My thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.
She Who Became the Sun is the first in a historical fiction/fantasy duology which builds on a historical plotline but gives it an interesting twist of its own. The story opens in mid-14th century China in a small village Zhongli, where we meet the second daughter of the Zhu family, who lives with her father and brother Zhu Chongba at a time when the country was under Mongol rule. The village is suffering from drought and the family is living in poverty with little to eat. But while Zhu with her resourcefulness manages to find something or other, the patriarchal set up she lives in means that her brother is fed the best food, and all the praise even if undeserved is reserved for him, for a fortune teller has foretold that Zhu Chongba is destined for ‘greatness’ while our girl has ‘nothing’ in store for her.
But circumstances change and become such that it is our Zhu who finds herself heading out to Wuhuang monastery in the guise of Zhu Chongba. Here she is tested to her limits but her steel will to live wins again and she is admitted as novice. Life in the monastery as a novice is no easier for her and she must face test after test while keeping her identity a secret but her intelligence and a little help from fate (one she believes is truly Chongba’s) ensure that she moves forward and even flourishes. Also she finds a friend for life in Xu Da, an older novice. But even this is not her destiny, for soon finds she must leave the monastery and ends up joining a rebel force, once again with no idea how to even hold a sword. And yet again, she prevails.
Meanwhile on the other side we meet Ouyang, a general serving the Mongols. His family was declared traitors and all the men killed but he was kept alive but only allowed to live as a eunuch. Despite this, he has risen to be a general serving beside Prince Essen whom he loves, but also struggles with his own past. Zhu and Ouyang’s stories intersect in unexpected ways.
This story drew me in right from the start—just reading about Zhu’s life in the village, what she must face just for being a girl (heart-wrenching though not surprising given the time period), and how fate gives her a chance to remedy that. But it isn’t just luck or fate of course but her own courage and strong will to live and move forward. Zhu is a character who struggles with her identity, having, in fact, choosing to go through life as her brother who’s fate she thinks she is taking—so much so that she believes she is him. At the same time when it comes to finding what is destined for her, she courageously goes on, facing every obstacle, and allowing nothing to stop her. On this path she must be manipulative, calculating and ruthless, but none of this holds her back. One finds oneself rooting for her all through, except perhaps towards the end where I felt some of her decisions too cruel to overlook though I also realised that there were things one in her position would have possibly had to do.
Initially starting the story, not knowing all that much about Chinese history, I didn’t catch on to the historical track it follows and only later realised/found out that the basic storyline this follows is that of Zhu Yuanzhang, formerly Zhu Chongba, who established the Ming Dynasty, broadly following his life from birth in an impoverished family to becoming a monk, joining the red turbans, a rebel force against the Mongols and ultimately establishing the Ming dynasty. I thought the author’s spin on the story was a really creative one.
Our other main character, General Ouyang is also strong, a skilled warrior and yet dealing with his past (what happened to his family, and indeed himself) and present, which is as heart-wrenching as Zhu’s story. His position as general may mean he has power but being a eunuch, he must also face discrimination and insinuations from all quarters—with no one really understanding what he is going through. In his and Zhu’s stories, the author explores issues of identity and gender, what really constitutes who one is and but also how they must constantly struggle against the world which is ever pointing fingers, and questioning them and their abilities.
I’m not sure if Ouyang is a fictional character or also real-life but I enjoyed how his and Zhu’s storylines cross paths, and go through different stages, each having to make difficult decisions to go where fate has destined they must.
The story really explores various threads, from personal relationships and feelings to ambition, from compassion to ruthlessness, and of course, power—the struggle to obtain it, to hold on to it, and the games that go on behind the scenes in any court—ruler or rebel. In this perhaps, only the ruthless can survive.
This was an excellent story, with complex characters and an interesting spin on real-life characters and I am certainly looking forward to reading the sequel, and seeing where Zhu’s journey takes her (we know where, unless there is twist in store there too, but perhaps how she gets there).
p.s. There is some (not a lot but still) graphic content.