ARC Review: He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

Today’s review is about HE WHO DROWNED THE WORLD by Shelley Parker-Chan. It’s the final book in The Radiant King duology. As such, my review contains spoilers for SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN. This is a brilliant and satisfying ending that explores the power of grief and sex as well as identity. It is much darker than the first book and contains elements that some may find triggering.

Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Series: The Radiant Emperor #2
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Tor Books
Publish Date: August 22, 2023
Print Length: 496

Want to support local bookstores? Buy a copy of He Who Drowned the World on Bookshop.org!*

*These are not affiliate links and I do not make a commission from any purchase made using these links.

Official Synopsis

The sequel and series conclusion to She Who Became the Sun, the accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China. Mulan meets The Song of Achilles.

How much would you give to win the world?

Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, is riding high after her victory that tore southern China from its Mongol masters. Now she burns with a new desire: to seize the throne and crown herself emperor.

But Zhu isn’t the only one with imperial ambitions. Her neighbor in the south, the courtesan Madam Zhang, wants the throne for her husband–and she’s strong enough to wipe Zhu off the map. To stay in the game, Zhu will have to gamble everything on a risky alliance with an old enemy: the talented but unstable eunuch general Ouyang, who has already sacrificed everything for a chance at revenge on his father’s killer, the Great Khan.

Unbeknownst to the southerners, a new contender is even closer to the throne. The scorned scholar Wang Baoxiang has maneuvered his way into the capital, and his lethal court games threaten to bring the empire to its knees. For Baoxiang also desires revenge: to become the most degenerate Great Khan in history–and in so doing, make a mockery of every value his Mongol warrior family loved more than him.

All the contenders are determined to do whatever it takes to win. But when desire is the size of the world, the price could be too much for even the most ruthless heart to bear…

My Review

I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.

HE WHO DROWNED THE WORLD is a masterpiece of political maneuverings, all-consuming grief, and the use of sex as power. This final book in the duology follows Zhu Chongba, now Zhu Yuanzhang; Ouyang; and Wang Baoxiang, now the Prince of Henan. It is much darker than the first installment. The effects and deep feelings of grief and revenge often taking the spotlight.

Parker-Chan powerfully showcases how grief can be all-encompassing through Ouyang and Baoxiang. Ouyang seeks to avenge his father’s death, but is also grief stricken because he had to kill Esen-Temur to proceed with his plan. Baoxiang also wrangles with his newfound grief despite his complicated relationship with his brother. These feelings are further amplified by a lifetime of society treating them as “other.” This sowed the seed for the birth of vengeance. Grief tunnels into their psyches and pervades them internally, slithering and crashing into the external world to spread like a disease.

Zhu is the foil to the darkness personified in Ouyang and Baoxiang. Parker-Chan consistently shows the reader how Zhu and Ouyang are alike, pulled together by their similarities. But Zhu also chooses to act and react differently. Zhu’s Mandate of Heaven visually shows this difference. It is a white light compared to the mandates of others, past and present. She has not had an easy life, either. But her actions and decisions during trying moments show that it is possible to break through the grief and choose a path that leads to positive change in the world.

Her path still contains blood and death. Yet, her goal is a noble one: to make the world into a vision that changes societal norms so that no one feels ostracized. This brings to mind whether the ends justify the means. With this change, though, perhaps ultimately there will be less grief and destruction perpetuated by society’s toxic masculinity.

HE WHO DROWNED THE WORLD also examines the use of sex to obtain knowledge and hold power. There are many different tones of sex, such as the comfortable, trusting, and loving sex between Zhu and Ma. However, other characters use sex as a window to the soul to benefit themselves rather than create a trusting partnership. These scenes are not incredibly explicit compared to some of the fantasy romance available to read. However, they became heavier to read with each scene. Nearly every character used sex to gain influence, whether they initiated it or were the participant.

There are also many brilliant instances in which Parker-Chan employs metaphors or double entendres to allude to how sex, power, pain, and trust intertwine with each other. Additionally, sex also allows for the exploration of perceived boundaries of binary and queerness. What one knows about oneself is what defines someone, not necessarily their actions or how they dress.

Of course, Parker-Chan’s writing speaks for itself. It is rich and langourous in the way a a summer day meanders, allowing the reader to soak up the events and context. This is not a book for speed reading. It is meant to be enjoyed with full dedication to details. To some HE WHO DROWNED THE WORLD may feel like it has a slow start. But don’t let that be a deterrence for it packs a punch that begs for release.

HE WHO DROWNED THE WORLD is the perfect finish after an extended climax for fans of SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN. It’s a vivid and frank portrayal of how easily one can allow grief to overwhelm and destroy to satiate one’s pain for some degree of pleasure and satisfaction. Moreover, it’s an ode to a goal to reshape the world into a vision that benefits all, especially those a society treats with derision. Shelley Parker-Chan delivers an exceptional retelling of the rise of the 14th century historical figure Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.

Rating: 4.5
Content warnings: sexual content, homophobia, misogyny, ableism, gore, blood, sexual violence (implied, brief descriptions), self-harm
Reading format: Kindle e-book

Subscribe
Notify of
9 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

This is a brilliant review. I’m glad that you enjoyed it so much.

This sounds so good. I still need to get to my ARC. I just haven’t been in the mood for something quite this heavy, and I don’t want my mood to spoil the reading experience.

Wonderful review, this sounds very intense. I need to try this author at some point.

What an absolutely beautiful review Celeste..!!! Truly stunning …

[…] I think that I’m probably in the minority with this one as the other reviews that I have seen have all been a lot more positive. If you’re interested in a different opinion, then why not have a read of Celeste’s review at A Literary Escape? […]