Greatness / Nothing

Excerpt from She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Photo by Matt Zhang on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan.

They turned from the main road and saw a pinprick of light ahead, no brighter than a random flash behind one’s eyelids. It was the fortune-teller’s house. As they went inside, the girl realized why her father had cut the melon.

The first thing she saw was the candle. They were so rare in Zhongli that its radiance seemed magical. Its flame stood a hand high, swaying at the tip like an eel’s tail. Beautiful, but disturbing. In the girl’s own unlit house she had never had a sense of the dark outside. Here they were in a bubble surrounded by the dark, and the candle had stolen her ability to see what lay outside the light.

The girl had only ever seen the fortune-teller at a distance before. Now, up close, she knew at once that her father was not old. The fortune-teller was perhaps even old enough to remember the time before the barbarian emperors. A mole on his wrinkled cheek sprouted a long black hair, twice as long as the wispy white hairs on his chin. The girl stared.

“Most worthy uncle.” Her father bowed and handed the melon to the fortune-teller. “I bring you the eighth son of the Zhu family, Zhu Chongba, under the stars of his birth. Can you tell us his fate?” He pushed Chongba forwards. The boy went eagerly.

The fortune-teller took Chongba’s face between his old hands and turned it this way and that. He pressed his thumbs into the boy’s brow and cheeks, measured his eye sockets and nose, and felt the shape of his skull. Then he took the boy’s wrist and felt his pulse. His eyelids drooped and his expression became severe and internal, as if interpreting some distant message. A sweat broke out on his forehead.

The moment stretched. The candle flared and the blackness outside seemed to press closer. The girl’s skin crawled, even as her anticipation grew.

They all jumped when the fortune-teller dropped Chongba’s arm. “Tell us, esteemed uncle,” the girl’s father urged.

The fortune-teller looked up, startled. Trembling, he said, “This child has greatness in him. Oh, how clearly did I see it! His deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to your family name.” To the girl’s astonishment he rose and hurried to kneel at her father’s feet. “To be rewarded with a son with a fate like this, you must have been virtuous indeed in your past lives. Sir, I am honored to know you.”

The girl’s father looked down at the old man, stunned. After a moment he said, “I remember the day that child was born. He was too weak to suck, so I walked all the way to Wuhuang Monastery to make an offering for his survival. A twenty-jin sack of yellow beans and three pumpkins. I even promised the monks that I would dedicate him to the monastery when he turned twelve, if he survived.” His voice cracked: desperate and joyous at the same time. “Everyone told me I was a fool.”

Greatness. It was the kind of word that didn’t belong in Zhongli. The girl had only ever heard it in her father’s stories of the past. Stories of that golden, tragic time before the barbarians came. A time of emperors and kings and generals; of war and betrayal and triumph. And now her ordinary brother, Zhu Chongba, was to be great. When she looked at Chongba, his ugly face was radiant. The wooden Buddhist amulet around his neck caught the candlelight and glowed gold, and made him a king.

As they left, the girl lingered on the threshold of the dark. Some impulse prompted her to glance back at the old man in his pool of candlelight. Then she went creeping back and folded herself down very small before him until her head was touching the dirt and her nostrils were full of the dead chalk smell of it. “Esteemed uncle. Will you tell me my fate?”

She was afraid to look up. The impulse that had driven her here, that hot coal in her stomach, had abandoned her. Her pulse rabbited. The pulse that contained the pattern of her fate. She thought of Chongba holding that great fate within him. What did it feel like, to carry that seed of potential? For a moment she wondered if she had a seed of potential within herself too, and it was only that she had never known what to look for; she had never had a name for it.

The fortune-teller was silent. The girl felt a chill drift over her. Her body broke out in chicken-skin and she huddled lower, trying to get away from that dark touch of fear. The candle flame lashed.

Then, as if from a distance, she heard the fortune-teller say: “Nothing.”

The girl felt a dull, deep pain. That was the seed within her, her fate, and she realized she had known it all along.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

She Who Became the Sun – Summary

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 uses the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles; an accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China.

Copyright © 2021 by Shelley Parker-Chan.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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