During the unstable Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties in China (484 AD by the Western calendar), Hua Mulan’s much-awaited duel with her family’s rival is called off because both Mulan and her opponent, Yuan Kai, have been called up to a different fight. The emperor anticipates an invasion by the nomadic steppe people the Rouran, and drafts a male from every household that has one – which Mulan’s family officially does, since when her twin Muyang died, her name was removed from the registry instead of his. Mulan ends up serving with none other than Yuan Kai. And the cushy garrison post he promises her turns out to be right in the center of a conspiracy that could bring down the empire.
AAR reviewers Alexandra Anderson and Caroline Russomanno read Sherry Thomas’ The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Caroline: This book got off to a slow start for me, I think because the story is so familiar that I was mostly marking time until the army adventure started. However, once Mulan headed out, I was sucked in.
Alexandra: I actually felt differently. The first chapter sees Mulan facing Yuan Kai in preparation for their duel, which wasn’t something I expected in the plot based on my knowledge of the Mulan legend. That really hooked my interest as I tried to figure out how the duel would fit with my expectations of the storyline.
Caroline: Fair enough! Speaking of knowledge of the legend – this book deviates from the legend and the Disney version in two significant ways. First, Thomas’s Mulan has lived as a boy most of her life. Second, Mulan is already acquainted with, and rivals with, her superior officer, with whom she falls in love. Did those changes work for you?
Alexandra: I thought both of those changes worked extremely well. Unlike in the Disney version, Mulan is confident in her fighting abilities here. It felt less crazy for Mulan to join the army given that she’s already lived and trained as a boy. Similarly, I think the fact that Mulan has previous experience with Yuan Kai gives their relationship a leg up. There’s a lot going on as they prepare for an invading force and suss out traitors. To build a romance from scratch in that scenario would be difficult, whereas it’s natural for an existing bond to grow.
Caroline: I definitely agree. It also made the story more interesting, since ‘When will the Big Mis be exposed’ is one of the most played-out sources of story tension. I much prefer a story that bypasses the Big Mis and unfolds in unexpected ways – especially since you’d have to be an expert on late classical China to expect most of it.
Alexandra: Yes, there was much more detail surrounding Chinese history and culture here than in other versions of the legend I’m accustomed to. What did you think of that?
Caroline: Settings are huge for me as a reader, so I was thrilled! I especially enjoyed the author’s exploration of Chinese diversity. The Northern and Southern regions are different. The Han, Xiongnu, and Xianbei peoples are different. All of these ways of being Chinese are intersecting and blending (or colliding) in interesting ways.
So you can’t talk Mulan without talking gender identity and sexuality. I saw Thomas’s Mulan as a heterosexual cisgender woman who is comfortable expressing as both male and female. Because Yuan Kai knew from the beginning that Mulan was biologically female, I perceived him as heterosexual as well. How did the depictions of gender and sexuality work for you?
Alexandra: I would agree with what you said. Something that struck me about Mulan was that I couldn’t get a read on her gender or even who she was during the first chapter of the book when she’s sparring with Yuan Kai. It’s written in first person, but there also aren’t any clear hints toward femininity or masculinity. While ultimately a cisgender woman, Mulan is also able to engage with the world as a man.
Caroline: Yes, and I think Thomas accurately captures the very defined spheres of male and female in China at the time. Gender then had strict edges – but sexuality didn’t, and I think she captures that as well, especially in the all-male army. I liked that a pair of male supporting characters had to deal with class and ethnicity issues – not their sexuality – as a barrier.
Alexandra: Thomas did a good job with that. Although it’s set roughly 1500 years in the past, many of the personal issues these characters face are relatable. Mulan’s mixed emotions regarding her father should feel familiar to readers, even if they themselves haven’t been trained as a warrior by a demanding parent.
Caroline: Absolutely. I really liked that her father’s backstory, and the rivalry with Yuan Kai’s family, existed in a gray area. Many authors (especially in YA) would have decided on a clear ‘bad guy’ or ‘bad family’. The story is more sophisticated because Thomas does not.
On the whole, then, what do you think about The Magnolia Sword? It’s being marketed as YA, and I think it’s terrific for that. The prose is very readable. I loved that Yuan Kai was struggling with fear, and that Mulan struggles with honor and duty – both are unusual conflicts for their genders. Personally, I also feel that there aren’t enough good YA stories that feel action packed without becoming traumatically gory and violent. I’m very happy that this novel is intense without being brutal.
How do you think it will work for adult readers?
Alexandra: The Magnolia Sword gets an A. As you said, it’s on a good level for YA, but I think it’s also meaty enough to attract and engage an adult reader. Although they’re young, Mulan and Yuan Kai are tackling serious issues. Between a gripping plot, strong character development, and ample historical detail, there’s more than enough here for any reader to enjoy.
What grade would you give the book?
Caroline: I’d give it an A as a young adult read, and as an adult read, an A as an adventure story but maybe a little lower if you’re reading for the romance, since that’s not the most important element here. It’s a very interesting story and unlike anything else currently available – now or in the near future – in historicals.
Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo
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