By David Canfield
October 24, 2019 at 03:06 PM EDT
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Danielle Tait

Mulan is getting a new novel.

National Book Award finalist Grace Lin will publish Mulan: Before the Sword next year, an original middle-grade novel that sets the Disney heroine’s story just before the events that transpire in the upcoming Walt Disney Studios live-action film, Mulan. As the synopsis goes: “When Hua Mulan’s beloved little sister is bitten by a poisonous spider, Mulan embarks on a quest filled with incredible encounters and obstacles in order to save her.”

But Lin (When the Sea Turned to Silver) isn’t just the writer behind this enchanting new Mulan tale. She’s also an award-winning illustrator, a talent she’s putting to use in this new project. She used a paintbrush to create the gorgeous art for the cover of Mulan: Before the Sword, which EW can reveal below exclusively.

Disney

“Mulan is really a folktale, no one knows if she really existed — her story has just been passed on in story and song throughout the centuries,” Lin tells EW. “This novel is truly just another reiteration, a new variation of her story adjusted for today’s audience — just like all the other versions before.”

Lin says she tried to capture both the past and present, as well as eastern and western cultures. “My art style is inspired a lot by Chinese folk art, but with a bit of a modern sensibility. There are the bold, bright flat colors and patterning that are present in Chinese peasant art, but with the dynamic composition and expression that we are more drawn to here in the United States.”

EW also has sneak-peek photos at Grace’s work in progress, which you can see below, followed by an exclusive excerpt. Mulan: Before the Sword publishes Feb. 11, 2020, and is available for pre-order.

Excerpt from Mulan: Before the Sword, by Grace Lin

Mulan crept into her house, even though the Rabbit had told her the villagers would not waken even with the loudest of noises. The moonlight trailed into the house, the delicate light shielding the sleepers from the darkest part of the night.

Quickly, she gathered supplies—food, clothes, blankets—and shoved them into her pack in a disordered manner that would have horrified Ma. But Ma didn’t see her now. As Mulan quietly passed her parents, they both stood silently with their eyes closed, wheezing peaceful sounds of slumber. Ba was leaning over awkwardly and Mulan could see the bindings that held his bad leg. “After we defeated the evil Emperor Zhou, the new emperor needed warriors to fight the invading Rouran, and my leg was badly damaged,” he had once said to Mulan, recounting his mighty warrior days as she listened with starry eyes. “But I would do it again, and more. Nothing is too much to sacrifice to bring honor to our ancestors.”

Would traveling with the Rabbit be honorable? Mulan wondered. She knew Ma would not approve of her going on a journey. “You must learn to diligently care for your family, Mulan,” Ma had said to her. “A girl brings honor by care. Not by boldness.” Mulan looked at Xiu and the cold, clammy whiteness of her sister’s cheeks. Whether this was care or boldness, she knew she must go.

“I’m going to help get something that’s going to save Xiu,” Mulan said to her parents. She gulped uneasily and then said, with more hope than force, “I will not dishonor our family.”

Her last words seemed to hang in the air as they all remained still. Mulan felt as if her chest was cracking—it was so full of love and worry and fear. She looked at the cloth rabbit dangling from the pole behind her motionless sister. Mulan reached out to touch the toy’s soft, worn silk, the shabby threads as delicate as a newborn’s hair.

Mulan slipped the cloth rabbit out of the loop of string and pressed it to her chest. She would take it with her. It would remind her of home while she was away. Mulan swallowed, wondering how far away she would go.

She turned back toward the static figures of her family. She bowed a farewell to each of them, feeling slightly as if she were honoring shrine statues. Then, grabbing Black Wind’s riding gear, Mulan left her home to find the Rabbit.

The Rabbit was waiting for her just outside the tulou’s doors. It was strange how ordinary he looked, just a rabbit sitting in wait by a silk bag. Though, Mulan realized, if you looked carefully, you could see the difference. There was an unusual luster to his fur, a silvery iridescence. But it was more than that. It was the way he sat so calmly and proudly, his head arched upward with a kind of regal majesty. Not much like a common rabbit, after all, Mulan thought.

“You can call Black Wind,” the Rabbit said, in way of greeting. “He’s awake.”

Mulan nodded without question as she realized that rousing a horse was probably well within the powers of an immortal rabbit. She whistled and heard the sound of a faraway whinny. She knelt down and began to rummage in her bag, various items falling out as she finally pulled out the blanket.

“What’s that?” the Rabbit asked, pointing at the cloth toy.

“It’s Xiu’s,” Mulan said hurriedly as she shoved it back into the bag, embarrassed to be caught with a toddler’s plaything. “Just to remind me of her.”

“Oh,” the Rabbit said, giving Mulan a strange and pointed look. Mulan felt her cheeks burning. Did the Rabbit think she was a child who needed a stuffed doll? She was surprised when he asked, “How did she get it?”

“Actually, it was given to me,” Mulan said, “but I gave it to Xiu.”

“How did that happen?” the Rabbit asked. “Tell me.”

The Story of Xiu’s Toy

When Xiu and I were children, my father and I were herding the chickens into the coop. I was very excited because my father told me that it could be my new job. I wanted to show him and everyone else that I could do it well.

However, as we were rounding up the chickens, one ran away. I rushed after it, determined to get it. But I was so busy chasing the bird, I didn’t pay attention to anything else. I dashed through the courtyard, through the crowd of villagers, causing many to fall over. Soon, behind me, there was a trail of sprawled people, upset bins, and tangled laundry, with everyone shouting and yelling. But I didn’t notice any of it. All I could see was that runaway bird. Even when the hen ran into the village shrine, I kept after it. And, to my great shame now, I accidentally broke the shrine statue.

Yet that still did not stop me. The hen jumped onto the balcony of the tulou and onto the roof. I climbed up as well, as fast as I could. I charged after the chicken, running along the slanted roof. But just as I was about to grab it, the bird flapped off the roof down into the courtyard, and waddled toward the coop. Xiu closed it in.

I was stuck on the roof. I saw my father below, hurrying toward me, worried. He called to me, telling me to climb down slowly. I tried to do what he said, but with my very first step, I slipped! Luckily, I was able to wedge a stick I was holding into the balcony and use that to break my fall. Somehow, I was able to twist in the air and land on my feet safely.

No one was pleased with me. All around me, people were shocked, shaking their heads and grumbling. When I looked at my father, I knew I had disappointed him. I had, again, acted improperly and forgotten my place as a young girl.

The crowd slowly broke up, and, shamefaced, I began to scuffle to my father. But before I reached him, a peasant woman swept in and came up to me.

She was not from our village—she was someone I had never seen before. She was old, hundreds of wrinkles lining her face, and so sun-darkened that her eyes seemed light amber in her face. “Mulan,” she said, “for you.”

And she handed me this cloth rabbit. It’s all old and worn now. But back then it was bright reddish orange with all the regular poison-fighting animals—the viper, spider, toad, centipede, and scorpion—embroidered in bright colors on it around some flowers. I remember thinking it looked so brilliant and new in her old, dappled hand.

I took it, and before I could even say thank you, she turned and left. She hadn’t yelled at me or shaken her head or looked at me with disapproval like everyone else. Instead, she had given me a gift. I was confused.

My father was waiting for me, so I quickly put the stuffed toy in my sleeve and continued to him to begin my apologies. Later, I showed it to Xiu. She loved it right away. She hugged it and played with it, so I let her take it to bed. After that, I just let her keep it.

And it was for the best, too. That rabbit was Xiu’s favorite toy, so much so that even now, years later when she’s outgrown and almost forgotten about it, Auntie Ho still hoped it would lure her spirit back.

As Mulan said those last words, a wave of sadness and fear came over her, like an icy wind. The memory of her past disgrace stung, as did the thought of her sister, rosy and happy, when now she lay in the darkness, as white and as still as death. Tears burned in Mulan’s eyes, and she was glad when the sounds of Black Wind galloping grew louder and he came to her, his black form outlined by moonlight. Hiding her tears, she avoided looking at the Rabbit and, instead, outfitted the horse with his saddle, tying her bag with the toy in it securely. Then she began to twist and knot the blanket around her waist and shoulders.

“What are you doing?” the Rabbit asked. “What’s that for?”

“It’s for you,” Mulan said, scooping up the Rabbit and placing him in the folds of her blanket. As she adjusted the sling so she could carry him on her back, she heard him make noises of disgust.

“Like a baby,” he said grumpily. “A baby!”

Mulan grinned to herself as she climbed up on Black Wind. The moon’s splendor overflowed onto Earth, brightening it almost to daylight.

“Which way?” Mulan asked the Rabbit.

“Since I am stuck in this shape,” the Rabbit said, still grumbling, “we’ll need help. We can find an old friend of mine in the City of Rushing Water.”
“The City of Rushing Water?” Mulan faltered.

“You’ve heard of it?” the Rabbit said. He pushed his paw free of the sling and waved. “That way.”

“Ah, yes,” Mulan said, not willing to admit that she had heard of it only as a place so far away that it was rumored to have a different sky. She clicked at Black Wind to start him moving. “It’s quite a distance.”

“Yes,” the Rabbit said as Black Wind galloped. The land was soaked with moonlight and their figures swooped across it like shadow puppets pulled by an unseen master. “That is why we are leaving now.”

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