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.
One of the big hooks for me in wanting to review this book were the queer elements. The queerer the fantasy, the better, if you ask me. Parker-Chan delivers. Zhu uses she/her pronouns privately for herself and he/him pronouns in public, and has complicated feelings about the shape of her physical body versus the identity she’s claimed. I can’t get into too much of her sexual, romantic, and gender identities without spoiling the book, but I can say that hers is a story of exploration, questioning, and evolution. The ways Zhu perceives herself and her body shifts over time. Sometimes those changes are caused by external events imposing themselves on her, while others spring forth from her making crucial realizations about herself and her fate. Zhu is ever-changing, and not always for the better. She isn’t the only queer character in the novel, either. Again, spoilers prevent me from talking about the other relationship, but suffice it to say, it’s messy and charged and difficult to untangle…
Read the rest of my review at locusmag.com.