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SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan – READALONG Week 4


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Welcome to the last week of our Readalong!

Thank you so much to everyone who joined our readalong and made it such a succes! We’ve loved being able to discuss Shelley Parker-Chan’s incredible debut with you all.

You can find the discussion across our socials: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and on our Discord server.

 

SPOILERS AHEAD: This post is a book-club style discussion of the novel, rather than a review to tempt new readers in.

We do discuss plot points, character motivations, and twists – if you have not read the book and do not want it spoiled, please do not read further!


You can find more responses to our discussion, and join in yourself, on our Google doc

Week 4: Ch. 18 – Ch. 23

 

We’ve covered a lot of the big themes of the book over the last weeks, but one that really makes its presence known in this part is desire. Zhu, Ouyang, Ma… they each have different desires but what did you make of their reactions to them?

Nils: Chan explores desire in many forms, and shows how they all have different consequences. Zhu’s desire for ‘greatness’ turns her into a killer, yet her desire for companionship draws out her softer side. 

Are we going to talk about the sex scene Beth?

Beth: I totally think we should discuss it! This was the first sapphic sex scene I’ve encountered like this, and although it came as a surprise, I had to applaud Parker-Chan for the rep. I’m aware my reading needs to be much more diverse, but it seems to me sapphic love scenes are always quite soft, feminine, for one of the party it’s almost always a self-discovery moment. I liked that instead, we get the kind of graphic, behind-closed-doors realism you’d get from a hetero sex scene by someone like Abercrombie. And another thing you say her desire for companionship draws out her softer side, but this moment didn’t feel very soft. It very much felt like a moment of control, like even in this Zhu is in control?

Nils: Excellent points my friend! You’re absolutely right, the sex between Zhu and Ma was as graphic and raw as any scene Abercrombie or even Fonda Lee would write, it is pure passion and lust and for that I did appreciate it. You also make a great point that the whole time, Zhu takes charge. Though I guess what I mean by her softer side being portrayed is that during that scene Zhu shows some of her vulnerabilities too. To begin with she’s not entirely comfortable with her own body and is coming to terms with her body being desirable to Ma, does that make sense? 

Beth: It does! And you’re absolutely right, and it was really lovely to see that moment with her!

But as for her other desire, to be great, she makes some key realisations during this part of the story. Ouyang tries to punish Zhu in the worst way he believes possible; in mutilating her, in the “destruction of pride and honour” by removing her sword hand and, therefore, her ability to command. But this brings Zhu to the realisation that, that entire belief doesn’t apply to her, because she’s not a man. She’s “a different substance entirely”. It felt like yet another really important step for her down her path away from what she believes was her brother’s destiny and towards her own understanding of herself.

As for Ouyang, his desire seems so complex and conflicting, doesn’t it? No one in this book is as hard on themselves as Ouyang. I think he has a great deal in common with Ma, actually, in believing himself incapable of being able or allowed to desire. Not just because of his position, but because his desire for Esen wars against his desire for vengeance. He cannot have both. 

Nils: Oh absolutely, he’s definitely a character full of complexities and inner conflicts.

 

Has Zhu developed into a full grimdark morally grey character? Do we think she’s lost her way? How does the Zhu who contrived Fang’s dismissal compare with the one that slit the PM’s throat?

Nils: I definitely feel she became a grimdark character, one who’s morals bended to favour her own personal goals. I had previously said that I didn’t believe the ‘real’

Zhu actually wanted to kill anyone,  but now I’m not so sure, now I know she’ll kill easily without regret. Her need to fulfil her fate of ‘greatness’ has now consumed her whole and blinded her to the ruthless, murderous person she evolves into by the end. Yet what if she always had this ability in her?

Beth: We were really upset by how dark she became, weren’t we Nils! But (someone, was Annemieke?) made a great point that right from the start, she’s all about survival. We kind of worked off the assumption that she kind of starts on level zero, as it were, but actually she’s never given us any evidence for that. She’s not known a life other than doing anything to survive. 

Nils: Yeah I guess that’s why I’m really conflicted by Zhu, on the one hand I fully understand why she needs to be so brutal, but on the other hand I can’t help but dislike her because of it. For example, killing the child Prince Radiance was a step too far for me, again, I understand this was the practical path for Zhu, as she wanted to become the most powerful influential figure and command the rebel army entirely and she couldn’t allow anyone to be more powerful than her, also I do realise that perhaps this is an accurate depiction of what historical figures have been known to do… but Ma was so against it, and it felt like Zhu only briefly took her wife’s feelings into consideration, yes she gave her a choice but what kind of choice was that? Accept it or leave? More importantly the Prince was still a child, an innocent child, who just happened to be given an awful fate. 

Beth: I just didn’t see it coming? And up to that point I kept wondering well, how is this going to work? How is Zhu going to become the Emperor when the Prince of Radiance has the Mandate – and despite knowing it couldn’t possibly work, I still didn’t see her killing this poor child who just seemed a pawn throughout the story. I felt so sorry for him.

Nils: So did I. He hadn’t experienced a life at all.

 

And speaking of deaths, how do we feel about Ouyang killing Esen? Did you see this coming?

Nils: The bastard!! In all honesty, I disliked Ouyang by the end too. Esen deserved better than that betrayal by firstly his brother and then his closest friend, possible future lover, Ouyang. Again Parker-Chan truly makes you understand why Esen had to die, for Ouyang to complete his coup and fully act upon his revenge, Esen was the last obstacle to conquer. Yet from my perspective, and I’m one who loved Esen’s character, that was too brutal!

Beth: There was a lot hanging on that moment, wasn’t there. The death of Esen represented the death of a number of things for Ouyang. Like Zhu and the Prince of Radiance, I couldn’t see how Ouyang’s future could play out with Esen still by his side. It’s very much a story about the lengths people will go to, to achieve their desires, and exploration of that. For the longest time, I just wanted Ouyang to fall into Esen’s arms… but then I really started to feel like maybe Esen didn’t actually deserve Ouyang. He certainly didn’t seem to understand him all that well, would often wound him without even having the slightest idea he had. And yet I still didn’t see Ouyang actually going ahead and killing him. 

Nils: I felt that Esen was one of the only characters in this book who could have learnt to be better, who could have really tried to understand Ouyang had Ouyang opened up a touch more, confided in him. 

Beth: Oh that’s such a good point Nils! Maybe he could have!

Nils: Esen never intentionally hurt Ouyang, but there was a great level of ignorance and naivety in him, I don’t believe it was malice and I felt given time he could truly change. Had Ouyang let him live long enough. 

I’m all for morally grey characters, I’ve read plenty of books with characters who commit violent, often horrific deeds (I’m thinking of Hilo from Fonda Lee’s, The Green Bone Saga!) and yet I have still found a certain charm within them, something to like and root for, despite this. For some reason I couldn’t quite gel with Zhu and Ouyang even though they have valid reasons for their deeds and inhabit the complexities I usually love seeing in characters. Personally for me though, by the end they both just become too unlikeable. 

Beth: I was really disappointed too. But now I’ve absorbed the events a little better, I feel like, by making their characters take those extra steps and become unlikeable, Parker-Chan has lifted this above being a simple story with Good and Bad and Satisfying Neat Ends. Their characters are so much more complex than that, they represent so much more than that. They storm through their narratives very much not here to be liked, their concerns are above that.

Nils: That’s a great point! I honestly believe Parker-Chan did a fantastic intricate job with these characters, even if I personally felt no longer invested in them. 

 

The Mandate of Heaven was an aspect that never gets fully explained. What do you think might be going on here and how important do you think it will be in the next book?

Beth: This was an aspect of the story that I didn’t focus on too much, as it felt like there was a lot more importance placed on other parts. So with that in mind, I think it will turn out to be very important in the next book? But I don’t know what it means that so many people seemed able to produce a light: the Prince of Radiance’s red light, the Great Khan’s blue, General Zhang’s orange light and finally Zhu’s white light. Surely if it’s Heaven’s mandate of rule, there wouldn’t be so many people with it?

Nils: What did the different colours signify? Do we know? To be honest I was really confused by the concept of the Mandate of Heaven but it was a point I was intrigued by because I thought by the end I’d get more clarity. So maybe you’re right Beth, and Parker-Chan is saving that for book two. 

Beth: I’d love to know what the different colours might mean! 

 

So we’ve been skirting around this, but let’s finally address the elephant in the room: is this a fantasy?

Nils: This is actually another part I struggled with throughout the book. I knew prior to reading She Who Became that the fantasy elements would be few and far between but nevertheless I feel disappointed. Mostly because Parker-Chan had quite a few fantastical concepts bubbling away in the background, which we’ve been theorising on throughout this readalong, and by the end I was hoping to see them more fleshed out. I think had the novel been pitched as solely a historical fiction, or historical reimagining, my expectations would have been different, I wouldn’t have expected nor wanted any fantasy elements at all. 

Beth: It’s a strange one, isn’t it! I don’t mind that the fantasy elements are quite limited – we have the ghosts, and the Mandate of Heaven, but I wouldn’t say these were enough to place the book firmly within the fantasy genre. I can’t work out why it’s been pushed so hard as a fantasy therefore, and not a speculative historical fiction. It didn’t impact my enjoyment of the story at all though.

Nils: Having those parts removed detracts very little from the more important aspects of the story, so it leaves the question of why they’ve been added at all. 

Beth: Exactly!

 

What was your overall impression of the book? What did you enjoy the most? Was there anything you wish had been done differently? 

Nils: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan is a fantastic exploration of cultural gender roles and gender expectations. It is a novel where the characters break through these walls and live a life where their worth and their deeds are far more significant than their gender ever would be. These characters fight to be seen as more. It’s a novel of fate, destiny and of survival. Those are the aspects which I absolutely loved; Parker-Chan provided a wealth of philosophical aspects to ponder over, and her historical world was realistically brutal and gave cause for her character’s motivations.

Beth: I found it such a powerful novel. These are representations of stories we don’t get enough of, that get told and shared enough. I loved the complexity of all Parker-Chan’s characters.

Nils: However, unfortunately there were just parts of the novel, which for me personally, didn’t work. I found the pacing to be rather slow and lacking in action, it felt as though Chan would build up to an action scene, only to skim over it in a few lines. A kind of “fade to black”. There also wasn’t enough fantasy elements and I wasn’t too impressed with how our main characters evolved by the end, as I’ve mentioned above.

Beth: That’s such a good point about the action scenes Nils! It’s not really that kind of book, so it’s very much a personal taste point. I’d have loved to seen more fantasy too. And also like you, I was shocked by the developments at the end. Again, objectively I can see the progression of the characters and the necessity of their decisions, how powerful they’re becoming and what it represents about them. But as a reader it broke my heart a little! 

Nils: And mine! Having said all that, I’m so pleased to have read this novel, delving into the deeper themes and hidden meanings was a fascinating experience to share and discuss with Beth and the other readalong participants. I truly applaud Shelley Parker Chan for her exceptional representation.

Beth: She Who Became the Sun is an atmospheric power-house of a novel. The way Parker-Chan brought this time period to life, brought these people to life, their culture, is so immersive. It had the feel of a sprawling Chinese epic, that they’d transported us back. But the true focus of this novel is of course Zhu and Ouyang and the way their world tries to shape them – the clash of when their worlds meet their solid unshakeable desire and belief. That inner battle is truly something to behold!

 

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The post SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Shelley Parker-Chan – READALONG Week 4 appeared first on The Fantasy Hive.

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