REVIEW: The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas
Dear Ms. Thomas:
I’m going to be lazy and steal the blurb:
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.
A new Sherry Thomas book is always a cause for rejoicing. Still, I approached this one with a tiny bit of trepidation, for a few reasons:
1) Chicks in drag are not my favorite thing;
2) Mulan was one of the more forgettable Disney movies I’ve seen;
3) I haven’t had the best of luck with the handful of Asian-set historical romances I’ve read (note: The Magnolia Sword is not a romance, though it contains one).
The story opens on Mulan having a secret meeting with her adversary. She has been trained from an early age for a duel that is planned between her family and his, one that will give ownership of two precious swords, Sky Blade and Heart Sea, to the winner. Currently, each has one of the swords, and Mulan has now met her unnamed adversary for the third time in mock battle. Each time he has contacted her secretly to arrange the meeting (I wasn’t quite sure how).
This battle ends in a draw, and Mulan returns home. The opening scene establishes both Mulan’s sword skills and the ambivalent attraction she feels for her adversary.
Mulan’s family is relatively new to their town; they lived in the south for much of her life but fled to the north when the political situation became unfavorable for her father. In addition to her father, Mulan lives with her little brother Murong, her Aunt Xia and Xia’s son Dabao, who has the mind of a child.
Mulan is, of course, a girl, but when her twin brother died in infancy and then her mother died, her father began to have her dressed as a boy. When they came north, he had her registered under her dead brother’s name with the local authorities.
Mulan’s whole focus is on the upcoming duel, which is imminent at this point. Her stern father has rigorously prepared her for the duel for many years. She’s not particularly happy in the north, so different from her warmer and more hospitable southern home. But Mulan has not been raised to expect happiness – she knows only duty, honor and filial respect.
Life becomes abruptly more complicated when an imperial messenger comes to town and conscripts one male from each family to battle an invading army. (The invaders were called Huns in the Disney film; here they are the Rourans; there seems to be some confusion in the historical record about just who the actual invaders were.) Mulan’s father is paralyzed; her younger brother is a child, and Dabao is unsuited to military life due to his disability. But Mulan – in her male disguise – can represent the family. She’s filled with trepidation (I mean, who wouldn’t be?) but off she goes.
Once on the road with her fellow conscripts, Mulan’s main worry is, rather practically, how to relieve herself in private. It’s awkward, and so when the opportunity comes to impress a young officer known as the princeling – the son of a royal duke – Mulan finds herself volunteering to demonstrate combat as a way of getting away from the huge encampment of men and instead traveling with the princeling’s relatively small group. (Though Mulan herself is not sure if the exchange is worth it – fewer men around her is good, but a smaller group means more intimacy and scrutiny, presumably.)
Mulan, of course, more than impresses the princeling (to whom she’s strangely drawn; he reminds her of someone) and the military officer, Captain Helou, traveling with him. She finds herself shortly on the road with the princeling’s small group, headed on horseback (a mode of transportation Mulan’s not entirely comfortable with) to an unknown destination.
The Magnolia Sword is essentially a road story, as Mulan, the princeling (whose name is eventually revealed to be Kai) and a dwindling group of companions head for the Great Wall of China to try to stop the invasion. As they travel, they face danger from bandits and from those in their own midst who would betray them. Mulan is tested when she freezes in her first real battle, and later when she discovers that her father may not be the man she always thought he was.
There’s a lot to love about this story: the usual excellent prose, the unusual but well-drawn setting, and the characters. Mulan and Kai both sympathetic and likable characters. They’re very similar in the way they’ve been raised essentially as weapons to fight a hereditary battle going back generations. Mulan discovers at almost every turn that Kai is kinder and humbler than she would expect the son of a royal duke to be. Her journey, both figurative and literal, is a satisfying one.
Still, there were some things that didn’t work as well for me – not necessarily flaws as much as things that I couldn’t relate to. I think one of the reasons I haven’t loved Eastern-set romances and stories is that the mindset depicted is very foreign to me. Mulan’s absolute commitment to her role as her father’s weapon frustrated me – I wanted rebellion or resentment or at least questioning, things that I could understand. Even when she learns some ugly truths about her father, Mulan’s reaction is muted.
Again, I think this has more to do with my having a modern Western mindset and also probably just my own personality. (I also realize that filial duty was once more valued in the West than it is today.) But it made it harder for me to really connect with Mulan, and Kai to a degree, as well.
Kai was a little too perfect. The romance between Mulan and Kai is challenged entirely by external conflicts, and even those don’t end up posing as much of a problem as one might expect. I guess I wanted more angst, though perhaps that’s because I was more focused on the romance that I should have been in a book not marketed as a romance.
The other issue I had was with the balance of action and quieter moments. There were some really lovely character-building scenes, as when Mulan and Kai sneak up on a Rouran camp to spy. The action sometimes worked for me, but at other times it was confusing. I’m not a very visual reader, so a lot of description of “this character being here doing that” and “that character being there doing this” makes me kind of anxious. I think what happens is I keep rereading trying to create a picture in my mind, but I can’t so I get frustrated.
There weren’t so many action scenes that this was a huge issue, but the sense that I had – especially with the final battle – was that they were written and blocked almost like a movie scene would be. Again, as a not-very-visual reader, these types of descriptions don’t work as well for me.
That said, over all, I enjoyed The Magnolia Sword as something different from my usual reads. My grade for it is a high B-.