by Melanie Dickerson
Series: Hagenheim #9
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Genres: Romance, Young Adult
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
She knows women are expected to marry, cook, and have children, not go to war. Can she manage to stay alive, save her mother, and keep the handsome son of a duke from discovering her secret?
When Mulan takes her father’s place in battle against the besieging Teutonic Knights, she realizes she has been preparing for this journey her whole life—and that her life, and her mother’s, depends on her success. As the adopted daughter of poor parents, Mulan has little power in the world. If she can’t prove herself on the battlefield, she could face death—or, perhaps worse, marriage to the village butcher.
Disguised as a young man, Mulan meets the German duke’s son, Wolfgang, who is determined to save his people even if it means fighting against his own brother. Wolfgang is exasperated by the new soldier who seems to be one step away from disaster at all times—or showing him up in embarrassing ways.
From rivals to reluctant friends, Mulan and Wolfgang begin to share secrets. But war is an uncertain time and dreams can die as quickly as they are born. When Mulan receives word of danger back home, she must make the ultimate choice. Can she be the son her bitter father never had? Or will she become the strong young woman she was created to be?
This fresh reimagining of the classic tale takes us to fifteenth-century Lithuania where both love and war challenge the strongest of hearts.
I absolutely adore fairy tale retellings, and I have a special place in my heart for Hua Mulan and all versions of kickass warrior girls. So when I saw a YA retelling of it, I jumped on it. What I didn’t realize was that it was the 9th (!) in a series, though it works well as a standalone, and that it was Christian fiction.
Queasiness flipped Mulan’s stomach. Was her Oriental appearance—black hair, slightly darker skin, and almond-shaped eyes—unpleasant to Algirdas? Certain boys in the village had taunted her, calling her “Mongol,” and even some women looked askance at her, as if they disapproved of her. But Mother always told her she was beautiful, and even her father when asked had grunted and said, “You are not an ugly girl.”
First off, I need to address the elephant in the room. When I read the blurb, I assumed that Mulan would be Chinese – that is, that she was raised in China and then travelled to Europe as a young adult. Instead, she was basically raised as Lithuanian from the time she was three, and the only non-Lithuanian characteristic about her is her appearance. This is problematic for me in so many ways. There’s a tendency for authors to write biracial characters as a way to get diversity brownie points but still write, basically, white people with extra melanin, without having to do any of that pesky research into a different background. I don’t believe this is what Ms. Dickerson intended at all, but I truly wish she’d chosen to do a looser retelling with a non-ethnic character, especially since so little of the book actually follows the fairy tale to begin with. Mulan’s appearance is only brought up by bad guys as a negative to disparage and “other” her, and otherwise pretty much ignored.
I hadn’t realized this was Christian fiction when I requested it. While I generally don’t mind it, I found parts of the story especially heavy handed, and the heavily Protestant-influenced theology (scripture in the common tongue, laity interpretations) felt amusingly inaccurate for the time period, at least to my knowledge. I did like how spiritual both Mulan and Wolfgang were – both frequently pray for God’s help – but could’ve done without the prophecy sub-plot. It felt like spackling on some sort of God-given approval for Mulan’s choices, when I thought they were perfectly Biblical without that.
“Because that’s how I feel. Just trying to make up for my illegitimate birth, to make it up to Mother, who raised me and never resented me for the pain she felt at my father’s betrayal, or the fact that she could never have her own children.”
“Is that why you became a soldier? You were making amends by ensuring she had a home?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “She would have rather I’d married the butcher.”
Once I realized this was Christian fiction, I wondered how Mulan’s deception of pretending to be a man would be handled. Wolfgang discovers Mulan’s ruse pretty quickly, and is suspicious of her from the beginning. There’s some funny bits in there before that happens though, including a sword fight and archery competition. In fact, the book was very action packed – almost too much action at points. Mulan and Wolfgang barely have any time to talk in between battles before they’re threatened by another skirmish. But when they do get the chance, I loved their interactions, especially Wolfgang teaching Mulan to read and the initial “meet-cute” while Wolfgang still thinks she’s a man. I thought their relationship was sweet and well-developed, and thought their conflict – what future could they have together? – was believable. I was less impressed that her supposed friends literally trick her and lock her in her room for the pivotal battle, on Wolfgang’s orders, and afterwards, she basically just lets it go. It seemed entirely out of character and I hated that she was completely sidelined.
There’s also a side plot with Wolfgang’s brother, Steffan, who decides to join the opposing forces (you know, the people burning villages supposedly in the name of God). I liked how both Wolfgang and Mulan dealt with that, though I did feel like sometimes it detracted from their own relationship. On that note, all the villains are one note evil. They’re greedy and power hungry and one is even described as looking like Satan; the main villain thinks all women are evil and tools of Satan. There’s little room for gray areas or nuance, so this read much younger at times than I think was intended.
Overall, this was an OK read, but not something I could really recommend.