For an Epic Queer Fantasy in Medieval China, Explore the World of "She Who Became the Sun"

She Who Became the Sun, the striking debut novel by Shelley Parker-Chan out July 20, makes it official: it’s a very, very good time to be a fantasy fan. A genre in which anything is possible should be a genre in which every story is told, and fantasy is finally starting to live up to that billing.

A creative reimagining of the founding of the Ming dynasty, this sweeping historical fantasy is set in 14th-century China, where a young girl is left for dead in her dusty, famine-stricken village in the Central Plains. A fortune teller once told her that her life would amount to nothing, and those words seem about to come true.

Instead, the tenacious protagonist assumes the name and identity of her dead brother, Zhu Chongba, hoping that by doing so, she will also take on his foretold fate: to achieve the type of greatness that will span centuries. Clever and determined to live, Zhu blends in as a novice in a misty monastery, where the monks are forced to navigate between the harsh Mongol rulers of their land and the ragtag rebel army determined to oust that regime. When the balancing act fails, Zhu flees to meet her stolen fate in a dizzying and improbable rise to power that flings her across the land and to the front lines of battle.

And that’s just the barest outline of a plot that includes ruthless political maneuvering, heart-rending betrayals, and brushes with a ghost-ridden spirit world that haunts Zhu throughout her travels. Then there’s Ouyang, a vicious general whose relationship with his Mongol prince — the son of the man who mutilated Ouyang and killed his family — is as complex as it is tragic. The contrast between fierce, gritty Zhu and cold, self-hating Ouyang couldn’t be more stark, but Parker-Chan flits between their two perspectives (and a few others) in a way that propels the jam-packed plot forward.

There’s so much to like about She Who Became the Sun: the exploration of gender and sexuality, the sensuous romance, the vivid world-building, the flashes of tongue-in-cheek humor and human emotion set up against the epic plot. There are close, intimate scenes and climactic battle sequences that made me feel like I was watching a movie. For Zhu, failure to achieve her stolen fate of “greatness” equals death, and her utter refusal to accept defeat makes the book flare with power. Original and absorbingly detailed, She Who Became the Sun explores the strength that we find within ourselves, and inspire in others, when we rebel against expectations and take fate into our own hands.

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