18 July 2022

Bookishness / Feather and Flame by Livia Blackburne

Feather and Flame book cover shown next to book information: Feather and Flame by Livia Blackburne (The Queen's Council #2), published June 14, 2022 by Disney Hyperion. Genre: Historical Fantasy. Audience: Young Adult

As a phoenix rises from the ashes,

And a dragon soars through the storm,

So an empress ascends.

It was a hot summer’s day in 1998 when my mom and I settled into our velour-covered seats, eager for the premiere of Disney’s animated Mulan. We weren’t the only Chinese Americans in the movie theater that day. Who could resist seeing the first East Asian Disney Princess in action, let alone one based on such a legendary female warrior? Yet from the first scenes with the matchmaker to the final fireworks over our new hero of China, my mom kept up a steady whisper about how un-Chinese it was. Disney’s rendition was a far cry from the Fa Mulan she had grown up with. My teenaged self, though, could relate so much to the character’s struggles with identity and belonging. Conclusion: Mulan must be American Born Chinese (ABC) like me! Not Chinese enough for some, yet different enough to stick out in the neighborhood.

Twenty-two years later, with the publication of Feather and Flame (The Queen's Council #2) by Livia Blackburne, we have a new sequel to the animated film that attempts to address some of these cultural gaps while keeping true to the Mulan many of us came to love on screen.

The story picks up a few years after the movie. Village life hasn’t slowed down our hero one iota. Mulan has built up a powerful all-female militia to protect her home region, and their success has reached the Emperor’s ears. Yet he has different ideas about Mulan’s destiny when he makes her his heir. The royal ministers aren’t happy about having a woman on the throne, though. Like vultures, they circle and taunt throughout the book, questioning whether Mulan truly has the Mandate of Heaven, the divine right to rule. 



“What kind of power do I really wield
if I have to silence all my detractors to keep it?”


These manipulations prey on Mulan’s insecurities, carrying her into a valley of self-doubt. Much of the story centers on her journey to fully embrace becoming empress of China. Despite being remembered as China’s hero who defeated the Huns, we see Mulan struggling to fulfill a son’s traditional role in family and society, wondering whether a woman and a commoner could really be chosen by both Heaven and the people. Livia develops Mulan into a more complex and even more loveable character. It’s not just about her bravery and wit, but the depth of filial piety towards her family and kingdom, while figuring out where true favor comes from.

This sense of duty and desire for affirmation come with another personal price, though. Not only do we see Mulan struggle with her new role as empress, but we see her grapple with her love for the perpetually handsome Li Shang, now a general of the imperial army. Their romance flies in the face of their ultimate commitment to their people, since royalty are expected to marry for political alliance over love. The whole time I was reading, I kept pleading with them to stop being so utterly noble! The book brings us on a rollercoaster of “will they or won’t they” moments, woven tightly with the story’s many military and political threats. It’s another one of Livia’s slow burning romances, but the tensions are well done, more developed than her previous books, and remain true to Mulan and Shang. Their sweet relationship is all the more meaningful and hard-won by the end.

“Generals, pirates, archers, horsewomen, wrestlers, fencers.
We embroider [these women’s] names on our tunics
so we remember their bravery.
We train every day so our descendants can
sew our names onto their tunics when the day comes.”


As much as I enjoy reading about Shang, though, the strong female relationships, both past and present, kept me coming back to the page. There are strong women everywhere, and I love it. The clever women of Mulan’s militia, particularly her second-in-command Liwen, trust her completely and give her the literal kick in the pants she needs when she doesn’t trust herself. Her ancestors, now including her grandmother (Nai Nai), emerge from their spirit tablets to remind her she is not alone. We also see a mysterious force, the Queen’s Council, come to Mulan’s aid. To say too much about this entity would be a spoiler … so I’ll just say that this figure's mysteries unfold in awesome, endearing, and epic ways (yesss!). There are some deus ex machina moments that raised my eyebrows, but overall, these connections helped Mulan to become the leader she already could be.

The book is further colored by its attention to historical detail, although you won’t see it adhering to 6th century China, the setting for Fa Mulan’s original tale. True to Disney’s classic treatment of time, the scope of the book is vast, encompassing four dynasties from ~200 BC to 900 AD. I’m not a big fan of loose historical generalization, but Livia, who is Taiwanese American, said during one of her launch events that the broadness gave her freedom to bring more details to the page. Many of the clothing and other visual cues come from the Tang Dynasty, the latter part of the time range, while various rituals that appear in the book come from very early divination and imperial rites that evolved through the eras. The novel is still very much written for Western audiences—for instance, Mulan should have been shown way more reverence as the divine representative to the people—but it still brings more of ancient China to life than the movie ever did.

Feather and Flame is the second installment of Disney’s new Queen’s Council series, each a standalone book that reimagines a Disney Princess with the power and responsibility that follow the “happily ever after.” The first book, Rebel Rose (2020), explores Belle’s reluctant reign at the cusp of the French Revolution and introduces a different but compelling rendition of the Queen’s Council. I can’t wait to see how the next in the series, featuring Jasmine, will adapt the Council to its heroine’s needs and context.

After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, then we need more than one enigmatic entity—and a whole host of ancestors and friends—to raise a queen. It was a delight to read how Mulan learns to embrace both the phoenix and the dragon: respective representations of divine favor and imperial rule, yin and yang, female and male. Favor does come from Heaven, but it must also come from within.

Note: I know Livia personally and also received an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Disney Hyperion and NetGalley for the opportunity.


Feather and Flame (The Queen’s Council Book 2) by Livia Blackburne
Disney Hyperion, Nov. 2022
Author Site
/ Publisher / Goodreads / Bookshop / Amazon

Trigger warning: Violence, death, war, sexism.


Read while _ Lamenting the supply chain doom and gloom that delayed this book twice! Reread while discovering that the name Mulan might not be Chinese after all.

Currently reading _ A murder of Agatha Christie audiobooks,
Walking with Bilbo by Sarah Arthur

Currently listening _ “Be a Man” and the rest of the Mulan soundtrack OF COURSE. Plus “When
(當)” by Power Station (動力火車), the theme song to another 1998 release, the Mandarin-language hit costume drama Return of the Pearl Princess (還珠格格).

Next up _
A Darkness at the Door (Dauntless Path #3) by Intisar Khanani

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