Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdeih
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This review is spoiler-free.
I read The Wrath and the Dawn for the first time in anticipation of Flame in the Mist‘s release, but I really wish I hadn’t — I couldn’t help but compare the two. I did enjoy this book — it has a well-constructed world filled with interesting men and women and a hint of magic. But where The Wrath and the Dawn drew me in instantly, Flame in the Mist was a little more slow to start.
The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.
So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.
The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.*
This book is loosely based on the Mulan story, which you can clearly see outlined in the copy above. Mariko is destined to be a royal bride, but wants to prove her worth beyond the marriage market. When her convoy is attacked, she quickly dons the guise of a boy and tracks the Black Clan, who were contracted to have her killed, in order to find some answers. For me, her motivations just weren’t as clear-cut as, say, Shahrzad’s in Wrath or even Mulan’s in her own story. She infiltrates the clan in order to get answers, but also to enjoy the freedom that life as a boy. She certainly has a great deal of bravery to do so, but I question her motivation and approach. She just seems to bumble around and quite frankly makes incredibly poor choices for the first 40% or so of the book. We are constantly told how smart she is, but honestly I just didn’t see it until much, much later on in the book. She seems to have survived simply by luck rather than wit.
The themes of feminism and a woman’s worth pervade the book. Mariko wants to be treated as an equal to her brother and does not wish to live the life of a submissive royal wife. I expected her to become a much stronger force within the Black Clan or to even do more with her newfound freedom, but she falls flat in this respect. She’s always insisting that she wants to be treated better by her family and be more than a bargaining chip for power and position. Now, I am a pretty hardcore feminist and love books, particularly young adult fiction, that feature strong women and feminist themes, but I felt like the feminist theme was just being beaten over the head in this book — the phrase ‘prove her worth beyond the marriage market’ was repeated so often that it became a little obnoxious. We get it! Now go do something about it! I just didn’t believe her to be a great feminist hero, which I believe she was being set up to be, and I don’t feel the feminist themes were written as well as The Wrath and the Dawn.
I know that I’m criticizing a great deal here — I don’t want it to sound like I didn’t like this book. The world-building is wonderful — I think this is an area that Ahdeih excels as a writer. The feudal Japan-inspired world is a taste of something a little different for fantasy readers. I really loved the society she sets up and the levels of hierarchy. The minor side stories regarding the Emperor are likely going to be expanded in the next book, and I’m really looking forward to learning more. I also want to learn more about the magic that pervades the book — it’s a bit of a mystery at this point.
Overall, Flame in the Mist is a good read, but lacking when compared to her other books. Mariko is simply not as strong or compelling a character as Shahrzad, which I found disappointing. Regardless, I am looking forward to her expanding on this series and eagerly await the next installment of the story.
Have you read Flame in the Mist? What did you think? I’d love to hear from others, particularly fans of The Wrath and the Dawn!
*copy courtesy of Goodreads