Peasant 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.