I was a weeny and put off writing a review of this because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it, and now it’s been a month since I finished. I feel like I’ve told you this story before.
Coincidentally, this is a retelling! I didn’t pay too much attention to the specific plot of this one before reading it, other than the keywords “historical” and “Mulan” and “retelling”. This is why you shouldn’t pay attention to other people sometimes. It is historical, very much so, but it is not a Mulan retelling. In the tradition of Mulan, our heroine dresses as a boy, but not in the tradition of Mulan, she likes being a boy. Also, I didn’t realize until I was about a third of the way through the book that the author had rewritten history so that a real Chinese emperor—the first of the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu emperor Zhu Yuanzhan—was in fact a lady in disguise. Chan is surprisingly true to history otherwise (you know, despite the magic, which was pretty light, but I thought a great twist on the idea of the Mandate of Heaven).
For some reason, when this was first published I thought it was YA, but it is very much not! This is adult fantasy, and it is full of characters making morally ambiguous decisions, oh boy is it ever. The style it’s written in was also very unique; I’ve never quite read anything like it. By the end, I cared for the all three main characters quite a bit, especially Ouyang (no spoilers!), even Zhu, who had made the most questionable decisions of anyone. I was extremely unfamiliar with Chinese history in general, let alone this period, but I had zero trouble following the events and the politics. Chan’s writing grounds everything in character, and all battles and strategies were clear, exciting, and had emotional stakes. I was tempted to give this five stars, but in the end decided against it for now because the end of the book unsettled me. I might come back later and adjust my rating. Definitely in for the sequel. (Where are you, sequel? When is your release date??)
Read Harder Challenge 2022: Read a queer retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, folklore, or myth.