Thumbs up for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. Historical fantasy.
This is a tough review to write because the criticisms I have of this book will make it sound like I didn’t enjoy it. And that isn’t the case. The pages flew by and I finished it in just a few sittings. Yet, in the startlingly specific category of “brutal, queer, low/no-magic fantasy in which a woman starts with nothing and takes over a pre-industrial empire through sheer determination,” I found it impossible not to compare this book with The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which I feel is a much better book in almost exactly the same number of pages. I kept reading SWBDTS mostly because I liked the second lead—a eunuch general who’s in love with the man whose family he plans to take vengeance on—but the main character’s motivation is just a word (“greatness,” by which she seems to mean “fame”) and I would have liked to see another 200 pages to fully develop her political and military problems and how she overcomes them. Her rise is presented as “fate,” and I have no problem with books in which you know the main character will succeed; I read romances, after all. But the how is the important part, and in SWBDTS, the hows weren’t satisfyingly developed. Even important battles are skimmed over in a paragraph. So, unless you are specifically looking for a book in which a main character suffers gender dysphoria, I would recommend Baru Cormorant instead. And I feel bad saying that, because I wanted so much to love this book. But there you go.
Dusk fell while Zhu’s force was still picking their way down the steep road to the Yangzi River. Zhu had ridden ahead, and now when she looked back she saw the dark cliff face veined with flickering lantern-light. Perhaps that was what their own lives looked like from Heaven: tiny pricks of light, constantly blinking out and reappearing in the endless dark flow of the universe.
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