Thanks to Edelweiss+ for my complimentary ARC of this book. All opinions provided are my own.
The Magnolia Sword—a Mulan re-telling written by the inimitable Sherry Thomas—is a kick to the senses. It’s an evocative trip to ancient China told in the voice of a very resourceful, very brave woman, Mulan.
Mulan follows the dictates of her father and lives her public life in the guise of her long-dead twin brother. She’s the person who’ll represent her family in the long-held duel between her family and an enemy family, the Pengs, to determine which family will win a set of coveted blades, and she’s the person from her family who volunteers for the draft when soldiers come calling for men to protect their Empire.
No one can know her secret or she risks bringing dishonor on her family and making them lose the reduced possessions they have left. But it’s hard to keep a secret like this in the army when quarters are tight and conditions are rough, and the princeling who leads her into war might be the same man she’s responsible for dueling at home.
Sometimes hidden identity stories get kind of ridiculous because the author might attempt to maintain a story’s suspense by allowing her/his characters to look naïve/silly/incapable of seeing what’s right in front of them forgodssake. But I love how Thomas does it in The Magnolia Sword: how Mulan is questioning and skeptical regarding the identity of the princeling without being overly paranoid; how some questions are answered fairly soon but others are left in mystery until the end.
The revelations unfold in a way that makes sense for Mulan’s character, just as they make sense in terms of the princeling’s.
And speaking of the princeling, his characterization is divine. I never knew how much we need to read about heroes who are physically strong/willing to take on almost any threat and also freely admit their many fears until the princeling. His sensitivity—and my response to it—was at times surprising and feels refreshing.
Thomas’s powerful depiction of women in the story—chief among them Mulan—is even more nuanced. Some of them can nurse grudges as faithfully as they can nurse children. I love how astutely Thomas chooses when to put Mulan’s specific insecurities/pride/worries regarding her identification as a woman and her set of circumstances at the forefront, and when to put them in the background.
Mulan’s eyes are repeatedly opened throughout The Magnolia Sword and we’re reminded of truths with her. This book tells the story most of us (many of us?) have heard before, about a woman-soldier in disguise who fights for her empire, but it’s also a story about how words have an impact and how language and history matter, whether we’re talking on a personal level or a global.
In the end, The Magnolia Sword has flash and adventure and quite a lot of sweetness, but it also has the gorgeous impact--the whatagreatwriter moments--that I’ve come to associate with reading a Thomas book.
4.25 out of 5 stars.
(A note that felt out of place earlier in my review: I also appreciated how diverse the story is relationship-wise, and how Thomas doesn’t shy away from at least the suggestion of same sex relationships among men and relationships among people of different classes.)
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.