Read a NetGalley eARC from the publisher
Content warning: Famine, poverty, flaying, plague, war, queerphobia, misogyny, immolation, dismemberment
A girl’s family dies in a famine-stricken village at the hands of despair and bandits. Instead of succumbing to her nothing fate, so takes on her brother’s name, Zhu Chongba, and takes on his destiny of greatness. She joins a monastery, gets enlisted in the army, and seeks greatness at every turn. On the opposite side of war, there is Ouyang, the eunuch general, whose everything was taken from him by the family he serves.
My official review is one long joyous screech of hype. This book has so many things I love, such as character archetypes and depictions of betrayal. The balance between political intrigue and epic battles is masterful, as are the parallels between Ouyang and Zhu.
If you heard a high-pitched screech at around midnight on 7/20/2021, that was me finishing the book. I’m not sorry. This book has so many things I loved that I fell into a blissful haze upon finishing.
Both Ouyang and Zhu are genderqueer. Both have their assigned genders and their assigned roles, but their identity and presentation don’t quite fit . The world-building isn’t explicitly queerphobic, but there are moments where it’s clear that the world is not queer-norm. The introspection here is top-notch. One of my favorite character journeys is taking on a role for a purpose that isn’t just “become boy to do boy thing even though I’m totally a girl.” Zhu becomes a monk because she won’t achieve greatness if she starves to death. Ouyang makes the decisions he does as a general for reasons that get into deep spoiler territory. These two are on mirrored paths, both inadvertently running towards destinies of their own making. It’s effective and evocative.
The way Parker-Chan weaves together political intrigue and epic battles gives this book phenomenal pacing. There’s a sense of “oh, I can’t wait to see what the consequences are here” after each character interaction. The writing is also cinematic in a way worthy of an epic. There is no room for misinterpretation, which works incredibly well for a reveal at the very end of the book. It’s gorgeous, it made me squeal. The prose also has a folkloric quality to it that beautifully works with the scale of the story itself.
I’ll find myself curled up in a corner, glowing, and eagerly awaiting what comes next for both Zhu and Ouyang.