Burning with the desire to become the next emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang — ex-monk, visionary, leader — gathers her army to take on the Great Yuan and claim the throne for herself. But there are other playmakers in the game she’s in, and the journey she takes has her aligning with unlikely allies.

A sequel to 2021’s She Who Became the Sun, Shelly Parker-Chan’s sophomore novel is defined by its commitment to growth. The themes of the first installment continue to develop in this gritty return to the story of Zhu, a person who yearns for greatness in a cutthroat and unforgiving world. Alongside her perspective, He Who Drowned the World also focuses on other equally complicated figures: Ouyang, antagonist commander to Zhu’s forces in the first novel; Baoxiang, a scheming scholar who plots for the throne himself from the heart of the capitol; and Madam Zhang, a courtesan who manipulates from the shadows, her considerable power a thorn in Zhu’s path to achievement.

With such a wide scope, it would be easy for this novel about war and politics to get lost in its ambition. But the multiple perspectives work exceptionally well here. Each scope provides a fascinating interrogation of each fractured character. Together, they provide a cohesive reflection on one of the book’s greatest themes: if desire begets suffering, to what amount of suffering will one be able to endure to get what they want? Zhu and her fellow competitors all come from traumatic backgrounds and ever-difficult present circumstances. But what does it look like when one pushes through the pain, no matter how hard it gets? He Who Drowned the World eagerly and viscerally explores this question.

Sidestepping pitfalls is something this novel is adept at, as it not only avoids any supposed sophomore slump, but instead blossoms from the groundwork laid by She Who Became the Sun. With its worldbuilding largely already developed, the prose takes center stage, shinning beautifully under Parker-Chan’s capable pen. There are passages written with such a keen observation of humanity at its lowest, its most loving, its most driven. Throughout 500-odd pages, the feelings of its protagonists are felt so clearly that it’s easy to imagine the weight of their ambition being so heavy that they will, when it all ends, truly leave the world submerged in their wake.

He Who Drowned the World continues the first novel’s heavy rumination on gender, and how preconceptions of how we should exist form one of the strongest gravitational pulls on how our lives develop, often out of our control. Zhu’s genderqueer interplay of presenting as a man when commanding her army is an arresting narrative decision as always, as is Ouyang’s ostracization by society for being a eunuch. Baoxiang, the princely scholar similarly shunned for his femininity, gets the bulk of new development in this novel, his rage-fueled schemes making for a terrifying and exhilarating read. At times, their combined perspectives read like a testament to the grief felt by all who have been shamed and constrained for not conforming to gender norms. And just as importantly, it also reads as an ode to the unyielding spirit of those who continue to pursue their wants despite the prejudice they face.

As carefully constructed and poignant as the novel is, it does, however, at times feel long-winded. The story is primarily constructed through examining the interior perspectives of Zhu and the rest of its cast. Their feelings and thoughts, raw and felt through the pages, start to feel repetitive after a while. This seems intentional — with the theme of asking how far someone is willing to go to achieve what they want, it wasn’t surprising to see the unwavering convictions of the main cast as they wade deeper into the pangs of human suffering. But after some time, the reflections on the characters became a little stale, saved only by the breakneck revelations of a grandiose final act.

This quip aside, He Who Drowned the World is a landmark novel of great ambition. It’s a heavy, emotional, often revelatory read about the human actors caught up in the bloodshed of conflict. It’s an indictment of gender norms that bind people down and a call for a new world unbound by the rules that defined the one before it. Rage, grief, love, ambition, and hope — this conclusion to the duology started by She Who Became the Sun is a deeply transformative experience.   

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