When I reviewed Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun in 2021, I had no doubt it would top all the best books lists of that year. Some books just have a gravitational pull, each sentence drawing you closer to their core. Parker-Chan’s sequel, He Who Drowned the World, matches and at times exceeds its predecessor; its darker tone, deeper intrigue and visceral set pieces more than live up to the promise of book one. Be warned: No one will be left unscarred in the war for supremacy in northern China, even the reader.
Despite her victories over the Mongol legions, Zhu Chongba, now called the Radiant King, knows the work has only just begun. Though her forces control the southernmost part of the Mongolian territory, she and her people are not safe as long as the Mongolian khan and his armies still threaten from the north. Meanwhile, the traitorous General Ouyang also seeks vengeance against the khan. Can Zhu and Ouyang, two mortal enemies, realize their shared ambitions and work together for a common victory? Perhaps, but unbeknownst to both, a cunning member of the Mongol court is secretly spinning a treacherous web.
She Who Became the Sun had to build up to the multifaceted, continent-crossing thrill ride it became, but He Who Drowned the World starts as a beautiful, brutal ride and never lets up. Military and political intrigue drive the plot forward as characters whiz across the map fighting battles, sneaking into hidden bases, charming pirate kings and so on. A helpful refresher opens the book, and Parker-Chan’s organization and clarity ensures that readers won’t ever lose track of the multiple opposing factions.
The sharpness of each character’s ambitions, the depth of their emotion and the sheer beauty of the writing will grab hold of readers from the very first page. Sentence by sentence, Parker-Chan’s prose is unrivaled in modern fantasy. It’s so consistent in its richness, so precise in its sequencing that even the grimmest of moments become enthralling and vital. Several scenes between Zhu and Ouyang positively crackle with energy, supercharged by Parker-Chan’s writing as these two titans finally see each other for the first time.
The fearless Parker-Chan pulls no punches, repeatedly pushing characters to their limits and beyond. Their motives range from murky to outright despicable as Parker-Chan examines how identity and personal trauma drive ambition. Like flint against steel, characters spark against one another, often producing flames both literal and figurative. This may be the strongest lasting impression He Who Drowned the World leaves behind: The pain we carry reacts to another’s, and those who master their pain will rule.