Serena’s Review: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan”

44059557._sy475_-1Book: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Publishing Info: Tu Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: CHINA, 484 A.D.

A Warrior in Disguise

All her life, Mulan has trained for one purpose: to win the duel that every generation in her family must fight. If she prevails, she can reunite a pair of priceless heirloom swords separated decades earlier, and avenge her father, who was paralyzed in his own duel.

Then a messenger from the Emperor arrives, demanding that all families send one soldier to fight the Rouran invaders in the north. Mulan’s father cannot go. Her brother is just a child. So she ties up her hair, takes up her sword, and joins the army as a man.

A War for a Dynasty

Thanks to her martial arts skills, Mulan is chosen for an elite team under the command of the princeling–the royal duke’s son, who is also the handsomest man she’s ever seen. But the princeling has secrets of his own, which explode into Mulan’s life and shake up everything she knows. As they cross the Great Wall to face the enemy beyond, Mulan and the princeling must find a way to unwind their past, unmask a traitor, and uncover the plans for the Rouran invasion . . . before it’s too late.

Review: There are certain stories out there that I always think about wistfully. They are the ones that have so much potential and yet, while tried, have still not (to my mind at least) come out with a definitive version (like “Beauty” by Robin McKinely is for me for “Beauty and the Beast). Even worse, sometimes, are those that have so much potential and have been attempted only to muck it up badly. “Mulan” is one of those tales. It has all the right ingredients to make a great story and to be (seemingly) easily adapted into a story that is sure to appeal to many readers right now. And yet…for me, it definitely falls in the latter category of disappointment: attempts have been made but not only are they not the definitive version (again, my own opinion of it at least), but I had varying levels of frustration with these attempts. From boredom to out-right anger. cough”Flame in the Mist”cough. But…but…finally!

Mulan has spent much of her life disguised as a boy and training to compete in an age-long duel between her family and another over the possession of two incredible swords. Her days are filled with swordplay, catching flying arrows while blindfolded, and other incredible feats. She has defined her life around this role, though secretly mourns the loss of her own identity as her father’s only daughter. But when war strikes, thoughts of the duel are set aside and duty rises to the forefront. Now, marching to battle, Mulan finds herself in the company of a handsome prince who seems somehow familiar. And all too soon her fighting skills are put to the test, not in an organized duel, but out in the wild with death on the line.

I was incredibly hopeful for this version of “Mulan” when I saw that Sherry Thomas would be the author writing it. Not only is Thomas a Chinese American who was born and lived in China during her childhood, but she’s successfully tackled retelling other well-known historical stories, like her “Lady Sherlock” series (guess what review you’ll be reading from me next??). Like that series, here Thomas not only masterfully recreates the character of Mulan but deftly draws a version of early China that not only feels authentic but is very informative of a time and culture that many Western readers may not be familiar with.

The central conflict, for example, doesn’t center  around the ubiquitous, largely undefined Huns as many past versions have done. Instead, it dives into the various political maneuverings of North and South China, their differing cultures, and the challenges of bringing together a nation as large and diverse as that. It also speaks to the seeming randomness of borders and how being on one side or another can define much about a person and have lasting effects on the way one group is perceived over time.

But don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t just an exploration of cultural definitions in China; Mulan and her fellows are going to war. I very much enjoyed the action of this story. From the beginning, we see the differences between how Mulan has been raised to fight, seeing it as something bound in duty and a form of art, and what fighting looks like on a battlefield when your life depends on your choices. Here we see Mulan struggle not because she is a woman and has to somehow overcome more due to this “deficiency” (no, she is largely acknowledged as one of the most skilled fighters from the beginning), but because she is human, and being human makes fear and courage very real things that must also be learned and mastered. Here, we have not only the exploration of these themes through Mulan’s experiences, but some really great examples seen in the princeling himself.

I think of them all, much as I love Mulan herself, the princeling struck me as the most interesting character. Thomas goes some surprising routes with this character and deftly sidesteps the pitfalls that other versions have fallen into where his “manliness” is used to bluntly contrast Mulan’s own femininity. Much as I love Disney’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song, this version provides a much more layered character and one who contrasts Mulan, but not in the ways one would expect.

I’m not terribly familiar with the original tale of Mulan, but this one feels right. The added layer of the ancient sword duel and the use of this aspect of the story to delve into family, honor, and trust fleshed the story out beyond the confines of a war story where a girl disguises herself as a man. Mulan’s conflicts are not only battles and war tactics, but the challenge of understanding one’s parents and the choices of those who came before us. Through this understanding, she is better able to find peace with her own walk of life.

I absolutely loved this story. It’s everything I could have wanted for a “Mulan” retelling. If I had to ding it, HAD to, I would say I could have used a tad bit more of the romance. But this is such a niggling thing that it barely is worth mentioning. Overall, I found the romantic plotline, like everything else, to be very satisfying. This story not only retells the known tale (at least what most readers know of it, probably, again, based on Disney), but it adds new layers to the main characters and the conflict itself. If you, like me, were waiting for the version, your wait is over! Check out this book immediately!

Rating 9: Absolutely brilliant. Thomas has done for “Mulan” what she did for Sherlock: taken a challenging-to-get-right story and blown it away!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Retellings of Mulan” and “YA East Asian Fantasy.”

Find “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” at your library using WorldCat!

2 thoughts on “Serena’s Review: “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan””

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