She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan presents one of the most unique debuts of 2021 with the awesome She Who Became the Sun, a powerful historical read with a compelling twist.

In 1345 AD China languishes under the rule of the Yuan dynasty, descendants of the Mongolian invaders who have taken control and punished the southern Chinese citizens.  As famine and banditry stalk the land, the fate of the country will be decided by the most unlikely of people.  In a small village in the south, a seer predicts the future for two siblings.  For the favoured son, the seer sees greatness and unlimited potential, while for the daughter he sees nothing in her future at all.

When a bandit raid wipes out the village, only the daughter is left alive as her brother succumbs to his grief and despair.  Determined not to die an insignificant death and prove the seer right, the daughter plans the impossible.  Stealing the identity of her dead brother, she attempts to cheat fate and take her brother’s destiny for herself.  But how far can the newly named Zhu Chongba truly go, even with a fake identity and a stolen fate?

Travelling to a nearby monastery, Zhu impresses the Abbot and is soon accepted as a novice.  Growing up amongst the monks, Zhu finds a purpose for the first time.  But when a rampaging general destroys the monastery, Zhu is forced to find a new path that sets her against the emperor and the entire Yuan dynasty.  Joining with the Red Turban rebellion, Zhu manages to prove herself and soon leads her forces to several crucial victories.  But the eye of an old rival is upon Zhu, and not even this brilliant monk will be able to emerge unscathed.  The path to China’s future begins here, and soon the fate of the entire country will fall on the poor second daughter, destined to become the nation’s first female emperor.

This was a really compelling debut from Shelley Parker-Chan, who produced an epic and unique historical tale of war, destiny, identity and fate.  Serving as the first book in Parker-Chan’s The Radiant Emperor series, She Who Became the Sun was one of the most anticipated new releases for 2021, and I had an incredible time reading it, especially once I got caught up in its fantastic story.

She Who Became the Sun has an awesome and powerful narrative that proves to be extremely addictive.  The book first shows the protagonist as an unnamed daughter, destined for nothing until she adopts the identity of her brother, Zhu, and grows into a confident and capable young adult at a nearby monastery.  The first quarter of the book is primarily told from the perspective of Zhu and serves as a rather good introduction to the character and the overarching setting.  However, the story shifts dramatically after the eunuch General Ouyang, who serves under a noble family of the Yuan dynasty, burns down the monastery and leaves Zhu a medicant monk.  Determined to gain the destiny her brother was promised, Zhu joins with the rebel movement known as the Red Turbans.  The story then focuses on several interesting storylines, including Zhu’s ascent to commander in the Red Turbans, the volatile internal politics of the rebels, as well as troubles facing the wider Yuan dynasty.  The story adds in two additional point-of-view characters a quarter of the way through, with a particular focus on General Ouyang.  Ouygang is engaging in his own plot against the Yuan, and his fate soon becomes intertwined with that of Zhu.  This results in a pretty epic tale, especially as the various story threads tie together perfectly and produce an interesting and addictive overall narrative.  This leads up to an intense and fantastic conclusion that shows how much the protagonist has changed and how determined they are to see their destiny.  It also does an excellent job setting up the future novels in this series, and I have to say that I am pretty excited to see where Parker-Chan takes this tale next.

I was deeply impressed by the cool setting of She Who Became the Sun, especially as Parker-Chan worked in some excellent and compelling historical elements.  The novel is set in 14th century China during the Yuan dynasty and features an interesting retelling of the life of famed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.  While there are a few major changes, like Zhu being a woman in disguise, She Who Became the Sun captures several key aspects of this figure’s early life, such as their peasant upbringing, their training as a monk, and their rise to power through the Red Turbans.  I really enjoyed the great examination of China during this period, and Parker-Chan does an excellent job of capturing the tyrannical rule of the Mongol invaders, the famines and crisis their ineffective rule caused, as well as the rebellion that rose to oppose them.  The author also makes sure to include several key historical figures, such as Zhu’s major supporters, and it proved to be a fun re-imagining of their relationship with the future emperor.  While this is primarily a historical fiction novel, Parker-Chan includes a lot of other interesting elements that alter the feel of She Who Became the Sun.  For example, there are several mystical features, such as some key individuals who can summon an aurora of visible light to show they have the divine right to rule.  Zhu also has the ability to see ghosts and finds herself haunted and at times damaged by malevolent spirits, angry at her decision to steal another person’s destiny.  These supernatural elements give She Who Became the Sun an intriguing and unique feel, and I really love it when authors subtly work in some subtle alternate genre inclusions into their work.

I also must mention the excellent inclusion of major LGBT+ elements into this book, especially around central character Zhu Chongba.  Zhu spends the entirety of the novel in the role of her late brother, pretending to be a man so she can rule and lead.  This was a really fascinating and distinctive choice by Parker-Chan, and one that makes She Who Became the Sun really stand out.  While there are some understandable comparisons to Disney’s Mulan, Parker-Chan instead frames it as a choice made from a desire to survive and to be more than what her sex would usually allow her to be in this period, especially under Yuan control.  Zhu spends most of the novel trying to hide her birth gender from everyone around her, allowing her to continue to achieve her.  While a few characters find out, Zhu is able to ensure their secrecy, which leads to some fascinating scenes.  I particularly love the interactions between Zhu and female characters who discover her secret, and the understanding that flows through these scenes is extremely powerful.  Other LGBT+ elements are later added to the story, especially around Zhu’s marriage to her wife Ma, and I really appreciated the clever and compelling way that it was worked into the plot.

Another impressive aspect of this outstanding book I want to highlight is the great use of characters.  This novel featured some amazing point-of-view characters whose journeys become the focus of She Who Became the Sun.  The main character is Zhu, the woman destined to become Emperor, who spends most of the book trying to live up to the legacy she believes she deserves.  I really liked the compelling character growth featured as her personality changes throughout the course of the book.  Initially meek and barely able to keep her secret, Zhu develops her cunning and her skills of manipulation to become a major figure in the monastery and the Red Turbans.  I loved the depiction of her rise to power, including that fun scene where she manages to win a battle with a prayer, and it was really entertaining to see her use the mild-mannered, humble monk routine to fool the people around her.  Having grown up with nothing, Zhu is more resilient against setbacks than some of the other characters and is able to overcome major hardships.  While Zhu spends most of the book as a good person, the desires for power and a great destiny eventually grows within her, encouraging her to do some evil things to win.  I really liked this subtle shift in personality as the novel continued, and the way that her character arc in this novel ends was really surprising and intense.

The other major character I really want to talk about is Ouyang, a general serving the powerful noble Lord Esen-Temur, son of the Prince of Henan.  Ouyang has a complex past, the son of a family declared traitor by the Emperor and the Prince of Henan, his entire family was killed, while Ouyang was made a eunuch.  Eventually able to work his way up from slave to general, Ouyang is initially portrayed as a petty, vicious, and vindictive figure, especially as he destroys the monastery that Zhu was living in.  However, as the novel progresses, you get to see how much Ouyang has suffered throughout his life, even though he is the best friend of Lord Esen-Temur.  Due to his status as a eunuch, there are some really interesting parallels between Ouyang and Zhu, especially as neither of these outsiders is comfortable in their body.  However, despite their similarities, they form a bitter rivalry, although occasionally working towards the same goals.  I really enjoyed Ouyang’s storyline, especially as it provided an intriguing alternative to the scenes focusing on the Red Turbans, providing the reader with a look at the politics of the Yuan dynasty and the fractious family dynamics surrounding Lord Esen-Temur.  It also leads to an excellent storyline where Ouyang slowly gets his long-awaited revenge and makes some moves to obtain even more power and control.  Ouyang served as an excellent antagonist for the novel, and his dark and brooding perspectives of life and the Yuan dynasty really enhanced She Who Became the Sun’s overall narrative.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed the unique and intricate book that was She Who Became the Sun, and it turned out to be an outstanding read.  Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan did an exceptional job with this impressive debut novel, and I loved the brilliant and epic historical tale she wove, especially as it contained some complex and intriguing characters.  This book comes highly recommended by me, and it is easily one of the best debuts I have so far read in 2021.

Rage by Jonathan Maberry

Rage Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 5 November 2019)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book One/Joe Ledger – Book 11

Length: 17 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Well damn, now this was an impressive book.   Prepare for all manner of action, excitement and chaos as bestselling author Jonathan Maberry presents an incredible and outstanding start to a new series that features his long-time protagonist, Joe Ledger, with Rage.

The Joe Ledger books were a series of 10 military thriller and science fiction hybrid novels that ran between 2009 and 2018, which focused on a group of military action heroes as they faced off against a number of advanced, mad science threats. Maberry actually concluded the Joe Ledger series last year, but the stories and adventures of the titular character have been continued in the new Rogue Team International series, of which Rage is the very first book (although it could be considered the 11th Joe Ledger book). This sequel series focuses on some new circumstances for the protagonists while still maintaining the heart and soul of the original books.

People who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Joe Ledger books. Ever since I picked up the 10th and final novel, Deep Silence, last year, I have been really getting into this incredible thriller series and have already gone back and read the first six Joe Ledger books. Each of these books that I have reviewed so far has received a full five out of five stars from me, and it is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. As a result, I have been very keen to get a copy of the first instalment of this sequel series for a while now, and it has been very high on my list of books to read before the end of 2019. However, nothing was able to prepare me for how awesome this book was and for how much I was going to love it.

For years, Joe Ledger was the top field agent for the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a top-secret United States military organisation tasked with protecting America from the most advanced and devastating weapons that mad science can produce. However, the political situation in America has become untenable, with the DMS no longer able to effectively do their job under the current administration. Seeing no future working for the US government, the head of the DMS, Mr Church, has disbanded the department, and has instead formed a new organisation, Rogue Team International. Independently funded and controlled by no government, Rogue Team International is able to deploy anywhere in the world against the worst sort of threats imaginable.

However, their first major mission has some very high stakes. A mysterious group of terrorists have unleashed a new bioweapon on a small, isolated island off the coast of North Korea. This weapon drives those infected by it into a murderous rage, causing them to attack and kill anyone they see in a brutal fashion. Worse, whoever is behind the attack has gone out of their way to frame the United States and South Korea for the crime, creating a dangerous situation which could see these countries dragged into a devastating war with North Korea and China.

Deployed to the island, Ledger and his team attempt to identify who is behind the attacks and what sort of weapon they have unleashed. It soon becomes clear that they are up against a deadly and powerful organisation, that is determined to cause as much chaos as possible. As a second attack is unleashed in South Korea, Ledger must find a way to stop his opponents before it is too late and the world is engulfed in war. However, their new foes are clever and ruthless and bear a powerful grudge against Ledger and Mr Church. Can Rogue Team International save the day, or will the cost be too high to pay?

Rage is an absolutely incredible and outstanding new novel from Maberry, who has done an incredible job introducing the first book in his Rogue Team International series. Rage contains an amazing story that had me firmly addicted right from the very start. The reader is once again presented with a massive and elaborate villainous plot, as two familiar antagonists and their cohorts unleash a devastating and scientifically unique attack for their own nefarious reasons. We then get to follow our protagonists as they investigate and attempt to counter the attacks and plots that they uncover. The entirety of the book is written in Maberry’s signature style, with the story told from a huge range of different points of view and time periods, resulting in a much richer and complex story that allows the reader to see the thoughts of the protagonists, antagonists and innocent bystanders as the various events of the book take place. There are a huge number of twists and turns as the story progresses, and even though we get some insight into the antagonist’s actions and motivations, the entirety of their elaborate plan is left a mystery for most of the book, allowing for some enthralling suspense to build up. All of this ends in an explosive conclusion which not only features a major fake-out but also a massively significant tragedy that is going to be a huge part of the series going forward. This was a truly epic story, and I cannot wait to see where the author takes his new series next.

Despite Rage being part of the new Rogue Team International series, Maberry continues to utilise a number of his distinctive writing elements that made his Joe Ledger novels such a delight to read. This includes the cool multiple viewpoints I mentioned above, as well as the fantastic use of great action sequences, enjoyable characters and the fascinating antagonists. However, there are some exciting changes in this book that I think existing Joe Ledger readers are going to enjoy. For example, the protagonist is part of a whole new organisation, they have a new base (a very over-the-top secret lair in Greece), a new team name and new call signs for all the protagonists (for example, Ledger has gone from Cowboy to Outlaw), all of which is an interesting change of pace for those familiar with the original series. There is also a lot more of a focus on international politics, with only a small amount of the story taking place in the United States. While I quite liked some of the new directions that Maberry was taking with this new series, many of the story elements in Rage have made it clear that the Rogue Team International books are going to be very strongly associated with the original Joe Ledger series. There are a huge number of call-backs to the previous books, including a lot of discussion about preceding cases and the utilisation of many characters, including some of the major antagonists, who have previously appeared. While you would assume that the employment of all these elements might make Rage hard to get into for readers unfamiliar with the other Joe Ledger novels, this is really not the case. Maberry continues his practice of filling his story with some detailed summaries of the various characters and books, so that readers can understand the significance of all the reference to the previous cases. This means that new readers can easily jump into Rage without any prior knowledge of the other Joe Ledger books, although I can guarantee that most people will be keen to go back and get the full account of what has happened before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new international focused formula of this book was that it allowed Maberry to examine the current political situation around the Korean Peninsula. There is quite an interesting analysis of both countries throughout the course of the story, and the various issues surrounding them and their differences are actually covered in a series of short chapters, made to resemble a political chat show, with experts voicing their thoughts on both Koreas, and the influence of countries such as China and the United States. Rage’s story features a fascinating look at what the author thinks would happen if a flashpoint event occurred in the region, and who could potentially benefit. I was very intrigued by Maberry’s analysis of the situation, and I liked how he featured several characters from both North and South Korea in his story. The author’s portrayal of the North Korean characters was particularly captivating, as he showed them as mostly good people who were trapped by political circumstances, and who aren’t seeking a war against the rest of the world. All of this examination of the current political situation in Korea made for a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and I am curious to see what area of the world he will explore in the next Rogue Team International book.

One of Maberry’s main strengths as a writer is his ability to create some truly enjoyable and memorable characters to populate his stories with. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the main protagonist of Rage and its prequel series, Joe Ledger. Ledger is an extremely complex and multilayered action protagonist, who serves as the book’s main character. Thanks to the fact that Ledger narrates all of the chapters told from his point of view (about two thirds of the book; the rest of the chapters are told in the third person), we get a real sense of his character. While he likes to project a cocky, confident and humorous persona to most people he meets, cracking all sorts of jokes to both other characters and the reader, deeper down his is a psychological mess. Due to some past trauma, Ledger has some major issues, and his career as a shooter for the DMS and Rogue Team International has not helped the situation. Ledger’s anger, despair and hopelessness are constantly bubbling towards the surface, adding a fascinating dimension to the character. I have always really liked how Maberry has gone out of his way to show an action protagonist who is actually impacted by the work they do and the lives they have taken, and it makes for a refreshing change of pace. Rage in particular contains some very dark moments for Ledger, and if the conclusion of the book is anything to go by, his character is going to undergo some massive emotional changes in the next few books.

I was also really glad that Maberry continued to utilise so many of the great side characters that have been previously introduced in the Joe Ledger series. Pretty much all of the key DMS characters have moved across into the new book, and I was really glad we could continue to enjoy the fun dynamic that they have established over the course of the previous series. The enigmatic Mr Church continues to remain one of the best spy-master characters I have ever read and is probably one of my favourite people in the Joe Ledger books. While there are no major revelations about his past in this novel (my theory is that he is either an alien or some form of angel), there are some hints to his seemingly superhuman toughness and some of the previous missions he has engaged in. Mr Church also shows off some amazing diplomatic chops in this novel, utilising a network of level-headed members of various countries’ governments to work around blustering and incompetent world leaders. Most of the rest of the supporting characters remain the same, although several of them get some fun moments in this book, such as Bug unexpectedly receiving some fan-girl attention and Doc Holiday’s eccentric personality overwhelming people unfamiliar with her. There are also some great new characters in this book, many of whom appear set to become long-term recurring characters. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog, but I am sure we will see more of him in the future.

In addition to the fantastic protagonists, Maberry has also come up with a couple of conniving and evil antagonists to act as a foil to Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International. The main villains of the book are actually prior antagonists from two of the books in the Joe Ledger series, who have been reutilised to great effect in this new novel. While an exciting original major villain might have worked out well for the first novel in a new series, I think that using some existing antagonists was an excellent choice that really helped create a captivating story. Not only does this help reinforce the connection between the new Rogue Team International series and the Joe Ledger books, but it also allowed for some interesting character and story development. Both of these main two antagonists have been defeated in the past by Joe Ledger and Mr Church, so they each have very deep, personal grudges against them. Their new plan for domination, which is actually very interesting and quite complex, is also filled with elements of revenge, which helps ratchet up the intrigue and adds a whole new element. I loved the various interludes which show how these two bad guys escaped from prison and started their new team-up, and it was really cool to see what happened to them after their respective defeats in the previous books. It was also very interesting to see two antagonists, who previously had nothing to do with each other, had appeared in different novels and had very different motivations for their actions, come together as a cohesive unit with the new goals in mind. This was definitely a great use of two antagonists, and the damage that they caused was very impressive and memorable.

It is impossible to talk about one of the Joe Ledger novels without discussing all the intense action you can expect within. Maberry is a master of writing an electrifying action sequence, and the first book in the Rogue Team International series is absolutely chock full of action, fights and brutal violence. There are so many varied and thrilling battle scenes throughout the book, as the protagonist finds himself fighting in all manner of different situations. Whether the protagonist is engaging in a mass shootout against heavily armed opponents with his team backing him up, fighting by himself against a group of assassins or engaging in knock-out, throwdown fist fight against one of the antagonists, Maberry crafts some excellent and detailed sequences, allowing the reader to appreciate everything that is going on. The standout elements of this book are the victims of the new rage-inducing bioweapon that is this book’s unique science fiction element. Victims under the control of Rage attack anything they see in a frenzy, resulting in some crazy and vicious scenes. This also allows for some unique sequences where the protagonists must find a way to neutralise the victims without killing them, in the hope that they can be cured, all the while trying to avoid getting killed by either the Rage victims or some of the soldiers behind the attacks. All of the action scenes in this book are really impressive to experience, and it is impossible not to get excited as you read through them. However, readers should be warned in advance that the action can get quite brutal in places, and there are numerous examples of gruesome mutilation or torture, which might not be appealing to some people.

One of the main things that I love about the Joe Ledger series are the incredible audiobook versions of the previous novels, all of which feature the outstanding narration of Ray Porter. As I have stated in several of my previous reviews, Porter has some unbelievable vocal talents, and the life he breathes into all the characters in the Joe Ledger audiobooks is just fantastic. In particular, he portrays the voice and personality of the series titular character and protagonist, Joe Ledger, extremely well and he does a remarkable job of conveying all of the characters emotions, charm and humour to the reader. I was so happy when I saw that Porter was going to narrate Rage, and I knew I would have to grab the audiobook format of this book when it came out. I was in no way disappointed with this audiobook, as Porter has once again done a fantastic job of bringing all the characters to life and telling Rage’s amazing story. Porter still has such a fantastic handle on the book’s main character, and his portrayal of the Joe Ledger’s emotions is just superb, especially during some major scenes in the book. With a running time of 17½ hours, Rage is a somewhat substantial read, and dedicated listeners should be able to get through it in a few days. I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Rage to anyone who wants to read this book, and it still remains my favourite and preferred way to get my Joe Ledger fix.

In Rage, Jonathan Maberry has once again outdone himself producing a wildly entertaining and deeply compelling novel that I absolutely loved. In this first instalment of his new Rogue Team International series, Maberry has brought his fantastic characters from the Joe Ledger books into a whole new era, as the story goes in some great new directions, while maintaining the best parts of the original series. Featuring one hell of a story and a pretty memorable conclusion, Rage is Maberry at his best, and I have no choice but to award it a full five stars. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a high-octane read, Rage is an outstanding book guaranteed to pull you in and leave you an emotional wreck.

Quick Review – Death Notice by Zhou Haohui

Death Notice Cover.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

English Edition Translated by Zac Haluza

Publication Date – 14 June 2018

 

This is a book I read earlier in the year, but I did not get a chance to write a review for it until now.  Death Notice is an intricate murder mystery thriller from bestselling Chinese author Zhou Haohui, originally written back in 2014.  The first English translation was released in June of 2018.

Goodreads Synopsis:

An elite police squad hunts a manipulative mastermind out to publically execute criminals the law cannot reach. A wild thriller and deadly game of cat-and-mouse from one of China’s most popular authors. For fans of Jo Nesbo, Se7en, and Hong Kong police cinema.

The brutal murder of respected police officer Sergeant Zheng Haoming sends shockwaves through Chengdu, a modern metropolis in the heart of China’s stunning Sichuan Province. He had been obsessed by an unsolved, eighteen-year-old murder case, until an entity calling themselves Eumenides (after the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution) releases a terrifying manifesto. Is the manifesto a sick joke, or something more sinister? Soon, the public starts ‘nominating’ worthy targets for Eumenides to kill, and two days later, Sergeant Zheng is dead.

Eumenides’ cunning game is only getting started. The police receive a “death notice,” a chilling note announcing the the killer’s next target, the crimes they have committed, and the date of their execution. The note is both a challenge and a taunt to the police. When the first victim dies in public, under their complete protection, the police are left stunned. More death notices are coming. The chase is on.

Death Notice is an explosive, page-turning thriller filtered through a vibrant cultural lens. Zhou Haohui expertly adds an exhilarating new perspective to the twists and tropes of the genre all fans love, making for a uniquely propulsive and entertaining read.

I found Death Notice to be an extremely enjoyable piece of crime fiction that I was able to power through in a short amount of time.  The overall mystery of this book is quite complex, as the investigative team has to investigate this modern set of killings as well as the original murders which occurred some 18 years previously.  There are a lot of fantastic twists and turns throughout the book as various reveals about the characters in the book are brought to light.  I loved seeing how all the pieces of this mystery came together, and thoroughly enjoyed the overall conclusion about who was behind it, their motivation and their legacy.

While the overall mystery is really clever, I loved the intricate ways in which the antagonist was able to manipulate the police in order to kill the targets they were protecting.  Not only does the killer come up with some elaborate plans to take out his intended victims, he is often able to get the police to do his bidding.  There are some great scenes showcasing this throughout the book, as well as some great reveals about the police characters and why they are able to be manipulated.

The setting of this book is also pretty intriguing, especially as it is not a setting Western crime readers would likely be familiar with.  The book is set in the Chinese city of Chengdu, and I am willing to bet many Western readers have never even heard of that city before.  This provides the reader a unique setting where they do not know the rules or how the police investigate crimes.  The author’s interpretation of Chinese criminal investigation is quite fascinating and readers can enjoy the similarities or differences between this and Western crime fiction.  I also liked how the book was set back in 2002, in the early days of public internet technology.  It was interesting to see how different this recent time period was technology–wise, and it offered some intriguing elements to the story.

Overall, Death Notice is an outstanding piece of crime fiction, with an intricate story and a compelling setting.  This is an easy book for Western audiences to enjoy, and readers should find this piece of Chinese crime fiction quite intriguing.  I hope that we will get more translations of Zhou Haohui’s work in the future, especially ones that continue the captivating story started in this incredible book.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars