Sunday 24 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 81: "The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official 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.

Inspired by wuxia martial-arts dramas as well as the centuries-old ballad of Mulan, The Magnolia Sword is a thrilling, romantic, and sharp-edged novel that lives up to its beloved heroine.

A young adult retelling of the Mulan story, written by one of my favourite historical romance authors? Who just happens to be Chinese, so someone you might hope would do a good job of researching and writing this? Of course I was going to want to read this as soon as I could get my hands on it.

I love Disney's Mulan, and this may be one of the cases where I'll actually go see the live action remake they're doing, as I'm also a huge fan of wuxia films. I don't know if this retelling that Thomas was commissioned to do has anything to do with Disney, or if her publisher is just cashing in on the fact that there will be a new movie soon, but if the new film is anything like the story presented here, I'll be very happy. This is of course not the first novel that Ms. Thomas has written about a capable, Chinese female warrior. In her Heart of the Blade duology, The Hidden Blade and My Beautiful Enemy, set in late 19th Century China and England, Ying Ying (or Catherine, as she uses in England) is also a very skilled swordswoman and martial artist. I forget whether Ms. Thomas at that point said anything about being influenced by the Mulan myth.

Here we have a dutiful young woman who has been posing publicly as a man for a long time. Her twin brother died, but her father let the authorities believe his girl child was the one who passed away. Hence, when conscription forces each household to yield one able-bodied man, Hua-Mulan is the only one who can go. She has been trained in martial arts and swordplay since she was very young, as her family owns one of two legendary swords, and at some unspecified future date, she will face the champion who has possession of the other sword. During the last duel, her father was paralysed, so she needs to avenge his honour, as well as secure both the heirloom swords for her family.

Shortly before Mulan is forced to go off to join the army, her father receives a message from the rival champion, announcing that because of the hostilities threatening the border, their duel will have to be postponed. Mulan is worried about how she's going to hide her gender in the army, but her advanced martial arts skills gets her a special assignment with a small group of men, so she more easily can hide her real identity. I'm sure no one's going to be terribly surprised to discover that her immediate supervisor, the Duke's son, is none other than the rival she's been training most of her life to duel. They have met for secret practise bouts a few times over the years, but both have been masked. Nevertheless, Mulan feels a sense of kinship with the nobleman the very first time they meet, and their relationship doesn't exactly become less complicated once their family connections are revealed.

What Mulan has never been told by her father, during all her years of training, is that he didn't exactly act honourably in the duel that crippled him and that the Princeling has even more reason to feel vengeful, should he so choose. He seems to treat her with the respect of an equal and no animosity (not quite the same from his extended family) and it's obvious that if their family rivalry didn't span generations, they could have been friends, or more.

I don't know much about the original ballad of Mulan, but this is set in 5th Century China, and the research and information about social structure all felt realistic. There is quite a lot of creeping about, spying and trying to gather intel, but it would be a pretty boring book if there weren't amazing feats of martial arts as well. There is obviously a romance subplot (possibly more than one, but the second one is WAY subtle), but this is a YA novel and it's all very chaste (especially since Mulan is posing as a young man for much of the novel).

I really really liked this and hope that as well as writing more Lady Sherlock novels, Ms. Thomas possibly writes more Chinese-set adventure novels starring kick-ass young women.

Judging a book by its cover: I didn't realise that magnolia flowers could come in other colours than white until I saw this cover. I actually googled to look it up, as I was unsure of whether the publishers had just taken artistic licence and made the flowers purple, or whether you could actually find magnolias in this colour in reality. That's when I discovered that not are there several different kinds of magnolia flowers, but they come in many different shades. It's always fun to learn something new.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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