This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.
Overview of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan from the back of the book: “In a famine-stricken village, a seer shows two children their futures. For the boy, greatness. For the girl, nothingness. But China in 1345 is under harsh Mongol rule—and for the peasants, greatness only appears in stories. The Zhu family is mystified as to how their son, Zhu Chongba, will achieve such success. In contrast, an early death for a mere daughter is only to be expected. Yet when a bandit attack orphans the two children, it’s Zhu Chongba who dies. Desperate to survive, his sister steals his identity to enter a monastery. There, disguised as a male novice, Zhu learns she can be ruthless to avoid her fate. But when her sanctuary is destroyed, Zhu is cast back into the war-torn world. To change her ending, there’s only one thing she can do: claim her brother’s great destiny as her own.”
The map in the front was crucial in helping maintain a sense of place, and Parker-Chan’s descriptions brought clear images to mind. I liked the subtle infusion of the fantastical, evidenced primarily in Zhu’s ability to see ghost and how both she and Ouyang have a ‘sense’ of their fate and how certain moments crystallize for them. In some ways, this felt similar to R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, though with the more subtle magical elements and less time spent journeying, the world felt richer.
I appreciated how well Parker-Chan was able to convey the clashing of cultures, especially since we get characters from both sides. This also plays out well in the political intrigue in both factions which helps to set this story within the confines of a larger history. The explanation at the beginning of the novel of the real-world events that make up the backdrop of this story allow for a feeling of grandness.
Zhu makes for a compelling protagonist, especially since we get to know her as a young child. It’s fascinating to watch her journey, development, and how the moments and people she encounters alter the trajectory of her path. Ouyang is similarly interesting, though it took me a while longer to warm up to his perspective.
The strength of this book lies in the different portrayals and performances of masculinity throughout, with Zhu taking on her brother’s name and hiding her female body, Ouyang the eunuch, Esen who seems incapable of producing a son/heir, and Wang who chooses to eschew the masculine forms that his father would praise. Ma’s presence as the compassionate woman stands in parallel to all the rest of the characters, which allows Parker-Chan to so well explore the gender dynamics of her created world.
The respective relationships between Zhu/Ma and Ouyang/Esen are probably the highlight of this book. There is a subtle dance to their interchanges, and the tension between their respective desires and motivations adds the interpersonal tension that lifts this work above just another fantasy epic.
Narrative Pace/Structure: 4/5
While I see why it was necessary, the first chunk of chapters felt jumpy, a bit aimless, and were not as gripping. By starting out with Zhu as a young girl, we’re drawn into her story, but short of characterization, it does little for the rest of the story apart from establishing her poor, peasant roots. While her crucial decision to take her brother’s name happens during these initial chapters, the story doesn’t really feel like it has begun until she is admitted to the monastery.
Otherwise, the pace and structure worked really well. Once the other point of views are established, Parker-Chan is able to weave them well, showing the multiple perspectives while never getting bogged down in scenes (such as long journeys) that hold little significance. The ending was resolved enough to leave the reader feeling satisfied, but this is clearly set up to be the first in a series.
I highly enjoyed this, will definitely be reading more as they are published, and can easily see why this was nominated for the Hugo. I’ve tried to read more Asian-inspired fantasy in recent years, and this is definitely near the top. It’s got a clearer structure than Neon Yang’s Tensorate series, more intricate characterization and subtle storytelling than R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, and feels more thematically purposeful than what I’ve read of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (though I’ll admit I’ve only read book one). Would highly recommend.