She Who Became the Sun

For the past two years, I’ve been itching to read She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. Finally, I decided to listen to the audiobook version a few weeks ago, partially in honor of AAPI Month. Set in 1345, it fictionalizes the rise of Emperor Zhu Chongba and the start of the Ming Dynasty.


Two siblings, a boy and a girl, are given their fates as children: He will achieve greatness and she will amount to nothing. But after losing her entire family, the girl takes on her brother’s name… and his fate. Now going by Zhu Chongba, she enters a monastery and hides her true identity; no one can know that she’s a girl, not even the gods. Zhu is determined to achieve true greatness, and she will stop at nothing to get it. In military battles and in delicate interpersonal relations, Zhu has what it takes. But will people discovering her secret stop her from attaining true power?


At the beginning, I loved this book. The first chapter introduces the main character, a girl whose name is never revealed. Interestingly, we readers only ever know her by her brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, once she’s adopted his identity. As we follow her to the monastery, surrounded by boys and men who can’t know her secret, I loved seeing how she navigates her circumstances and comes out stronger for it.

However, I lost a bit of interest when She Who Became the Sun moved into the war with the Mongols. Much of it follows Zhu as she wrangles influence and power among military officials. However, she’s no longer the only central character. The book also follows Ouyang, the eunuch general on the other side of the war. The book flits between sections on Zhu, Ouyang, and other important characters as the battles and political conflicts continue.

In general, I don’t enjoy narratives depicting war, battles, and the like. And yet I keep being drawn to novels with these themes and settings! She Who Became the Sun does a good job of describing the historical conflict, so if you do like these kinds of stories, you may enjoy it more than I did. It’s well-written, but not the kind of story I find especially impactful.

What I liked more was the discussion around gender identity. Zhu Chongba has certain parallels with transgender people, and though hers may start more like a Mulan styled story, later on, her gender experience seems to change. Ouyang, too, has a unique relationship with his gender since he was forcibly castrated. His identity is born of violence, while Zhu’s comes from a will to survive no matter what; Ouyang is widely known by all around him as a eunuch, whereas Zhu’s true gender identity is a fiercely guarded secret. Later, Zhu’s relationship with a woman adds another dimension to the LGBTQ+ themes.

I liked seeing Zhu adapt to any situation she was thrown into. She’s smart and quick, and though everyone seems to underestimate her—she’s small and ugly like a cricket—she continuously proves herself worthy of the fate of greatness. However, Zhu becomes increasingly morally gray as the book progresses, and I can’t say I agreed with all of her choices. I liked her at the beginning of the book; did I still like her at the end? I’m not sure.

One final note: I love the title She Who Became the Sun and can see it meaning a few different things. “She Who Became the Son,” as in stole her brother’s identity? “She Who Became the Sun,” in which “sun” is associated with masculinity as she takes on a man’s identity? Or perhaps “sun” can symbolize greatness and power? It seems like a multidimensional title that works in a few ways here!

Final Thoughts

She Who Became the Sun is an interesting book about a real historical figure. While I didn’t connect with the depictions of war and political negotiations as much, I did enjoy it for the characters and discussions of queerness and gender identity. This is the first in Shelley Parker-Chan’s Radiant Emperor series, and I’m curious to see how the story continues in He Who Drowned the World, due out this August.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Get the Book

You can buy She Who Became the Sun here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
SeriesThe Radiant Emperor (#1)
Audiobook NarratorNatalie Naudus
GenreHistorical Fiction; Fantasy
Number of Pages416
Format I ReadAudiobook
Original Publication DateJuly 20, 2021

Official Summary

Two-time British Fantasy Award Winner
Astounding Award Winner
Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Hugo Award Finalist
Locus Award Finalist
Otherwise Award Finalist

“Magnificent in every way.”—Samantha Shannon, author of The Priory of the Orange Tree

“A dazzling new world of fate, war, love and betrayal.”—Zen Cho, author of Black Water Sister

She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor.

To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything

“I refuse to be nothing…”

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 takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

About the Author

Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former international development adviser who worked on human rights, gender equality and LGBTQ rights in Southeast Asia. Their debut historical fantasy novel She Who Became the Sun was a #1 Sunday Times bestseller and has been translated into 12 languages. Parker-Chan is a winner of the Astounding Award, and the British Fantasy Awards for Best Fantasy Novel and Best Newcomer. They have also been a finalist for the Lambda, Locus, Aurealis, Ditmar, and British Book Awards. They live in Melbourne, Australia.

More Books by Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan - He Who Drowned the World

More Books Inspired by Asian History & Legend

Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War

Ever since I saw the cover for Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War by Phong Nguyen, I was intrigued. When it became a…

Rate this:


I love retellings, and though I’ve never read the Ramayana, I was excited for Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, Kaikeyi. Here, the infamous queen gets to…

Rate this:

The Library of Legends

I’ve devoted the past couple of weeks to reading Asian fantasies. Following Song of the Crimson Flower and The Night Tiger, my trilogy ends with…

Rate this:


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: