She Who Became the Sun: Book Review

This weekend is Worldcon, and several weeks before the convention (basically the week before I got COVID), I finished reading the last of the novels that were up for Hugo Awards that weren’t part of a series that I hadn’t already started reading – She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker-Chan – a novel inspired by wuxia fiction, inspired by the rise of the Hongwu Emperor. It’s an… interesting book, but one which had some points that I stumbled over.

Book Cover for She Who Became the Sun

She Who Became the Sun follows the unnamed sister of Zhu Chongba, the youngest daughter of a peasant family in a community struck by famine. Zhu Chongba has had a fortune told that he would attain greatness, and his sister would get nothing. However, when bandits sack the village and kill their parents, Chongba succumbs to despair and dies, and his sister takes his name and identity and decides to claim her brother’s destiny for herself. She starts by studying at a monastery, and then when the monastery is sacked by the forces of the Hu Emperor, she joins the rebel army seeking to overthrow the Mongols and ends up achieving further and further acclaim on the battlefield.

The part of the book that works is basically everything around Chongba – going to the monastery, joining the army, becoming a battlefield commander, and performing more and more cunning strategic victories while also trying to weather the political turmoil within the leadership of the rebellion. Or, to put it another way, dodging swords and arrows from the front and knives from the back. That part is great – there’s some light fantasy in this portion of the story, but ultimately it’s a really good, intense political and military story that’s told incredibly well.

The problem is when the plot shifts to the Mongols, and some of the point of view characters within the Hu Imperial court. The Mongols are written like a bad pastiche of House Greyjoy of Game of Thrones. The Hu in leadership positions, as written in the book, hold outright contempt to ideas like… agriculture, road maintenance, resource extraction in order to get the materials needed to make weapons. Keep in mind, that the real world Mongols had a postal system. The peak period of the Silk Road was under the Khanate.

If an author wrote Orcs like this, they would – justifiably – be accused of using racist stereotypes in their depiction of the culture, and that’s a fantasy race that doesn’t exist in reality. This is an author depicting a culture not their own (Parker-Chan is Chinese-Australian, not Mongolian) using racist stereotypes. Even if this is something that’s common to wuxia literature, and is something of a genre convention – so are racist stereotypes of Orcs, and those are justly criticized for good reason.

Further frustrating is, well, Parker-Chan is Chinese-Australian, not Mainland Chinese. As I’ve mentioned on the blog previously – if a Mainland Chinese Author, under the current Chinese government (that is, under the Xi Jinping government), falling into racist stereotypes of the Mongolian people that are encouraged by the Chinese government would be disappointing and unfortunate, but it would also have the context where the Chinese Government has destroyed the careers (and in some cases arrested) high-profile people who committed the crime of not agreeing enough, never mind disagreeing with the government’s official stance. I wouldn’t like it, but I’d understand that any such statements or acts of artistic expression are also made under intense duress. There’s no similar excuse, to my knowledge, for Parker-Chan unless she has family in Mainland China who are under threat from the government.

Again, what makes this all so frustrating is that this rather offensive part is not even the main focus of She Who Became the Sun – everything with Zhu Chongba, the character described in the title, is fantastic – it’s amazing writing and stands on its own incredibly well. It’s only the portions that are focusing on the Hu Imperial court that get deeply problematic and makes the book one I can’t necessarily recommend

Ultimately, of the Hugo Nominees I’ve read this year, for Best Novel, I have to go with Light from Uncommon Stars as my pick. She Who Became The Sun was interesting, but ultimately deeply frustrating.

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