Book: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure/Romance
Summary: 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. - G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2017.
I found this book originally as part of the Penguin Advanced Reader program. I wasn't able to get the book as part of the program so I got it once it was published.
I have to be honest. The book wasn't what I expected it to be. That's mostly because of the main character, Mariko. Her personality clashes with mine so whenever she acted impudently or arrogantly, I had to put the book down out of second hand embarrassment. I'm not saying she would be universally disliked. I know that there are plenty of people who like her and will like her. I, personally, just didn't find anything likable about her.
Here's the thing the summary doesn't tell you - this book is a Mulan retelling (that's how it was marketed to us on the Advanced Reader Program) so when the book summary tells you that her intellect and abilities are appreciated - they're mainly appreciated when she's disguised as a boy. I say "mainly" for a reason and it's related to a spoiler so I can't elaborate on that. Ahdieh also does Mariko a disservice. The summary tells us she's cunning and she's an alchemist. While Mariko performs acts that can be considered "cunning", she's a child's interpretation of cunning. She gets away with her disguise and her actions purely out of sheer luck or because the other characters allow her to. As for being an alchemist, Ahdieh never defines what that is or demonstrates the extent of Mariko's talents. We're told that she's made multiple "inventions" and even describes one of them, but she doesn't provide a history of Mariko's inventions (also, does being an inventor = an alchemist? Those two words have very~ different definitions and connotations.) or her attempts to buck her society's expectations of her. We just have to assume that Mariko is this incredible character, but all of her words and actions suggest otherwise.
Also, Ahdieh makes a point of constantly telling readers how unfair and robbed Mariko's life is because she was born a girl. Mariko has enough inner monologues about the curse of her being a girl to become annoying. Every time a new one would begin, I'd roll my eyes. Mariko can certainly bemoan her circumstances, but not to the point where it invites the reader to lose sympathy with her. I think Ahdieh took the whole "woe is me, for I am a woman" point too far. In fact, what would have been a much more powerful moment would have been if Mariko decided to make the decision she had made outside of the events of the book within the actual story. I can't elaborate on it because it's a spoiler, but, as I think about it, if Mariko had decided to take a significant symbol of her identity as a woman and destroy it in the events of the novel, rather than before the story starts, I think it would have been an immensely powerful action within the context of the story's events.
Ahdieh certainly has Mariko go through a worldview transformation of sorts, but I fail to see it change her in terms of personality. Her choices don't have any serious consequences for her own safety or welfare. There's a sequel and I have it, so I wonder if she will actually change then.
The love story is. . . awkward. By awkward, I mean awkwardly written. Ahdieh spends so much time focusing on Mariko's disdain of being a woman and all things feminine that when it was time to draw attention to the fact that she's a woman feeling attraction to a man, it feels jarring and false. I'm not saying she's not allowed to feel attraction towards a man; it just comes out of nowhere and feels fake. The "love story" is the "fine line between love and hate" trope and, in my view, there wasn't enough time between the transition from hate to love. It goes from "I despise this man and everything about him" to making out on the forest floor within three chapters after the "hate" phase has been firmly established. I was certainly surprised by the love interest himself - it wasn't who I was expecting, but it made sense.
One thing I liked about the book was Ahdieh's handling of twists and surprises. There were characters that I thought I had figured out their role and purpose, but I was fooled. I was pleasantly surprised by the turns that occurred. It's honestly the twists that are keeping me going and make me want to read the sequel.
In spite of the lackluster heroine and the poorly written romance, the other characters are interesting and the setting is very magical. I hope the sequel will deliver a satisfying conclusion.
I give Flame in the Mist a B.
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