Who do stories belong to? Some would say a story belongs to the author who wrote it, and copyright law would back up that interpretation, at least for the first 75 years after publication. In the case of a story based on a person from history or myth, the discussion broadens: is ownership even a useful concept in that case? If a real-life person’s story fundamentally belongs only to that person, can that story be re-written, re-envisioned, transformed—and in the process, does it evolve into a new story, with a new answer to whose story it has become?
Shelley Parker-Chan’s new novel She Who Became the Sun lays claim to the story of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. But as the title suggests, She Who Became the Sun isn’t about a boy named Zhu Yuanzhang who rises from his peasant origins to rule a united China; it’s about a girl who does the same.
It’s a fascinating conceit, reportedly pitched as “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles,” though it doesn’t seem to draw inspiration directly from either of those works—the skeleton of the story belongs to the real-life Hongwu Emperor, including his humble birth, brief stint as a Buddhist novice, and years as a warrior that lead to an even greater destiny.
But what Parker-Chan makes from the story of Zhu Yuanzhang is both inseparable from its real-life inspiration and wholly original. This inventive, powerful debut novel—equal parts action-packed and thought-provoking—belongs completely to its talented author from the first page. The Zhu of this novel begins life in deep poverty and starvation as the sole surviving daughter not just in her family, but her entire village, after four years of a punishing drought. The novel kicks off with the memorable line “Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade.” The girl has managed to survive so far by figuring out how to find food on her own, knowing that “If a family had a son and a daughter and two bites of food, who would waste one on a daughter?”
Growing up in the shadow of her favored older brother Zhu Chongba, Zhu the daughter is unsurprised when the local fortune teller declares that Zhu Chongba’s fate is “greatness… his deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to your family name,” while her fate is, as tersely expressed by the same fortune teller, “nothing.” But when the family’s terrible situation gets even worse, the girl makes the bold decision to take on her brother’s identity, and in turn, his fate. The fantasy aspects of Parker-Chan’s tale don’t include making the world of 14th-century China under Mongol rule more equitable; the new Zhu Chongba must survive as first a monk and then a warrior without appearing to be anything other than a boy, then a man. This Zhu finds her way forward by being clever, stubborn, and relentless, in ways both inspiring and devastating.
As the title character, Zhu Chongba clearly dominates the story. Some supporting characters are compellingly drawn, like steadfast ally Xu Da, where others feel thin, like Zhu Chongba’s eventual wife Ma Xiuying. Overall, the romantic relationship between Zhu and Ma feels surprisingly underdeveloped; but then again, the complex military endeavors, political power struggles, sudden betrayals, and decade-long revenge plots described here require more pages than the relatively simple explanation of Ma and Zhu’s attraction: the coming together of two people who each feel understood by the other.
Aside from Zhu Chongba, her enemy and foil General Ouyang is most thoroughly represented on the page, and he’s a deeply intriguing character. As a eunuch, repeatedly described by other characters as “beautiful enough to be a woman,” he exists beyond standard gender expressions in a way that strikes a familiar chord with Zhu. Ouyang’s contradictions also go far beyond issues of gender. Not only does he successfully lead men in battle despite being considered something less than a true man, he does so on behalf of a leader who has killed his entire family and mutilated both his body and his mind. One could easily imagine a novel centering entirely on Ouyang and his journey, though weaving his story through Zhu Chongba’s makes for an original and satisfying juxtaposition that elevates the novel overall.
It may seem odd to keep coming back to “original” as praise for a story based on real-life events and people, but the word kept springing to mind as I read. Perhaps “imaginative” would apply just as well. She Who Became the Sun beautifully illustrates how the fantasy genre opens up to embrace anything an author can imagine—not just ghosts and goblins, but new ways of exploring and interrogating gender and identity, prejudice and violence, history and humanity.
So while the story of Zhu Yuanzhang may belong to history, Parker-Chan has given us a novel that transforms that story into something more complex and resonant for a modern audience. In this way it stands alongside other recent fantasy retellings that transcend their inspirations, like Madeline Miller’s Circe, Genevieve Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful, and Laura Sebastian’s Half Sick of Shadows.
So who do stories belong to? To their authors, yes, but in the end, to readers. Once written, once shared, stories like these—stories with something to say—belong to all of us.
She Who Became the Sun
By Shelley Parker-Chan
Published: July 20, 2021
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).