In this retelling of “The Ballad of Mulan” for the young adult reader, told in the first person, Cameron Dokey breathes fresh life into an archetypal story of a cross-dressing young woman who goes to war in defense of her beloved China and in place of her father. We are quickly won to the side of its heroine, who came into the world as the blossom of an unconventional love match. Her grief-stricken father does not come home to meet her until Mulan is a teenager, and he’s forced into retirement by war injuries and an angry emperor. He discovers a daughter who loves climbing trees and learning forbidden skills from her friend, Li Po. Father and daughter struggle through their new relationship, but soon a new, very feminine wife joins the household. She becomes pregnant just as the Huns advance again on China and the Emperor sends out his call. Mulan takes up her father’s armor and warhorse and joins Li Po’s archers. Her skills bring her to the attention of the emperor’s youngest son, and she joins him in a daring attempt to turn the tide of the invasion.
Elegant in its simplicity, Wild Orchid is also deep in its exploration of conventions associated with culture—from expected obedience of children, to the power of a mother-in-law, to gender and class divisions. The novel’s heroine discovers that she is not the only one struggling against expectations. For Mulan, courage is key in facing the emperor, the enemy, or a father, as she asks for the right to live a life based on love. Highly recommended. Ages 10 and up.