In Mulan: Before the Sword, Grace Lin takes her turn as storyteller of the Chinese folk tale of Mulan, female warrior of old. In Lin’s story, Mulan is a young teenager, living with her parents and younger sister. When a magical spider bites her sister and sends her into a near-death state, Mulan summons a healer visiting her village. The healer can’t heal the sister right away, but he has a plan.
The healer turns out to really be the Jade Rabbit, a common character in Chinese folktales. With the Rabbit and eventually also Lu Ting-Pin, another immortal being from folk tradition, Mulan embarks on a quest to find the herbs needed to cure her sister, opposed every step of the way by a demon called the White Fox.
What’s so unusual about this story is the fact that it’s full of stories. Both the Rabbit and Lu Ting-Pin pause the action to tell Mulan stories from days of yore, and then pretty soon the characters and situations in those stories show up in Mulan’s story. It’s a very interesting technique that Lin calls layering.
Mulan is using her wits as weapons, not a sword. She is not a warrior yet. In fact, she struggles with her family’s gender expectations, which favor her feminine little sister and devalue much of what Mulan can do: ride a horse, speak her mind, and so on. At the start, Mulan feels pretty worthless. But finally, Mulan realizes she has a lot to contribute, too.
It’s a good story, well told. I’ll give it five stars. *****