Series: Flame in the Mist #1
Published by Putnam Juvenile on May 16th, 2017
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Tamora Pierce.
The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.
Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she's quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she's ever known.
Perhaps she was wind. Wind could whip a fire into a frenzy. Make a mighty oak bow. Lash water into the mist.
Having loved Ahdieh’s debut The Wrath and the Dawn, her new project had been thrown onto my TBR before it was even announced what its content was going to be. When I heard it was a story with a feudal Japanese-inspired setting, pitched as a mash-up of 47 Ronin and my favourite Disney Mulan, I was beyond excited for Flame in the Mist.
Though I can genuinely say I liked the book, Flame in the Mist did not reach the expectations that I had built up for this anticipated release. The book’s strong suit was its character dynamics, its subtle feminist touch, and its world-building. I’m also a tremendous fan of the girl-disguised-as-boy narrative. However, there’s a lot of potential for improvement for almost every element of the book, be it the depth of the characters, the substance of the plot, or the storytelling. Unfortunately, the storyline was unoriginal and shared unmistakable similarities with Ahdieh’s previous work, and I could have lived with that had the plot not been so painfully predictable sometimes.
Mariko is a fierce, ballsy main character who finds herself caged in the expectations society has of her as girl. She longs for her freedom and when the opportunity arises, she takes it without a glance back. Mariko, however, is also a girl who sometimes reaches strange conclusions and makes the most ridiculous and incomprehensible decisions – and I found myself reminded of Shahrzad Al-Khayzuran of The Wrath and the Dawn. There’s just something about Renée Ahdieh’s female leads that I irks me, as though they are purposefully more naive than they have to be to propel forward the plot. Nonetheless, I have a soft spot for both Shahrzad and Mariko, as they are confident and take matters into their own hands. In contrast to Shahrzad, Mariko doesn’t have any physical skills, like archery, and relies solely on her mind. I thought the product of her supposed intelligence was somewhat far-fetched but I appreciated that Ahdieh tried to highlight the strength in a cunning mind as opposed to physical prowess. With Flame in the Mist, Ahdieh tried something new by integrating other characters’ points of view, which is one thing I had missed in her previous work. Now, let’s move on to the Black Clan’s boys – Ranmaru und Okami. Ranmaru’s characterisation is interesting but I feel like his character hasn’t been developped enough. I adored Okami – the quiet fighter in the shadow of his best friend – but he could’ve been given more substance as well, considering the role he has in the book. In general, Flame in the Mist depicts lovely character dynamics and witty banter, but the supporting cast has potential for more fleshed-out characterisation. There is also the matter of Mariko’s and Kenshin’s sibling relationship, which sounds conflicted yet filled with a lot of affection, but it isn’t really explored. I hope the characterisations and relationships will be a major focus of the sequel because there is room for more depth, in my opinion.
The plot holds a steady pacing and entails several interesting subplots and points of view to approach the bigger picture from different angles. Unfortunately, the story is also incredibly unoriginal and predictable. I foresaw most of the twists and turns, and though I was well entertained at all times, I just missed that spark of surprise I usually get with fantasy novels. I certainly enjoyed Mariko’s disguise as a boy because, as a reader, you’re always on edge due to the fact that she may be found out. The romantic subplot is a point of controversy for me, though I at least never have to worry about love triangles or insta-love with Renée Ahdieh. It’s an enjoyable slow burn but, in its essence, it is very similar to the love story between Shahrzad and Khalid in The Wrath and the Dawn. Let me break it down for you – and this may be considered a spoiler by some readers, so beware, my friends: Girl despises boy. Girl realizes boy is not the jerk she thought he was. Girl slowly falls for boy though he is her enemy and she’s supposed to hate him (which she, of course, repeatedly reminds herself to do). Boy is intrigued by girl’s cunningness. Boys finds out who girl really is. They love each other anyway. The end. Sound familiar? Yes or yes? Further, there’s the issue of the most ridiculous kissing scene I’ve read in recent time, but I’ll let you discover and judge that by yourselves. I ship the couple – actually all the couples – but the similarities shared with Ahdieh’s previously written romance(s) and some of the forced scenes in favour of romantic progress dampened my excitement somewhat. I hope that, as this new series progresses, the plots will become less and less alike. Because right now, I feel like Ahdieh is still stuck in Khorasan with regard to the main pillars of the plot and the romance.
One of the aspects I liked most about Flame in the Mist was the Eastern Asian-inspired setting. The empire of Wa is based on feudal Japan during the time of the samurai, so it can be regarded as a loosely historical Japanese fantasy. There’s a glossary at the back, and like other reviewers, I recommend a glance at the Japanese terms because the prose is full of them. Ahdieh’s world-building is refreshing, seems researched well enough, and grounded with beautiful, lush descriptions I could lose myself in. She included many Japanese traditions and values, such as the tea ceremony and a focus on honourable values and a connection to nature. With regard to the elements of her world-building, I wondered whether Ahdieh had purposefully left out the religious system (i.e., Shintoism) in respect of the Japanese culture (or maybe it was so subtle I didn’t notice it during my read?). If so, then I respect that decision but I felt like something was missing nonetheless. Further, I thought the story lacked enlightening explanations and sufficient background with regard to the history of the samurai and the ronin. Like in The Wrath and the Dawn, the magic that is subtly woven into the world isn’t addressed at all. I hope the sequel will provide more insight because I expect the magic in a fantasy to be explained. The relatively historical setting provides a nurturing foundation for some subtle feminism. I loved that Flame in the Mist addresses the struggles and inequalities faced by women in a patriarchic culture.
“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”
To my surprise, Ahdieh’s beautiful writing didn’t have the same effect on me as it had had in The Wrath and the Dawn. Her prose doesn’t seem to have the same flow or grace it had in her previous work. At times, the beauty of it seemed forced to me and unnecessarily tuned on dramatics (or as my friend Simona would say “stirring a storm in a teacup”). There is a lot of telling, not showing. For example, Mariko has the reader know that she is described as extremely observant and watchful by others, and not only do we never actually get to see this trait, I believe the book actually proves the opposite of what we are told to believe.
Overall, Flame in the Mist makes for an enjoyable read which kept me hooked in spite of its predictability, but my enjoyment kept to a shallow level. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed and had expected more from this book and an author I admire a great deal. I will definitely pick up the sequel to Flame in the Mist, though, because I need to see a) where the story is headed after that vicious ending, and b) whether Ahdieh can step up her game.
**I received this ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**