He Who Drowned the World is the concluding volume in Australian fantasy author Shelley Parker-Chan’s epic Chinese-historical fantasy Radiant Emperor Duology. The first book of these, She Who Became The Sun, was a jaw-dropping debut which went on to make numerous award shortlists, including the Hugo Award,ugo Awar and won the 2022 British Fantasy Award. The follow-up is no less stunning, although if anything it is bleaker and more nihilistic, full of characters who thrive on pain and unrequited longing. As this is a sequel, this review will contain some minor spoilers for the preceding volume.
He Who Drowned the World opens with the four protagonists who will circle each other, competing for the right to sit on the throne. Zhu Yuanzhang, formerly the sister of Zhu Chongba before taking both his name and assuming his gender, is in the ascendancy and looking to consolidate her empire by defeating the Zhang family, led from the shadows by Madame Zhang. General Ouyang, a eunuch who betrayed his prince, now seeks the ultimate revenge on the Khan for his family’s disgrace. Now an assistant Minister in the Khan’s court, Wang Baoxiang, brother of the dead prince is playing a long, subtle game to gain power.
The manoeuvring of the characters and their armies is very much in line with their personalities. Ouyang is a vicious sword fighter always trying to prove himself in battle. Zhu has a tactical mind, always looking for ways to short cut direct fighting. Wang Boaxiang works in the shadows, always prepared to betray anyone if that betrayal becomes a stepping stone to his ultimate victory. Madam Zhang succeeds by manipulating the men in who surround her. This leads to well-constructed asymmetrical conflicts which often do not necessarily end up going the way anyone planned.
Many of the characters, not just these main ones, also have personal battles with their sexuality, trying to subsume their feelings to pursue their ultimate goals but often undone by growing affection which they start to feel despite themselves. And this is a book that looks at all flavours of sexuality – a woman pretending to be a man, a eunuch desperately trying to prove his manliness, a schemer who has to hide, but also use, his attraction to other men, and a woman who disconnects from her physical body in order to use it to achieve her ends.
From the start of the novel, Parker-Chan very quickly overturns the status quo of She Who Became the Sun. That book revolved around the cat-and-mouse game between Zhu and Ouyeng. This volume finds new ways to explore their connection. And by expanding the focus to two more of their antagonists, Parker-Chan broadens out the world and allows, once again, for plenty of surprises, reverses and cliffhangers all the way to a desperate and violent conclusion.
The action is based in the history of China, Mongolia and Korea in the 14th Century but this is also a fantasy. Potential rulers are known by their ability to create light and see the spirit world. And while the existence of ghosts was not deeply explored in the previous book, in this volume the power to see spirits and understand their abilities does play a sometimes pivotal role in the action.
He Who Drowned the World is a riveting and satisfying follow-up to She Who Became the Sun; once again engagingly capturing the landscapes and peoples of the time. And while it can be dark and violent (there is plenty of physical, sexual and psychological violence), the action is all in service of (albeit damaged) characters and their personal and political journeys and the way in which they process ambition, grief and pain. Now that this journey is over it will be fascinating to see what Parker-Chan does next.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
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Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.