Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey

Hua Mulan is the only daughter of a General in China who saved the life of the Emperor's son when he was kidnapped by Huns. This so moved the Emperor that he granted his general any wish he wanted. And the General's wish was a wife of his choosing, whom he had long loved. But when Mulan was born, it killed her mother, and her father left the home he had made with her and returned to the service of the Emperor.

Mulan, whose name means "Wild Orchid" was not raised by her father at all. Instead, her raising was accomplished by her nanny, Min Xian. But Mulan, as she grew older, soon outgrew the reach of her nanny when she undertook her favorite pastime, climbing trees. It was during one such endeavor that she met the son of the neighboring family, a boy named Li Po. Li Po's family was quite important, and he was learning all sorts of interesting things, and after he and she became friends, he began to teach her everything he was learning, from calligraphy to how to ride and how to fight as both an archer and a swordsman. This was far, far more interesting to Mulan than embroidery, sewing and weaving, which are all Min Xian is teaching her.

Soon, Mulan and Li Po are inseparable, and this alarms his family, who thinks that he might wish to marry Mulan, and they have plans for him that do not include marrying the unnatural girl next door. But one night, Mulan and Li Po witness two men coming to Mulan's house through a path in the woods, and Mulan, who has taken to dressing like a boy for their lessons, learns that much to her surprise, one of the men is her father.

Her father has been injured in the battle and is coming home to recuperate. But what must he think of his daughter, who he assumes would be raised to be a proper flower of young Chinese womanhood? Mulan feels that her father is put in a state of consternation by her and her interests, and his companion, the General Yuwen Huaji, takes an interest in what she is doing. He tests her on what she knows and has learned from Li Po, and helps her build on it, but soon he must go, and when he goes, Yuwen Huaji asks her pardon, because he knows he will be taking her friend Li Po with him as his adjutant.

Left alone with her father, Mulan scrapes along with him, slowly becoming used to him, and he becoming proud of her. When her father takes in a young, displaced woman with a young son, she learns to live with the woman in her household, and manages to not be angry or jealous when Zao Xing and her father fall in love and gives her blessing on their marriage.

But when her father is recalled to battle to fight another battle against the Huns, Mulan knows that he is too old, and his injuries are still too fresh to go back into battle. Waiting until the house is asleep, she plans to take his place as a son would, and hopes that her skill with archery and fighting won't make anyone look too long at her suspiciously beardless face. But she is not the only one in the house who knows what she is going to do, and her new mother-in-law helps her to leave, knowing that her husband would die were he to go to war so quickly again.

But when she shows up where the troops are mustering, her appearance incites comment, enough that one of the young princes feels they must challenge her to an archery battle, which, amazingly enough, she wins. The Prince she beat is upset at her skill being greater than his own, but her skills there get her assigned to the archers led by Prince Jian. But when it comes down to fighting the Huns and Prince Jian's premonitions about the battle conflict with that of his older brothers, can Mulan and her bravery and skill save the day? And what of Prince Jian? What will he do when he finds out that she is a woman?

I read the story of Fa/Hua Mulan long ago, and while this story certainly is an updated version of the tale, it sort of cuts down on the character's bravery and skill. In the original tale, as I read it, Fa/Hua Mulan fought against the Huns, and other nomadic people, for twelve years. At the end, she herself was a general and was offered a title, but refused it to go home. It is also noted that she died of old age and not in battle, and her sex was only revealed after she went home and came out to her battle comrades in a woman's dress and asking if they recognized her now.

In this book, Mulan fights in only a single battle, and while she is instrumental in bringing it to a successful conclusion, it's because she and her troops cause an avalanche on the Huns and not because of her skill in fighting or strategy. While it's easy to see that Prince Jian is intrigued by her battle skills, I would have preferred a version that emphasized that her skills were just as good as those of the men, and had her achieving rank after fighting, because this version downplays her skill in many ways. She's still good, but it seems less when compared to the original tale.

I enjoyed this book, which is part of the Once Upon a Time series, but of course, it seems to be based, much like the book "Diamond Secret", on stories of a real woman's life. I just wish it had hewed a little more closely to the original as it comes off as her being less of a warrior and merely someone whose victory should have been based on her fighting prowess rather than ability to arrange an avalanche. I'd still recommend the book, though, and the rest of the series.

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