Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, at Strange Horizons

My review of Shelley Parker-Chan's debut novel She Who Became the Sun—recently nominated for a Hugo award (the first time ever, apparently, for an Australian author), with Parker-Chan also appearing on the Astounding ballot—appears today at Strange Horizons. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and particularly the way in which it combined a non-Western historical fantasy of the type we've seen so much of in the last decade or so with some really interesting ideas about gender. It's a story about how societies are weakened by rigid gender roles, and about how specific individuals, by queering those roles, can achieve power.

Right at the beginning, then, Parker-Chan establishes that the rigid gender roles that govern the novel's society aren't simply a matter of one gender having more power and freedom than the other, but of separate spheres of knowledge—and that the men in the novel, by convincing themselves that women's knowledge is both useless and out of reach, have hobbled themselves in ways they aren't even aware of. Despite her warning to herself, Zhu finds herself sliding back towards using forbidden female knowledge and skills. Again and again, she does so as a way of gaining advantage and achieving things that the men around her find impossible. By noticing the women around her, and seeing things that are invisible to men, she is able to gain power in entirely unexpected ways.
As much as I've enjoyed recent fantasies set in worlds where misogyny and queerphobia are nonexistent or easier to overcome, I think what Parker-Chan is doing is more interesting. Like Sofia Samatar a few years ago, it seems to me that they are using the epic fantasy format to do new and interesting things, and push back what the subgenre is capable of. She Who Became the Sun is a major work, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it takes the Hugo this summer.

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