E-ARC, 416 Pages
Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adult
By: Shelley Parker-Chan
Rating: 🌟🌟🌟 1/2
“The body became used to exercise, particular sounds and sensations, or even physical pain. But it was strange how shame was something you never became inured to: each time hurt just as much as the first.”
So this book is marketed as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles and as soon as I saw that, there was no way I was not gonna read it. Those literally are one of my favorite animation movies as a kid and one of my favorite books as an adult. I was pretty excited when I got an ARC of this through Edelweiss thanks to the publisher. It is a given that it did not affect my opinions on this one!
So when I started this, I immediately understood where the Mulan parts comes from and I was ecstatic! To give you more insight without spoilers: The story follows the Zhu’s family daughter, who is living in poverty and famine in 14th century China under the Mongol Rule. Zhu Chongba who is her brother is promised greatness in his future while the daughter has nothing in it. However, Chongba dies and the daughter takes on his name and identity as a male novice and tries to achieve his fated greatness too.
The story actually started off on the right foot, the writing was beautiful, the setting is very atmospheric and I could see the famine and poverty that the author was narrating. I lived the story and not just read it! The story is divided into three parts and the synopsis and most of what I explained is pretty much only the first part, so much of the the events I expected and are actually predictable happen in this same part which means the pacing was faster than expected and that the story is bigger than I thought.
“Haven’t you heard it only takes three people to tell of a tiger before everyone believes it?”
The Second part is a bit different and it actually threw me off at first, just because I did not know we were following two characters (Once again the synopsis made it seem like that) and there was a little too bit of info dumping between characters and places so it took me a few chapters to get into the story again. Which reminds me of another important thing: The Queer part! I know Adult fantasy is mostly straight so it is always exciting to read adult queer stories. I found that the author answered a question on GR about the characters so I am gonna quote her:
“There are two storylines, and each storyline has a genderqueer protagonist: one is assigned female at birth (but doesn’t identify as female), and the other is assigned male at birth and identifies as male (but is a eunuch with a gender nonconforming appearance). The AFAB character has a relationship with a woman, and the AMAB character has a relationship with a man.”
So yeah, both of the MC are genderqueer!
What confused me as a reader was the pronouns used for Zhu, sometimes she was referred to as she and sometimes as He and I am talking about third person narrative, not people using pronouns in the story. Also sometimes the characters were called by their names and sometimes by their family names and that also added to the confusion in my opinion.
Zhu herself was well written and I liked that we followed her growth from a child to an adult and seeing how she matures within the circumstances she goes through. The story is a military fantasy story which I also did not know before I went into it so there were many smart tactics and strategies that Zhu came up with and made me impressed.
“To win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the pinnacle of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of skill.”
The Fantasy parts were minor and I even thought that the story could have done without those fantasy elements because they did not add much into the story. I do not think they were bad but I expected something different and the integration of fantasy in a different way probably like The Poppy War!
The third part was cool because I was already comfortable with the story at that point, we knew the characters very well at that point and a lot of action & drama happens at that part which made it awesome!
Summary: I think it is a good entry to the duology, the writing was beautiful, the characters were diverse and well written. I may have preferred the first part in the story and wanted it to continue that way but the second and third part were not bad at all. It had less fantasy elements than expected and more of a military side to it. I still wanna see how this story ends in the next book!