She Who Became The Sun – week four

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

The final week of The Fantasy Hive’s read-along of She Who Became The Sun sees Zhu and Ouyang come face to face once more as each throws caution and conscience to the wind in pursuit of their fate…

This is a discussion – not a review – of the final chapters, so it’s spoilers all the way down! Our hosts guiding the discussion are Nils and Beth at The Fantasy Hive.

Zhu, Ouyang, Ma… they each have different desires but what did you make of their reactions to them? Has Zhu developed into a grimdark morally grey character? Do we think she’s lost her way? How do we feel about Ouyang killing Esen?

I’m going to tackle these first three questions at once, as my answer to the first is inextricably bound with my answer to the other two!

There are two key forms of desire in She Who Became The Sun: attraction and ambition. One is monstrous; the other offers a fragile promise of redemption – and the question in this final week is whether they are incompatible. The final act breaks my heart even though the outcomes have been sign-posted for half the book.

The success of Parker-Chan’s narrative is that I still found myself expecting Zhu’s regard for Ma to soften her ambitions and for them to adopt the Prince of Radiance. It would show Ma how much she means to Zhu; and it would side-step the future need (for someone) to sire an heir. In terms of desire, it would be a victory for love over ambition.

Remember, I’ve read this before.

So, am I forgetful, delusional, idealistic or sentimental?

…yes? Yes.

Zhu’s desire began with survival and has evolved into an irresistible appetite for greatness. We’ve rarely seen her waver; and while it’s tempting to say she’s lost her way, I don’t think she’s ever strayed from the path she set herself on (regardless of whether we approve of it). Her true north is her ambition; although she hesitated to kill Prefect Fang, he also got very, very lucky – murdering him was at least as risky as trying to set him up. She’s just become more comfortable embracing her truth, which is that her survival – and rise – is more important to her than any other person. There’s nothing she won’t sacrifice for her desire.

Does that make She Who Becomes The Sun grimdark? I don’t think so, but I’m the worst person to ask about subgenres; my idea of what they are is usually adjacent but not accurate to their commonly accepted definition. For me, grimdark is tied up with a lot of graphic violence, which Shelley Parker-Chan implies but doesn’t depict. Zhu is certainly morally grey – a ruthless pragmatist – but there’s a tinge of regret (if not guilt), and the narrative condemns her actions through the lens of Ma’s reactions.

Ma destroys me. Zhu shows her a way of living that she never dreamed of, teaching her to desire for herself – and her desire becomes both sexual and romantic. When Zhu acknowledges that she will not hesitate to do things she knows will hurt Ma, Ma recognises that she will not turn away from loving Zhu – in spite of what it will do to her. My poor idealistic heart has taken a hell of a battering these past few years; I just want to give Ma a hug. She deserves someone who will share her dreams rather than give her great orgasms and destroy everything she cares about if necessary to achieve their goals.

Where Zhu and Ma embrace and accept their desires – for power, for each other – Ouyang and Esen do nothing but resist their desire for one another. When Esen comes closest to admitting his attraction, he frames it in a way that allows Ouyang to hate him (focusing on Ouyang’s almost feminine beauty; betraying that he doesn’t see or understand Ouyang at all). Had Esen been able to love Ouyang as a man, would Ouyang have been able to resist his fate and let him live?

…probably not. I don’t think love could lead Esen to sacrifice his loyalty to the Yuan and support Ouyang in overthrowing it. More importantly, I don’t think Ouyang could set aside his vengeance: he may resent his fate, but he is wedded to his duty. At best, they would have ended up the generals of opposing armies, postponing the inevitable confrontation. So I enjoy the epic tragedy of that final scene, where each accepts the outcome. It may be their most intimate moment; the first time Esen truly sees who Ouyang is. And let’s be honest: did either of them deserve a happy ever after?

Which brings me back to Zhu and Ma, because I desperately would like Ma to have a happy ever after – but I don’t think she’ll get one.

The Mandate of Heaven was an aspect that never gets fully explained. What do you think might be going on here and how important do you think it will be in the next book?

I love the way the book simultaneously positions the Mandate of Heaven as both an inarguable and meaningless status symbol. On the one hand, those who have it are elevated to the highest rank, gaining an instant following who will fight to the death on their behalf. On the other, it doesn’t do anything except paint a target on their back (okay, I guess it could help you read at night) – and if the narrative in book one does anything, it’s underline that fate is what you make it. So did Zhu need the Mandate?

…probably not.

Having it makes Zhu’s life fractionally less complicated – her troops will be directly loyal to her, rather than to her as the guardian of the Prince of Radiance; and she won’t have to worry about untrustworthy allies trying to steal the Prince of Radiance and usurp her. But it doesn’t means she doesn’t have untrustworthy allies who would happily stab her in the back and usurp her…

I don’t think it will assume any additional importance in the sequel – as I don’t think it was crucial to her rise to power, I don’t think it will be central to her keeping it.

That said, I did read that the ghosts will be more important in book two. Bring it on!

So we’ve been skirting around this, but let’s finally address the elephant in the room: is this a fantasy?

I’m pretty generous with my genre definitions. The broadest definition of fantasy is any fiction with speculative elements; and low fantasy is a story with inexplicable events or elements in an otherwise normal world. She Who Became The Sun – with its ghosts and inexplicably glowing people – fits both of those frameworks, so I’m happy to call it fantasy. It may not satisfy readers who prefer high fantasy, but I love that it might attract readers who wouldn’t normally be drawn to fantasy – if they want to consider it ‘just’ alt history with ghosts then I’m happy not to tell them that means it’s fantasy (I found my paperback shelved in General Fiction rather than SFF, which delighted me).

What was your overall impression of the book? What did you enjoy the most? Was there anything you wish had been done differently?

I love this book. I feel it is simultaneously epic and understated (maybe because it works so hard to avoid action scenes?) and I find it so visually stimulating – there are so many scenes that leap to life in my head. I’m an idealist, so I do wish Zhu had let the Prince of Radiance live; her ruthlessness terrifies me, as I feel it bodes very ill for the sort of Emperor she will become. But I trust Shelley Parker-Chan to weave a compelling narrative from it and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.