Wild Orchid (Once Upon a Time Series), by Cameron Dokey
"Wild Orchid" took me just a little bit longer to read than the other two books in the "Once" compilation, "Golden" and "Before Midnight." This means that instead of taking about 12 hours (with breaks for things like work and sleep), it took maybe 15 hours or so.
Since Dokey's writing style was just as engaging as in the other two books, I suspect it took me a while longer because "Wild Orchid" is based on the tale of Mulan, and as I had never seen or read any version of the tale except the Disney movie, I had few preconceived notions of the story. It's almost like I was swinging from plot point to plot point in the other books, but in "Wild Orchid," I had to walk.
In "Wild Orchid", Mulan's father is a famous general, Hua Wei. Mulan's mother died in childbirth, and Wei's mourning was so great that he forbade anyone ever to mention his wife's name again. He then returned to the battlefield.
Mulan grows up with two retainers, Min Xian and Old Lao for company. She has one friend, a boy named Li Po, who lives on the other side of the stream that borders her family's property.
Mulan dresses like a commoner, in a tunic and pants, and spends her childhood climbing trees and getting into other scrapes. Li Po teaches her the things he is learning -- reading, writing, swordsmanship, archery, and horseback riding. Meanwhile, Mulan is also being taught weaving, sewing, and embroidery by Min Xian. She feels that embroidery is pointless, so she doesn't put forth the effort to do well at it. However, since Mulan feels that weaving and sewing are at least useful, she reaches an acceptable level of skill at these tasks.
One day her father comes home unexpectedly with a war injury, He tells Mulan that the war is over. Wei is certain that the Huns will try again soon, but the Emperor was offended at the suggestion and stripped him of his rank before sending him home.
Wei is at first shocked to learn that his daughter has been learning masculine arts along with the feminine ones, but eventually he takes over Mulan's reading and writing lessons himself.
Meanwhile, Wei's best friend, General Yuwen Huaji, is so impressed by Mulan's archery skills that he gives her his late son's bow. Huaji has not been stripped of his rank, and before he leaves to return to the army, he takes Li Po on as an aide.
Time passes, and Mulan's father takes a second wife, the much younger Zao Xing. In due time, Zao Xing gets pregnant.
Soon after Zao Xing announces her pregnancy, it turns out that Wei was right. The Huns are going to try again. An order for all of the families in China to send the eldest male in the home to join the army comes out, but Wei is never asked to return to his former post as General. This means that if Wei responds to the summons, he will be a common soldier. That, plus her desire that her father be there for the birth of her younger sibling, causes Mulan to dress up as a boy and head off to war herself.
Fortunately, the archers are under Huaji, and archery is her strongest skill. When Mulan arrives, Huaji recognizes her, despite her disguise. He understands why she came herself, rather than letting her father go and, in an effort to help protect her secret, orders her to bunk with Li Po. The army is led by the emperor's three sons, Ying, Guang, and Jian. Jian is the prince over the archers and Mulan finds herself instantly drawn to him. She does end up saving China in a much less flamboyant, but just as effective way as the Mulan of the movie does.
With just over 500 hours of Mandarin study under my belt, I am not proficient yet, but I am not unfamiliar with the language, either. It seems to me that Dokey did a really good job with the Chinese in this book. Most of the names make sense and seem realistic, though I am uncertain about the name "Old Lao," since the most common "Lao" in Mandarin translates as "old," which would make his name "Old Old." A "mulan" (the "mu" of "Mulan" also, for what it is worth, means "wood," and the "lan" is "orchid") is a magnolia, and not technically an orchid at all. It would have been nice if Dokey had mentioned this, even in passing. She also, at one point, translates the surname "Xiao" as "small," and I can find no evidence that "small" was ever a Chinese surname. I also was uncertain about the surname "Yuwen," but a little research shows that "Yuwen" is one of a small number of compound surnames of Xianbei origin.
Well-written, well-researched, fast-moving, and engaging. I really enjoyed reading "Wild Orchid" and highly recommend it.