She has never not known hunger. At ten years old, she has known great suffering as her mother, grandparents, and all but one of her siblings have died. The world is feeling the bite of famine and drought, and all she sees before her is nothing.Such is the fate the fortune teller bestows upon her when she dares to ask him what he sees: Nothing. She is nothing.
Zhu Chongba, her brother, is destined for greatness. His deeds will be known for one hundred generations. And she is nothing.
When fate intervenes, in the form of bandits, Zhu Chongba falls dead, and rather than have his fate and his fortune fall with him, the girl takes up his name. She is now Zhu Chongba, she is now the one with the destiny of greatness. She is the one whose name will be known, whose voice will be heart. She will be Zhu Chongba. And she will live.
From a monastery whose halls are walked by restless, hungry ghosts, to the army of the Red Turbans, Zhu Chongba makes her way ever higher. From monk to soldier to general to commander … there is no limit to her need for power, for her determination to live. Beaten, stabbed, starved, or mocked, she will live where her brother did not. She will stand where others fall. And she will win.
I want to start this review by stating, as a simple fact: I love this book. This is a wonderful, poignant, cruel, and thoughtful book and I want you to love it as much as I do. It’s a story about selfishness, the selfishness of wanting to live, of wanting to be worth living. Of grabbing hold of your own destiny — even if it comes from stealing someone else’s — and grief, loss, love, and the pain of love. Of loving who you can’t, not being able to love as you should, doubting the worth of your love, doubting your own worthiness and whether you even deserve love.
There is a gamut of emotions that come through in this well-written, well-researched, and frankly wonderful book. From monks to governor’s wives, from thieves to generals, wives, sons, and daughters, from to farmers and soldiers, there is no person in this book untouched as we bear witness to the rise and fall of Zhu Chonbga. And I loved every minute of it. It reminds me of one of my favorite all time series in the sheer amount of emotion this book was able to wring out of me, and will be one of my top three books in my favorites list this year.
Zhu Chongba has a will of clay. No matter how you punch it, pinch it, or break it, it is flexible and resilient. She will reform herself again and again, putting aside pride in favor of practicality, so long as she lives. And as long as she lives, as long as she draws breath, she will be fighting, tooth and nail, for the greatness she knows is hers. There is no cost she won’t pay, from her innocence to her heart. And she does it all while making herself believe she is Zhu Chongba, son of her father, the man destined for greatness. She has to be him, or risk losing his fortune. She inhabits her place so well that it causes dysmorphia as she expects to find a man’s body, with a man’s muscles and height, only to wake up every morning in her own woman’s flesh. And even as she falls in love for a beautiful girl, there is a part of her that wonders if this is Zhu Chongba’s love or her own.
Ma Xiuying is the daughter of a fallen general, the bride-to-be of a dashing young commander. She was property to be handed out as a prize, whose worth was in the sons she would bear and the daughters her husband would be able to trade away for alliances. Her thoughts, her feelings, her very personhood were ignored at best, useless and scorned at worst. It wasn’t until the monk — the foolish, troublemaker, charming monk — dared to ask her what her hopes were, what her wants were that she realized she had none. She had never been allowed to have them. But when monk Zhu looks at her, smiles at her, teases her … she begins to want.
And when her carefully managed world is turned upside down again, it is monk Zhu who offers her a light in the darkness and a hand over uncertain ground. And oh, the marriage proposal:
“Yes. Marry me. But not like it would have been with Little Guo. […] People who play this game will do whatever’s needed to get themselves to the top, regardless of others. All my life I’ve believed I have to be like that to get what I want. And I do want my fate. I want it more than anything. But what kind of world will we have if everyone in it is like Chen Youliang? A world of terror and cruelty? I don’t want that either, not if there’s another way. But I can’t see that other way by myself. So join me, Ma Xiuying. Show me.”
On the other side of war is the Mongolian empire, led by Prince Chaghan and his son Esen, and the eunuch general, Oyuang, a man as lost to himself as Zhu Chongba is, and a man after his own destiny. When the was young, Ouyang’s father took part in a rebellion against the Emperor and failed. In punishment, his entire family, to the ninth degree (fathers, sons, uncles, cousins, grandparents, grandsons, sworn brothers and their children, his household, anyone living in his house at the time), was put to death. But Ouyang, with his kinsmen dead around him, their cooling blood staining the wood floors next to him, begged for life. And … it was granted. The Prince of Henan, Esen’s father Chaghan, let him live as a eunuch, to prevent him from continuing his family and to let him live a life of mockery and dishonor. Ouyang accepted..
Despite what others may have thought, he didn’t beg out of cowardice. Instead, he begged out of filial devotion and bottomless hatred. Ouyang intends to gain vengeance for his family. For his father, for his brothers, for his mother and sisters. And for himself. For every slight, every slur. Every bruise he was given, every snickering comment. Ouyang may not be Prince Baoxiang, Lord Wang, to keep a tally in a ledger, but he has an excellent memory and a pit where his heart should be.
Baoxiang, the adopted son of Prince Chaghan, is of mixed blood. An intellectual, an artist, and an administrator, he is everything his adopted father hates. It’s because of him the army has the money to pay for the men, the horses, and the supplies. It’s because of him their cities prosper, their tradesmen are welcomed, and their alliances are strong. But all his adopted father sees is the strength and masculinity of his blooded son, Esen. All Baoxiang gets are insults while Esen is given praise. Even though, were it not for Baoxiang, there would be no army for Esen to lead, and no house for him to return to.
Esen is the bright light, the shining beacon of glory and greatness. Skilled with weapons and horses, a brilliant commander beloved by his men, his life would be perfect were it not for this rebellion of the Red Turbans. But, even so, the rebellion allows him to show his skill in combat, gives his men some sport to kill, loot and spoils to claim, and makes his father proud. And for Esen, other than his inability to sire sons, that’s all a man really needs. He loves his brother, loves his father, and loves Ouyang. Against all the complex politics and princes, Esen stands apart. Though whether he’s a fool or fate’s destined one, it’s hard to say.
In this book, there are comparisons to be made between everyone, with how they rule, how they serve, what they live for, and how they choose to live. Between Zhu Chongba and Ouyang, who are and are not two sides of the same coin; between Ouyang and Esen, with one loving with open eyes, and the other loving with an open heart; between Esen and Baoxiang, brothers and yet not, one loved by their father, one hated; between Baoxiang and Ouyang, who both love Esen, and who both hate him. Even when one looks at the women in this book, the powerful and dangerous Queen of Salt, Ma Xiuying, daughter of a general, and Lady Rui, the pregnant wife of a deceased governor, all of whom require power to protect themselves in a world of men and war. There is no one way to be a man, no one way to be a woman, and no one way to greatness.
For all that this a book taking place during a brutal war, there isn’t a great deal of focus on action scenes — no drawn out battles or training montage, and even the descriptions of camps, cities, and temples are spare and distant. Instead, the focus is on the relationships between fathers and sons, brothers, kindred spirits, and kings. A battle may take a sentence on the page with the resulting anguish of those who lost or the joy of those who won are center stage in all the political complexity of two kingdoms, both fighting wars within and without. There is more about Zhu Chongba’s cleverness than her sword fighting, and the three most poignant deaths in this book, for me, were clinical and quick.
There are questions to be raised and conversations to be had regarding the depictions of gender and gender dysphoria in this book, which makes sense considering two of the greater characters are a woman who has taken on a man’s identity and clings to that identity, who lusts as men do after women (and is part of that because she has made herself identify so much as the man she thinks her brother would be?); and a eunuch, who grapples with his own body and his hatred of it, his love and desire for Esen and a man’s body — though not necessarily in a sexual way, and yet … — and his revulsion for women, though I’m not sure if he’s ever been touched by either. However, I am neither qualified enough nor comfortable enough to comment on these subjects. The questions this book raises in its examination of Zhu and Ouyang are complicated and real, and the pain they go through is heart-wrenching.
Of all the passages which most stood out to me, this one, a moment between Zhu Chongba and Ma Xiuying, is my favorite.
“[…] where do you expect me to find love poetry in Anfeng? If there’d even been any to start with, by no it’s all armor linings. And which is the better use: arrow-proof armor, or sweet words whispered in your ear?”
“Without sweet words to believe in, who’s going to go out into a rain of arrows?”
This book going to be lingering in my head for a while, yet, I think. She Who Became the Sun is the first book in the Radiant Empire series, and I can’t wait until the next one is out.