She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan
Synopsis: A novelization of the rise of the Ming Dynasty, but the founding emperor is reimagined as a woman living in secret as a man.
Book Review: A fascinating read that focuses on the Will To Power, and sexual dynamics in a pre-modern society. The POV alternates between Zhu (the rising emperor) and Ouyang (a eunuch slave-turned-general with intense self-loathing issues).
1 – The Will To Power. The novel is a great dramatization of the kind of mindset that is required to do something as history-altering as becoming the founding emperor of a world power. There is never anything in Zhu’s mind that rivals the driving importance of securing her rise to greatness. The sheer, burning desire is overwhelming and awesome to behold. It is self-justifying, and it leads her to commit ever-increasing atrocities and sacrifice ever-greater parts of herself to this ambition. It does a great job of making one realize that the vast majority of us would never want to be the kind of person who could take over the world. That level of commitment and mono-focus is just too breaking.
Ouyang has a similar drive, although his Will To Power is in the pursuit of revenge. Watching his dedication is perhaps even more astounding than Zhu’s. His final sacrifice to achieve it is either absolutely inspiring or absolutely chilling, and I’m still not sure which. If someone were to seek revenge for my death, I think I’d want them to be like Ouyang — it’s crazy romantic in its tragedy. Goth turned up to 11, TBH. :)
2 – Sexual Dynamics. I love how many different angles this is attacked from. Most obviously, Zhu is a woman pretending to be a man, because a woman would never be allowed to be at the head of an army, and Zhu wants Power above all else. The vulnerability this creates — where a simple, irrelevant fact about you could be used to cripple you if your enemies knew it — really drives home how fucking stupid it is that this vulnerability exists at all. It is a vulnerability imposed entirely by social convention, and it’s a vulnerability that would cripple your own side, because it deprives your side of their best general and only your own side can enforce it! Madness!
But it doesn’t stop there.
The eunuch general is likewise fettered because he isn’t man enough (due to the castration, you see).
The straight, cis, younger brother of the Mongol Prince is even less of a man than the eunuch, due to focusing on “womanly” responsibilities like administration rather than war! Being a straight cis male is no defense in a patriarchy, you have to be an aggro warrior or it doesn’t count.
A very powerful woman is the defacto ruler of a wealthy province, everyone knows it and deals with her as basically an equal, but she has no formal power. She rules only because she picked a husband who is useless and doesn’t care to rule as long as he gets pussy and wine on tap. So while one can be great as a woman, one can only do so in specific unusual circumstances, and only if one has the personality that can tolerate a life with that sort of spouse. This is no way to run a government!
In contrast to all this is Mongol Prince. He’s charismatic, attractive, a great warrior, kind, caring – basically a good-natured jock. He’s the epitome of positive masculinity, and he never realizes all the bullshit that all the non-jocks suffer through. Unfortunately as a kind-hearted doofus, he is exploited like hell by those who aren’t so naïve.
The past really sucked, guys.
On it’s face, this novel looks like it should be an absolute home-run with me. It explores a lot of fantastic themes, in a depressing world, filled with conflicted characters, and the writing is excellent! But somehow, it doesn’t really work. What happened?
First, it kinda cheated by calling itself a Fantasy novel. This is historical fiction. There is basically no Fantasy in it. The two brief intrusions of Fantasy aspects have no relevance and can be interpreted as delusion and/or removed entirely without changing the story. That’s OK I guess, I don’t mind historical fiction. I just feel like I was lied to, and I’m not sure why. Does historical fiction not sell well, or something? I think this would have been just as popular if it was labeled correctly.
But that’s a very minor gripe. Far more importantly — there is very little emotion in the novel. There is some great desperation at the beginning. The further into the novel we go, the more emotion drains out of it. There isn’t any emotional arc that any character goes through. Zhu keeps hitting us with desperation and will to power over and over, and it gets old. Ouyang keeps hitting us with self-loathing and resentment over and over, and it gets old. A good novel takes the reader on an emotional journey, IMO. This novel, while being historically fascinating, doesn’t have much else.
I kept having to remind myself “Hey, this is grimdark, these people are destroying themselves in pursuit of lost purposes, it’s exactly the kind of story I love!”, until eventually I wasn’t able to convince myself any longer. In a good grimdark/goth tale, we are allowed to ruminate on the darker emotions, and process them, and watch them transmogrify into other emotions. That’s Good Brooding! The plot elements that allow for Good Brooding are all here, but there is never any emotional payoff. There is never deeper twistings of the soul, or radical shifts, or whatever.
I think one of the most important functions of fiction is to allow an audience to feel emotions they don’t get enough of IRL. While exceptions exist, generally if a work of fiction doesn’t make me feel emotions, it’s failing it’s primary purpose. Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: There’s a fair bit to talk about here. All the themes I mentioned above provide good fodder for conversation. Furthermore, we felt the victory of New Insight Gained after spending a bit of time trying to figure out why, on paper, this looks awesome, but in practice none of us really liked it and we didn’t know why! Figuring out something like that feels good. It was also a heckin’ neat history lesson. And, as a Hugo nominee, it gets a bit of a bump for being of current interest. Recommended.