YA Weekend: The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tu Books (September 10, 2019)
Length: 352 pages
After consistently being disappointed by so many books described as “Mulan retellings”, you can probably understand why I went into The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan with no small amount of trepidation (though of course I could hardly resist it). And quite honestly? I was blown away by this “Own Voices” novel. Sherry Thomas has written a refreshing new take on this famous Chinese folktale about the legendary female warrior, applying her own unique approach to the portrayal while staying faithful to the original story and ensuring historical and linguistic accuracy.
In this version of the tale, Hua Mulan has always been a skilled fighter. Each generation, the Huas and their rivals the Yuans vie for the honor to safeguard the two fabled swords named Sky Blade and Heart Sea, the outcome determined by a duel between one representative from each family. From a young age, Mulan has been trained for the role by her father, who made her disguise herself as a boy and take on the name of her twin brother who died in infancy. If she wins her duel against her Yuan challenger, Sky Blade and Heart Sea will be reunited under their house, and she will also score a major victory in the feud between their two families, avenging her father who was maimed in his own duel a generation before.
However, right before the duel, the Huas receive a letter from her opponent requesting the match to be postponed. War is brewing, and it seems the Yuans must focus their attentions elsewhere. At first, Mulan’s father regards the missive as a snub, until a messenger from the Emperor arrives at their own village along with a royal decree demanding each family put forth a male recruit for the war effort. To protect her little brother, who is too young, and her father, who is disabled and too old, Mulan decides to enlist using her male persona. On her first day in the army, she manages to impress the son of the duke with her martial arts skills, earning herself a place among his elite guard. To her surprise though, the position is not the safe assignment that she had expected. The young princeling is determined to fight on the front lines, and when Mulan discovers the secret he has been hiding, she realizes they may be in more danger than she thought.
Inspired by the traditions of wuxia, a genre which translates to “martial-chivalric” fiction, Sherry Thomas spins an epic tale of courage and adventure. I adored her depiction of Mulan, who embodies all the traits we think about when it comes to the character—fiercely independent, altruistic, and honorable. At the same time, the narrative never lets us forget that behind all that armor, our protagonist is a teenager, and wholly human. She is everything we want out of a kickass heroine, and yet still has a vulnerable side to her that makes her sympathetic and easy to relate to.
The story also takes place in 5th century China, during a period known as the Northern and Southern dynasties which was marked by much political unrest. Frequent references are made to these conflicts between the north and south, creating an atmosphere of tension that pervades through the entire novel. Major kudos to the author for doing what must have been a staggering amount research to get certain details as accurate as possible, and her afterword at the end of the book, including historical and linguistic notes, was a fascinating look into that process.
I really enjoyed the story as well, and the way it retained its folktale roots. Action played a large part, featuring both close-quartered martial arts and large-scale fighting in heated battles. But my favorite scenes were always the quieter moments where we got to explore the character relationships. There is a super sweet romance between our protagonist and her love interest, a man who is as honorable and brave as she is. They were certainly well matched, and I was rooting for them every step of the way. I was also glad this story shone a light on Mulan and the love and respect she has for her father, which a surprising number of retellings tend to neglect, considering his role in her decision to enlist in the army in his place. The Magnolia Sword adds another complex layer to their bond, making the final chapter with Mulan’s homecoming and seeing her father again even more touching and poignant.
Bottom line, I just loved this. The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan is one of the best Young Adult novels—and easily my favorite retelling—that I’ve read so far this year. A very satisfying novel overall, which filled me with all kinds of warm and happy feelings when it was over. Highly recommended!