Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh
Book One of the Flame in the Mist series
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 16, 2017
Rating: 4 stars
Source: ARC sent by the publisher
Summary (from Goodreads):
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.
What I Liked:
Flame in the Mist has been one of my most anticipated publications of 2017, and I had been looking forward to reading it for a long time. You know that feeling when you finally get a much anticipated book, and you're so excited, but you just can't seem to open it to start reading? I had this book over almost two months. I was scared. But honestly, I don't know what I was so afraid of, because this book was excellent, and I loved it.
I'm going to go ahead and tell you all that 1) this review will not do this book justice, 2) I won't be able to capture the complexities and intricacy of the plot, and 3) I will do my best not to spoil anything, because my goodness there is a lot of things that are unveiled slowly and could definitely be spoiled. Ahdieh has readers guessing right and wrong at every turn!
Mariko is on her way to Inako to marry the second son of the emperor. Her marriage has been arranged and she must bring honor to family. Her family is highly regarded, with her father being a samurai lord, and her twin brother being a powerful samurai with the nickname "Dragon of Kai". But her procession is ambushed, leaving everyone dead except Mariko. She escapes, and is determined to find out who tried to kill her. The Black Clan is the likely suspect - a bandit gang of warrior-like men who serve none but themselves. Mariko decides to try and infiltrate the Clan, dressed as a boy, and kill them all. They kidnap her, which works in her favor because she gains access to their encampment. But the longer she gets to know the Clan, the harder it becomes to kill them. What if Ranmaru and Okami weren't the ones that ordered her death? And who are these men, so clearly regarded by the Clan they lead? Mariko slowly discovers that no one is who they seem - and not just within the Black Clan.
First thing I want to address - I've heard people throw around the phrase "Mulan retelling" when describing this book. The thing is, I don't know how true this actually is. I will make attempt to hide the fact that I am quite ignorant in the facts of feudal Japan (the setting of this book), and dynastic China (setting of Mulan). I don't know enough about the history of China and Japan to really give you all a good discourse on the differences between the story of Mulan, and Flame in the Mist. But... I'm fairly certain that Flame in the Mist is inspired by Mulan, and not actually a Mulan retelling? Do you see the difference? Some aspects of this story seem to mirror those of Mulan (cross-dressing female, bring honor to the family, etc.). But this story is very clearly its own (in my opinion), and very clearly based on Japanese setting and culture (and not Chinese). Again, I'm no expert. There are many others who have spoken about this book and its culture/setting who know better than me. But in my opinion, I don't think this is a Mulan retelling. And if it is, it is very, very loosely written retelling.
That being said, I loved how rich and vibrant the world-building of this book is. I've never read a book set in feudal Japan, and I was quite swept away. Ahdieh did a lot of research for this story, and it shows, with all of the italicized uses of Japanese words, all of the subtle and obvious references to Japanese culture, the names, the customs.
Most of the story is set in the Jukai forest, where the Black Clan encampment is. The forest is creepy! There are magical beasts with yellow eyes and blood-thirsty trees who exact punishment on wrongdoers. Oh, you read that correctly. Has anyone watched Grimm? In the final season, there is an episode involving something called the jubokko. Look it up! The jubokko appears in this book. Thanks to Grimm (who decided to feature this Japanese legend in the show) and Ahdieh's imaginative writing, I could really picture the jubokko and its horrifying ways.
So, this book isn't just a historic type of fantasy. It's a fantasy with magic and magical beasts and magical entities. I actually was not expecting that, so I was pleasantly (and unpleasantly) surprised when I came across the nightbeasts, and the jubokko, and strange abilities that some of the Black Clan members have.
I adored Mariko from the start. She is extremely willful and headstrong, and she is so intelligent and clever. Her clever mind is one of the things that saves her over and over, and earns her a place in the Black Clan. Mariko kept dwelling on the fact that everyone at home thought she was weird and strange, and to be honest I think that inner monologue could have been cut back a little (girl, we know, you're different from the other girls), but I liked her strength and uniqueness in character. She grows a lot in this book, though not all of it is obvious. I liked watching her open her eyes and see the world for what it actually is. Mariko has always been brave and strong, but she becomes a different type of brave and strong as the story progresses.
Okami is a fantastic hero/male protagonist. He is easily as important to this story as Mariko. While Ranmaru is the leader of the Black Clan, Okami is the best fighter, and the one that you can't get anything past. Okami seems hard and unyielding to Mariko, all leashed power and coiled tension. He has quite a bit of secrets, and the most important is revealed very, very slowly. I had an inkling about this one thing, and while I wasn't quite right, I liked the foreshadowing and seeds the author planted throughout the book, to make you think one thing or the other. Okami is an intelligent, intuitive, calculating, noble warrior who has been running from a certain decision. Okami's character growth is subtle, but it becomes a very real thing towards the end of this book.
Other secondary characters were so interesting to follow! Kenshin, Mariko's brother, plays a bigger role in the book as the ending creeps closer. Kenshin is honor-bound and duty-bound and he will stop at nothing to get his sister back. And then there are the members of the Black Clan - Yoshi, the jolly but deadly cook; Ren, the rude boy who is not as bad as he initially seems; Ranmaru, the leader of the Black Clan who has just as many secrets as Okami. I love how Ahdieh shapes all of her characters (primary or secondary) to be so unique and interesting, even when some are a little crazy.
I like that this book is written in third-person - the author does so well, writing in third person. We get Mariko's POV mostly, but occasionally we read Kenshin's, Okami's, and Ranmaru's. I wish there had been a few more Okami scenes, but oh well!
I found this book to be incredibly different from The Wrath & The Dawn/The Rose & The Dagger, in terms of the romance. You know how that duology had a sort-of (but not really) love triangle, in which Khalid and Shahrzad clearly love each other and only each other, but then there is the pesky and annoying fly that is Tariq, who has been in love with Shahrzad since childhood? Well, I am happy to tell you all that Flame in the Mist does not have any love triangle. No childhood friend-turned-love-interest. Not even the emperor's second son, who is Mariko's betrothed, is a love interest (we don't really see much of him). It's all Okami and Mariko! This book in general was not nearly as swoony romantic as Ahdieh's previous two books - especially with Okami not knowing that Mariko is a girl, for most of the story. But when he finds out, it all makes sense to him, why "the boy" is so odd and makes him feel uncomfortable and something. Okami and Mariko are fire together! I loved their interactions, when Mariko was "the boy" and especially when she wasn't. Again, this book isn't as romance-heavy as Ahdieh's previous books, but the romance is there and it is swoony. And love-triangle-free! Swooooon!
I was worried that I would have issues with the pacing of the book, because rich fantasy novels are often pretty slow, in the beginning. But no, this book starts off very quickly and takes off. I like that the author didn't waste any time starting the story - the first scene (besides the "prologue" scene) is Mariko's procession getting ambushed. Talk about an entrance! I was never bored while reading this book - if anything, I was highly entertained and really enjoyed myself!
You all must know the direction of this story, even by reading the synopsis of the book alone. Mariko cannot hurt the Black Clan members, which she decides towards the end of the book. But her brother can, and so can the emperor's second son. The emperor himself has a plan set in motion, as does his Royal Consort... as does his wife the Empress. Everyone has an agenda, even Ranmaru and Okami. The ending of this book is nonstop action and intensity, and the story does end in a sort-of cliffhanger. It's not a painful cliffhanger, but it will leave you wanting the next book immediately.
What I Did Not Like:
There was nothing terrible about this book - for me. You'll come across some three-star reviews on Goodreads; I've read some of them and I think they're fair, and everyone is going to have their own experience with this book. If I'm being honest, I read those reviews before reading this book, and they deterred me a little from starting the book sooner. But I ended up loving the book. I didn't find Mariko annoying, I didn't really care to question her decisions (I would have done the same in many instances), and I didn't find the story slow or boring.
I would have loved more kissing, and more scenes from Okami's POV. He is so smart and shrewd, and reading in his POV was always incredibly intriguing. So there.
Would I Recommend It:
I loved this book and I recommend it to fellow fantasy lovers, anyone who thinks they might enjoy a story set in Feudal Japan, anyone who loves heroines who don't like to be pushed around by men, anyone who loves smart girls and clever boys, anyone who wants to be left in a state of constant hunger while reading the book (seriously, the food references. Gaaaahhhh). This is a huge publication in YA this year, and so there will be a lot of excited people and a lot of "meh I don't care for the hype" kind of people. I think that, no matter which type you are, you should read this book!
4.5 stars -> rounded down to 4 stars. I don't know that I can give this book five stars but hey, I might change my rating, depending on how much I like book two (I know, that is weird). I loved this book and I am looking forward to reading the sequel. I'm a little nervous about the sequel, but I have no doubt that Ahdieh can (and hopefully will) deliver a fair and mostly happy ending to the story.
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