MMGM and #IMWAYR: Mulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin

I'm excited to be here with an actual prose MG novel, which tend to be pretty rare in my reading schedule these days. Today we're looking at Mulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin.

There are some SPOILERS in the review below that I have marked with tags so you can avoid them if need be (although some of them are honestly worth looking at).


Grace Lin is just as talented an illustrator
as she is an author, and she did a beautiful
job with the art for this cover!


        So here's a bit of background. Back in 1998, Disney made an animated movie called Mulan that is quite beloved—it was either the first or one of the first Disney animated movies with an Asian protagonist, and it's also just considered one of the super-fun early Disney animated films that people love. (And I didn't know this, but Mulan herself is an actual character from Chinese legends, and from what I know, the movie roughly followed the legends' plot.) Then, last year, Disney continued their cynical-cash-grab strategy by remaking Mulan as a live-action movie that some people liked and some people didn't—all I know is it had a weird pandemic release that was partially in theaters and partially on Disney+, and there were various controversies involving filming locations or actors' comments in relation to China's genocide of the Uighurs, which is unfortunate. Anyway, I haven't seen either the original Mulan or the live-action remake, so you might be wondering why I picked this book up. And the answer is simple: Grace Lin. Yes, Grace Lin, author of Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (one of my favorite books of all time) and National Book Award Finalist When the Sea Turned to Silver, one of the most totally awesome MG authors ever, that Grace Lin, wrote the movie tie-in for the live-action remake of Mulan. So regardless of how much I care about the Mulan movies (which, prior to this book, was not at all), I had to read this book. It was mandatory. Let's start by taking a look at the publisher's description of Mulan: Before the Sword:

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From New York Times best-selling author Grace Lin comes a novel filled with adventure and wonder set before the Walt Disney Studios film, Mulan.

Family is important to Hua Mulan―even if her parents don’t understand why she would rather ride her horse, Black Wind, than weave, or how her notorious clumsiness can be so different from the graceful demeanor of her younger sister, Xiu. But despite their differences, Mulan has a deep love for her family, especially Xiu. So when her sister is bitten by a poisonous spider, Mulan does everything she can to help, including seeking out a renowned healer. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to both the mysterious spider bite and the healer than meets the eye.

On a quest with the Jade Rabbit of legend, Mulan visits extraordinary places, meets Immortals, and faces incredible obstacles while searching for an antidote for her sister. And the danger only rises when Mulan learns of a prophecy foretelling that a member of the Hua family will one day save the Emperor . . . and of the powerful enemies who will stop at nothing to prevent it from coming to pass.

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        My feelings about this book are hard to describe, and I think that has to do with the variance in quality between the first and second halves of the book. I figure we can get started by discussing the flawed first half. I'll admit that this book was a family read-aloud, so my sibling spent the entire time poking holes in the plot as they tend to do with literally every book we ever read (it sometimes irritates me, but I must admit they can see plot holes I wouldn't pick up on in 100 years). My thoughts here are maybe influenced by their opinions as much as my own, but even so, I think there are things that needed improvement in the first half of the book. Mulan, our protagonist, is on a journey with the magical Jade Rabbit (or the Rabbit for short) to find ingredients for a cure for her sister Xiu, who is on the brink of death thanks to a poisonous spider bite. But the journey isn't just a race against the clock—there's a villain of the story who just might know about the prophecy mentioned in the book's summary and just might be trying to wreak havoc on Mulan and the Rabbit during their journey. Now, Grace Lin makes the choice to tell the audience who the villain is—there are a few chapters from the perspective of the villain's servant, an extremely fleshed-out character in her own right, that make this clear. (And while I'm talking about them, I should say that those chapters add a really nice layer of complexity to the whole evil-villain situation—and they really let you dig into the villain's motivations and blind spots as well, which makes some of the villain's missteps feel more convincing.) But here's the thing. The audience finds out early on who the villain is—but Mulan doesn't. And thus begins the dreadful situation in which Mulan gets tricked by the villain as the audience looks on, knowing the mistake Mulan is making but being powerless to stop her. Personally, I felt like that whole aspect of the story was aggravating beyond belief—I get that it added tension that kept you reading, but it was the sort of tension that honestly might make you just put the book down. It's too much tension. *****Spoilers begin here (but they're redeeming, so you might as well read them if you're considering trying the book)***** Luckily, Mulan doesn't spend the entire book being tricked by the villain—she figures things out about halfway through the book. But that almost begs the question of why the villain's identity wasn't just kept secret from the audience until Mulan found out—it would have perhaps removed too much tension from earlier in the book, but it would have at least made for a neat twist. *****Spoilers begin here that maybe aren't worth reading until you've read the book***** But what was particularly egregious about the whole thing (this is where my sibling's plot-hole detection comes into play) is that the Rabbit had previously dealt with this villain on a past journey startlingly similar to this one and been tricked by them in really horrible and heartbreaking ways back then too. And yes, Mulan encountered the villain by herself, but it still never once occurred to the Rabbit to say to Mulan, "So I had this horrible tragedy happen thanks to this villain on my last journey, so hey, why don't you keep an eye out for these tricks that the villain used back then?" I feel like I'm not explaining it quite right, but it felt like a massive plot hole in context. *****All spoilers end here***** Besides all that tension, the first half of the book is really repetitive, with a whole cascade of obstacles for Mulan and the Rabbit to face that didn't really move the plot forward or work to develop the characters/add meaning to the story. (And there's so many of them that I really should have written more sentences about them so you'd see how big of a flaw they were—but they were so meaningless that I literally can't make any meaning out of them.) It was a weird contrast to see Grace Lin's gorgeous writing alongside a plot that was really not that interesting or fun, but luckily, things got better in the second half.

        How did things get better in the second half? Well, besides the spoilers I listed above, there's also an entire character who gets added to the story and really should have been there the whole time—Mulan and the Rabbit don't have the most thrilling dynamic because the Rabbit can be quiet to a fault, but adding this third character to the mix brought out a new side of Mulan and the Rabbit and added quite a bit of interest to the story. And the plot really started to move forward—there were obstacles, of course, but they were obstacles that meant something, and the characters made progress on their journey by overcoming them. And because the second half was dramatically less frustrating, it let me pay more attention to all the things that were in both halves of the book that were really excellent! One of those is Grace Lin's writing style. Lin writes with beautiful descriptive language and clever metaphors that really set a scene—sometimes things got a little too descriptive and I got bogged down, but overall, I felt like I had an excellent mental picture in my mind of all the fascinating and beautiful locales that Mulan, the Rabbit, and their third companion travel to. And some of those places are actually quite interesting—there's some additional characters, intriguing subplots, and even a few stories within the story (a hallmark of Lin's other books) that keep things fascinating. Speaking of stories, I mentioned before that Mulan herself is a character from Chinese mythology, and it was neat to see in the author's note that Lin based many of the characters in this book off of actual myths too—since I myself despise research, I am always impressed by authors who do tons of research for their books. And Mulan, while maybe not as compelling as the clever Minli from Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, still has her charms in this book—there's a recurring point about how Mulan's family (especially her mother) is often frustrated with her for being too "rough" or "clumsy" or "unfeminine," which makes Mulan feel inferior to her sister, Xiu (who she nevertheless loves—Xiu herself never makes such comparisons). But with all the exciting action and adventure that is a highlight of this book, we see Mulan get involved in the action and start to realize that she isn't the delicate, dainty girl her family wants, and that's OK! Lastly, I want to once again praise those aforementioned chapters from the perspective of the villain's servant (they are a neat touch)—and it does bear noting that the genuinely threatening villain of this story makes for a nice change compared to books where the outcome feels obvious from the get-go.

        So what are my overall feelings here? Well, if you think of this book as a movie tie-in, then I am confident it goes far above and beyond other movie tie-ins. If you love Mulan and somehow haven't already read this, I am sure that getting to see your favorite movie characters in a story written by Grace Lin of all people will be 135% worthwhile. But I haven't seen either Mulan movie, and I thought of this book as Grace Lin's newest novel (which it is—at 384 pages, it's not exactly some quick side project she threw into her schedule). And from that viewpoint, my feelings are tainted by the unfortunate first half. But things improve dramatically over the course of the book, and by the second half, you have a story that is maybe not quite as insightful as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but is certainly a cleverly written magical adventure with luscious writing, mythology and plenty of danger. If you love Grace Lin's books and descriptive language doesn't send you running for the hills, Mulan: Before the Sword is an exciting novel that just might make you want to try the movies too!

My rating is: Pretty good!


Comments

  1. I haven't read any of Grace Lin's books nor have I watched either of the movies. This isn't a genre in which I read often, but, at your recommendation, I think I will put Where the Mountain Meets the Moon on my list. Thanks for your very thoughtful interview.

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  2. What a shame that the first half spoils the book. I often find that when the book ends well, I forget that the first half wasn't so good. :-)

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  3. Too bad that you didn't like the first half of the book. I'm not sure I would have finished it. I love Grace LIn's books, including Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, so may try to pick this one up.

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  4. Thanks for this thorough review. I’m sorry that this was not the book that you hoped. I’m probably of the unpopular opinion but I’m not a fan of her previous novels. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this.

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  5. I have read the earlier Grace Lin books, but not this one, nor have I seen the movie, so it might be an entirely different experience reading it without other info. I will remember at least some of what you wrote if I ever find time. I do like Grace Lin's story-telling! Thanks for the extraordinary review!

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  6. Sometimes our motivation for reading something seems unusual, but I don't really think so in this situation. How cool that Grace Lin, wrote the movie tie-in! Probably the only reason why we haven't yet watched the remake is that it's rated PG-13, which means our youngest two can't yet watch. Thanks so much for the review!

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  7. I haven't read Grace Lin either, but have heard good things about her novels. I like the Asian representation in literature. This book sounds complex, but worth the read once you beyond the beginning. Thanks for such a thorough review -- sibling views included.

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  8. I haven't seen either Mulan movie. I can see why you'd pick this up with Grace Lin as the author!!

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  9. I am kind of intrigued. I'm not crazy about book that tie into a movie, but maybe I'll try this one out. (It's been a long time since I've seen Mulan.)

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