Almost Valentine’s Day!
Here’s the third in my FAIRYTALE FANTASY reviews!
TO REPEAT from fairytale fantasy post #1: the term “fairy tale” is misleading. What we typically call “fairy tales” are more accurately described as “folk tales,” or “traditional tales,” especially one coming from the oral tradition. I’m also not necessarily posting about the fae, although one of the books does have a strong fae presence. “Fairy”—“Fae”—They are synonyms (of a sort), and tales of the fae are an important fantasy subgenre, but again, I’m not using “fairy” necessarily in that sense.
AND I’m not dealing with anything Disney.
THE FAIRYTALE FANTASY NOVELS:
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Based on the Grimms’ fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Reviewed HERE in Fairytale Fantasy post #1. One of my two top picks.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. Based on the Senegalese folk tale Ansige the Glutton. Reviewed HERE in Fairytale Fantasy post #2. One of my two top picks.
Other fairytale fantasy novels:
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. Incorporates ghost lore from China. Reviewed in this post.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Based on the French fairy tale Cinderella.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Uses folk motifs from Mesoamerica.
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa. Based on folklore of Japan.
Alice, by Christina Henry. Horror-fantasy based on Alice in Wonderland.
For the Wolf, Hannah Whitten. Based on Little Red Riding Hood and even more closely, Beauty and the Beast.
Today’s fairytale fantasy review:
SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN, by Shelley Parker-Chan
Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, published by Tor in 2021, has gotten a lot of buzz, a lot of it well-deserved. It could easily be described as an historical novel about the first Ming emperor of China, but with fantasy elements. In fact, I think I would have liked it better if the writer had thought of it that way, and included the ghosts as entities the characters believe in, but not necessarily the reader. There’s a really fine line here, and I wish the author had had more faith in her 14th century Chinese characters’ perceptions of reality rather than packaging them for us as fantasy. I kept wondering whether fantasy was the author’s intention, or just the way the book was marketed. Reading interviews with Parker-Chan, who is Australian-Asian, an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, and a big fan of Asian fantasy, I’ve decided no, she did want those fantasy elements. And anyway, the ghost lore really is fascinating, whichever way you want to read the novel.
The folklore basis of the novel:
The fantasy elements in this novel are pretty thin, but ghosts play a prominent role. A second fantasy element presents the idea that a “mandate of Heaven,” manifested in bursts of mystical light, guides the main character, Zhu Chongba in her destined path to becoming Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor of China. I don’t know about the mystical light, but Parker-Chan’s ghosts derive from a main feature of 14th century Chinese culture. Reading Parker-Chan’s novel led me to find out more about the ghost lore. Here are a few accessible sources: University of Chicago professors Judith Zeitlin and Patrick Crowley discuss the topic HERE. Zeitlin comments that ghosts in this era were generally supposed to have returned from the dead to right some wrong or solve some problem, and that’s certainly the role they play in Parker-Chan’s novel.
My investigation also turned up two important Ming Dynasty literary works that provide a lot of source material for Chinese ghost lore. Xu Zhonglin’s Fengshen Yanyi (also known as Fengshen Bang), which can be translated “The Investiture of the Gods” or “The Creation of the Gods,” is part of a flourishing “gods and demons” genre of fiction from 16th century China. Another 16th century Chinese novel,Wu Chen’gen’s Journey to the West, considered one of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature, is also full of Chinese ghost-lore and other folkloric tales and elements. Here are two accessible versions for Western readers: Katherine Liang Chew’s Tales of the Teahouse Retold: Investiture of the Gods, published by iUniverse in 2002, and Julia Lovell’s 2021 Penguin Classics translation of Journey to the West.
Both of these classics of Chinese literature have hugely influenced Chinese popular culture, including numerous later works of fiction, stage plays, movies, comics, and video games. Parker-Chan herself has said in interviews that she first envisioned her novel as a Chinese television show and a “melodrama.” Thanks to Parker-Chan’s novel, the allure of this lore has captured Western readers who might not have been familiar with much of it before.
The most stunning aspect of this novel is how it re-imagines the gender roles of the main figures in a tumultuous period of Chinese history. During this period, the Mongol grip on China was weakening, and a young monk from a poor background saw his opportunity. Through skillful political maneuvering and battle tactics, he attained the emperorship of China. Parker-Chan’s premise—that this young man was not a man at all but a woman in disguise—works brilliantly, and the author didn’t need fantasy to convince me to willingly suspend my disbelief. Zhu Chongba, the monk, meets her match in Ouyang, a court eunuch. Both are smart, both are driven, and both are reaching for their destiny. The strategizing and power politics, including the gender politics, are nothing short of thrilling. The characters, Zhu and Ouyang for sure but a number of others, are beautifully developed, and Parker-Chan pulls no punches and does not sentimentalize. This is the part of the novel I loved.
In the end, though, in spite of my admiration and all of the many laudatory reviews I read, the novel didn’t become an instant favorite. A long tedious part in the middle of the novel nearly lost me. The beginning of the novel was so intriguing, though, and the end of it was so absorbing, that I stuck with it.
Reading a novel, especially a long novel, is so dependent on personal and outside factors that I have to wonder how I would have reacted if I had read Parker-Chan’s book under other circumstances. I had just finished Cecelia Holland’s brilliant historical novel, Until the Sun Falls, about exactly those Mongol overlords that Zhu defeats, and I’m wondering if I might have been hungry for more pure historical fiction on the subject. Also, I had fairly recently finished Nicola Griffith’s Hild, another brilliant historical novel re-imagining the complex politics surrounding a powerful young gender-ambiguous protagonist. I’m wondering if my experience reading those two novels (with their stunningly beautiful prose) might not have made me impatient with Parker-Chan’s fantasy elements. I might have been thinking, Let’s get to the good stuff! (I know that sounds strange in a fantasy blog!) But Parker-Chan ultimately comes through with the good stuff, leaving me a very satisfied reader.
Here are some informative reviews of Parker-Chan’s novel: Greer Macallister’s Chicago Review of Books review; a Locus Magazine review; and this very astute review by Lee Mandelo for Tor, the publisher.
Related works and fantasy-related fictions:
For more about the historical elements: I’ve already mentioned Cecelia Holland’s brilliant novel, Until the Sun Falls. Her novel is about the heirs of Genghis Khan and their near-invasion of Europe. The invasion ended when dynastic squabbles sent the Mongol warriors back home to China, where Genghis Khan’s heirs, most notably his grandson Kublai Khan, had established the Yuan dynasty. This is the dynasty that Zhu Yuanzhang (Zhu Chongba), Parker-Chan’s protagonist, defeats to become emperor. Holland’s genius is in making us feel that we are there with the people she writes about. From the reader’s perspective, these aren’t historical figures but living, breathing people whom we come to know and understand.
For more about the fantasy elements: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Chinese folk-heroine Hua Mulan, known through many sources beginning in 6th century China, and—like Parker-Chan’s Zhu—a woman who disguised herself as a man to achieve power. The studio-that-shall-not-be-named (Disney) has made both an animated and a live-action movie about her, and she has become hugely popular to Western audiences.
Nevertheless, many Westerners might be completely unaware of the flourishing Chinese pop culture that Parker-Chan drew upon when she wrote her novel. I just dipped my big toe into it, and I was amazed at the variety and vigor. Take a look at this list of the greatest Chinese television dramas of all time. Among the offerings: shows based on Investiture of the Gods and Journey to the West! And here’s a word every Western reader/viewer should know (and many younger readers/viewers already do): wuxia. These are stories of martial arts, heroic deeds, and fantasy. The amazing movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), directed by Ang Lee, brought this type of fantasy to the attention of Western fantasy consumers. It’s a favorite of mine! Now that I’m thinking about it, I want to watch it again, right now. . .
And finally! Have a kid in your life who might want to know more about Chinese folklore? These middle-grade books by Grace Lin are just wonderful: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (a Newbery Honor winner), Starry River of the Sky, and When the Sea Turned to Silver, the most recent and a finalist for the National Book Award. My grandson loves that one. I give it The William G-K Seal of Approval.