Review: The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas

The Magnolia Sword is a beautiful re-telling of the story of Mulan.  This story has the things I look for in a teenage romance/historical fiction retelling of a myth:  blindfolded arrow catching, looks that can fell trees, and exciting conflict!

Before you start reading, I must warn you:  this novel is not in the same style as the Disney movie.  Disney’s Mulan is a comedic, musical take on the folk tale.  This book is a true re-telling of the story of Mulan, complete with historically accurate enemies and speaking styles which would have been found in 5th century China.  

The Magnolia Sword, which is a beautiful name for a beautiful sword, could really be called “A Tale of Two Swords.”  Though it bears no resemblance to the classic work about cities, there are two legendary swords featured at length in the book.  The action opens on a sword fight in the dead of night.  We find Mulan crossing blades with her rival, a similarly aged man from the Peng family.  The legend goes that the Hua family and the Peng family are sworn enemies in a generations long contest to win the two legendary swords, one held by each family.   Thomas uses beautiful descriptions of swordplay and the honorific art of speaking in 5th century China.  Some readers may need to get used to this style of dialogue, but it really adds to the historical accuracy and authenticity of the book.  

I absolutely appreciate the use of the correct tribes, the Xiongnu, Xianbei, and Rouran in the novel.  Given the history and mythology of Mulan, this is a great nod to the origins of the story and the correct time period, rather than the attempts from other pop culture attempts at a re-telling.  The book references the Xiongnu as the Huns, which is a true statement.  When most people think of the Huns, they think Attila the Hun, who was part of the Eurasian Huns.  The Xiongnu were Asiatic Huns whose ethnic and cultural makeup were a blend of many semi-nomadic steppe peoples.  I think it’s important to make this distinction.

The author put an inordinate amount of historical research into this book and it absolutely shows in the masterful telling of the story of Mulan.  It is vivid, emotion, and a masterfully crafted work of historical fiction.  As other reviewers have noted, Thomas carefully reminds us that behind the male facade, the armor, the war…. there is a teenager, dealing with all of the things teenagers dealt with on a scale 10 times harder than our modern view, who is only trying to honor her family.  She is human and vulnerable, even with all of her martial training.  

“Mulan means Magnolia….I feel a secret connection to the great blade, as if it were always meant to come to me.”

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the story of Mulan, but would caution you that this isn’t the Disney version.  This is much more true to the folk tale, with some artistic license thrown in.  If you are looking for a solid work of historical fiction, bordering on YA romance, this is the book for you!  Though it came out last year, this book is still available for order!  Don’t forget to support your local book shop and share your recommendations with friends! 

Sherry Thomas’ goodreads page can be found here

​Happy reading!


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