She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun
The Radiant Empire, book 1
by Shelley Parker-Chan

In a starving village, a boy fated for greatness dies. His sister, fated for nothingness and desperate to survive, takes his identity and his fate.

The beginning had me hooked, I was super invested in Zhu Chongba’s determination to survive, her struggles, her strategies, and the added element of the ghosts. At around the 25% mark however, things start to change and I found myself less invested. We get a couple new perspectives. Then towards the end we get a bit more insight into Zhu’s decisions and finding herself.

We get chapters from the love interest Ma and the sympathetic rival Ouyang. Although I liked Ma’s chapters, the relationship with Zhu felt empty until the sex scene that really caught me off guard. Mostly I felt bad for her loving someone who didn’t seem to feel much toward her. I also liked Ouyang’s personal story, but ultimately I think having these different perspectives added to my difficulty in staying connected to Zhu as our main character.

As things progressed, it started to feel more like a highlights reel than a full story. We start to see Zhu as who she has become while skipping over her developing into that person. I was really rooting for the starving, unwanted girl in the beginning of the book, then really not liking the adult she chooses to become. Maybe I just don’t equate achieving greatness with claiming ultimate power, but I don’t think I ever really got a clear idea of why that was her end goal, it just felt like it had become an obsession as she continued to remind herself that she was Zhu Chongba and not the girl who had been fated nothingness.

Although I still don’t know if we’re supposed to be rooting for Zhu at the end, I ultimately do think this is a good book. A genderbent tale of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty in China, it’s much more alternate history than fantasy. This book is beautifully written, I just wish the focus was placed more on bigger events than the little pieces in between.