Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Publication Date: July 20, 2021
Print Length: 416 pages
Read Date(s): August 4, 2021 – August 5, 2021
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.
This book was an absolute masterpiece. I was hooked from the very first chapter and didn’t want it to end. The prose was stunning and the pacing steady. I never found myself bored with a single moment in this book and actually wish the pace had been a little bit slower at some points because I just wanted to experience more and more of the settings and characters’ day to day lives. I think this has probably become my favorite read of the year, so far.
The setting and world-building were exquisite. I felt as though I was transported to ancient China. The author did a fantastic job of making this ancient world feel real while also interweaving elements of fantasy throughout. I loved each of the settings, but I wish the book had spent a little more time at the monastery. I found Zhu’s life there to be fascinating, and the mixture of spiritual teachings and politics seemed like it would have been an interesting place to explore further. However, I also enjoyed what came next in the story with Zhu ingratiating into the rebels and the exploration of those politics, as well as exploring the society and politics of the Mongols. The world-building of all the places, factions, and lore was largely seamless and left this fictional realm feeling massive and complex, while at the same time having the experience of something intimate.
The characterizations in this novel were top notch and provided a great level of depth to the cast of this story. Each of them had interesting personalities and backstories that set them apart and informed the motivations for the choices they made during the story. The characters felt like fully realized people who developed in reasonable ways based on their circumstances. Zhu’s story was one of grit and determination with a passion and desire for life. Her story was a truly incredible one of intense fortitude that ranged from growing up an unwanted, starving child in a small village to leading armies. She achieved many great things only because she had the burning desire, and wit, to do so. Ouyang’s journey in many ways complemented Zhu’s, while also acting as somewhat of a mirror to it. He had a burning desire to achieve great things, but his motivation was not nearly as noble. Whereas, Zhu wanted to achieve greatness to avoid death and nothingness (at least initially), Ouyang was always driven by the desire for revenge. Interestingly, even though their desires stemmed from different emotions, they both experienced a great deal of pain to achieve their greatness and ended up doing some pretty horrible things to get there. As was taught in the monastery, desire is the root of all suffering, and even though desire was at the root of many of the positive changes that take place in the novel, it was also the source of all of the pain. Many of the secondary characters also followed paths that illustrated this same lesson and were just as fleshed out as the more primary characters.
The exploration of gender and the systems associated with it was incredibly well thought out. Each of the characters was impacted by gender or the patriarchal system in some way. Zhu’s journey, in particular, did an exceptional job of highlighting the difference between biological sex, gender, and gender expression and how all three constructs come together to form the complex identity of an individual person. It was fascinating to watch her journey and understanding of herself grow into self-acceptance by the end of the story. I also liked that the story illustrated the destructive impacts of a patriarchy on both the men and women. While men definitely benefit from having the power of the system on their side, there are always negative impacts for them too, which often go unnoticed. This book made a point to shine a light on those impacts with characters such as Lord Wang and the level of destruction and pain wrought upon most of the men in the book, which occurred largely due to their ongoing participation in and veneration of the ideals of their patriarchal system.
There is so much more I could say about this book. However, all I will say is this: go read it. I cannot recommend it enough. Therefore, I rate the book 5 out of 5 stars.
Have you read it? What did you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!