This politically driven, high fantasy novel is well loved and celebrated for a reason. It’s unique, in so many ways; yet has great pacing, cast of characters, military strategy and iotas of magic that define many great high fantasy novels. While there is a lot of talk of army, wars, battles, etc. (and many of our characters eventually end up on the battlefield) this is not a military fantasy. There is little description of the actual battles themselves; and almost no hand-to-hand combat prose (except for a moment when it really really counts).
Based on Mongolian-esque culture and history; She Who Became the Sun has a setting that is less likely to be familiar to most of Western culture. Not unlike Marlon James fantasy series, I love this nod and inclusion to help educate myself on the religion, beliefs, culture, and politics of different places and eras in time. It also means it’s much harder for me to anticipate what might happen next. And if nothing else this book is excellent at keeping you shocked and on your toes.
At its core, Shelley Parker Chan, has given us a novel that is about being an outcast. From our eunuch military commander to our enigmatic (girl posing as a boy) monk we see the similarities of being stigmatized by the people around you. Be it for a lack of sexuality or gender; or because you are marked as being sworn to Buddha (even as you swing a sword in battle). There is a lot of internal monologues that brilliantly bring together how being an outcast feels the same to almost everyone. The reasons, nuances, cutting words, or shunning gestures may vary to each situation; but at the end of the day being excluded, dismissed, or intentionally insulted feel the same for most people. Awful, heart-breaking, and rage inducing; perhaps all dependant on the day, time, and person whom is signalling (loud and clear) that they are above you. I think a lot of us big-time readers will really connect with this feeling of being unwanted or a bit of an outsider to our own society.
I don’t want to say too much more here as it’s best to go into this story with minimal knowledge and let it take you on its magnificent ride. But I do want to point out there is little gore (although awful things happen, they are not described in extreme detail), there is one intense love making scene that is described openly, and certainly a lot of guilt and shame moments that may make the reader squirm or feel embarrassed on behalf of the character. This makes this an excellent , easy to recommend, fantasy story. I don’t need to add a bunch of disclaimers about it being too gory, depressing, sexual, etc. Especially an ideal recommendation for those whom you may not know super well or are unsure of their tolerances.
There is a lot of good queerness! Not overly in your face at times; but how can you not have gender discussions with an eunuch as a primary character. I really appreciated the time and nuance put into the thoughts of sexuality and gender that Chan gives us. This is, for me, what makes this book truly special. It talks of the idea that you are not just your gender or lack thereof. We are all what we believe and make ourselves to be. Our two primary characters truly show this throughout the story.
So what more can I say? If you love high fantasy, want an Eastern setting, or need to know how women survive in an extreme patriarch this is probably for you. If you are newer to fantasy this is a decent place to start. It’s got some slower moments but the politics make the story. Additionally I guarantee you will be stunned by the twists and turns those same (occasionally dry) politics result in at the end.
This is a top selling novel and is often highly recommended for a very good reason. My only regret, that it took me this long to finally read it.