I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In The Magnolia Sword, Hua Mulan has grown up learning how to fight in preparation for a duel with a mysterious opponent. This duel has driven her for years, as it’s the result of a generations-long rivalry. But when a single male is conscripted from each family to join the war against the nomadic Rouran people of the north, Mulan must put aside her plans. Far from home, she learns more about herself, her heritage, and what she believes in.
I quite enjoyed this retelling! It bears little resemblance to the Disney film, but I expected—in fact counted on—this. The plot has a lot of history and backstory of Mulan’s China, including a rather in-depth look at the rich culture, which is more complex than I realized. The relations between Han Chinese and Xianbei, as well as about the Rouran people, none of which I knew anything about.
Another fascinating aspect of this novel was the commentary on how history and legend is passed down. Mulan learns, both on a large scale and on a personal one, how who tells a story drastically informs and influences the story itself. I almost wonder if Thomas was thinking about the legend of Mulan itself when writing these aspects, because the finer details of the original tale has been somewhat lost or altered by time. Either way, the theme about history is one of my favorite parts of this book.
Mulan as a character and narrator is excellent; she’s tough and capable but not without doubts, fears, and flaws. She can be impulsive but also methodical. Overall, she didn’t disappoint, which is good since Mulan has long been one of my favorite Disney princesses. The other characters, especially Kai, were a wonderful supporting cast, all unique and well-written with development and arcs of their own. The romantic element of the plot was surprisingly enjoyable, too.
My one significant complaint is actually has to do with the end. I felt the final battle to be rather anticlimactic and rushed. Everything builds to a certain point, but when it arrives, it seems to be resolved in a blink. I think I would have enjoyed the climax better had it been a longer last fight. However, I still generally like how the book ended.
In the end, The Magnolia Sword was a well done retelling of Mulan, with plenty of history and backstory of her world. The culture is particularly engrossing for someone like me, who’s fairly ignorant of the history of ancient China and Mongolia. The characters are excellent, the plot engaging, and the ending—for the most part—satisfying. I don’t think I really need to see the upcoming Disney film now, since I’ve got this!
Overall rating: 8.6/10
The Magnolia Sword will be published September 10, 2019!