by Kristen B.
Do you believe in destiny? Can you inhabit someone else’s?
The main character of She Who Became the Sun spends the length of the book reflecting on these questions. Zhu Chongba “steals” her brother’s foretold fate of greatness and wrestles with what it means to be great. Little sister (never gets her own name) is the only member of her family to survive famine and bandits, and, as an act of desperate will, decides that her brother’s fortune is still Heaven-mandated and waiting to be claimed. So, she becomes him. Throughout the rest of the book, Zhu Chongba is her name even though her pronouns remain female. Sometimes, it was jarring because of how thoroughly Zhu Chongba lives that persona.
The newly claimed identity takes her to a monastery, where she gains an education and makes a lifelong friend in the rascal Xu Da. Eventually, the monastery falls to the politics of rebellion between the native southern Chinese and the ruling Mongolian dynasty, the Great Yuan. Zhu Chongba seizes every opportunity that comes her way and ends up as a general in the rebel Red Turban army. There’s more to it than that, but it’s rather breathtaking how quickly the story moves.
The Red Turbans claim the right to rule because they possess the Mandate of Heaven, in the person of a child prince. In this book, the Mandate of Heaven manifests as actual physical (colored but not hot) flame. The politics within the rebel government is cut-throat, almost literally, and Zhu Chongba has to negotiate through fraught situations without choosing (or appearing to choose) sides. As part of this, she befriends another woman caught up in court politics. Ma Xiuying (Yingzi) has a kind but clear-eyed perspective that Zhu Chongba comes to value.
On the other side of the equation, General Ouyang commands the Mongolian Prince of Henan’s forces. He is a rare eunuch and the only surviving member of his family, all of whom were killed for treachery. Instead of being killed, he was castrated and enslaved to the Prince of Henan’s oldest son, who ended up befriending Ouyang and promoting him through the army. However, Ouyang nurtures rage and revenge in his heart and has his own plans for destroying the family that executed his. The Henan province’s ruling family is beyond dysfunctional with an overbearing father, a people-pleasing heir, and an adopted son who spitefully refuses warrior ways to administer the family estates and fortune.
I don’t know how much of the Mongolian part of the story follows historical precedent, but it provides a fascinating counterweight to Zhu Chongba and her ambitions. Both Chongba and Ouyang grapple with their senses of self, internally and in relation to those around them. The continued nuanced exploration of gender identity and body perception only adds another layer of depth to the characters and the overall themes of the story. Destiny sometimes is very personal.
I ended up having to do a quick dive into Wikipedia to learn more about this historical era. This gender-bent, queer retelling adheres fairly closely to the basic outline of the founding of the Ming Dynasty, which spanned an almost 300 year timeline beginning in 1368. The Red Turban rebels fought successfully to bring down the Mongolian ruling class, which I suppose is not really a spoiler since it’s history. I love to think about this period of Chinese conquest and building corresponding to the beginning of European colonialism and the Renaissance. I wish we learned more about it in our schools.
Despite the galloping pace of this fantastical novel, I found myself putting the book down to make the experience last longer. Zhu Chongba’s sheer stubborn belief in a destiny of greatness does not allow for any other outcome, despite severe setbacks. It’s impossible to read the book and not share in that conviction.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and make soup in the winter.