I loved Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh. If it sounds as if I was surprised, it’s because I was. I’m not terribly interested in feudal Japanese history. If you’ll remember, I read all about Japan last year, and although I enjoyed the experience overall, Japan isn’t one of those countries I’m itching to know all about. So I went into this book with a healthy dose of “eh.” I came out with, “I must read the sequel RIGHT NOW!”
Flame in the Mist takes place during the early years of Japanese feudalism, probably around the 12th century. During this time, women had very strict, rigid societal roles. They were to be wives and mothers, they were to make advantageous matches. Mariko is exactly what a woman shouldn’t be: clever, independent, willful. So when her father brokers a marriage between her and emperor’s son, she’s devastated and angry. However, on the way to meet her bridegroom, her convoy is slaughtered and only Mariko is (accidentally) left alive. Now she must infiltrate the very clan she thinks instigated the attack and clear her family’s name. Except nothing is as it seems.
This is a historical fiction enhanced by a dose of fantasy. Kind of like Mulan but sans the dragon. And better.
The characters are rich and individual. The three main males are each distinct; Mariko is definitely herself. I loved how Ahdieh made each person their own person. No stock characters in this book.
Mariko is our heroine. She has a brilliant mind that she puts to use while infiltrating the Black Clan. She doesn’t join her enemies as a warrior, but she learns fast. She’s one of the few characters that doesn’t need to be saved; she saves herself. She can’t do it as a girl though, so she disguises herself as a boy, experiencing freedom that she never wants to give up.
Kenshin is Mariko’s twin brother and a fearsome samurai. When his sister goes missing on her way to her own marriage, he stops at nothing to track her down.
Okami is a part of the Black Clan and the best warrior Mariko has ever seen. He moves like magic. But he’s cold, dismissive, and treats Mariko as an enemy and an object of mockery. While she longs to hate him, she can’t help but feel fascinated by this mysterious boy (man). And he can’t help but admire this scrawny boy.
Ranmaru is the leader of the Black Clan and a close friend of Okami. But there’s more to their friendship than meets the eye: old rivalry, betrayal, and redemption going back a generation and shaping the future.
The story starts out with Mariko’s caravan through the forest—the supposedly cursed forest—just minutes before it’s attacked. After fighting for her life, Mariko decides to infiltrate the clan responsible for the devastation and spends a large part of the book trying to gain their trust. But her point of view begins to change as she makes friends with them instead. She leaves the forest with her new clan for a few missions, one of which makes her rethink everything. At the end, a standoff and a sacrifice propels Mariko into a different landscape entirely. Naturally there’ll be a sequel because questions still need to be answered and people saved.
The writing was lovely, so enchanting and compelling. Here’s a taste of what there is waiting for you:
“I believe the stars align so souls can find one another. Whether they are meant to be souls in love or souls in life remains to be seen.”
“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.”
“There is such strength in being a woman. But it is a strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try.”
See what I mean? Beautiful and inspiring.
After reading this book, I immediately wanted to read everything else that Renee Ahdieh wrote. I looked up the release date of the sequel, Smoke in the Sun (June 5, btw). I fantasized about the books I want to write. Any book that does all of this is well worth reading. Add in a kick-ass heroine, a sparking love story, and a touch of the mystical, and this book has it all. Read it.