She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is a historical fantasy based on Chinese history and the story of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty. The author's version is gender-swapped, with a nameless second daughter taking the name and identity of her brother after his death, and following her brother's prophesied path to greatness. Zhu Chongba, as she is first known, rises from starving peasant to educated monk to warlord to Emperor.
That's the surface plot of this story, but once you get under the hood you find it's so much more. This is a story of power and sacrifice, and one person's determination to survive and her obsession with becoming something rather than "nothing," which was her prophesied fate as a useless daughter. It also tackles the theme of power in a society with rigid gender roles. Zhu at first tries to suppress all her "women's knowledge," attempting to live the life her brother would have lived, only to realize that it is this very knowledge that enables her to survive. After her fateful meeting with the general of the opposing army and the fight during which he nearly kills her and chops off her right hand, she realizes if she had been a man, she could not have coped with her mutilation.
The eunuch general hadn't known he was acting on the body of someone who had never borne any ancestral expectations of pride or honor. Zhu remembered that terrible internal momentum: the feeling that she was diverging irremediably from Zhu Chongba, the person she had to be. She'd been so afraid of what it meant--that she wasn't Zhu Chongba and never would be, and that the instant Heaven found out she would be returned to nothingness.
Now she reeled with a realization that upended everything she'd believed about the world.
I survived--because I'm not Zhu Chongba.
It was funny, Zhu thought, to owe her survival to the same body that had been the source of so much terror. She remembered the relentless of its adolescent changes, and the sick, desperate feeling of being dragged towards a fate that would destroy her. She'd longed so intently for a perfect male body that she'd dreamed of it, and woken up crushed with disappointment. And yet--in the end, she'd survived destruction precisely because hers wasn't a perfect male body that its owner would think worthless the minute it was no longer perfect.
Zhu Chongba isn't really transgender as we now define it, even after this epiphany. She still has to pretend to be a man in this society and hide her true form (though she is married to a woman, who obviously knows the truth). But she discards the rigid ideas about gender her society has forced on her, and forges her future based on herself.
Her counterpart, the "eunuch general" Ouyang, is the secondary protagonist. In contrast to Zhu's journey of freeing herself from her society's shackles, Ouyang is burdened by them with a crushing weight that only intensifies as the story progresses. He is treated by the people around him as mutilated and lesser, despite his prowess on the battlefield, and views himself as such. His trauma and rage eventually leads him to slaughter the people who have taken him in, and kill Prince Esen who he is in love with. He is not a nice person (neither is Zhu, for that matter) but they are both complicated, fascinating characters.
The closest comparison of this book to books I have previously read is R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War, also based on Chinese history (albeit more recent). That book has more overt fantasy elements, and is far more brutal and bloody than this one. But this book has an examination of power as seen through the lens of gender, and the society's rigid stratification thereof, that Poppy doesn't tackle. I think Kuang's book has the slight edge in overall quality, but She Who Became the Sun is still damned good, and definitely worth your time.
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