“Sometimes we must fall forward to keep moving. Remain motionless—remain unyielding—and you are as good as dead.
Death follows indecision, like a twisted shadow. Fall forward. Keep moving. Even if you must pick yourself up first.”
Thank you very much to Hachette Australia and Netgalley for providing a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.
To say I was blown away by Flame in the Mist would be an understatement. Loosely inspired by Mulan, Renee Ahdieh has effortlessly woven an intricate tale of deceit, politics, romance and magic. The fact that this novel is a hype book – which promised to be incredible – had me slightly worried, but thankfully, the fear wore off and I was truly able to appreciate the book.
Flame in the Mist follows Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who has always been told that, as a woman, she should know her place. At seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favourite consort – it is a political marriage which will elevate her family’s status, and a decision completely out of her hands. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko’s entourage is attacked by the ruthless gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who have been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the city. Mariko narrowly escapes death and, dressed as a peasant boy, sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan, determined to seek vengeance on those who killed her people. But before she has a chance, she is kidnapped by the Clan and introduced to their leaders: the rebel ronins Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command and best friend, Ōkami. Believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Ōkami eventually welcome Mariko into their ranks, but the closer Mariko grows to the members of the Clan, the more she uncovers a history of secrets and a sinister plot that has further-reaching consequences than she could have ever imagined.
I was highly impressed by Ahdieh’s characters in Flame in the Mist. In her previous work The Wrath & the Dawn, I couldn’t completely connect with the characters (even less so in The Rose & the Dagger) because I felt that the pacing was too fast and the romance developed far too quickly. That was not the case in Flame in the Mist.
“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.”
What captured my attention was Mariko’s feminist dialogue and her anger at the way her society – based upon feudal Japan – treated women. Mariko, an aristocrat, had her entire future planned for her by her father – he simply informed her that he arranged her marriage to someone she never met before, rather than ask her of her opinion. She detested the expectations placed on women during this time, but she was also unable to escape or be treated with the same respect a man would garner. That is, until she was kidnapped and then disguised herself in order to prove her worth. There are some amazing feminist/empowering quotes in this novel and you can’t help but form an emotional connection with Mariko. Despite the fact that those of us in the Western World no longer live in feudal societies, women are still not treated as equally as men are. Mariko is an empathetic character; women of all cultures will be able to draw parallels between Mariko’s circumstances and their own.
I knew from the second he appeared on the page that my favourite character would be Ōkami, and I was right. Ōkami was the second-in-command of the Black Clan’s leader, and a ruthless warrior who might have access to otherworldly powers. Ōkami’s interactions with Mariko were written to perfection: you could literally feel the tension between them. Ahdieh wonderfully developed the romance element in Flame in the Mist, as opposed to the forced romance in her The Wrath & the Dawn. I was also surprised by the direction Ahdieh took for the love interest. If you’ve read the blurb you might have, like me, thought that this book included a love-triangle, but rest assured, IT DOES NOT AND THANK YOU AHDIEH FOR THAT. By focusing on just one love interest, the romance was allowed to develop naturally and realistically; it kept me perched on the edge of my seat, waiting for the big reveal. The enemies to lovers romance was done quite beautifully.
“A word of warning…” He bent closer. The scent of warm stone and wood smoke emanated form his skin.
“Don’t bare your neck to a wolf.”
While this was a great novel, there were a few factors that prevent me from giving it a full five star rating. (No spoilers):
1. The beginning was very slow. So slow, in fact, that I considered DNFing this book. Thankfully I didn’t, because I supremely enjoyed the rest of the book. I had decided I would give the book till about the 40% mark to entice me, and if it didn’t, I would DNF it. I started liking it at 30%.
2. Mariko’s logic makes zero sense. There were many occasions while reading where I had to put the book down and just shake my head because Mariko’s reasoning behind her actions was so incredibly flawed. I won’t give away my biggest annoyance (which comes towards the end of the novel), but the one I can say without spoiling anyone (because it’s in the blurb) comes through her decision to don a male disguise and hunt the Black Clan: she justifies being alone in the forest – which might lead some to question her “virtue” – and hunting these people, in order to spare her family the “embarrassment of having their daughter turned away … [and] spare them the risk of having their family name soiled under a cloud of suspicion”. Yes Mariko, the only way to stop rumours of your “soiled virtue” is to spend more time ALONE in a forest full of thieves, murderers and criminals. Solid thinking right there.
3. The writing was very touch and go. There were many occasions that I was impressed by the sophistication of Ahdieh’s prose, but just as many occasions where I rolled my eyes from how dramatic and over the top the writing was. It felt like Mariko had just discovered the meaning of life, when she was actually just describing something quite mundane. There was no in-between. While this didn’t completely disrupt my reading experience like it did in The Rose & the Dagger, it was still a little irritating.
4. The inclusion of magic. I said this in my review of The Rose & the Dagger and it is apparent here too: Ahdieh drops magical elements into the text with no warning. The world-building does not make this feel like a novel that would have magic in it. The magic is never explained or developed – it’s just there. An example from the novel: “From the moment he’d watched her conjure animals from the stuff of shadows, he’d found her to be the most beautiful woman he’d ever beheld.” You can’t just throw a sentence like that in a novel and not elaborate – and yet, that’s what Ahdieh does, and has done this consistently in all of her novels thus far. Flame in the Mist featured bloodsucking trees, shapeshifters, and sorceresses, and yet all of the characters –including Mariko who didn’t know that things like these even exist – don’t react to them. Again, very irritating.
Aside from these few issues, Flame in the Mist was a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. I honestly did not expect to enjoy this book – and was considering giving up on Ahdieh’s future books too if I didn’t – but was pleasantly surprised when I suddenly loved it. Flame in the Mist is an intriguing, romantic, political adventure story. It was certainly a wild ride and I can’t wait for the next book in the duology.