In the waning days of the Yuan Empire, a girl whose original name we never learn takes her dead brother’s name and marches away from her famine-stricken village to claim her brother’s great fate, too. Using that starting point and a lot of real history, Shelley Parker-Chan weaves a story about the rise of the Ming Dynasty and the fall of Mongol rule in China in She Who Will Become the Sun. There are battles, miracles, lots of betrayals, and even more determination to rule whatever is left after the Mongols are driven back north.
Our protagonist is one of millions of peasants in rural China when bad luck kills her father and brother, her last surviving relatives. Before their deaths, the father took his son, Zhu Chongba, to a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller reveals that Zhu Chongba’s fate is to be great (no other details are provided). Our protagonist sneaks in a question about her own fate; he tells her that her fate is to be nothing. It’s little wonder that our protagonist—who has been doing her best to not starve to death—takes her brother’s name and heads off to one of the few places that has food: a monastery. Taking her brother’s name isn’t enough for Zhu (as she’s called for the rest of the book) to get into the monastery. She also has to hide her gender. Zhu ends up suppressing her female body and habits so much that she fools everyone.
Zhu has many good years at the monastery until a Yuan general shows up and burns it to the ground, in revenge for an insult delivered years ago. This general becomes Zhu’s sinister shadow for the rest of the book. General Ouyang is also masquerading as a man except, in his case, he’s doing his best to living up to the expectations of Mongol manhood after being forcibly castrated as a teenager. After Zhu winds up in the middle of the Red Turban army and a miracle occurs that makes it look like she’s divinely blessed, Ouyang is usually the one on the other side of the battlefield from her. Both of them want big things—so most of the plot revolves around both of them scheming among their supposed allies at the same time that they keep facing off against one another. This book was so much fun to read!
I didn’t know about the history when I started reading She Who Will Become the Sun. In fact, I didn’t know that this book was based on history until some names started to ping loose scraps of knowledge tucked away in my brain from something else I read. A little Googling and a little reading on Wikipedia taught me that Parker-Chan wrote her story in the gaps about what we know about the last decade or so of the Yuan dynasty’s rule. By the end of the book, I was in love with the story. Too bad I have to wait for the next installments to see how the author spins the facts into her absolutely gripping fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.