“I Refuse To Be Nothing”
Synopsis: A drought and famine threatens the diminishing village, home to a brother and sister. When Zhu Chongba’s birthday occurs, his father takes him to have his fortune read. The brother is destined for greatness, his name bearing luck, the sister is destined to be nothing. But the fate of nothing is unacceptable, and when bandits orphan her and her brother, and her brother chooses his own fate, she will do anything to avoid the nothing that follows her. Claiming her brother’s name, Zhu will do anything to survive – but ho far can the ambition of survival take her, how many lines will she cross?
CW/TW – spoiler warning- (As listed by the author on GR): Dysphoria/Pre-existing non-consensual castration/Misgendering/Internalised homophobia/Life-altering injury (amputation)/Ableist language/Non-graphic depictions of death by torture/Major character death/Offscreen murder of a child/Scenes depicting extreme hunger/starvation.
Note: The main character of this book is Zhu, Zhu is (as identified by the author) a genderqueer character (AFAB but doesn’t identify as female), and throughout the book both she/her and he/him pronouns are used to describe them. Therefore, I will likely use both she/her and he/him pronouns when talking about the character in this review.💜
She Who Became The Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan is the first book in The Radiant Emperor duology and it is an epic read. Parker-Chan is an incredibly story-teller, who has crafted an extraordinary tale of war, fate, identity and ambition – this is a rich, brutal and captivating read that will keep you gripped right from the start.
Writing/Narrative: Parker-Chan has an extremely compelling writing style that is engaging, beautifully detailed, emotional, and stark. They perfectly capture the scenes and settings of the story, bringing them to life with expert detail – making them jump right of the page and into an image our heads. The prose is strong from start to finish well paced throughout and perfectly depicts the morally grey characters and choices of vengeance and war. Not only is the prose rich in detail, illuminating and breathing life into both the characters and the settings, there is also a rawness within it, something real and visceral that connects you to this story in one way or another. Parker-Chan captures everything they set out to in their prose, carefully capturing the subtleties of being human, of having ambition, of wanting to be something, to be someone.
A rarity in fantasy, but one of my favourite types of narrative, Parker-Chan uses the third person omniscient narrative to tell this story. While the main parts of the story are told through Zhu and Ouyang’s perspectives, Parker-Chan also weaves in the insights of other character’s such as Ma’s. The omniscient narration was incredibly effective for this particularly story because it gave us insight into both/multiple sides of the actual war, as well as allowing us to see the finer intricacies of the inner conflicts of the individual sides and of the characters. This is a difficult perspective to use, and to use well, and Parker-Chan does so perfectly. Somehow they balance giving us multiple sides of the conflict, revealing aa lot of information and plots, without spoiling anything. She expertly manages to maintain the element of surprise, despite the incredible amount of insight we get, and still manages to keep us on our toes and shock us. The narrative perfectly complimented the prose and supported the pace of the story incredibly well.
The Story/Plot: As I said, this book is very well paced, we do get a bit of time jumping at the start but it doesn’t become confusing or disorienting, I actually liked that it aged up the cast a little bit – it matched the tone and adult nature of the book well. The plot/story of this book is phenomenal. There are two main character’s whose stories we follow. The first, and the one at the core of the story, is Zhu’s. Zhu was born female, and so was neglected and ignored in favour of her brother. On her brother’s birthday he is told he will have a fate of greatness. Zhu begs for her own fortune and is told her fate is to be nothing. Unsurprised but unwilling to accept such a fate, circumstances lead to Zhu assuming her brother’s identity and becoming a monk. We then follow Zhu as he attempts to trick the Gods into believing the great fate is meant for her, and we watch as Zhu does anything to ensure nothing is not her fate. The second plot follows Ouyang, the beautiful Eunuch, as he aids the Prince in his attempt to quash the rebellion. But, Ouyang has a plot of his own brewing, and it only takes one event to set him on his own fated path.
Honestly, I can only say good things about this story. Zhu is a brilliantly morally grey character, who increasingly takes risks to secure his fate as one of greatness. Zhu’s ambition to survive is what drives her, greatness is Zhu’s survival so the risks are necessary and we watch as she makes increasingly cruel and manipulative decisions to get what he wants. The scope of this story is significant as Zhu travels from village, to monastery, to a city in the midst of war. Zhu’s story is complex and thrilling, I loved every single twist and turn that she took us on. Everything Zhu does is calculated and it keeps you captivated, on your toes, waiting to see where her plan will lead her. Even as Zhu grows more brutal, taking on more risks, you cannot help but root for him and his plan for greatness because Zhu is such an easy to like character. I loved watching Zhu strive for his newfound fate, and the enemies and friends he made along the way made the story even better. I have to say, I have never been so stressed in my life though – Zhu is incredibly clever but her plans consistently place her in danger – the brutality of the book and the story makes you worry for the characters, even Zhu, because consequences are real in this book. Every time Zhu had a plan my heart started hammering in my chest. But, it made the story all the more enjoyable and added a necessary dynamic that kept you in suspense.
Ouyang’s story/plot was equally emotional. Ouyang has also suffered a lot, forced to become a Eunuch and serve the Prince (though he has genuine concern for Esen, the Prince, and the pining will hurt you), he is now a General. Ouyang’s fate is thrown at him at an unexpected time and we watch as he crafts plot after plot in order to meet it. Ouyang’s story is heart-wrenching, but you can’t help but read on and watch it play out, hoping it will end differently. His primary job is, however, to help Esen defeat the rebel forces and this leads to Ouyang becoming a sort of rival with Zhu – another thread of the story that was simply delightful and painful all in one. Parker-Chan does not hold back with this book and, as Alix E Harrow claimed perfectly “This book wrecked me and it will wreck you too”.
If the personal stories of fate and ambition weren’t enough, we have the intense political games going on behind the war, family feuds, fights for power and the throne, and clever plots manipulating the brutal fights that occur. The physical and mental warring bounce off of each other, and combine to create a rich and in-depth story. Not only that, we have the addition of the God’s and their fates, the presence of ghosts – which are a mystery, and the mandate which graces those who should be ruling. This is a story of war, yes, but it goes much deeper than that and has subtle complexities that play out beneath and through the bigger story. With numerous plots, secrets and betrayals running through this book, it can only be described as epic. The ending manages to be happy, heart-breaking and ominous all in one, with a pervasive feeling that Hubris may come into play – perfectly setting up for the second book.
Characters: Representation: LGBTQIA+ Main and side characters, Chinese and Mongolian characters – while I cannot claim how accurate any of the portrayals are, the author is an ownvoice author and it is, as far as I am capable of telling, done well. The characters truly make this book shine. The plot is epic, the prose is beautiful, but the characters truly bring life to the story. Each of the characters have distinct voice, are realistic and flawed, they are incredibly raw and human. The cast is pretty decent so I’ll only focus on a few characters specifically, but they are all wonderfully written.
Zhu. No I haven’t spoken about Zhu enough yet (shh). As I said, Zhu is incredibly clever, ambitious and determined. But, also very very alluring. Zhu is witty and sarcastic in a very dry, nonchalant way and it will have you chuckling. But not only that Zhu is self-assured because belief is everything to her. He has to be Zhu Chongba to survive, and this need to survive translates into ambition for greatness, nuanced and cleverly done. Zhu is a morally grey character whose decisions can be questionable at times, but Zhu wll not be beat down and chooses herself time and time again, she chooses to be who she wants to be, chooses to claim a fate that is not her own and make it hers. The desire, the drive, the intellect, the wit, everything about Zhu draws you to them. Despite the self-assured air, there is still a vulnerability to Zhu, Zhu is human, has doubts and uncertainties, and questions her own identity. Zhu goes through a significant arc, not only of survival, but of self-recognition. Learning who she truly is, who she want’s to be, is a significant part of her story and it is messy and difficult but it is a journey of identity and an important one. I loved Zhu’s character, from the false naivety, to the wicked sharpness and intelligence, to the vulnerabilities. The character draws you in because they are so raw and human.
Zhu’s relationship with a female character (trying to avoid spoilers!!) also adds well to the story, and to Zhu’s own journey. The relationship is sweet, and will pull on your heart, but it is also complex and difficult when Zhu’s ambition rears its head.
Ouyang. Another complex character who has his own struggles throughout the story. Ouyang is also incredibly clever, with an eye for strategy and a clear cut way of dealing with things. But Ouyang is also vulnerable, hiding his hurt at the ignorance of those around him. He has a difficult past, and an equally tragic fate, his internal struggle in heart-wrenching to watch and the subtle relationship between him and the Esen is very well crafted. Despite being on the opposite side of the war to Zhu, and working his own dark plots, it is hard to hate Ouyang because his struggles are so real and cut so deeply. Ouyang is a difficult character to describe, which speaks to his human complexity, and he is so well written that you can’t help but be attached and feel for him. but he is also flawed and can be cruel and exact in his revenge and justice, he too is clever and witty, and he too must follow his fate to wherever it may lead.
Ma. Ma is the SWEETEST. But don’t let that fool you, she is quick and clever, despite wearing her heart on her sleeve. Ma is intelligent, she knows what should and should not be said, can see the bigger picture, and, most importantly, she is empathetic. Her strength is her empathy, her heart, which allows her to see what the logical and strategic characters cannot. She is strong-willed and her beliefs are clear, but she too has flaws and feels so deeply that she runs the risk of being used, of being taken advantage of. Ma is sweet, but she also has a fire in her.
Xu Da. Xu Da is another character who is simply the sweetest. He is funny and mischievous, but also loyal. his friendship with Zhu throughout the book was a highlight, the brotherly bond and banter was hilarious and amusing and their support for each other is undeniable. Xu Da is an excellent character, skilled in his own way.
Esen.The Prince is a carefree character, determine in the war but not one to dwell on things. He is, however, blind to the subtle feelings of others at times, but does his best to protect Ouyang as his General. The prince, however, as the story goes on becomes a little more erratic and jaded, as he navigates the war and deadly plots around it. Another well written character with good development and a story that tugs on the heartstrings.
Overall, this is an epic story, with a clever and beautiful prose, complex and rich plots, and flawed characters who bring the story to life. It is a story of war, identity, ambition and fate, set against political and subtle plots and secrets. This is a story that should not be missed, and one I highly recommend.
If you enjoyed The Poppy War, by RF Kuang, The Unbroken, by C.L. Clark or The Untamed (Mo Dao Zu Shi, by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu), then you will likely enjoy this epic historical fantasy. If you generally enjoy fantasy/historical fantasy then I highly recommend this to you!
*I received an eARC via #Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you #PanMacmillan #Mantle)