She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan (The Radiant Emperor: Book 1)

10/10 The book is a masterpiece

She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, the rebel leader who fought the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty and eventually went on to found the Ming dynasty in 14th century China. I don’t know enough about the period to identify how much of this was based on the history and how much was Shelley Parker-Chan’s fiction, save the wonderful genderqueer inclusions, but whatever the foundation, the author’s creativity is stamped upon every page. The book is a masterpiece.

The novel's greatest power is in its unforgettable characters, each crafted with complexity and stunning individuality. Their authenticity flows from their refusal to be any one thing, each pursuing their own agenda, each brilliant and flawed in their own ways. Identity lies at the novel’s heart, fed by conflict and competition. The question of who someone really is plays out in the two intertwined storylines, challenging the reader to understand the intricate layers of motivation and deception. Importantly, gender is handled with skill and sensitivity, made inclusive rather than showy. It’s not used to pantomime modern thinking, it’s an essential part of the novel's exploration of love and longing. It feeds into the narrative’s larger themes: self, family, duty. If there’s one challenge that faces all the characters, it’s this: to which of these things does a person have the greatest obligation? By the end, this question will be answered. And it’ll be written in blood.

Zhu has a singular voice. Her determination to achieve greatness regardless of the cost is mesmerising in its intensity. Honestly, I’m still a little unsure about how the author made her so damn appealing. It’s been playing on my mind since I put the book down. Zhu chooses herself and she does it in a way that I rarely see done this well. There’s no exaggerated villainy here, she simply does what’s necessary to move forwards. That she suffers for it, and that others suffer more, is no more than the fair cost of her fate. She’s willing to pay it. She’s willing for others to pay it. If that doesn’t sound dangerous as hell, I don’t know what does. And she’s far from being the only problematic character in the book. Even though it’s hard to choose a side, there’s definitely a favourite for everyone. It’s not something I usually think about at all but even as I was reading this I could tell that there would be a whole load of incredible fan fiction and fan art inspired by this book. These are characters you love and love to hate (with a passion). I can't wait to see what other readers make of it.

This is the first book in a duology and when it’s done, it has the potential to be the best-of-the-best level epic. Anyone who has the chance to read it early, do so. For the rest, know that at least one great thing is coming in 2021.

ARC via Netgalley

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15+

Shelley Parker Chan's The Radiant Emperor series


She Who Became the Sun

The Radiant Emperor: Book 1
10/10

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