The Magnolia Sword
Sherry Thomas is the rare writer that I’ll follow to any genre. I inhaled her gorgeous European historicals as a teen and reread them at least thrice a year (The Luckiest Lady in London remains in my list of Top 10 Favorite Romances of All Time). When she wrote YA fantasy in the Elemental Trilogy, I mourned the loss of her historicals but nonetheless gobbled up those new books as well. When she moved on to historical mysteries, I yet again mourned the loss of another genre but fell in love with the clever and riveting world of Lady Sherlock. And when she announced her upcoming YA Mulan retelling, my impatient hand was ready to one-click and devour her new book. By now, I had learned not to mourn — you see, it doesn’t matter what genre she writes in. Her stories are so lush and emotionally-wrenching that I’m bound to love anything she writes. The Magnolia Sword: The Ballad of Mulan is no exception to that rule.
Hua Mulan has spent her life training for one purpose: to defeat the mysterious Yuan Kai in a duel set by a family rivalry. The Hua and Peng families weren’t always adversarial. As the owners of two perfectly matched swords, the families met in a friendly duel once every generation for a “discourse on swordsmanship” to decide which family would hold the swords until the next match. Until the last duel. Until Mulan’s father lost the ability to walk. Until the consequences of the duel turned deadly beyond imagination and shattered two families. The duel that ended in a tie split the two swords (Sky Blade and Heart Sea) between the households and created a rivalry like no other.
All plans for the upcoming match vanish when the emperor’s orders arrive: the Rouran invasion is here and every family must contribute an able-bodied male for the cause. You can guess what happens next. As the only person capable of fighting in her family, Mulan disguises herself as a man — with her father’s encouragement — and joins the empire’s defense. Drawn into a squad with the royal duke’s son, Mulan navigates the terrain near the Great Wall and uncovers political treachery to save the empire before it’s too late.
Okay, premise done. Here’s my very well-reasoned and thoughtful analysis about the book:
In all seriousness, that was my very first outline for this review before I got my excitement under control. Aside from one small nitpicky complaint, this book is as close to perfection as it gets. It has all my catnip, as listed in my bio:
- Slow burn angst!
- Political intrigue!
- Non-European historicals!
- Protagonists who have difficulty expressing emotion!
- Fairytale/mythological retellings!
- Meet-disasters (twice! It happens twice and very differently)!
The only catnip this book didn’t cross off was Slytherin/Hufflepuff pairing, and I’m glad it didn’t because I would have fainted in shock. I don’t think it’s possible for one book to have all those things ($100 in Monopoly money to anyone in the comments who can prove me wrong).
Let’s start with Mulan, who easily enters my pantheon of favorite heroines. She’s so badass but vulnerable at the same time. I wanted to give her a giant hug while simultaneously cringing away in awe at her swordsmanship. She’s respectful to the needs of her empire and family, but that doesn’t take away her deviousness. When the opportunity to change her military duties arises, she smartly takes the option that she thinks will lead her away from danger (she’s wrong but it’s the thought that counts!). The decision is emblematic of Mulan: brave but not dumb enough to risk her life for a war that she didn’t choose to fight for. Who cares if other people think she’s weak for not opting for glory? She’s not a mindless pawn; she’s here to survive the war and return home to her family. This is the kind of pragmatism that I appreciate.
The true measure of Mulan’s worth can be seen in how she reacts to unexpected occurrences. She’s grown up with a mangled version of truth and lies, and the rug gets pulled from under her a lot. Despite her shattered faith, she strives to be the best person she can be: someone who behaves with honor toward the empire, her family, and herself. The temptation to run away and escape her nightmarish circumstances would have occurred to a lesser person, but not to Mulan.
The thing is, I do not need to be taught yiqi. Brotherhood might be unique to men, but loyalty, devotion to friends, and a sense of fairness are not.
Don’t get me wrong: she’s not perfect. She screws up all the time. Her imperfection adds to her perfection, in my opinion. There’s a memorable occasion where she loses it during her first encounter of active combat. She’s a badass warrior who’s been fighting for her entire life, but only in training scenarios. No amount of training would have prepared her for real bandits chasing her with weapons. She freaks out and lets fear overtake her, becoming useless in the altercation. Her shame is immense, but I fell in love with her even more. She isn’t an all-powerful warrior with mythical powers; she’s a teenage girl struggling to deal with the ruthless cards that the universe has dealt her. None of it is fair, and she’s trying so hard to vanquish her enemies and hold her head up high. Anyone who reads The Magnolia Sword is going to fall in love with Mulan.
Next, the romance! I don’t want to talk too much about this because it enters spoiler territory and I want you to swoon without any forewarned information. But trust me when I say that it is exquisite. The angst! The pining! The “how will he ever love me when he doesn’t know I am disguised as a man!” The “we are sworn enemies by fate but not by heart!” The “we sword fight a lot but it feels like extended foreplay and just kiss already!” Um, that last one may be me editorializing.
I find sword fighting to be extremely sexy, and this book only strengthened that opinion. A complaint I often have in YA is that the romantic arc isn’t strong enough, but that isn’t the case here. Sherry Thomas started her career writing romance, and her skills at crafting heart wrenching romantic elements reign supreme regardless of what genre she’s writing in. It’s kisses only, but I promise that every romance reader will be very satisfied by this book. I was more thrilled by the romantic arc in The Magnolia Sword than some of the recent romances that I’ve read.
Outside of the protagonists and the romance, I was fascinated by the commentary on immigration and walls. The book is set over a millennium ago and yet the issues seem so contemporary.
“Master Yu, the Wall looks mighty, but how useful is it?”
Yu glances about to make sure we can’t be overheard. “Beyond these mountains lies a great desert. If an army has marched past the desert and through the mountains, a wall will not make them turn back.”
“But if the Wall kept proving itself useless, why did more of it get built?”
Yu’s voice dips even lower. “Because it seemed an obvious solution. It made both the emperor and the people think something was being done. And we have all, at some point, confused doing something—anything—with actually solving the problem.”
The book’s emphasis on these themes do not seem coincidental; I firmly believe that it is meant to conjure up the reader’s contemporary life in 2019. And the attempt succeeds. During every mention of the Great Wall (and there are a lot as the book is set near the Wall), my mind seamlessly switched to my own lived experiences and mused how the book’s circumstances differed (or not differed, as it proved to be) from my own life.
The Magnolia Sword also tackles concepts such as forgiveness, filial piety, honor, brotherhood, prejudice, the connection between literacy and how future generations will view the past, what it means to be a ‘barbarian,’ what it means to be ‘Chinese,’ and more. I was astounded that so many themes were addressed in a deft manner, but it works to an impressive degree. I’ve read the book two times now, and I’m still reflecting on how all these ideas connect to each other. I generally abhor the idea of analyzing themes in a book (too many high school English assignments!), but I really do think that The Magnolia Sword is worth a reread to fully suss out the myriad interwoven threads.
I’ve been praising the book enthusiastically, but I do have one nitpick. It’s very small, but I can’t ignore it. Mulan uncovers the political intrigue without meeting the main traitor until the very end (she’s away from court and near the Wall). I wish we had gotten to explore court life a little more to fully understand the conspirators’ viewpoints. I love the book to an obsessive degree; this is a very small complaint in an otherwise perfect book. I wholeheartedly recommend The Magnolia Sword to any reader interested in a lush, magnificent, and breathtaking retelling of The Ballad of Mulan.
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