The Once Upon a Time series takes traditional fairytales and gives them a new spin, either by rationalizing the magical elements (as in Snow) or by setting them in a more contemporary time period (such as Water Song). They make for short but sweet little reads; like Hershey’s Chocolate Drops, they’re hardly anything to get too excited over, but can provide a new point-of-view to stories you’ve been hearing since you were a child. Cameron Dokey is perhaps the most popular contributor to the series, and her titles are amongst the best installments, including The Storyteller’s Daughter, Beauty Sleep, and Before Midnight.
Wild Orchid is based on “The Ballad of Mulan,” which (along with Sunlight and Shadow, a retelling of “The Magic Flute,” and Spirited, the second version of “Beauty and the Beast” in this series) suggests that the authors are running out of material. Not exactly a “fairytale,” the legend of Mulan is probably best known to Western audiences through the Disney film adaptation. So it was with some interest that I picked up Wild Orchid, knowing little about the source material and interested in how the story would play out.
Hua Mulan is a young Chinese girl who has been taught the ways of warfare by her best friend and neighbor Li Po. Left mainly to her own devices thanks to her long-absent father, Mulan grows up acutely aware of how different she is from other young women (told in first-person narrative, she spends most of the first chapter driving this point home to us). When her general father eventually returns home she is eager to get to know him, partly because she longs to learn more about her mother, whom her father married for love and whose name has not been uttered since Mulan’s birth.
But China is under threat from the Huns, and when Mulan’s father finally returns home she is concerned about his health, not to mention the condition of his new wife. Deciding not to risk his death in battle, or to split up the newlyweds, Mulan disguises herself as a boy and rides out to join the army in his place. By the time this occurs, we are already halfway through the book, and Mulan’s experiences in the army seem rather rushed as a result. Meeting the youngest son of the Emperor, Prince Jian, Mulan eventually proves herself (to friends, family and love interests alike) in a satisfying though rather predictable way.
At times Mulan does come across as something of a Mary Sue, what with her tenacity, determination and ability to do absolutely anything, including come up with war strategies that nobody else can think of, beat the prince himself in archery practice, and be universally adored by everyone she meets. Still, when you think of the original ballad, in which the titular character bests her father in a sword fight, goes unrecognized for years whilst fighting in the army, and who is applauded for her efforts when the truth finally comes out, the character’s abilities have actually been toned down!
Dokey is usually quite good with the first-person narrative voice, but here it grates slightly thanks to Mulan’s Western-style diction and her incessant pondering over how different she is from everyone else. Considering her differences also make her indisputably better than everyone else, I’m not sure why she’s complaining. Likewise, Mulan’s romance with Prince Jian is completely unconvincing, though the two of them do manage to secure their future together in a rather touching way. That being said, this is one of the few books in this series that I wished had a higher page count, just to give us more details on the characters and situations.
There are some interesting differences here when compared to the Disney version; Dokey correctly uses “Hua” as Mulan’s family name (instead of Fa, as in the movie) and correctly translates Mulan’s given name as “wood orchid” (whereas the Disney film seemed to suggest it had something to do with blossoms). But the unique thing about Wild Orchid is that it is not a “retelling” of the ballad, but simply a fleshed-out version of it. As such, it’s difficult to really place it within the “fairytale” canon of the other books in the series, though as always it serves as a mild, diverting read that sheds new light on an old tale. As always, Dokey serves up a strong and rewarding story.