This Glorious Quest
She Who Became the Sun (Radiant Emperor, volume 1)
By Shelley Parker-Chan
2021’s She Who Became the Sun is the first volume in Shelley Parker-Chan’s Radiant Emperor historical fantasy series.
A seer assures Zhu Chongba that he has a grand destiny, the exact nature of which is vague. Historically informed readers may think they know what is coming. Surely, Zhu will overthrow the alien Yuan dynasty. Racked by famine, plagued by incessant uprisings, the Yuan dynasty is weak. The right man at the right place and time will topple China’s Mongol rulers and restore a Han emperor to the throne!
Zhu Chongba fails at his first trial. After his father is killed by passing bandits, he falls into a deep depression and dies.
Zhu Chongba has a sister.
When the seer assured her brother of a great destiny, he also told Zhu’s ten-year-old sister that she was destined for nothing. She initially interpreted this as nothing important, a prediction of the obscure and laborious life that is the fate of almost all women in China. Later she realizes that the truth is worse. She is destined for nothing. She will die young, one anonymous corpse among millions.
Brother Zhu is too dead to have a destiny. Preferring a long, borrowed life over the short one that is her due, the girl assumes her brother’s name, gender, and destiny. First step: join the Wuhuang monastery her brother planned on attending.
Many boys hope to become monks. Better the demanding life of a monk than the death by famine, bandit, or wandering army that waits so many peasants. Wuhuang turns away almost all would-be novices. It is a measure of Zhu’s determination that the young person convinces the monastery to accept them. It is a measure of Zhu’s cunning that in all the years spent at Wuhuang, none of the monks ever realize Zhu has the body of a woman.
Wuhuang’s abbot makes a fatal error when he offends General Ouyang. The eunuch Ouyang cobbles up a legal pretext to burn the monastery to the ground.
Zhu flees the destruction and joins the Red Turban rebels. United under the Prince of Radiance, a reincarnated bodhisattva who remembers all ten thousand years of his previous lives. the Red Turbans are run by the usual array of grasping, back-stabbing functionaries determined to maximize their own power. There is a place in the rebel army for one such as Zhu: in the vanguard, there to die protecting the Red Turban main forces.
Zhu did not appropriate Zhu’s brother’s abandoned name and destiny to suffer a pointless death at the hands of Yuan soldiers. Ouyang’s forces approach. It will take a miracle to save Zhu and the vanguard. Zhu delivers a miracle.
It is but a first step toward the glory that awaits Zhu. Between Zhu and that destiny lie many, many opportunities for violent death, either at the hands of the Mongols or those of the Red Turban’s senior leadership.
Among many details marking this as fantasy, elements that in our world are generally considered figures of speech are observable phenomena in Sun. The evidence in the book says the Prince of Radiance is exactly who he claims to be and when the text asserts this person or that person has the Mandate of Heaven, it is because they can manifest the Mandate as a supernatural aura, rather than leaving observers to deduce it from their military and political victories.
It’s a bit depressing how little difference there is between the governance of a resistance group trying to free its land from a rapacious and cruel foreign invader and the governance of any given little theatre company. In both cases, self-aggrandizement at the cost of larger goals is the rule of the day. It’s as though governments are made up of people.
Readers might expect Ouyang and Zhu to enjoy the same sort of relationship as Reinhard von Lohengramm and Yang Wen-li, dissimilar geniuses fated to face each other again and again in the field of battle for as long as the series continues. While there are elements of that sort of drama, Zhu’s and Ouyang’s goals are not entirely incompatible. While this would come as a tremendous surprise to his master, Lord Esen, Ouyang bitterly resents the Mongol-ordered extermination of his family and his own castration. Esen is utterly certain Ouyang is his closest ally — but then Esen is also astounded when a captive woman waiting to discover if she is to be a concubine or slave tries to kill him.
It may be that for either Zhu or Ouyang to prevail, the other must fall. Well, there is room in the series for other developments.
In our world there was a peasant who overthrew the Yuan, established the Ming dynasty1, and became the Hongwu Emperor. In this book, the story of a peasant who became an emperor is the same in some details, but wildly different in others.
On the one hand, it seems unlikely that, once emperor, Zhu will create a Ming government acceptable to modern sensibilities. Zhu has learned to be ruthless. Dissent will be crushed. Rule will be autocratic. While this Zhu has an unusual perspective, so did the historical peasant-born Hongwu Emperor, and he had no problem enthusiastically purging anyone he considered a potential impediment. Indeed, Zhu’s unusual background might force them to be even more merciless than their historical analog, much as the Empress Wu might have considered she had very little leeway to tolerate dissent.
As I have previously noted, I am not a fan of despotism regardless of flavour. Yet I could not put Parker-Chan’s novel down, caught up as I was in Zhu’s adventures. The protagonist of an ongoing series is going to prevail or at least survive setbacks. Parker-Chan does a nice job of creating the impression that Zhu might not. As well, despite committing unsympathetic acts, Zhu is a very sympathetic figure, as are (for the most part) Zhu’s inner circle of supporters. Consequently, the result is a book I enthusiastically read from cover to cover, even though it’s much longer than my usual focus is these days. My main gripe is that now I have to wait for the sequel.
She Who Became the Sun is available (for preorder until July 20, then just order) here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: The Ming dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644 (unless you count the Southern Ming, in which case it lasted until 1662). Not a bad run.