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Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas

Hua Mulan has spent her life pretending to be her dead twin brother. Since her mother died, no one has called her by her real name, which represents the beautiful magnolia flower. She has to pretend to be a boy because it is her destiny to fight the duel that has consumed her family for generations. She has trained every day to become the fighter her father wants her to be. She has learned to wield a blade, shoot, even catch arrows with her bare hands – blindfolded. Her father has trained her so that when the time comes, she will not lose against her opponent like he did. Mulan wishes she could leave the house as herself, but she has learnt to act the part of a man well.

But the gongs of war are sounding in northern China. Suddenly even a generations-old commitment to fight a mystery opponent must be laid aside. Instead, men are called upon to fight, and Mulan answers the call with her family’s prized weapon, a sword named Heart Sea, on her back. She’s promised her little brother she will come home safe, and so when her elite skills give her the chance to join the soldiers protecting the royal duke’s son, she takes it, thinking it will keep her out of danger. Little does she realise the princeling she serves is heading into the heart of the battle. Not only that, there are connections simmering between them and their families that will change everything she thinks she knows, irrevocably. Her skills, courage, and strength will be tried. She is no longer in the training ground. This is life or death.

I haven’t curled up with a good intrepid adventure book with a daring and dauntless heroine in what feels like forever. Magnolia Sword went down in a single sitting. I raced to the end, hoping more than once that there wasn’t a sequel, not because I couldn’t bear reading any more, but because I couldn’t bear the thought of a cliff hanger. This breath-holding quest of suspense doesn’t disappoint.

With the Disney retelling of the famous ballad of Mulan coming out early next year, it’s the perfect time to re-engage with this beloved and traditional heroine. Sherry Thomas reinvents her story, blending the old and the new. Her research into fifth century China draws on old sources, but she crafts an original and modern Mulan of bold proportions along with a cast of fresh characters.

Magnolia Sword plays with gender roles, not only Mulan’s, but with the brave princeling Kai who is afraid of wolves and the dark. And with the prince-in-disguise Tuxi who is enamoured of the expert tracker Kedan. As Mulan faces her first fight, helps to discover treachery and gets closer to the prince, her band of military brothers amuse with jokes and their vivacious personalities shine through.

Magnolia Sword is the perfect title for this book. Mulan’s sword Heart Sea, with magnolias engraved on its hilt, is beautiful, just like she is, but enemies beware. Its edges are sharp.

Reviewer: Susannah Whaley

Allen and Unwin, RRP $22.99


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