Friday Night Book Club: Read an exclusive excerpt from Shelley Parker-Chan’s historical fantasy She Who Became the Sun
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening and this excerpt from She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan – a glorious tale of love, loss, betrayal and triumph by a powerful new voice.
She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and became the founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
About the book
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty plain, a seer shows two children their fates. For a family’s eighth-born son, there’s greatness. For the second daughter, nothing.
In 1345, China lies restless under harsh Mongol rule. And when a bandit raid wipes out their home, the two children must somehow survive. Zhu Chongba despairs and gives in. But the girl resolves to overcome her destiny. So she takes her dead brother’s identity and begins her journey.
Can Zhu escape what’s written in the stars, as rebellion sweeps the land? Or can she claim her brother’s greatness – and rise as high as she can dream?
Read the excerpt:
Huai River Plains, Southern Henan, 1345
Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade. All around there was nothing but the bare yellow earth, cracked into the pattern of a turtle’s shell, and the sere bone smell of hot dust. It was the fourth year of the drought. Knowing the cause of their suffering, the peasants cursed their barbarian emperor in his distant capital in the north. As with any two like things connected by a thread of qi, whereby the actions of one influence the other even at a distance, so an emperor’s worthiness determines the fate of the land he rules. The worthy ruler’s dominion is graced with good harvests; the unworthy’s is cursed by flood, drought, and disease. The present ruler of the empire of the Great Yuan was not only emperor, but Great Khan too: he was tenth of the line of the Mongol conqueror Khubilai Khan, who had defeated the last native dynasty seventy years before. He had held the divine light of the Mandate of Heaven for eleven years, and already there were ten-year-olds who had never known anything but disaster.
The Zhu family’s second daughter, who was more or less ten years old in that parched Rooster year, was thinking about food as she followed the village boys towards the dead neighbor’s field. With her wide forehead and none of the roundness that makes children adorable, she had the mandibular look of a brown locust. Like that insect, the girl thought about food constantly. However, having grown up on a peasant’s monotonous diet, and with only a half-formed suspicion that better things might exist, her imagination was limited to the dimension of quantity. At that moment she was busy thinking about a bowl of millet porridge. Her mind’s eye had filled it past the lip, liquid quivering high within a taut skin, and as she walked she contemplated with a voluptuous, anxious dreaminess how she might take the first spoonful without losing a drop. From above (but the sides might yield) or the side (surely a disaster); with firm hand or a gentle touch? So involved was she in her imaginary meal that she barely noticed the chirp of the gravedigger’s spade as she passed by.
At the field the girl went straight to the line of headless elms on its far boundary. The elms had once been beautiful, but the girl remembered them without nostalgia. After the harvest had failed the third time the peasants had discovered their gracious elms could be butchered and eaten like any other living thing. Now that was something worth remembering, the girl thought. The sullen brown astringency of a six-times-boiled elm root, which induced a faint nausea and left the inside of your cheeks corrugated with the reminder of having eaten. Even better: elm bark flour mixed with water and chopped straw, shaped into biscuits and cooked over a slow fire. But now the edible parts of the elms were long gone, and their only interest to the village children lay in their function as a shelter for mice, grasshoppers, and other such treats.
At some point, though the girl couldn’t remember exactly when, she had become the only girl in the village. It was an uncomfortable knowledge, and she preferred not to think about it. Anyway, there was no need to think; she knew exactly what had happened. If a family had a son and a daughter and two bites of food, who would waste one on a daughter? Perhaps only if that daughter were particularly useful. The girl knew she was no more useful than those dead girls had been. Uglier, too. She pressed her lips together and crouched next to the first elm stump. The only difference between them and her was that she had learned how to catch food for herself. It seemed such a small difference, for two opposite fates.
Just then the boys, who had run ahead to the best spots, started shouting. A quarry had been located, and despite a historic lack of success with the method, they were trying to get it out by poking and banging with sticks. The girl took advantage of their distraction to slide her trap from its hiding place. She’d always had clever hands, and back when such things had mattered, her basket-weaving had been much praised. Now her woven trap held a prize anyone would want: a lizard as long as her forearm. The sight of it immediately drove all thoughts of porridge from the girl’s head. She knocked the lizard’s head on a rock and held it between her knees while she checked the other traps. She paused when she found a handful of crickets. The thought of that nutty, crunchy taste made her mouth water. She steeled herself, tied the crickets up in a cloth, and put them in her pocket for later.
Once she’d replaced the traps, the girl straightened. A plume of golden loess was rising above the road that traversed the hills behind the village. Under azure banners, the same color as the Mandate of Heaven held by the Mongol ruling line, soldiers’ leather armor massed into a dark river arrowing southward through the dust. Everyone on the Huai River plains knew the army of the Prince of Henan, the Mongol noble responsible for putting down the peasant rebellions that had been popping up in the region for more than twice the girl’s lifetime. The Prince’s army marched south every autumn and returned to its garrisons in northern Henan every spring, as regular as the calendar. The army never came any closer to Zhongli than it did now, and nobody from Zhongli had ever gone closer to it. Metal on the soldiers’ armor caught and turned the light so that the dark river sparkled as it crawled over the dun hillside. It was a sight so disconnected from the girl’s life that it seemed only distantly real, like the mournful call of geese flying far overhead.
Hungry and fatigued by the sun, the girl lost interest. Holding her lizard, she turned for home.
* * *
At midday the girl went out to the well with her bucket and shoulder pole and came back sweating. The bucket got heavier each time, being less and less water and more and more the ochre mud from the bottom of the well. The earth had failed to give them food, but now it seemed determined to give itself to them in every gritty bite. The girl remembered that once some villagers had tried to eat cakes made of mud. She felt a pang of sympathy. Who wouldn’t do anything to appease the pain of an empty stomach? Perhaps more would have tried it, but the villagers’ limbs and bellies had swelled, and then they died, and the rest of the village had taken note.
The Zhu family lived in a one-room wooden hut made in a time when trees were more plentiful. That had been a long time ago, and the girl didn’t remember it. Four years of desiccation had caused all the hut’s planks to spring apart so that it was as airy inside as outside. Since it never rained, it wasn’t a problem. Once the house had held a whole family: paternal grandparents, two parents, and seven children. But each year of the drought had reduced them until now they were only three: the girl, her next-oldest brother Zhu Chongba, and their father. Eleven-year-old Chongba had always been cherished for being the lucky eighth-born of his generation of male cousins. Now that he was the sole survivor it was even clearer that Heaven smiled upon him.
The girl took her bucket around the back to the kitchen, which was an open lean-to with a rickety shelf and a ceiling hook for hanging the pot over the fire. On the shelf was the pot and two clay jars of yellow beans. A scrap of old meat hanging from a nail was all that was left of her father’s work buffalo. The girl took the scrap and rubbed it inside the pot, which was something her mother had always done to flavor the soup. Privately, the girl felt that it was like hoping a boiled saddle might taste like meat. She untied her skirt, retied it around the mouth of the pot, and splashed in water from the bucket. Then she scraped the circle of mud off the skirt and put it back on. Her skirt was no dirtier than before, and at least the water was clean.
She was lighting the fire when her father came by. She observed him from inside the lean-to. He was one of those people who has eyes that look like eyes, and a nose like a nose. Nondescript. Starvation had pulled the skin tight over his face until it was one plane from cheekbone to chin, and another from one corner of his chin to the other. Now and then the girl wondered if her father was actually a young man, or at least not a very old one. It was hard to tell.
Her father was carrying a winter melon under his arm. It was small, the size of a newborn baby, and its powdery white skin was dusty from having been buried underground for nearly two years. The tender look on her father’s face surprised the girl. She had never seen that expression on him before, but she knew what it meant. That was their last melon.
Her father squatted next to the flat-topped stump where they had killed chickens and placed the melon on it like an offering to the ancestors. He hesitated, cleaver in hand. The girl knew what he was thinking. A cut melon didn’t keep. She felt a rush of mixed emotions. For a few glorious days they would have food. A memory boiled up: soup made with pork bones and salt, the surface swimming with droplets of golden oil. The almost gelatinous flesh of the melon, as translucent as the eye of a fish, yielding sweetly between her teeth. But once the melon was done, there would be nothing except the yellow beans. And after the yellow beans, there would be nothing.
The cleaver smacked down, and after a moment the girl’s father came in. When he handed her the chunk of melon, his tender look was gone. “Cook it,” he said shortly, and left.
The girl peeled the melon and cut the hard white flesh into pieces. She had forgotten melon smell: candle wax, and an elm-blossom greenness. For a moment she was gripped by the desire to shove it in her mouth. Flesh, seeds, even the sharp peel, all of it stimulating every inch of her tongue with the glorious ecstasy of eating. She swallowed hard. She knew her worth in her father’s eyes, and the risk that a theft would bring. Not all the girls who died had starved. Regretfully, she put the melon into the pot with a scatter of yellow beans. She cooked it for as long as the wood lasted, then took the folded pieces of bark she used as pot holders and carried the food into the house.
Chongba looked up from where he was sitting on the bare floor next to their father. Unlike his father, his face provoked comment. He had a pugnacious jaw and a brow as lumpy as a walnut. These features made him so strikingly ugly that the onlooker’s eye found itself caught in unwitting fascination. Now Chongba took the spoon from the girl and served their father. “Ba, please eat.” Then he served himself, and finally the girl.
The girl examined her bowl and found only beans and water. She returned her silent stare to her brother. He was already eating and didn’t notice. She watched him spoon a chunk of melon into his mouth. There was no cruelty in his face, only blind, blissful satisfaction: that of someone perfectly concerned with himself. The girl knew that fathers and sons made the pattern of the family, as the family made the pattern of the universe, and for all her wishful thinking she had never really expected to be allowed to taste the melon. It still rankled. She took a spoonful of soup. Its path into her body felt as hot as a coal.
Chongba said with his mouth full, “Ba, we nearly got a rat today, but it got away.”
Remembering the boys beating on the stump, the girl thought scornfully: Nearly.
Chongba’s attention shifted to her. But if he was waiting for her to volunteer something, he could wait. After a moment he said directly, “I know you caught something. Give it to me.”
Keeping her gaze fixed on her bowl, the girl found the twitching packet of crickets in her pocket. She handed it over. The hot coal grew.
“That’s all, you useless girl?”
She looked up so sharply that he flinched. He’d started calling her that recently, imitating their father. Her stomach was as tight as a clenched fist. She let herself think of the lizard hidden in the kitchen. She would dry it and eat it in secret all by herself. And that would be enough. It had to be.
They finished in silence. As the girl licked her bowl clean, her father laid out two melon seeds on their crude family shrine: one to feed their ancestors, and the other to appease the wandering hungry ghosts who lacked their own descendants to remember them.
After a moment the girl’s father rose from his stiff reverence before the shrine. He turned back to the children and said with quiet ferocity, “One day soon our ancestors will intervene to end this suffering. They will.”
The girl knew he was right. He was older than her and knew more. But when she tried to imagine the future, she couldn’t. There was nothing in her imagination to replace the formless, unchanging days of starvation. She clung to life because it seemed to have value, even if only to her. But when she thought about it, she had no idea why.
* * *
The girl and Chongba sat listlessly in their doorway, looking out. One meal a day wasn’t enough to fill anyone’s time. The heat was most unbearable in the late afternoon, when the sun slashed backhanded across the village, as red as the last native emperors’ Mandate of Heaven. After sunset the evenings were merely breathless. In the Zhu family’s part of the village the houses sat apart from one another, with a wide dirt road between. There was no activity on the road or anywhere else in the falling dusk. Chongba fiddled with the Buddhist amulet he wore, and kicked at the dirt, and the girl gazed at the crescent moon where it edged above the shadow of the far hills.
Both children were surprised when their father came around the side of the house. There was a chunk of melon in his hand. The girl could smell the edge of spoil in it, though it had only been cut that morning.
“Do you know what day it is?” he asked Chongba.
It had been years since the peasants had celebrated any of the festivals that marked the various points of the calendar. After a while Chongba hazarded, “Mid-Autumn Festival?”
The girl scoffed privately: Did he not have eyes to see the moon?
“The second day of the ninth month,” her father said. “This is the day you were born, Zhu Chongba, in the year of the Pig.” He turned and started walking. “Come.”
Chongba scrambled after him. After a moment the girl followed. The houses along the road made darker shapes against the sky. She used to be scared of walking this road at night because of all the feral dogs. But now the night was empty. Full of ghosts, the remaining villagers said, although since ghosts were as invisible as breath or qi, there was no telling if they were there or not. In the girl’s opinion, that made them of less concern: she was only scared of things she could actually see.
They turned from the main road and saw a pinprick of light ahead, no brighter than a random flash behind one’s eyelids. It was the fortune-teller’s house. As they went inside, the girl realized why her father had cut the melon.
The first thing she saw was the candle. They were so rare in Zhongli that its radiance seemed magical. Its flame stood a hand high, swaying at the tip like an eel’s tail. Beautiful, but disturbing. In the girl’s own unlit house she had never had a sense of the dark outside. Here they were in a bubble surrounded by the dark, and the candle had stolen her ability to see what lay outside the light.
The girl had only ever seen the fortune-teller at a distance before. Now, up close, she knew at once that her father was not old. The fortune-teller was perhaps even old enough to remember the time before the barbarian emperors. A mole on his wrinkled cheek sprouted a long black hair, twice as long as the wispy white hairs on his chin. The girl stared.
“Most worthy uncle.” Her father bowed and handed the melon to the fortune-teller. “I bring you the eighth son of the Zhu family, Zhu Chongba, under the stars of his birth. Can you tell us his fate?” He pushed Chongba forwards. The boy went eagerly.
The fortune-teller took Chongba’s face between his old hands and turned it this way and that. He pressed his thumbs into the boy’s brow and cheeks, measured his eye sockets and nose, and felt the shape of his skull. Then he took the boy’s wrist and felt his pulse. His eyelids drooped and his expression became severe and internal, as if interpreting some distant message. A sweat broke out on his forehead.
The moment stretched. The candle flared and the blackness outside seemed to press closer. The girl’s skin crawled, even as her anticipation grew.
They all jumped when the fortune-teller dropped Chongba’s arm. “Tell us, esteemed uncle,” the girl’s father urged.
The fortune-teller looked up, startled. Trembling, he said, “This child has greatness in him. Oh, how clearly did I see it! His deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to your family name.” To the girl’s astonishment he rose and hurried to kneel at her father’s feet. “To be rewarded with a son with a fate like this, you must have been virtuous indeed in your past lives. Sir, I am honored to know you.”
The girl’s father looked down at the old man, stunned. After a moment he said, “I remember the day that child was born. He was too weak to suck, so I walked all the way to Wuhuang Monastery to make an offering for his survival. A twenty-jin sack of yellow beans and three pumpkins. I even promised the monks that I would dedicate him to the monastery when he turned twelve, if he survived.” His voice cracked: desperate and joyous at the same time. “Everyone told me I was a fool.”
Greatness. It was the kind of word that didn’t belong in Zhongli. The girl had only ever heard it in her father’s stories of the past. Stories of that golden, tragic time before the barbarians came. A time of emperors and kings and generals; of war and betrayal and triumph. And now her ordinary brother, Zhu Chongba, was to be great. When she looked at Chongba, his ugly face was radiant. The wooden Buddhist amulet around his neck caught the candlelight and glowed gold, and made him a king.
As they left, the girl lingered on the threshold of the dark. Some impulse prompted her to glance back at the old man in his pool of candlelight. Then she went creeping back and folded herself down very small before him until her head was touching the dirt and her nostrils were full of the dead chalk smell of it. “Esteemed uncle. Will you tell me my fate?”
She was afraid to look up. The impulse that had driven her here, that hot coal in her stomach, had abandoned her. Her pulse rabbited. The pulse that contained the pattern of her fate. She thought of Chongba holding that great fate within him. What did it feel like, to carry that seed of potential? For a moment she wondered if she had a seed of potential within herself too, and it was only that she had never known what to look for; she had never had a name for it.
The fortune-teller was silent. The girl felt a chill drift over her. Her body broke out in chicken-skin and she huddled lower, trying to get away from that dark touch of fear. The candle flame lashed.
Then, as if from a distance, she heard the fortune-teller say: “Nothing.”
The girl felt a dull, deep pain. That was the seed within her, her fate, and she realized she had known it all along.