She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Sometimes a review cannot wait. Sometimes the words must be forced out while the feelings are still hot. The best way to describe quickly how excited Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut made me is that I got She Who Became The Sun on Monday, and had a quick peek at it on a break. From there I started reading it on all breaks and finished the next day. About a quarter way through I started musing about this review, and about halfway through I started wondering what was the last fantasy debut I read this good.

I am ahead of myself though. She Who Became The Sun is a fictionalised account of the rise of the individual born as Zhu Chongba, who would become the Emperor of China and founder of the Ming Dynasty. Here, Zhu is a girl who steals her dead brother’s identity and destiny in order to enter a Buddhist monastery and escape the likely death by starvation she faces as a peasant. The narrative sweeps through over a decade as she goes from peasant girl to warlord. Zhu is portrayed as a compelling antihero, her conscience outweighed by her intense ambition, her ruthlessness balanced against her acts of benevolence.

The prose shares many traits with Zhu; it is clever, muscular, and switches between modes as suits. Sometimes it is straight-forwards with an almost austere nature, sometimes it is subtle and allusive, sometimes full-blooded and lyrical. Both the prose and Zhu alike were part of what caused me to turn page after page. The former easy to read yet full of smart little turns of phrase; the latter also easy to read in her way. For all she does bad things from time to time, I ultimately found myself sympathetic to Zhu’s world view, and fascinated by what she would no next. And the pacing is masterly. Parker-Chan doesn’t rush into the big moments, nor does she just let nothing happen. Instead, small change after small change accretes until the avalanche comes down, and we are left to sift through the rubble. This sort of drawn-out, stately paced yet nimble storytelling is the sort I admire most, and Parker-Chan does it as well as anyone.

I haven’t even mentioned She Who Became The Sun’s main strength yet, and that is the gloriously multi-faceted technicolour nature of its characters. This isn’t Zhu’s story alone. There’s General Ouyang, the bitterly self-loathing Chinese general caught between his love for his Mongol prince and his desire for familial revenge. There’s Ma Xiuying, the dead general’s daughter in the Red Turban rebellion who wants to try to protect the whole world. There’s a host of dysfunctional families; of egotistical lords, paranoid politicians, boisterous warriors. They feel real. They have that sense of their flaws being their strengths and their strengths being their flaws that makes them real, and makes every footstep and word reverberate with importance.

And the way they sometimes understand, sometimes fail to do so, each other and themselves. This is particularly important in the case of Zhu – a woman pretending to be a man – and Ouyang – a eunuch – as their self-identities are more fractured, and at times more hidden from themselves. Take, for example, the wonder with which Zhu notes that Ma Xiuying sits further away from her than she would with a woman, but closer than she would with a man, and that Zhu herself would not have always noticed this. It is the example that stuck in my head most, but there are countless like them.

In short, this is a ridiculously good book. Ridiculously. And as a debut? Frankly, this does not compute. A lot of authors have written books this good after a few that were maybe a but spotty in places. I am struggling to think of authors who have done as well. I have but one small criticism of She Who Became The Sun, and that is at times the characters’ biggest emotional reactions would be better done in fewer words, as Parker-Chan nails it in the first sentence or two and only loses impact with those that follow. I must admit to wistfully wishing the fantastical element had been stronger, but that’s just personal preference.

The characters burn with life. The words have the elegance and force of a herd of horses at full gallop. The plotting is as sure and satisfying as any magician’s trick. This is a masterpiece; this is recommended to everyone.

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