I was interested in this novel because I recently read Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, which tells the story of Genghis Khan and his descendants.
She Who Became the Sun begins in 1345, some fifty years after the death of Kublai Khan, and charts the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty. In this reimagining, though, there is one vital difference. Zhu is a woman.
Zhu grows up in grinding poverty, as the ruling Mongols lay waste to the land of her people. During a raid, her father and brother are killed and she is the only surviving member of her family. She decides to adopt her brother’s identity. Remembering that he was told by a fortune teller that he was destined for greatness, and given that he is now dead, she decides the prophecy must have been meant for her.
She takes refuge in a monastery, where, despite near misses, she manages to keep her secret from all but the monk who becomes her closest friend, the worldly Xu Da. As adults, they leave the monastery and find their way into the rebel Red Turban army, united under the figurehead of the Prince of Radiance. Zhu’s courage and initiative saves them in battle against impossible odds and means that she is put in charge of her own band of fighters.
She finds her nemesis when the Mongol army comes to the monastery. She sees the eunuch commander Ouyang, and immediately recognises that they share a bond, as outsiders, because of their ambiguous gender identities. Ouyang is also of Nanren, rather than Mongol, origin, so he is serving in the army that subjugated his people. Later, Zhu and Ouyang fight on opposite sides, struggling to establish themselves, both confronting and empathising with each other.
She Who Became the Sun started really well for me. The sense of place and time is vivid and the voice is distinctive, giving Zhu a believable balance of naivety and insight, confidence and fear. She takes opportunities when they come but is always aware of her perilous position. I liked the idea of Zhu as a woman. There have been documented real-life examples so I’m not bothered about plausibility, and much as I enjoy books by authors like Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell, their focus on military feats means they are inevitably dominated by male characters.
However, after a while the book began to grate on me and I did have to soldier on myself. The difficulty, I think, is that there isn’t enough dramatic conflict. Zhu is preoccupied with her identity and her sense of destiny above all else. Although she does suffer setbacks, there is no real jeopardy. That’s always a difficulty with historical fiction – most readers know how it ends, so you have to create suspense in another way, such as putting your character in a seemingly impossible situation. Then, although we might know she’ll survive, we can’t imagine how.
In the best of this kind of fiction, there are strategic, political and economic interests, and then there are personal dramas that may run along these lines or may conflict with them. In She Who Became the Sun the focus is firmly on the personal. Zhu and Ouyang act purely because of their identity or childhood experiences or relationships, which can give it a soapy feel as if the historical moment is just an attractive backdrop rather than integral to the story.
Still, She Who Became the Sun is fantastically atmospheric and an impressive achievement for a first novel. I would be interested in reading the sequel as the first book ends at an interesting point in Zhu’s journey.
I received a copy of She Who Became the Sun from the publisher via Netgalley.
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