Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan (The Radiant Emperor #1)

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ARC received from the publisher (Mantle) in exchange for an honest review.

This was the last book of the 2021 orange sapphic trifecta (the other two being The Unbroken and The Jasmine Throne) I had left to read and another of my most anticipated releases.  It delivers everything other early reviews have promised – moral grayness, queerness, epicness, kneeling, yearning, a most interesting misogynistic eunuch, a petty scholar, determination, and romantic fisting. In short, if you’re looking for a different take on epic fantasy, you should definitely go for it.

Born in a famine-stricken little village and unsatisfied with her promised fate, Zhu decides to steal her dying brother’s identity and with it, his great destiny. Off to join a monastery, she’s prepared to do anything to avoid becoming nothing. On the other side, we have Ouyang, a eunuch general with many insecurities, haunted by ghosts and mysteriously bound to Zhu.

I have always been fascinated by characters who would do anything to achieve their goals – watching to see just how far they will dare to go and how many corpses will their ambition leave in their path, which of their flaws will fuck them over. Zhu has been very satisfying in this regard, as has Ouyang, and I love the “enemies by fate who keep running into each other” trope. Another character I enjoyed is Wang Baoxiang, considered unmanly because of his scholarly inclinations, underestimated and belittled constantly – to other characters’ peril. His pettiness was a delight.

(Ma, however, is a cinnamon roll too pure for this world who deserves only the best.)

Another of the main themes is gender. There’s a lot of nuance and many differences between how characters perceive it that are impossible to describe in a review, but I loved it. You have Zhu who doesn’t really care, Ouyang’s vast amounts of baggage, characters feeling restricted by their gender roles, prince Esen, the masculine ideal, and everything in between.

In short, I recommend it and I would love to continue the series.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: anyone looking for a fresh take on epic fantasy, those looking for queer rep and Gender, anyone who likes ambiguous morality and ruthlessly ambitious characters
Not recommended to: those who like clear-cut morality

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