Title: She Who Became the Sun
Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Series: Radiant Emperor #1
Rating: 3/5 stars
The Overview: In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness… In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness. -Goodreads
She Who Became the Sun felt like two books in one.
The first book (i.e. Part 1) was one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. It was a rich, immersive character study with a single POV that was frankly one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read. I felt for this character, I cared about her motives, and I was completely absorbed and 100% there for the journey. Brilliant.
And then Parts 2&3 happened.
It felt like the last two thirds of the book were written by a much less developed writer who went back years later to compose Part 1 (kind of like how Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy was a clear showcase of the author’s growth and gives a much stronger intro to the series than his earlier Icewind Dale trilogy). As much as I really wanted to love the rest of the book, it soon degraded into a huge struggle to finish.
Here are some of my objections:
1. The expansion to include multiple POVs. As the brilliance of the story so far was in the connection carefully garnered between the reader and the one main character, branching out to include more POVs without also taking the same time to develop those characters made them come across very, very thin by comparison. And from what I can recall, very little of the page count was given back to that first POV and a lot of what happened to her was viewed from someone else, thereby pushing the reader even further from that original connection.
What’s more, I didn’t think the perspectives that were added were very valuable. One in particular had next to no growth the entire story and basically just spent endless pages hashing and rehashing the exact same conflict with other characters without any action on it. Another character, one I at least appreciated for the unconventionality, felt included solely as a vehicle for delivering a standard of morality, which could’ve been just as effective (perhaps more so) experienced within the main character’s POV. This character’s POVs also felt like a huge tangent.
2. Parts 2&3 didn’t even come close to delivering on the promises made in Part 1. The premise of the book was this girl building an inspiring conviction of who she wants to become and how much pain she’s willing to endure to get there. That’s the type of character who, in my mind, will relentlessly pursue what she wants, regardless of the cost (Rin from Poppy War comes to mind). The trouble is, after that first part, the character did absolutely nothing to help ensure her own success. You want to become a warrior? Great! But… wouldn’t you at least consider learning how to fight? You want to be a leader? Great! But… might it be helpful to get into some academics and study battle tactics and strategies? Oooh!! Or even politics so you can be as successful on the field as off?! Those seem like good ideas. Oh.. you’re going to rely on dumb luck, happenstance, and being considered not a threat? M’kay, good luck. I’m out.
In all seriousness, I didn’t like a single thing about how the main character got from point A to point B. Nowhere in that character mock-up in Part 1 did I see someone who was passive and willing to just sit back to see how things go. I prefer characters who are catalysts of their own destiny and the sheer lack of personal initiative shown by the MC throughout most of the book was maddening.
Had her story continued to develop in a way I found meaningful, I may have been more forgiving about the additional POVs. But as it stands, the book offered me nothing of substance to cling to. Had I not experience this author at the height of brilliance in Part 1, I would’ve definitely called a DNF for the rest of the book. But I kept holding out hope she would come full-circle and dazzle me again.
Even though I remained annoyed at the rest of the book because it didn’t go the way I I expected it to, I’m ironically still sitting here appreciating some of the unconventionally in what I read. The author has some cool ideas for storyline, most of which I hadn’t seen before. Where she lost me was in execution. If we’re going somewhere new, I need to see the plausibility and continue feeling something for the characters (which I didn’t). At the moment, I don’t see myself picking up the second one anytime soon, if at all (not that it’s out yet).
I’d like to add (more positively) that the book was more accessible than I thought it would be. Anytime I see something labeled “Asian fantasy” I go in braced for graphic violence. Even though the subject matter was occasionally tough to read, it was never overly explicit in execution. You knew someone was dying horribly, but you didn’t have to experience it. I remember thinking it was nice to have an option to recommend to readers who don’t enjoy a lot of graphic violence in their books. So it’s a win on that regard, but the book does have a couple of descriptive sex scenes to compensate. As a bookseller I usually had to be aware of both of those things, else customers come back angry with me lol.
Overall, with the amazing 5 star first half and the 1-2 star second half of with some kudos for originality thrown in, I’m landing at a final 3 star rating. I think the first bit was good enough to make it worth your time regardless, but I’m still feeling a little let down.
Recommendations: pick this up for an unconventional Asian fantasy with one of the strongest beginnings on the market. Be aware, though, that the story changes significantly in Part 2.
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