the novel is fiction, there were many pieces of reality tied in.
Overall, the story is full of multiple plot twists and a captivating plot. It did take me a little while to become fully immersed in the story, but it was difficult to stop once the action started. Both General Ouyang and Zhu Chongba are driven by their desire for greatness while being haunted by their pasts. The writing is descriptive and intricate with strong and well-done characters. There are moments where the story felt a little dense, but it was still greatly enjoyable. It is difficult to tell how I would feel about the written version, but the audiobook was excellent. The narrator fit the story well and kept me interested even in the slower portion at the beginning. As this is a series, I cannot wait to read the sequel!