I hate to admit it, but my only exposure to the legend of Mulan has been the Disney movie. As a result, I kept waiting for Mulan’s peers to discover her gender and turn on her, but as it turns out that was a Disney addition. However, Thomas added her own twist that I quite enjoyed: Mulan has spent her whole life training for a duel with a rival family of martial artists and fighters. As the family legend goes, a master swordsmen had a set of two swords, and he used to pass them on to his heir. When the last heir didn’t have any descendants to pass them to, he broke up the set, and gave one each to his best disciples with the understanding that the families would meet up sporadically to duel and keep their skills up with the winner taking both swords until the next duel. What was originally intended as a friendly competition has turned dark over generations.
Without the knowledge of their families, Mulan and her intended duel competitor have already met and fought three times – they wear masks so Mulan doesn’t know what her competitor looks like, and he does not know she is a woman. In fact, no one in town does. A few days before their intended duel, her father receives a letter that Yuan Kai will be unable to attend due to the upcoming war with invaders north of the Wall. Only a day or two later, Mulan is at the town square when an official announces the draft – each family must provide an able bodied man. Mulan’s household contains her paralyzed father, her young brother, their man servant with a developmental disability, and as far as anyone in town knows – Mulan herself.
Mulan goes with the blessing of her family, and uses her years of training to join a young royal’s special task force. However, she soon starts suspecting that the young princeling might be her secret dueling partner, even though it doesn’t make any sense for what she does know of his family. Mulan assumed she had found a safe assignment to sit out the war but instead soon finds herself in the middle of danger, and a potential insider plot against the throne.
I really liked this one. I wish I had maybe checked the actual legend first instead of letting Disney shape my view of the story too much since I kept waiting on certain plot points because of the movie (ie her peers to turn on her and her to have to prove herself). Instead, a lot of things that could have been sources of drama are dealt with quickly and maturely such as Mulan and the princeling’s identities and connection to each other. While there is a bit of action as they try to save the kingdom, the novel also involves a lot of self reflection and self discovery as Mulan and Yuan Kai face their fears and failures, and discover their potential and worth.