The Roads to Greatness and Revenge: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun is an ambitious debut. It’s large in scale, weaves together fantasy and history, involves complex characters, and navigates challenging political and military plotlines. I expected to love this book but, while it does a lot of the right stuff, it just didn’t click with me personally as much as I would have liked.

Rise of an Emperor

SWBTS is a reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It’s set in Mongol-occupied imperial China and follows several major characters. One of the most prominent is a peasant girl, Zhu, who, after the deaths of her brother and father, takes on her brother’s identity and becomes a monk. In doing so, she also assumes his foretold destiny of “greatness”. Zhu eventually joins the Red Turban rebellion and works to ensure she makes her mark on history. On the other side of the conflict we have General Ouyang, a eunuch who has served the royals ever since his family’s treason when he was a small child. Despite this, he has formed a strong bond with Prince Essen, second in-line to the throne of the Yuan Empire.

A Large Cast

Due to the range of the story, there are a lot of characters. Unfortunately, I often had trouble keeping track of who everyone was, their roles and allegiances. This was exacerbated by the fact that sometimes people were referred to by their first name, others their surname and then alternatively a special title. There are also multiple characters present from within the same families. Among these, there were only a couple that I grew attached to – General Ouyang and Wang Baoxiang (the Empire’s chief administrator and Essen’s bastard brother). I normally have no problem with books involving morally grey characters, something this book has in spades, but many of the ones here rubbed me the wrong way or just didn’t interest me.

Striving for Greatness

As far as leads go, Zhu is quite a unique and refreshing one. She’s unattractive, gender non-conforming, not really a physical threat, cunning, and willing to do whatever she has to do to attain her goals. Yet, I found it hard to get invested in her journey. For most of the book we’re made aware that she fears falling into nothingness and her aim is to achieve “greatness”. But, it takes until around the 80% mark before we understand what Zhu actually believes greatness to be. Consequently, until that point it seems like she’s running around, gaining power and influence without reason or direction. On the other hand, I did appreciate being able to follow her journey in a more holistic way than Ouyang’s so as to track her evolution as a character.

An Eye for an Eye

Ouyang has a clear goal – revenge. Considering his reasons, I was able to easily get on board with this (burn it all down Ouyang!), but I felt as though the emotional weight of his journey was undermined slightly by the fact that the reader is only told what happened to him. For something that informs his entire journey, we aren’t given many vivid memories of it or detailed emotional reactions, and this created a sense of detachment for me. This aside, I found Ouyang to be a complex, intriguing and flawed character, and the comparisons between him and Zhu were interestingly done. Something else I quite enjoyed was Ouyang’s complicated relationship with Prince Essen. Essen amounts to a confusing mix of friend, ruler, romantic interest, and object of revenge, which makes for some tension and subtext filled conversations. Still, I wish that this bond had been delved into a little bit deeper.

Gender and Sexuality Diverse Fantasy

It’s really important to note that this book involves some complicated gender issues. It’s written by a genderqueer author and features two genderqueer, non-straight leads. These elements of gender identity factor heavily into the themes and plotlines of the novel which is great. I would be interested to hear about the quality of this representation from queer reviewers as I question some aspects of it, but I think it’s amazing to see more variety and representation in fantasy characters.

A War Minus the…War?

When it comes to pacing and plot, my feelings are mixed. For the most part, I found the pacing in the novel to be decent and there was usually a good sense of momentum – political squabbling, training, troops moving around, etc. However, there were several sudden time jumps throughout, some larger than others, and this was disorienting for me. Not only did I have to really concentrate to follow what was happening, but I frequently felt like I’d missed something. Also, for a story heavily based in military conflict, I thought it was odd that the book skipped over so much of the actual battles. For me, this took away from the gravity of events and made things seem choppy. The decision to tell the story in multiple third person POVs was one I really appreciated, though, as it worked well to humanise both sides of the book’s overarching conflict.

Fantasy Light

For those of you going into this anticipating strong fantasy elements, I would advise adjusting your expectations as these parts of the book aren’t super prominent. Perhaps more towards the end, but definitely not for most of the story. They’re also not very strongly explained on a world building level, but I assume they’ll be dealt with in more detail in the sequel.

An Ending to Hook You

While SWBTS is only around 400 pages, it felt longer as I was reading and took more time than I expected to finish. I’m not entirely sure why this was, there just seemed to be an odd disconnect for me. Although, I did find that my interest picked up around the ending, which was big, dramatic and really paved the way for interesting things to happen in the next book. The pathway for each of the main characters is clear and exciting, and will likely hook a lot of readers into continuing with the duology.

In the end, this wasn’t the five star read I’d been hoping for but I can easily see it being popular among fantasy lovers. Especially so for those who love Asian history inspired fiction or are looking for stories featuring more diverse characters.

3 Stars

**Thank you to Netgalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.**

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