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 perfect for fans of Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, or Kristin Cashore–a thrilling, romantic, and sharp-edged novel that lives up to its beloved heroine.
Check out my review on GoodReads over here!
“I am not just a girl – no woman is. And if Heaven has deposited me at this time and place, then I AM meant to deal with these problems, no matter their scale of consequence.”
The BALLAD OF HUA MULAN, made popular through the Disney animation, is something that resonates in most young Chinese-American’s hearts. I say that because I have grown up watching this movie, as well as learning the inconsistencies it gives. (And while there are historical inaccuracies, I honestly believe it’s not as problematic as what social media hypes it up to be.) And so this beloved tale, with the addition of classical wuxia elements, creates a lightly romantic, highly political and action-packed retelling from a Chinese author that, instead of glorified Hua Mulan, drew her as a skilled warrior who fought for the sake of duty, friendship, and honor.
(Those of you who don’t know: wuxia is basically historical Chinese stories that delve into the supernatural sometimes, but most times focus on martial art skills. It’s a lot of flapping dresses and jumping into the air while kicking and slashing swords. Super fun, and low key empowering to women because they’re fighting just as well as the dudes. The majority are tragedies too. Lots are translated online, if you’re interested in high fantasy with a bunch of politics and a package of romance! (Or you can watch them like me HAHA))
I think what brings THE MAGNOLIA SWORD out is its discourse on ethnic groups during the time and the political unrest. I’m not a historian, but I’d say that Thomas stayed pretty on course to what information about Mulan the original poem has to offer. She’s living in this gray area of time, between the Han and Sui dynasties, where kingdoms and nations come and go. During this time, we’re looking at a rule of the Northern Xianbei reign. I don’t think you need to understand history to understand what is going on in the book, but I’m kind of a nerd so it was really cool tying these names to actual clans that lived thousands of years ago. Hua Mulan is Han Chinese though, not Xianbei, and from there arises a curious discourse on how “barbaric” the nomadic tribes really are, and how each civilization is just doing its best to survive. When Mulan gets enlisted into the war and comes into contact with many people from different ethnic groups, she starts letting go of her own prejudices against the nomads. And the fact that Hua Mulan sought to save China (as we know of it during that time) not from nationalistic sentiments, but for love and duty and honor, makes this an excellent tribute to wuxia and the foundations of martial arts and Confucionism that are still applicable today.
“We haven’t written our own history. The nomads have been on this earth for as long as the Han Chinese, but the only records that exist of us are what the Han Chinese have chosen to put down, usually because we were at war.”
While the political machinations and blazing action keeps this book moving, I do have to comment about how it sacrifices relationships between characters. I only caught a glimpse of what could have been stellar friendships and romances, but in the end I feel like we only caught a brush of both elements. To make up for it though, Mulan and the princeling’s character developments had more focus than I thought they would have, which I appreciated. From the duel in the first page to the very end, THE MAGNOLIA SWORD keeps readers flipping through the pages. Mulan’s mastery with martial arts and her fierce toughness (that makes her scary to some) was a blast to read, although we still see weaknesses in her character – especially when she discusses how much she seeks her father’s approval. Familiar Chinese traditions of extremely polite dialogue (even if you don’t wish to be), familial piety, and nationalistic pride come into play in the story as well. While we know less of the princeling’s motives – and character as a whole – he comes to life through dialogue as he explains how he lives life under the expectation of his aunt, who searches for revenge. There’s a unique tie between Mulan and the princeling’s family histories that make it solely Thomas-based (not in the original poem), and an excellent addition to the story.
I think the main romance was kept super light to make room for storyline, but is it bad that I wanted more? In the end, I think it stayed true to the strict traditions of the time. And while THE MAGNOLIA SWORD isn’t a guns out blazing feministy story about how a woman managed to enlist in the all-men army, Mulan’s quiet strength creates a narrative that shows, really, just how important gender is in the grand scheme of things. While Disney’s animation highlighted how much of a blunder it was for Mulan to take her father’s place in war, Thomas’s MAGNOLIA SWORD stresses her heartfelt reasons to do so, and the kind of passion that can incite action for people of any and every gender. And this kind of subtle discourse is just as important, I think, as the blatant ones that cause a commotion when someone goes against the norm.
Sorry for geeking out a bit about the history of Mulan in this review – Thomas does such a great job incorporating it into the story that I can’t help but continue on. THE MAGNOLIA SWORD incorporates a politically-driven narrative with a girl’s quest in finding acceptance from her father – and herself. It also features a slow-burn, burgeoning romance between her and someone from an unlikely source, given their families’ history. While I think there was a lot more potential in developing the camaraderie between Mulan and her crew, their quick progressions of comrades was sharp against the time constraints of the impending war. (And this pace! I’m pretty sure the whole book takes time in the span of two weeks or so.) Even so, the grand historical elements and fierce, but quiet strength of Mulan makes this an ultimately triumphant retelling of Mulan. And a perfect stand-alone! (Although I wouldn’t be unhappy about a sequel…)
Thank you Tu Books and Edelweiss for the review copy!