He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the continuation of the gender-flipped fantasy retelling of the founder of China's Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. In the first book, the author's Zhu is the young girl who was treated as a "nothing," and took her older brother's fate upon herself after her brother's death. She impersonates him and ends up at a monastery, then joins the Red Turban rebels and rises through the ranks. The book ends with Zhu declaring herself the "Radiant King," and setting her sights on being Emperor of China.
If the theme of the first book was ambition, the theme for this one is rage. We come back to the three same protagonists: Zhu, the eunuch general Ouyang, and the accountant and scholar Wang Baoxiang. Wang Baoxiang is in fact the titular "he who drowned the world." The story also deals with the fallout from the first book, which comes down hard on all three characters. Zhu loses her beloved adopted brother and general, Xu Da, in her quest to be Emperor; Baoxiang sacrifices a great many people to his own ambition to bring the Great Khan down; and Ouyang, after killing the man he loved, Wang's brother Esen, in his own (misguided, as he learns) search for revenge, is killed after he succeeds in slaughtering the Great Khan. Zhu begins to feel the weight of what she is doing, both to herself and the people she loves. At the end, she learns she can choose another path once she becomes the Emperor, a path that will reflect her experience as someone who came from "nothing." As Zhu realizes:
It was Ma who had told her: that those who had given Zhu their gifts had done so not so that she could be Emperor, but so that she could be herself as Emperor. Because they knew that Zhu understood what it was like to be nothing. Because they knew she would change the world, and leave behind the past that belonged to Chen and those other men who had always believed themselves worthy to be knelt to.
On the other hand, Wang Baoxiang's rage is the fuel that ignites the story:
The Minister had trusted him, and been kind to him, but where had he been when Baoxiang had been worthy of affection? Where had he been when Baoxiang needed it? Had a single person intervened, when the world was teaching him its brutal lessons about who it valued, it could all have been different. But there hadn't been even that one person. And now it was the whole world, and everyone in it, that would suffer the consequences of him doing what it had driven him to do.
Wang does some truly horrific things over the course of the story, manipulating events and people behind the scenes in many different ways. But he ends up paying for it, even if Zhu decides not to kill him at the end. All three characters, in fact, suffer some pretty grim consequences for their ambition and desire for revenge, and we spend time with each one to plumb their depths.
This book's characterizations are indeed a standout, which extends even to the side characters, such as Zhu's wife Ma Xiuying. There are more fantasy elements to this book, primarily the "Mandate of Heaven," a supernatural manifestation of light used by Zhu, Wang and others, which is supposed to signal that the individual displaying it has been chosen to sit on the throne. The plot is twistier and more complicated than the first book, but I was able to follow it well enough. The exploration of gender is not as prominent in this story: the thematic focus has shifted to people fighting to claim their place in the world, whatever they want it to be, and tearing down the old world order if it will not accommodate them. Another theme is the old cliche of "Be careful what you wish for," but it is explored in a way that feels fresh and new. Both Zhu and Wang, and Ouyang to a lesser extent, get what they want, but in all three cases it is a double-edged sword.
It took me several days to read this, a bit longer than usual. This is not a one-day beach read, to be sure. It takes time to savor the depths and subtleties of what the author is doing. But this is a worthy successor to its predecessor, She Who Became the Sun, and it is worth your time.
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