To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
CW: Dysphoria, Pre-existing non-consensual castration, Misgendering, Internalised homophobia, Life-altering injury (amputation), Ableist language, Non-graphic depictions of death by torture, Major character death, Offscreen murder of a child, Scenes depicting extreme hunger/starvation, Graphic depiction of a person burning to death
To say that this was one of my most anticipated books of this year is an understatement. Since an year ago when I first got to know about and added it to my TBR, this book comped as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles has been making me excited, which only increased as my fascination with Chinese costume dramas grew during the pandemic. So, when it was ultimately time for me to start reading (or listening in this case), I had such high expectations that it took even me by surprise, but I was also confident that it would live up to everything. And wow how it did.
I have no words to describe how I feel after finishing this book. The author’s prose is exquisite and lyrical and how they managed to tell such a ruthless and expansive story in such a poetic manner will always keep me wondering. The pace is also relentless, not just because we are covering more than a decade’s worth of story, but also because the circumstances are always dangerous and every chapter feels like the characters are on a precipice and any decision they make will alter their path in significant ways. The audiobook by Natalie Naudus is also perfectly narrated, evoking the right feelings in me at the apt moments.
The major strength of this book though, comes from the characters. Zhu Chongba starts off as a starving peasant who loses her family to bandits and famine, but if there’s one thing she isn’t lacking, it’s the will to survive and defy the fate that’s written for her. Her determination to want and desire and then act to get what she wants, unfolds beautifully across these pages, but at no point does this tale of ambition and power put us off from rooting for her success.
Ouyang on the other hand is the eunuch general for the empire which decimated his entire family and mutilated his body, and his conflict between wanting to get revenge for his ancestors while trying to stay loyal to the man who has been his master and best friend and commander is utterly heartbreaking. He is no less ruthless in achieving his goals but the yearning and angst the author infuses in his internal monologues makes him someone we feel very sympathetic towards.
There are also a whole host of side characters, some whose POVs we do get to read, and we see how the powerplays of Zhu and Ouyang are affecting the lives of the ones closest to them. Xu Da starts off as an irreverent playboy monk but his undying loyalty to Zhu is endearing, while at the same time, seeing the empathetic and compassionate Ma Xiuying navigate the grief of losing one person after another whom she cares about to the incessant betrayals of her own people, makes us want to cry alongwith her and give her a hug. There are many others who leave an indelible impression on us while reading but getting attached to anyone is such a scary prospect because we never know who will die at the sword point of whose schemes.
While the characters are the flesh and blood of this book, it’s the themes the author explores that form it’s backbone. As this is a reimagining of the founding of the Ming dynasty, it is interesting to retell this story from the perspective of a character who is not born a man and eschews any female characteristics in her lived experience, deciding to topple the very patriarchal empire of her time. I loved how the author shows us Zhu’s relationship with her gender – she takes up the life and fate of her brother but slowly comes to realize that she can’t be him completely but nor can she ever be a woman. The fear that she feels about the exposure of her truth felt so real that I was petrified during some of the scenes, and I can only wait with bated breath to see how any revelations will affect her plans in the future books.
Ouyang on the other hand is full of self hatred because while born a man, he is treated as less than because of what was done to his body, and he hates himself for having made that impossible choice. He also hates women with a passion because he is frequently treated like them. This contempt that he feels for his body as well as those men who he considers whole, while also envying them for their ability to have desires and families, is a duality that the author perfectly captures. And it’s the idea of these characters who are outside of the gender binary existing and fighting and winning in a sexist patriarchal empire is what makes this book special.
I also loved how the author depicts ambition in the story. When characters become hungry for power and grow ruthless in their ambitions, it’s easy to hate them but I admire how the author deftly navigated these themes without ever making us feel like the characters were wholly wrong in their choices. Yes, they are ambitious and they are relentless and heartless in the pursuit of their goals, but they are also doing it for honor and family and survival, and how can we judge that. And the whole idea of a person’s fate being defined and the possibility of humans either defying their fate or succumbing to it forms the core of this story and I can only wait and see what fate awaits these characters.
In conclusion, this book was everything that I thought it would be and more. An unrelenting tale of survival and aspiration of characters who otherwise would have no power in this world, this book is evocative and bold and ambitious and will leave you breathless with anticipation at the end of most chapters, and especially towards the end. It’s also beautifully Asian and queer and if you enjoy genderbent and queer retellings of historical events, you cannot miss this book. It is totally shooting towards the top of my favorite books of 2021 list and joining the other two of the sapphic trifecta. While everything is going horribly in the real world, I feel I’ve gotten to read some of the best books ever this year and I’m glad for authors like Shelley who are keeping me and many readers like me sane during bad times. All I can do now is wait for the next book in The Radiant Emperor series and maybe listen to the spectacular audiobook again and again in the meantime.