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.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Blood & Sugar Cover.png

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.

Tombland by C. J. Sansom

Tombland Cover

Publisher: Mantle

Publication Date – 18 October 2018

 

One of the best historical fiction authors in the world today creates another exceptional piece of literature with Tombland, the epic historical crime fictional book set during the fictionally unexplored events of Kett’s Rebellion.

It is the summer of 1549, and King Henry VIII has been dead for two years.  The young Edward VI is on the throne, while his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, rules the country as Lord Protector.  However, the country is slowly descending into chaos as a long, unsuccessful war with Scotland, religious conflict, poverty and the corrupt actions of the rich landowners are raising discontent among England’s peasant population.

In the midst of this, Matthew Shardlake is working as a lawyer for the King’s sister, the young Lady Elizabeth.  When a distant relative of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is found murdered near Norwich and her husband, John Boleyn, is accused of the crime, the case could have political implications for Elizabeth.  Matthew is sent to organise a legal defence of John and to investigate whether or not he committed the crime.  Travelling with his assistant Nicholas, Matthew travels to Norwich and begins to examine the details of the case.  Meeting up with their old friend Jack Barak, the three friends are convinced of John’s innocence, but malevolent forces intervene to disrupt their defence.  As several deaths occur around Norwich, Matthew’s investigation is disrupted by events outside of his control.

A well-organised peasant rebellion erupts around the city, throwing everything into chaos.  Led by the charismatic Robert Kett, the rebels march on Norwich and set up a large camp outside the city, filled with thousands of disenfranchised peasants.  Captured by the rebels, Matthew and his companions find themselves in the midst of a dangerous and divisive situation.  Nicholas’s established views about the superiority of gentlemen sees him imprisoned, while Barak finds much in common with the peasants and their cause.  Matthew is forced to make a decision about where his loyalties lie, as Kett wishes him to assist in organising trials for the landowners they have captured.  As the rebellion drags on, Matthew finds evidence about the Boleyn murder case in the camp.  Following these leads, Matthew soon uncovers a terrible conspiracy that will not only endanger John Boleyn and his lawyers but could affect the fates of every peasant in Kett’s Rebellion.

C. J. Sansom is one of historical fiction’s most highly regarded authors, having written a series of amazing novels in the genre. His most significant body of work is the Matthew Shardlake series, which follows the titular lawyer as he finds himself forced to solve a series of elaborate mysteries during the Tudor period. All the books in this series are extremely impressive, as they all feature clever mysteries and an excellent use of the book’s historical setting.  In addition to this series, he has also written a standalone historical thriller, Winter in Madrid, as well as an alternate history novel, DominionTombland is the seventh book in the Matthew Shardlake series and Sansom’s first book since 2014, but considering the sheer amount of detail and the length of the text, this is hardly surprising.

Tombland is another epic novel from Sansom and one that I really enjoyed reading and ranked as one of my top 10 reads for 2018.  This book contains an outstanding combination of an intense and complex murder mystery and some amazing historical settings and storylines.  All of these elements are extremely amazing by themselves, but together they create one of the best reads of the year.  While I really loved this book, potential readers really need to set aside a lot of time to get through Tombland.  It has over 800 pages of story, with an additional 50 plus pages of the author’s historical notes and discussions about what events he included.  In addition, each page has such a rich amount of detail and plot that I found myself getting through this book at a lot slower pace than I usually would.  While it does take a while to get through Tombland, I personally believe it is well worth the effort, as the incredible story within had me hooked from the very first page.

This book has an intricate and powerful investigation angle, as Matthew and his associates attempt to solve a terrible murder that they believe their client has been wrongfully accused of.  The mystery part of this book is very well done and features an elaborate and intriguing solution that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book.  Sansom introduces a significant number of potential suspects, all of whom have substantial motives to kill the victim, designed to throw the reader off the scent of the real solution.  I liked how the case continued to expand out as the book went on, as the protagonists not only attempt to solve the original murder but must also investigate several murders committed to cover up the initial acts, as well as several attempts to eliminate John Boleyn.  There are several major and surprising twists throughout the investigation, as a number of small clues and characters that at first appear minor turn out to have major implications for the overarching mystery.  The solutions to the mysteries at the end of the book reveal a dark and powerful motive that has severe consequences for several of the characters involved.  Overall, Tombland contained an outstanding central mystery, which is guaranteed to keep the reader deeply curious and engaged with this fantastic text.

One of the most interesting features of Tombland is the fact that Sansom has set it during Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.  This is a somewhat obscure piece of history that many readers might not be familiar with, but it is an incredibly fascinating event of English history.  Sansom does a masterful job of portraying the entirety of the rebellion throughout the novel and use it as a fantastic secondary storyline as the protagonists witness the beginning and end of the mystery.

Sansom does an outstanding job covering the events of this rebellion, including the events that led up it and caused the peasants to rise up against the rich landowners.  As a result, he expertly examines all the events and conditions that were making the peasants and poor of Norwich, and the rest of England, discontented with the way the country was being run.  In order to do this, a number of relevant elements are effortlessly inserted into the story and become key parts of the plot.  These elements include discussions about the poorly run war in Scotland contributing to armed deserters on the rebels’ side, talks about the political structure of the country and thoughts about the religious disagreements and schisms that were rife in the country during that period.  One of the most fascinating and significant elements that apparently led to the rebellion was the rich landowners’ focus on sheep farming and the creation of large sheep enclosures rather than the growth of traditional crops.  Before reading Tombland I would never have thought that sheep farming would have the potential to be a cause of rebellion; however, Sansom is able to explain in some significant detail how sheep farming and enclosures were negatively impacting many poorer individuals in England, and how it became a key part of Kett’s Rebellion.

In addition to covering the causes of the rebellion, Sansom’s narrative grows to cover the entire length of this intriguing event.  All sorts of elements of it are explored, and readers get an excellent idea of how the peasants were organised, what their motivations were, what sort of actions they were undertaking, how the government reacted to it and what the overall attitude of the participants was.  This was all boundlessly fascinating, and as the reader gets deeper and deeper into the book it becomes harder to put the book down as they become extremely curious about what the overall fate of this group of people was, especially after the reader gets an idea of how big the rebellion was and what sort of victories they were able to obtain.  The final results of this rebellion and the long-term impacts it had on the country are really interesting to hear about, and I had an amazing time seeing all the significant events that occurred during this underexamined historical rebellion.

As always, I was immensely impressed with the sheer amount of research that Sansom did and the historical detail that resulted from it.  Tombland includes over 50 pages of the author’s notes about the event and the conclusions he drew from his extensive research.  While these 50 pages are extremely interesting to read, the revelations about how many of the events the protagonist witnesses actually occurred were astounding, and it sounds like Sansom was able to recreate nearly every significant event of Kett’s Rebellion throughout the course of Tombland, with some necessary dramatic flourishes to create the overall story.  It was amazing how many of these events actually occurred, and how many of the secondary characters were actually real-life people who had significant impacts on the outcome of the rebellion.  Readers will also be amazed by the historical details that Sansom has included on every page of this book and will have a hard time forgetting the events of 1549 and Kett’s Rebellion.

There are several other elements I enjoyed in this book, including the seamless ways that the investigative storyline combines with the historical background of Kett’s Rebellion.  So many characters that are potential witnesses or suspects in the murders that the protagonists are investigating become key figures in the historical events that occurred around Norwich.  Suspects and witnesses are also found in the rebel camp, and I liked how the key to crime and the downfall of the rebels were both in the same place.  I also enjoyed the examination of 16th century English legal procedures and the depictions of murder trials, and found the scenes featuring them very fascinating.  The book’s focus on the divide between the rich and the poor is also a great addition to the story and gets a significant look in throughout the entire book, and it is a discussion that is still relevant to this day.

C. J. Sansom once again hits his literary ball out of the park with Tombland, another five-star historical mystery that has the perfect combination of compelling mystery and intriguing historical elements. With an incredibly addictive overall narrative and a focus on a fascinating historical event that is rarely used in other pieces of historical fiction. One of my favourite reads of 2018, I highly recommend this book, especially for people who love a great mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars