While working in South-East Asia, Shelley Parker-Chan fell under the spell of Chinese TV Historical Dramas. They were epic melodramatic female-gaze historicals that gave a romanticised, mythologised vision of imperial China took her own cultural values as a member of the Chinese diaspora as its default. When she looked for books providing similar escapist fantasies in English and found none, she decided to write her own. Her goal was to produce a book that would be:
‘commercial, fun, use both Eastern and Western genre tropes, and—unlike nearly all Chinese-made TV dramas—be very, very queer.’Shelley Parker-Chan’s Tiptree Award Fellowship Report
I think she achieved all of that and more and you don’t have to be a member of the Chinese diaspora to join in the fun.
As an epic historical drama, this was an exciting read. It had me turning the pages eagerly to find out what would happen next, especially as the main character, who is apparently destined for greatness, kept getting herself into situations that it seemed to be impossible to escape from but which you knew she would somehow survive and probably turn to her advantage. The sense of ‘Oh no! How will she get out of this?’ was as much fun as the ‘Hah! I didn’t see that coming’ moments that followed.
Grounding the story in the final years of Mongol rule in China opened up a whole world that I had no knowledge of but which Shelley Parker-Chan brought to life and let me immerse myself in.
‘She Who Became The Sun’ delivers more than Saturday Matinee excitement and spectacular costume drama.
Our heroine in no Mulan, pulling on her father’s armour and sword to defend her family’s honour and serve her emperor. She is a starving peasant girl, brought up to think of herself as valueless and faced with a choice of accepting her fate, giving herself up to starvation and becoming nothing, or taking on her recently deceased brother’s identity and pursuing the hard-to-believe fate of greatness foretold for him by the local seer. Shelley Parker-Chan doesn’t sugar-coat any of this. The threat of starvation is real. Her heroine isn’t a dreamer chasing rainbows, she’s a desperate girl determined to do whatever is necessary not to die. In a kinder, gentler version of this story, one could imagine her achieving security, placing the threat of starvation behind her and looking for her own ‘hoary ever after’. This isn’t that kind of story. Her successes feed her hunger for more success. She remains ruthless, willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve the greatness she hungers for.
The other character that drives the plot, set in opposition to our heroine, is also not standard historical drama material. When we meet him, he is a fierce General in the Mongol army. The right-hand to a Mongol Prince. He’s also a eunuch. A status inflicted on him as a boy by the Mongol ruler. It was the seen-as-shameful price he paid to survive when all the male members of his family were exterminated as a punishment for treason. He is a complicated man: damaged but powerful, deeply attached to the Prince whom he has known since childhood, yet plagued by an absolute need for violent revenge.
The book describes how the fates of these two strong-willed, ruthless, excluded people bring them into conflict and drive them to acts of extreme violence.
‘She Who Became The Sun’ isn’t exactly what I’d expect of a Western historical drama. It takes for granted the reality of reincarnation, the presence of ghosts and the physical manifestation of the Mandate Of Heaven in a ruler’s power to summon a divine flame and it treats fate as if it had the same inescapable power as gravity.
I liked that our female heroine wasn’t some beautiful young woman in boys’ clothes who, when the time was right, would emerge to be honoured as much for her femininity as her military prowess. Physically, she remains the thin, not very attractive, thin and small starved-in-his-youth young man that she is supposed to be. Mentally, she tries as hard as she can to leave her old valueless self behind so that she can fool Heaven into granting her her dead brother’s fate. She’s not someone who, at the pinnacle of her success is going to say, ‘Look. I was a girl all along’, because she wasn’t, in her own mind, a girl. She was her own creation. An artefact shaped by her strong will, her refusal to die and her hunger to become great.
‘She Who Became The Sun’ works as a standalone novel but left me keen for the promised sequel to be published so that I can get another chance to immerse myself in this epic tale.
I listened to the audiobook version of ‘She Who Became The Sun’ which, despite being fourteen and a half hours long, sped by in no time. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Shelley Parker-Chan is an Australian by way of Malaysia and New Zealand, currently based out of Melbourne. She spent nearly a decade working as a diplomat and international development adviser in Southeast Asia.
.Shelley started writing her debut alternative history novel She Who Became the Sun (2021) after being awarded an Otherwise/Tiptree Fellowship in 2017.