THE PLOT: ‘She Who Became the Sun’ by Shelley Parker-Chan is a historical fantasy novel about the origins of the Ming Dynasty. Set in Southern China in 1345, it re-imagines the life-story of one of the most powerful emperors in Chinese history. When bandits kill her family, a poor girl steals her dead brother’s identity to survive. But as rebellion against the Mongols sweeps the nation, she takes her chance to thrive by joining the rebels and stealing her brother’s “greatness”.
RATING: I’ve agonised over this rating but I’ve had to land on three and a half stars. This debut novel has so many great features – a captivating main character, a complex world of political intrigues, beautiful settings and imagery, magical elements, themes about gender roles, and queer romances. But, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the story that the author was trying to tell, I didn’t gel with the way it was told. There was something about the writing style which made me feel like I was wading through this book. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book but I won’t be reading the rest of the series.
GOOD BITS: This book started so well and I instantly fell in love with the main character. The author started by showing us a young girl who was neglected, which made us root for the main character throughout the book – even when her determination led her down a dark path. In fact, part of me wanted this novel to remain focused on the main character and I found myself getting bored during the sections where she wasn’t present. This was heightened as the main character’s romance developed because I wanted to see more of it instead of the political machinations of the Mongols.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: My main criticisms are about the writing style and competing points of view. Firstly, I’m no expert on commas but the sentence structure felt off-kilter. There were too many long sentences and paragraphs that I kept stumbling over. Secondly, there were too many point of view characters and the close third person narrator flicked between them too frequently. For example, the internal monologue/feelings of several different characters were sometimes depicted on one page, which made it hard to know who was doing what. I found myself frequently flipping back and re-reading sections to ensure I had understood the action.
OVERALL: This book would appeal to both historical and fantasy readers, so I’d recommend it to lovers of ‘Empress Orchid’ by Anchee Min, ‘The Unbroken’ by C.L Clark and ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei’ by Alma Alexander. It’s an epic, medieval rags-to-riches story that will capture many hearts. Even though the story-telling didn’t quite live up to my expectations, I’m happy I read this book and think lots of people will enjoy it.