I first read She Who Became The Sun last year. Shelley Parker-Chan’s devastatingly good debut reimagines a key period of Chinese history and I never marshalled my thoughts into a review that wasn’t vowels – but that’s okay, as The Fantasy Hive have come to my rescue with a read-along for their June celebration of trans and nonbinary authors.
We are reading and discussing set chapters each week, with some chatter on Discord, an option on a shared GoogleDoc and of course the odd blog post. Naturally I’m contributing blog posts – I adore the way a read-along pushes me to think harder and dive down (sometimes entirely off-topic or inappropriate) rabbit holes although as this is a reread there will be no wild theories from me this time around. This is a discussion – not a review – but as this is week one this post will be free of any major spoilers although we will discuss plot points (cough, Prefect Fang, cough) you may prefer to approach without knowing the outcome if you haven’t read this book yet.
…and if you haven’t read this amazing book yet, go grab a copy – the paperback came out this week! – and join us! This was one of my favourite reads of 2021, and rereading it is making me very, very happy.
This week, we’re discussing Chapters One through Four; our hosts guiding the discussion each week are Nils and Beth at The Fantasy Hive (where you will find the reading schedule and their responses to this week’s questions).
Before we get into the story itself, let’s chat about the Historical Note. Did you read it? Are you a fan of historical notes, generally?
So this was a big surprise to me, as it wasn’t included in the eARC that I read last year! I am hit or miss on historical notes; I generally take the view that the story should stand alone, but if the author thinks this context is important then I better read it. In this case, I’m vaguely familiar with the broad strokes of the period (very broad. Low resolution picture taken from orbit kind of broad), so I didn’t learn a lot – but I did get confirmation that yes, this is a reimagining of history.
When I first read She Who Became The Sun it struck me as odd that it was marketed as fantasy, because while it observes many fantasy conventions, the fantastical elements feel like the way the world was understood in that time and place: concepts of qi and visions of ghosts don’t immediately scream fantasy to me (although there’s plenty here to appeal to a fantasy reader)! When I bought my shiny new paperback copy, I found it on the main table in the bookshop and on the shelf under General Fiction. I think the book works both ways, but I’m excited if this switch isn’t bookshop-specific but a broader publishing push to bring it to a wider audience.
As openings go, Chapter 1 paints quite a bleak picture. What were your first impressions?
…I’m going to need to go check where Chapter One ends, hang on. Ah, right.
Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade was an opening line that immediately grabbed my attention and suggested I was going to love Shelley Parker-Chan’s storytelling style. It’s so… evocative. The heat shimmers off the page. I remembered days like that; the overwhelming feeling of the sun hammering down on you.
Thankfully, I have no direct experience of the rest of Chapter One: starvation, desperation, brutality. Rereading it, I’m impressed by how quickly the main theme is established: we meet Zhu worrying about finding food, but her thoughts turn almost immediately to her fate – that she has lived (so far) when every other girl in the village has died. She tells us its because she learned to find (and hide) her own food; but it also establishes her will to survive – a central trait.
It also leapt out at me that after the fortune teller predicted her brother Chongba’s grand destiny, her father gave up. Once he knows it will all turn out okay, he just waits for Heaven to deliver their salvation. When Heaven delivers hungry, murderous bandits instead, Chongba gives up too – which is perhaps the only thing in the book that doesn’t quite ring true for me (we don’t really get to know him well enough before he dies, but he’s so full of himself and imperious, it feels like a narratively convenient but perhaps not entirely likely response).
…but Zhu just gets on with it. She’s furious that her brother seems to be giving away his destiny; and from finding food to burying their father she’s arguably been stealing Chongba’s duties all chapter, so it seems a natural step that she would steal his destiny since he doesn’t want to fight for it. I love the way she becomes clear as a character in this opening chapter: brave, stubborn, fearless of anything she can’t see, determined to survive. I want to scream when she seems to give up before the monastery gates, finally overcome by the weight of the obstacles arrayed against her …only she isn’t. Her patience and stubbornness (and yes okay her lies) are her salvation.
What do you think the importance of her being able to see ghosts signifies? Is it a sign of her greatness or is it a punishment?
I’m not sure it’s either? Even having read the book before I don’t know – or don’t recall – quite what Shelley Parker-Chan has in mind with this, but thinking about it now it seems to me that this is a sign of Zhu’s now-liminal nature. She didn’t die (and was she meant to? Or did she have nothingness as her fate because her identity was always going to be her sacrifice to survive?) but her identity did – she no longer exists, she is Zhu Chongba now. So as a dead girl – or as someone living on the borders of the otherworld, hiding in the shadow of her brother’s fate – of course she sees other dead people. Maybe.
What do you make of what she does to Prefect Fang? What does it tell us about Zhu’s morality?
Fang is such a classic antagonist – he resents his job, his boss, his duty, and he takes that out on everyone given the slightest opportunity. We never see him do something thoughtful or kind or compassionate; we only ever see him as a bully. We’re almost invited to hate him, although I don’t think Zhu does – he’s just one more person she has to carefully navigate to stay alive.
So in that sense, it’s very difficult to feel sorry for him when she sets him up. It’s far easiest to focus on how quickly she can think on her feet; and how fast she commits to a course. Like the early bath incident, she’s tactical – not strategic – whatever it takes to live to fight another day. And she’s ruthless; although she at least discounts murdering the guy, she’s not a psychopath. I wonder what she would have done if it had been someone other than Fang (although I guess she might have had a chance at talking anyone else round), but… I don’t fancy their chances either – look at her moment of considering what to do about Xu Da! It’s another bit of brilliant foreshadowing (or just plain character building) for what is to come, isn’t it?
I don’t feel sorry for Prefect Fang – he’s a small-minded martinet and I hate that character archetype – but he’s absolutely undeserving of what happens to him here. He did nothing wrong except be in a position to threaten Zhu. Bad move, Fang. So sorry.
What do we make of Xu Da’s reaction?
I laughed at loud both reads, because I had absolutely been thinking – ever since her first night sharing his bed – how the hell has this guy of all guys not noticed his bedmate is a girl? And of course he had, he just didn’t care.
We’ve had a very bleak landing of death and threat and isolation and Xu Da is a much-needed ray of light. He doesn’t take being a monk very seriously. He likes Zhu; they’re more than just friends – they’re brothers. And I very much love that he calls her his little brother even as he’s admitting to knowing she’s a girl; and that it’s unclear whether that’s brother as in monk or brother as in family – either way, he is here for her in a way that nobody else has been (except possibly the Abbot, who is also willing to turn a blind eye to at least one of her secrets because he sees her potential).
So I have two thoughts: one is thank Heaven for Xu Da, the brother Zhu needs if perhaps not the brother she deserves. The other is that given how clear his interest in women is (and how unmonkly some of his activities are implied to be), she got awfully lucky in Xu Da.
What do you think she’s going to do at the end of part one, help the Abbott or switch sides?
Ah, as a rereader I definitely can’t answer this question; and I don’t have a lot of additional notes / thoughts to explore this week so I’ll close by saying once again how much I’m loving rereading this. Thank you to Nils and Beth at The Fantasy hive for arranging the read-along!
Next week, we’ll be focusing on Chapters 5 – 11 – if you’d like to join the fun, contact The Fantasy Hive or drop a note in the comments and I’ll put you in touch.