She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

sunPeasant boy Zhu Chongba is promised greatness by a fortune teller, while his sister (unnamed throughout the book) is declared ‘nothing’. But when Chongba dies, that sister (already shown to be the more shrewd and competent of the two siblings) decides to take on his identity and claim the greatness that Zhu Chongba’s destiny. To escape starving in the famine that grips the land, the girl goes to Wuhuang Monastery, which her brother was dedicated to as an ailing infant, and by sheer will and persistence, is enrolled as a novice monk. Thus begins her life as Zhu Chongba and despite setbacks and hardships, she does succeed, first at the monastery where her potential is recognised by the abbot, and then as one of the leaders of the Red Turban rebels and so on to the ultimate triumph: the dragon throne.

No spoilers — this novel, Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut, is the first book of a trilogy about the rise of the first Ming emperor. We come to the book knowing that the main character (Zhu) will achieve her goal. How she goes about it and whether she becomes great simply because she has tricked Heaven into thinking that she’s ‘Zhu Chongba’ or because it is her destiny (despite her gender) to be great are questions that fixed my attention and held the story in my mind when I was not in the middle of it (I listened to the audio recording) and even after I completed it.

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Re-reads: The Stolen Lake (The Wolves Chronicles) by Joan Aiken

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The cover of the first edition published by Jonathan Cape and illustrated by Pat Marriot.

One of my favourite fantasy series is Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles. There are twelve books, including a prequel (The Whispering Mountain), with  Dido Twite the protagonist in most of the stories.

After I read Calmgrove‘s post about The Stolen Lake, I couldn’t resist re-reading it. It’s the fourth book in the main series and my favourite as I find it has the most thrilling and unusual plot. The ever plucky and pragmatic Dido is also especially endearing in this installment. I like her so much and find her optimism and can-do attitude inspiring and cheering. (I want to be Dido when I grow up.)

In this story, Dido is onboard the HMS Thrush, heading back to England. Dido, having escaped death and worse in the previous two books (Blackhearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket), is looking forward to going home and is dismayed when the Thrush is forced to make a detour after the Captain of the ship is summoned by the Queen of New Cumbria (a country in Roman America, Aiken’s alternate history version of South America). Surprisingly, the Queen requests that he bring Dido with him.

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The Houghton Mifflin edition, with cover art by Edward Gorey.

It turns out that Queen Ginevra requires help to get back the country’s ceremonial lake which she claims has been stolen by the King Mabon, ruler of the neighbouring Lyonesse. Even more surprising is that the Queen is apparently more than a thousand years old and is waiting for the return of her husband, King Arthur. Could her longevity be linked to the noticeable absence of female children in New Cumbria?

Dido is soon in the thick of another adventure, this time one involving an imprisoned princess; shape-shifting witches; human sacrifice; cannibalism; and reincarnation.

I’d resolved to re-read less this year in order to make some progress with my TBR list, but I’ve decided to just read whatever I feel like. I will be re-reading Black Hearts in Battersea next.