Published: 16 May 2017
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Category: Fantasy/Young Adult/Retellings
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.
Rating: 4 Stars
Renee Ahdieh impressed me with The Wrath & the Dawn and The Rose & the Dagger, so when I saw an advertisement for her new series, one touted as a mashup of Mulan and 47 Ronin, I knew that I would want to read it at the first opportunity.
When I began to read it, I noticed that the characters were very individual, even those that were members of the Black Clan, a group of shadowy men that are purported to be nothing more than liars and thieves, two words that are the nicest of ones attributed to them.
Mariko, the main character and the one whom we experience most of the story through, began the tale as thinking quite highly of herself, which seemed to carry her for a good portion of the story, though I wasn’t sure how. This isn’t to say she wasn’t intelligent or crafty, given her incognito predicament, but she engaged in a forward trajectory as though it was impossible for anyone to see beyond her disguise or her spying at the local, well known Black Clan watering hole. How she manages to fool all of these people for a month, I’m not sure, especially since her early behavior wasn’t as careful as she thought it was.
Kenshin, Mariko’s twin brother and another point of view that we see in the book, was an interesting counterpoint to his sister. We are subtly introduced to his strength (his weapons, his steed), but also to his power and how ably he could command his men if he so chose, even in Jukai Forest, a place all of them are superstitious of. There was an air about his character, even early on that, that made me cautious about him. While Kenshin seems to be the dutiful son and brother, looking for his missing sister, there was a brief moment of darkness at the conclusion of his first chapter that makes me suspect him. The identity of Mariko’s attackers is unknown until the end of the novel and no one should be given a 100% clear bill of innocence.
There is some hints that Kenshin is not all honor, not all the person that his father wants him to be, especially when he interacts with Amaya, the son of his father’s metalsmith. It is clear that he loves her and even knowing that he is expected to marry well, which a marriage to Amaya would not be, he is fighting against this destiny. He is conflicted character, something evident in this small way early on and only growing larger the further the book continues.
The members of the Black Clan served both as background characters and one, even, as the primary love interest. In the moment I felt very real emotions for the ones that were named, especially Ren and Yoshi. There are two more, Ranmaru and Okami, who introduce a whole lot of confusion in regards to their own histories and their interactions with Mariko. It was a bit hard to get a real feel for how large the Black Clan really way, but the sense of camaraderie they had was evident whenever they went on a trip to Inako or when they were getting ready for battle.
Ahdieh’s powers of description are well used, not only to describe the forest of Jukai and the luxury Mariko grew up in, but when the imperial city of Inako comes to life. She utilized her words well and crafted a scene that was appealing not only to my imagination, but to my palate as well. Mariko, coming into town with members of the Black Clan, sees beautiful things like “vividly dyed paper lanterns” and “bolts of lustrous silk”, but she also smells the “marinated squid sizzling over an open flame”. I want to see this place, not just picture it. As well as Renee put the fear of Jukai Forest into us by describing the various ghosts and supernatural creatures that people suspect run about, not to mention the life sucking tree vines, that was how well she soothed us with the city of Inako and it’s fabled district, Hanami.
The ending came up quick and I had to check before I realized that this would not be the end. There will be more to come in this series, whether it is a duology as Ahdieh’s previous works were or whether it is a longer series. One of the only things I didn’t like about the conclusion of Flame in the Mist was that, as things were beginning to be tied up (however loosely for book one), a whole lot more story threads were introduced in the last couple of chapters. It made things much muddier for me and flattened some of the enthusiasm I’d built up over Mariko’s adventure.
The other thing is, a lot of people are comparing this book to Mulan, which I mentioned in my introduction as one of the reasons that I picked this book up in the first place. I have to say that I think this comparison is unfair as the only thing that Mulan and Flame in the Mist have in common is that they both feature a female who crossdresses. The motives are different, the settings are different, etc. Flame in the Mist shares a lot more in common with 47 Ronin, a movie which was an epic piece of cinema.
It was a great pleasure to have the chance to read an early copy of this book and I look forward to receiving my final copy once it is published next month. If you’ve enjoyed Renee Ahdieh’s works in the past, or if you enjoy tales that take place in Japan, or just because I say so, keep this book in mind. It will be a great new story to read.
I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House’s First to Read in exchange for an honest review.