She Who Became The Sun – week two

She Who Became The Sun: The Fantasy Hive Read-along

In our second week of The Fantasy Hive’s read-along of She Who Became The Sun, events force Zhu to take her fate into her own hands. Great rewards require her to take great risks, for she must attract the notice of Heaven without Heaven noticing she isn’t Zhu Chongba…

For this read-along we are reading and discussing set chapters each week, with some chatter on Discord, a shared GoogleDoc and of course some blog posts! Note that this is a discussion – not a review – so will include spoilers for the book so far. This week, we’re discussing Chapters 5 through 11; our hosts guiding the discussion each week are Nils and Beth at The Fantasy Hive.

How are we feeling about the question of what happened at the monastery going unanswered? What do we think happened to the monks?

Is the question unanswered? A number of people have stated that Ouyang burnt it to the ground, although he appears to have held back from slaughtering all the monks. I suspect the abbot died – I think he would have tried to get in the way of the soldiers – but I suspect the other monks were allowed to flee if they offered no resistance. Zhu realised the destruction of the monastery was inevitable; I think she simply ran.

The first new perspective we find ourselves in is General Ouyang’s, the eunuch causing so much trouble at the end of the last part. Thoughts?

Ouyang is a toxic combination of competence, bitterness, self-loathing, envy, and disdain. Just like Zhu, he has done what he had to do to sidestep his fate; but for different reasons. Just like Zhu, the way society perceives him has shifted as a result: where she has better opportunities as a male monk, he is despised as a eunuch. And a lot like Zhu, he seems to have no care for others’ lives.

They are so similar in so many ways, which I think works as a warning not to consider Zhu a hero per se; because Ouyang is in some ways her mirror and in others her twin. Can (or should) we judge him without judging her? That said, she hasn’t (so far) deliberately ordered her allies into risking their troops’ lives out of spite (Ouyang forcing Altan to put his troops through the river, taking the line that if they were well-trained there would be no fatalities – but knowing they would not be sufficiently well-trained) – although given Ouyang’s strategy at the river subsequently involved people being able to cross it in much the same manner, turns out this was a useful – albeit still spiteful – training exercise. So – he’s just as ruthlessly pragmatic as her too, but more obviously given to petty point scoring.

I think that difference in attitude is crucial, though. Zhu is driven, but doesn’t deliberately set out to wound others unless its a necessary cost of claiming her fate. Ouyang is both driven and hurting (oh gosh, that line: he had a wound for a heart) and so he seems lash out and hurt others when he can (although given the awful way he is treated by society, you can understand why he does so).

What are our thoughts on Ouyang and Prince Esen’s relationship?

Well here’s a tragedy in the making, right? Esen is the perfect Mongol lord; a handsome warrior, generous to his friends, and deeply attached to Ouyang. But do I think for a second he looks at Ouyang like Ouyang looks at him? Ah, no. Poor Ouyang. He’s clearly got the biggest crush, and I can’t see it being requited. And one day he’ll have to reconcile his feelings for Esen with his vengeance. Yeah, this relationship can’t end well.

(and oh my word some of the descriptions casually dropped along the way. This is all epic pining and beauty, hair and robes bannering in the breeze as the blossoms fall)

Do we think The Prince of Radiance is who he claims to be?

I don’t think you can fake the Mandate of Heaven. Well, okay, Zhu now knows an excellent engineer who could maybe work up some smoke and mirrors to fake it under extremely controlled circumstances. But I don’t think the Prince of Radiance is faking it. The question is whether there can be only one… I’d completely forgotten about Zhu’s moment in Lu where she tries to summon radiance for herself as a sign of Heaven’s favour – and fails. Do we think that’s because there can be only one or because she’s still got work to do?

Were you surprised to see the return of Xu Da? What was your reaction?

As a rereader, I knew we’d be seeing Xu Da again – his friendship with Zhu is one of the reasons I loved this book so much.

Let’s return to the morals of our monk and discuss this slope she’s slipping down. Thoughts?

I was about to make a fierce defence on Zhu’s behalf and then I remember she committed murder this week so ah, right, yes, well. She’s got her hands well and truly dirty, hasn’t she? After all, she had no idea of the possible consequences at the lake beyond gaining a temporary reprieve by flooding the bridge, but now she’s set a man on fire, stabbed him in the eye and strangled him. But was it really a surprise? Her first instinct was to murder Fang – she just had a better idea. Lady Rui left her nowhere else to go this time; so if we want to view this as a test of her resolve… it’s fair to say we should assume she’ll do whatever she has to.

…which takes me back to whether there’s really any distinction between her and Ouyang. He might have enjoyed it more, I guess.

The other aspect I wanted to discuss this week is the way the narrative walks an incredibly fine line in its attitude to women: it’s set in a highly patriarchal society that doesn’t value women; it has a female protagonist who cannot risk being seen as a woman (and throws around lines like the nothingness that belonged to a woman’s body); it has a male antagonist who despises women; it has supporting characters who toss misogyny around like confetti.

In spite of all that, it succeeds in never feeling misogynistic. Instead, it constantly pushes back on the patriarchy. Zhu, while suppressing her own feminity, is quick to see and fight for opportunities for other women. She succeeds in putting power in Lady Rui’s hands; and if she hasn’t quite convinced Ma to suppress her internalised misogyny, you get the feeling she’ll keep trying (and hopefully succeed because hell yes I adore Ma).

Over in the Mongol camp, Wang Baoxiang recognises that it’s Madam Zhang who makes the decisions in the Zhang merchant empire and that they are all the better for it (contrast Esen’s immediate mockery). And of course both Ouyang and Wang Baoxiang themselves are motes in the eye of the warrior-led society they belong to. One is a eunuch, the other is effeminate (and maybe gay? Maybe? That comment that the only way he could be an even less ideal son would be to take a beautiful male lover… is he just baiting Esen and Ouyang or is he revealing himself?) – and none of this stops them both being supremely competent and exceedingly dangerous on their own terms. Oh yes, I love Wang Baoxiang. He’s absolutely my kind of character.

That’s it for this week – on next week, we’re discussing Chapters 12 through 17.