She Who Became the Sun is a novel which, for the most part, reads like Historical Fiction, and as it progresses, makes giant leaps into Fantasy. It’s like a Gabriel García Márquez novel in Magic Realism style, but with Asian settings and characters. The historical settings and events are not atypical; historical battles, Buddhist monasteries, the Khan rulers, princes, commanders, armies, rebels, miserable downtrodden peasants, etc., in short, the Central Plains in 14th century China.
In the year in which the story starts, 1345, in history, several divisions of the old Mongol Empire in Asia were in a state of gradual decline The Ilkhanate had already fragmented into several kingdoms struggling to place their puppet emperors over the shell of an old state. The Chagatai Khanate was in the midst of a civil war and one year from falling to rebellion.
The descriptions in the novel of the settings; the towns, landscapes, battle scenes, etc., are grittily detailed, gruesome at times, and fairly close to the historical facts. But, this is Fantasy, categorized as such. The fantastical elements are introduced with the characters.
The protagonists are, up to a point, genotypes: a peasant girl, “Zhu Chongba”, who, like many fictional and historical characters, takes on a male identity and turns into a powerful figure. Think “Mulan”, Jeanne d’Arc., Elizabeth I going into battle., etc. The antagonist, “Ouyang”, is a general in the Khan’s army, and, as was the practice in those days, he is a eunuch, his tribe having been defeated in battle. It’s gruesome to figure out what turning someone into a eunuch entailed, but this was fairly common practice in China.
The primary theme in the novel is on-trend: gender-swapping or changing gender identity. And though this is a subject that is often in the news, mostly concerning celebrities, one must remember that in the 14th century, women acting like men, and men acting like anything other than men were considered anathema. The characters are therefore defined by their attempts to hide and mentally process their situations. In the case of Zhu, the first hurdle is finding a private enough bathroom.
I have to congratulate Parker-Chan on her ability to describe their reasoning and feelings in ways that make sense and, moreover, made me feel empathy for both of them. Due to their situations, Zhu looks like a girlish boy, but masquerades as a smart-talking but serene male priest. General Ouyang looks like a beautiful man whom people mistake for a feminine weakling, while he is bent on vengeance and is an expert, stone-cold killer. Zhu gets what she wants through understanding politics, trickery and guile. Ouyang gets what he wants through deception, inscrutability, and violence.
Both characters have a blend of male and female characteristics, some forced on them by society, others brought to the fore by nature, and others discovered by accident. Zhu eventually discovers that she is attracted to a woman, whereas Ouyang constantly represses his affection for “Prince Esen”, whose family had ordered Ouyang’s mutilation.
Unfortunate segue into sex
Descriptions of sex could be part of the descriptions of growing affection. I was hoping that would not be the case, particularly since the story is about war, tribalism and mysticism. But be warned, in chapter 23, it gets graphic, and I thought it was unnecessary and unsubtle. By that time, the reader can already imagine what happens behind closed doors to Zhu and her/his wife, “Ma”. The details, complete with fluids and body parts, are jarring.
The title explained
The title, “she who became the sun”, is a statement on how the orphan peasant girl, Zhu, turns into something that she believes is her destiny. She so strongly believes that she will become the most powerful leader in China, symbolized by the sun, that she represses any other ideas or mental arguments she might have, and in the end, she becomes the thing she wants to be. She does not become what anyone expects her to be, but what she identifies as. (If that sounds like a familiar idea, yes, it pretty much is.) The same goes for Ouyang. He has a particular obsession and, regardless of what happens, or how awful it is, he will do what he sets out to do. Personally, I rather enjoyed the parts where Ouyang carries out his plans for revenge.
Motivations of the characters
Parker-Chan depicts each of the characters in the story in a way that shows a particular form of volition. Conative Psychology deals with the mechanisms of self-direction, and conscious, selective behavioural change. All humans have a need for balance, freedom and self-actualization, which is expressed through volition, or will. Unlike animals, when a human wants to satisfy a need, self-actualization for instance, they have the will or motivation to change their thinking or their behaviour. They can exhibit two forms of volition: 1) covert — referring to the controlling of one’s own actions which results from one’s thinking, and 2) overt — referring to the controlling of the environment that impacts one’s actions. (*Ref. at the end of the post.)
In the novel, both main characters go through great changes because their environments – the challenges with which they are faced – force them to change their thinking, and because their thinking then changes their actions. “Ma”, the woman who befriends Zhu, believes that she has a specific traditional female role to fulfil, which, no matters how miserable it makes her, is her fate. Zhu, on the other hand, has changed her reasoning and beliefs completely to achieve harmony between her aspirations, her physical form, and her assumed appearance. Zhu tries her best to make Ma see that to change her environment, she has to change how she sees things. Going with this theory – whether the author did this intentionally or not – ensures that the depiction of the mental processes and actions of the characters are plausible and consistent.
Elements of fantasy
Zhu starts to exhibit the same mystical abilities and supernatural glow as the living Buddha who is worshipped by her people. The first incorporation of a fantasy or supernatural event in the novel is when Zhu causes a massive flood on a river all on her own, which kills off a large part of the enemy forces. Then she starts seeing ghosts everywhere. (Remember “I see dead people” from The Sixth Sense?) Finally, this happens:
“She extended her closed left hand, and desired. She felt a disconcerting sensation of opening – of connecting to the world and everything it contained, alive and dead. to everything under Heaven. She gasped as the power ran through her. in an instant the seed of brightness inside her was a blaze, blasting her clean of every other thought and feeling until all that was left was the blinding, ecstatic pain of looking into the sun. She was burning with it; she was on fire with her belief in her own shining future. It was agonizing. It was glorious. She opened her hand.”She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, p. 367
The novel contains quite a few typical ideas and mechanisms. However, Parker-Chan is a skilled writer, and I enjoyed reading it despite the couple of tropes. Technically, there are no problems: no plot holes, not a word is out of place, and the characters, while transforming in strange ways, at least change in a consistent manner. It was not unputdownable, but it was quite engaging, and the fact that it is an alternative history of 14th century China made it quite interesting.
The open ending made it even more interesting, in the sense that it signifies a start to a new era, rather than the end. The novel is sub-titled: The Radiant Emperor Duology, #1. So the sequel will be about Zhu’s life, now that she has attained god-like status.
Would I read the next novel by Parker-Chan, and would I recommend She Who Became the Sun? It is not quite my type of subject, in the sense that the message of self-actualization and empowerment at any cost is meant for a different generation of readers. And while I’m not sure all the hype in the back cover blurbs is justified, I do recommend this particular novel for a likeable and satisfying reading experience. It’s hard to believe that something this slick and accomplished is a debut work – but it is. (On her website, below, there is a link to find out more about the historical figures in the novel.)
About Shelley Parker-Chan
Literary Fantasy author Shelley Parker-Chan is a public figure, outspoken on many social issues, and active on social media. She Who Became the Sun is her first novel. You can find her here:
Tweets by @shelleypchan
Huitt, W. (1999). Conation as an important factor of mind. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved July 4, 2022, from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/conation/conation.html