When I read “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles,” I thought that was an intriguing way to sell a book, combining two works I devastatingly adore. However, the comparison feels a little too overstated for me, especially on The Song of Achilles front, because the romance in She Who Became the Sun doesn’t have the power either the same impact.
I think the prime aspect I need to mention is how much I thought of The Poppy War while reading this book. From the early pages, it popped into my mind, and at first, I thought I should try to let it go and just absorb the story, but it only got worse and worse. There were characters with the same name, and from 70% on there were certain events that were way too similar to The Poppy War. This bothered me immensely, and alongside so many aspects that were bothering me about the book they made what could’ve been maybe a passable 3-star rating book became a 2-star.
We follow the journey of Zhu, who despite not being destined for greatness, strives for it all costs. I found her characterization to be weak. I feel like I don’t actually know her, and that she becomes repetitive after a certain point. Also, I don’t really feel that her ambition or personality is that shaped up and strong, she just feels like…. A less impressive version of Rin (The Poppy War’s protagonist). We keep hearing how great she is and how power-hungry she is but I just don’t see her acting that way, I don’t see her doing impressive things, or having satisfactory growth and development. She seems like a shell. So many of her problems are solved quickly and in a too easy manner and that got wearisome after a while. As a reader, it is frustrating to read a statement over and over on the page but not actually see the character to be and act like it.
This book is a historical fantasy, but both aspects for me felt underdeveloped. I note that the author has done good research on the historical aspects to write the book, but she just hasn’t been able to convey all the necessary information understandably. I found myself confused multiple times, to the point that I went to google to search for a few pieces of information about the Ming dynasty, which made me realize that Zhu is inspired by Zhu Yuanzhang (and that’s cool!). The overall aesthetic of the period of time is beautiful, but if the setting isn’t thoroughly explained then what’s the point. The fantasy is just a little pinch in the book, and honestly, I think it would have done better without it. If you’re not gonna bother to shape up the fantasy in the world you’re creating why add that at all? Also again inevitable comparisons to The Poppy War.
The point of view switches between multiple characters but I feel like that also worked against the novel. The first part, my favorite one, was entirely narrated by Zhu, and from the second part, other POV’s were added. I couldn’t connect with any character or care deeply about any of them. There was excessive use of “telling” instead of “showing” and that annoyed me a lot. Also, these transitions between POV’s felt too abrupt, and the novel had a seem of being too chopped up. I think that if the novel had been narrated only by Zhu (and perhaps Ma) it would’ve worked so much better in creating more solid characters. In addition, Ouyang’s chapters were tiresome for me.
The gender and sexuality aspects discussed in the book, however, was probably my favorite point about it and the one that was done best.
The pacing was terrible, whole chapters seemed to drag where nothing happened and the battles or action parts were too scattered and poorly described to the point I caught myself trying too hard to picture something reading it over and over again. The writing in this book just really wasn’t for me. You rarely see the battles, you’re just told of their outcomes afterward. There are a lot of elements of the worldbuilding and plot that were taken for granted and not explained.
I kept expecting it to be either a lyrical overjoy (again The Song of Achilles comparison) or an incredible dive in deep into the character’s minds and feels but I felt nothing. It was fairly easy to read, even though the story deserved writing that could convey all the greatness, grandioseness, and radiance this book was supposed to have. A disappointment.
Thank you to the publisher for sending me a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.