In Flame in the Mist, Mariko discovers herself. In Renée Ahdieh’s Smoke in the Sun, Okami does the same thing, bring this two-book series full circle for a beautiful, stunning conclusion.
Mariko makes a deal with Roku and Raiden, the new emperor and the emperor’s elder brother: she’ll marry Raiden if they spares the lives of those in the Black Clan, especially those of Okami and Ranmaru. And Okami makes a bargain as well: he’ll go with Raiden and Roku willingly as their prisoner if the rest of the Black Clan are left alone. As a result, this book finds her ensconced in the royal palace in preparation for her marriage and him in the palace dungeon waiting for execution.
But Mariko isn’t willingly to let the boy she loves die. After all, she’s no longer a girl who’s struggling with her personal identity; she’s a woman who knows who she is and is willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the boy she loves and the people of the kingdom. Her challenge is to become a paragon, someone who can whisper in the ear of the emperor’s brother, a life totally different from the one she lived in the forest with the Black Clan.
Meanwhile, the Black Clan aren’t willing to let their leader and Shogun die and the former emperor’s wives (Raiden’s and Roku’s mothers) vie against each other for power and legacy. In this sequel, feudal Japan is arrayed against itself in a fight that threatens to topple an empire.
So. Many. Thoughts.
I love that Mariko, while the heroine and main character, isn’t the only one undergoing change and discovery. While she’s done the lion’s share of her self-discovery in Flame in the Mist, she’s still growing. She discovers her power as a woman, which is not inconsiderable. She recognizes the power of change, that others can be better than what they had been, that first impressions aren’t always right or fair.
This story is Okami’s, our hero’s, turn to develop and change. For years he’s forsaken his birthright as heir of the shogunate because of fear, hatred, and anger. For years he’s let his best friend be burdened with his name and responsibility. Finally, he’s ready to be the warrior that he’d been trained to be, ready to take his name and place in the empire.
The real surprise in Smoke in the Sun is the attention to Raiden, Roku, Kenshin, and Yumi. All four are secondary characters, but they’re developed like main characters. Kenshin, for instance, develops dimensions to his personality, a process that starts in Flame in the Mist during a tragic moment. He starts to question himself, which in his case is a good thing. He’s no longer just the Dragon of Kai, but also a heart-broken boy, the brother to a difficult sister, and a man wondering who he really is and where he really belongs. And then there’s Yumi, the sister of Ranmaru, who wants to be more than a maiko (apprentice geiko or geisha). She’s strong and athletic, much more than we were given to believe in the first book.
The big change, though, has come with Raiden and Roku. In the first book, the brothers are not much more than shadowy figures who pose a danger to Mariko, Okami, and the Black Clan. What we do know of them isn’t good: they’re rigid, self-serving, and violent…or so we think. In the second book, they seem to be more of the same until we see differences in them, whether changes spurred by the plot or just their real personalities shining through. Raiden is more than a brute and Roku is not the weakling he appears. The fascinating thing about Raiden and Roku is that their personalities are mirrored by those of their mothers. While Raiden’s mother isn’t a good person, she was a good mother, showing love, charity, and tolerance even to those who hated her (such as Roku’s mother). Roku’s mother, on the other hand, is petty and hateful, qualities that marked her life and Roku’s as well. The interaction of these two boys is fascinating because it brings to life the importance of nurture on personality and character. In some ways you almost feel sorry for the villain because some of that was a result of how he was raised.
With so many strong characters, you’d think the storyline would be polluted with all the points of view and voices, but it wasn’t. The main characters had the lion’s share of perspective, but the others filled in the spaces of the plot, weaving together disparate voices into a surprisingly melodious chorus. While not all the points of view made sense at the time, in the end they culminated in a tightly-woven storyline that made sense and answered questions while still leaving room for some interpretation.
There were some devastating conversations and quotes that captured my imagination. There’s the conversation between Mariko and Raiden about what a true leader looks like, the conversation between two twins who have chosen diverging life paths, the conversation between a mother and a future daughter-in-law about raising a child to be good, the conversation Okami had within himself about his duty and his heritage, and the conversation between two who love each other when they’re not sure that their love will be enough:
“Ours is a love stronger than fear and deeper than the sea.”
“Loss had taught her yet another lesson. Real love was more than a moment. It was everything that happened after. Chaos in one instant, simplicity in the next. Everything and nothing in the space of a simple breath. It was clarity, sharp and numbing, like a winter’s morning.”
This book was just as strong as the first one. It talked of goodness and change, of sacrifice and love. It made me think while still being entertained. Smoke in the Sun is definitely worth reading…as is the entire series (and possibly everything written by Renée Ahdieh).