Honestly, 2021 is such an immense year for female Science Fiction and Fantasy writers. She Who Became the Sun is fantastic, bringing me feelings I’ve not felt since I read The Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang. It is a re-telling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, a period of history I obviously new nothing about before reading this book. It’s the kind of story where the strong will of the protagonist draws you in immediately and then keeps you addicted to each page until you finish. I am in awe of how well-constructed this debut is, and I am already eagerly anticipating the sequel.
Star rating: 5 stars
A peasant girl avoids her fate of an early death by opting to take the identity of her dead brother. She becomes Zhu Chongba, fleeing to a monastery, gaining entry through sheer force of perseverance and learning all she can from its Abbott before the monastery is taken by the famous eunuch General Ouyang. This is a moment that ties these two characters together. Zhu escapes and finds new goals in rising from soldier to commander in the Red Turbans, rebel forces wanting to take back China from the Mongols.
Zhu is a character that is simply a force of nature. She is determined, unstoppable and uses her intelligence to make up for her lack of physical strength. Through her talent for both strategy and tactics she impresses those around her, tricking them all into believing she is a man. I was simply addicted to the story, eagerly anticipating what her next moves would be and how she would get herself out of one sticky situation to the next. As well as her ferocity, I enjoyed reading her tender moments – a romance with daughter of dead Commander Ma and friendship with fellow monk Xu Da. I loved the contrast between the persona she puts on and the true Zhu, and who she chooses to reveal her real self to.
Like The Poppy War, I was taken in by the accessibility of the way the battles are described. There is only as much detail as needed for a reader to understand so each battle is fast-paced and full of tension rather than burdened with details. I loved the blend of action and character development – Zhu really grows throughout the book.
What I think really makes this book is seeing events from another perspective. There are multiple points of view throughout the book but the other most frequent one is from General Ouyang. His story is probably one of the most difficult for a reader – he is a cold character having led a traumatic life to date, losing his family, being made a eunuch and then serving the people that did it to him. He is now the right hand general of Prince Esen, but will his next meeting with the monk change his fate?
Again, this is another book where I am finding hard to write down just how blown away I was by it. I could empathise with the protagonists despite their sketchy morals. Not many books can make me feel so much about such a variety of perspectives. Overall, this is another book I will be thinking about for a long time and it’s taking everything in me not to look up the history until I’ve read the next book. If you like re-tellings, Mulan and The Poppy War I have a feeling that you will also like She Who Became the Sun.