The twenty-first century has seen a tremendous flowering in the subgenre of epic fantasy. What was once largely a monoculture of vaguely medieval, vaguely Western European settings has seen an influx of writers (or perhaps more accurately, of publishers willing to platform those writers) who look beyond the template set by Middle Earth. From more specific European settings (Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden) to the Middle East (S.A. Chakraborty), and Africa (Marlon James). Perhaps most especially, there have been a slew of epic fantasies set in East Asian-inspired worlds, drawing on the varied cultures of the region and its storied history.
At first glance, Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel, She Who Became the Sun, seems like it would sit comfortably on the shelf beside these works. It is a fantasized, fictionalized account of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant-turned-monk-turned-general who drove the descendants of Genghis Khan out of China and established the Ming dynasty. It is blatantly inspired by the Chinese historical melodramas that have populated our TV screens in recent years. And it features enough battle scenes and political scheming to fill a whole season of Game of Thrones.
On this level, the novel delivers handsomely, and is a thoroughly enjoyable fantasized adventure (though its actual fantasy elements are on the thin side, and not very central to its story). But the further one gets into this gripping, thoughtful novel, the more obvious it becomes that this is first and foremost a novel of character—and that the lens through which it interprets character is that of gender. Not for nothing was Parker-Chan awarded an Otherwise (then Tiptree) fellowship for an earlier draft of this book: at the heart of She Who Became the Sun is an analysis of how two cultures define themselves through—and are weakened by—rigid gender roles, and how specific individuals—by subverting, defying, and most of all queering those roles—can discover an unexpected path to power.
She Who Became the Sun begins in an insignificant Chinese village that is struggling after several years of drought. In the home of the Zhu family, only three members survive: the father, the prized eighth son, Chongba, and an unnamed daughter. Right away, Parker-Chan establishes both the novel's arch, almost darkly comedic tone, and its matter-of-fact comprehension of the social forces at work:
At some point, though the girl couldn't remember exactly when, she had become the only girl in the village. It was an uncomfortable knowledge, and she preferred not to think about it. Anyway, there was no need to think; she knew exactly what had happened. If a family had a son and a daughter and two bites of food, who would waste one on a daughter? Perhaps only if that daughter were particularly useful.
The Zhu daughter, then, works hard at being useful. She accepts her subservient role in the family hierarchy (“Not all the girls who died,” the narrative tells us, “had starved”), and does not protest when what little food there is goes first to her father and brother. This is not merely calculation or survival instinct, but ingrained cultural conditioning. “The girl knew that fathers and sons made the pattern of the family, as the family made the pattern of the universe.” And yet underlying that acceptance there is a hunger, both physical and spiritual. When the Zhu patriarch takes his son to a fortune teller, he's overjoyed when the boy is promised future greatness. But when the daughter lingers behind to ask her own future, she is told simply: “nothing.”
Then bandits attack the family home, and both of the Zhu men end up dead. The “nothing” that has been ringing in the girl’s ears becomes not only insignificance, but death. Faced with a choice between death as a woman and greatness as a man, she embraces the latter, taking her brother’s name and presenting herself at a local monastery as a wannabe novice.
What follows has a familiar form, from stories like Mulan (1998) as well as a wide swath of school stories both in and out of fantasy. But Parker-Chan puts their own distinctive stamp on the material. For one thing, they—and their main character—are a great deal more brutal than such stories tend to be. When Zhu Chongba, as she is now known, is discovered by a novice master, she briefly considers killing him, before settling on framing him for drunkenness and getting him tossed out into the world to beg and starve.
Even more important, however, is Zhu's realization of how the choice to live as a man has changed the things she is supposed to be aware of, and the way she is supposed to look at the world. Zhu makes her first friend at the monastery, Xu Da, when the rope on the shoulder-pole that she's been using to carry buckets of water snaps, and he commiserates that there is no way to fix it except to give it to the women at housekeeping.
Zhu felt a sickening lurch, as of the world reorienting itself. She'd assumed that everyone could braid, because to her it was as natural as breathing. It was something she'd done her whole life. But it was a female skill. In a flash of insight so painful she knew it must be true, she realized: she couldn't do anything Chongba wouldn't have done.
Right at the beginning, then, Parker-Chan establishes that the rigid gender roles that govern the novel's society aren't simply a matter of one gender having more power and freedom than the other, but of separate spheres of knowledge—and that the men in the novel, by convincing themselves that women's knowledge is both useless and out of reach, have hobbled themselves in ways they aren't even aware of. Despite her warning to herself, Zhu finds herself sliding back towards using forbidden female knowledge and skills. Again and again, she does so as a way of gaining advantage and achieving things that the men around her find impossible. By noticing the women around her, and seeing things that are invisible to men, she is able to gain power in entirely unexpected ways.
As Zhu grows older, and more aware of the precarious political position in which the monastery—as an ethnic Chinese enclave and site of power at a time when the Mongol leadership is being challenged by the local rebel group, the Red Turbans—finds itself, the novel introduces its secondary protagonist, the Mongol general Ouyang. The last surviving son of a Chinese family sentenced to annihilation by the Khan, Ouyang accepted castration and servitude to his family's killer, Chaghan-Timor, the prince of Henan. He then rose, through skill and friendship with the prince's heir, Esen, to the position of general.
Ouyang is a character straight out of a melodrama: deeply embittered, ashamed of his mutilation, and determined to prove himself no less of a man despite it; eager to exact vengeance on the Henan dynasty, but tortured by that eagerness because he is in love with Esen. He is also one of several characters in the novel who queer gender in ways that are hard to put an exact label on. He feels his maleness keenly, but the society around him defines him as an unman. His life often seems defined by the tension between how he sees himself and how others see him, often with tragic results—when Esen finally makes the sexual overture that Ouyang has been longing for, he ruins the moment by commenting that Ouyang "really [is] as beautiful as a woman," the exact opposite of what Ouyang wanted to hear.
Ouyang's equal and opposite in the Henan court is Esen's adopted brother, the half-Chinese Wang Baoxiang. Wang consistently defies Mongol ideas of manhood. He's a scholar and administrator, not a warrior. He also affects traditional Chinese fashions, including colorful silks that to the Mongols look effeminate. For both these reasons he's perceived by those around him as gay (though he apparently isn't), and Ouyang frequently observes that they are mirror images of one another: "The one reviled for not being a man, the other for not acting like one."
But the revulsion towards Wang also reveals much about the cultural blind spots of the Mongol empire, which still sees itself as a nomadic warrior culture, disdaining scholarship, land cultivation, and trade—even as it benefits from these, and as its elites live an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Wang's crime, then, is not playing the part, refusing to pretend that what he does as an administrator is pointless when set against martial skills.
Baoxiang gave a brittle laugh. “Ah. Surprise. You have no idea what I've been doing for you this entire time. You don't even care enough to know! Don't you realize that I'm the only reason you still have an estate? Without the roads and irrigation and tax collections, do you think you'd even have the funds to continue serving the Great Khan? Your only value to him lies in your army, and you wouldn't even have an army. You'd be nothing but a washed-up provincial whose lands are being swallowed on one side by the rebels, Bolud on the other!”
Esen felt a pang of embarrassment on Baoxiang's behalf. Didn't he see how badly it reflected on himself to try to equate the work that Esen and Ouyang did, and that Chaghan had done before them, with the paperwork that occupied Baoxiang's days?
The intersection of these three characters sets the novel's plot in motion. When Ouyang destroys Zhu's monastery, she flees to the Red Turban stronghold, and finds herself press-ganged into the army and headed towards a hopeless confrontation with Ouyang’s forces. Her cunning scheme to save her own life and prevent the battle (which proves the first of several in the novel, each more exhilarating than the one before) ends up delivering a crushing defeat to Ouyang, weakening his position in the Henan court. This causes him to set in motion the plan he’s been nursing for revenge against Chaghan, a plan in which Wang—who is the only person in court who sees that Ouyang is up to something, but whose warnings are ignored—ends up playing an integral role.
The results of all this can sometimes feel a little lopsided. Wang never quite becomes the central, driving figure one feels that he ought to be, and though Ouyang's revenge plot is thrilling, it can feel out of place in this story—it often feels as if he should have had his own novel. (Parker-Chan is apparently planning a sequel, which may address these issues.) A fourth point-of-view character, Ma Xiuying, the fiancée of a Red Turban general who ends up marrying Zhu after she rises through the ranks, is presumably intended as a counterpoint to the other characters' defiance of gender roles. An intelligent, observant woman who is often frustrated by the way that her fate has been decided by thoughtless men, she nevertheless embraces her prescribed role. But, though siding with Zhu—especially after she discovers her secret—is obviously a form of liberation for Ma, she never climbs out of the shadow of the stronger figures around her.
These caveats aside, the novel is never less than thrilling. The progression of Zhu's rising fortunes, Ouyang's revenge plot, and the increasingly precarious political situation come together in a satisfying crescendo. Woven through it all is Zhu's journey, as her repeated victories gain her more honor and higher position on the rebel side, and force her to take sides in the internal disputes within Red Turban faction. Much like the novel's earlier, monastery-set chapters, this is at once a pitch-perfect execution of a familiar fantasy trope, and a delivery method for something deeper.
What's crucial about this journey, one eventually realizes, is Zhu's process of self-discovery. And that process is bound up in her confused gender identity, in the transformation she undertook in order to survive, and her feelings towards it now that greatness, not just survival, is on the table. When Zhu is sent to conquer a nearby city, she infiltrates it dressed as woman. But instead of being a Mulan-esque moment of roundabout honesty, her reaction is horror:
Her stolen disguise had done its job: nobody had looked at her twice as she passed through the compound and into the women's quarters. But with every moment her feeling of suffocating wrongness mounted. A violent litany repeated inside her head: This isn't me.
And yet, just as Ouyang and Wang don't slot into straightforward categorizations of gender and sexuality, neither is Zhu straightforwardly trans (as evidenced, obviously, by the novel's consistent use of female pronouns to describe her). The dysphoria she's feeling in this moment has less to do with her gender identity as with that long-ago twinned prophecy of greatness and nothingness. To be a woman—to remind the universe that she isn't actually Zhu Chongba, but has merely stolen his name and fate—is to risk nothingness. (One can only assume that Parker-Chan is aware of how much of global culture and philosophy has conceived of femaleness as a void, and is making a deliberate reference.)
Zhu's journey over the course of the novel is in this way one of finding a way to integrate her gender identity. To accept her femaleness—which is to say, to embrace the skills, and ways of seeing the world, that Chongba could never have possessed—without giving up the maleness that makes it possible for her to possess power.
In fact, the more Zhu embraces her femaleness, the more comfortable she becomes pursuing the greatness that was promised to her brother, refining her idea of what that greatness means until it becomes something concrete—the imperial throne.
A running theme in the novel is the question of desire—that which, according to Buddhist tradition, is the root of all suffering. Learning to be comfortable with her desire, to claim it as her own, rather than pretending that she is coasting to the fate of her dead brother, also means that Zhu becomes more comfortable with causing death—first as collateral damage, then in battle, and finally, of the innocent and helpless.
The novel takes an intriguingly matter-of-fact approach to this progression. She Who Became the Sun is not an anti-hero drama of the type we saw so much of in the 2010s, about the corrosive effect of pursuing power. Perhaps, like the Buddhist imprecation against desire, Parker-Chan is reminding us that such philosophies are often constructed with the privileged—and especially, with men—in mind: that the powerless don't need to be told not to desire anything, because their desires are almost always ignored. In fact, She Who Became the Sun ultimately concludes that it is precisely because she was raised to think of herself as worthless that Zhu is able to rise to power, surviving blows that would have shattered a man's ego:
It was funny, Zhu thought, to owe her survival to the same body that had been the source of so much terror. She remembered the relentlessness of its adolescent changes, and the sick, desperate feeling of being dragged towards a fate that would destroy her. She'd longed so intensely for a perfect male body that she'd dreamed of it, and woken up crushed with disappointment. And yet—in the end, she'd survived destruction precisely because hers wasn't a perfect male body that its owner would think worthless the minute it was no longer perfect.
Unlike other recent queer or gender-swapped historical fantasies, She Who Became the Sun never pretends that Zhu can live openly as a woman (nor does it seem that she wants to). The power that its queer characters possess can only ever be partial or hidden. And yet through their queerness, through their ability to see the world in ways that aren't bound by rigid gender roles, these characters are able to achieve change on an unimaginable scale. It is, to my knowledge, an entirely original approach to both the fantasy genre and fantasies of gender, and a thrilling adventure besides. It marks Parker-Chan as an author to watch, someone who will push forward our understanding of what this genre is capable of.