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Review: She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

This is the first book in a proposed duology (I think?) about Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty in 14th century China. This book reimagines Zhu Yuanzhang as a woman who steals her brother's identity when he and their father are murdered by bandits, in order to escape her fate of 'nothing'. This is a revisionist historical fiction with a queer coming-of-age take, and also a bit of fantasy thrown in. The premise of this book deeply appealed to me, but it doesn't really come together as a whole.


Basically, I think this book had some very good parts, but globally it read like the first draft of a novel that had a lot of potential but needed I think a few more rounds of editing to really come together. My biggest gripe was the random fantastical elements thrown in near the tail end of the novel - I don't think that was well enough handled or integrated into the book, and was a bit jarring and actually made for a less compelling read. I wish she, or her editor, had decided what type of book she was writing before it went to print: was this a historical fiction? Was it fantasy? If she had decided and just stuck to one genre, she could have been able to concentrate on the very compelling nature of her central character.


Because Zhu is a deeply compelling character. She's someone who is entirely consumed by ambition and is willing to make difficult, ugly, awful decisions, and always comes out on the side of herself and her own accumulation of strength and power. We all know how I feel about main characters with complex moral compasses - they're my favourites! - and I just think that if Parker-Chan had let that be the central focus of her novel, instead of shifting us randomly to supernatural elements that didn't quite fit or feel adequately explained, the novel would have been much stronger.


I also had some quibbles about the writing. As I was reading, I had a very hard time telling if the author was trying to write an adult novel or a YA novel - the vocabulary choices, in some parts, were unnecessarily formal and felt quite jarring in the context of the sentence. For example, she kept using the word 'regarded' when there were monosyllabic words would have fit the cadence of the sentence and the scene much better. It made for something that read both sloppily and pretentious, and quite YA-ish (and I don't really like YA for exactly that reason), and whenever she would go into those long stretches of unnecessary vocabulary choices I would occasionally find myself wondering if the book had been translated, since the word choices just felt so off. I've said it before and I'll say it again, authors - you don't need to convince me that you're intelligent. I just need you to write a decent book.


So there you have it, folks - a book with lots of potential that just falls a bit flat for lack of revising (in my opinion). This is, I believe, Shelley Parker-Chan's debut novel, so I might try and revisit some of her later work, but I'm unsure if I'll be picking up the second book in this series just because I found the random fantasy elements so out of place and unnecessary and I'm not sure I want to keep living in that world.


If anybody does have recommendations for historical revisionist fiction or historical fantasy, throw those my way!


Happy reading,

Amélie xx

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About

I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.