By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I’ve sat down to write this review three times and not progressed beyond the first sentence. In trying to finally get the damn thing written, I’ve conducted some serious soul-searching; why am I struggling so much with putting together a few hundred words about Flame in the Mist?
I’m always intrigued by an original premise or setting, and Renee Ahdieh’s new book certainly features the latter with its location of feudal Japan, where teen Mariko is traveling to the imperial city of Inako to be married to the son of the Emperor’s concubine. But her journey is violently disrupted by an attack by the Black Clan, a mysterious group of bandits who have been hired to kill her. Except they’re not a very efficient group of mysterious bandits, because she survives, or it would be a much shorter book. For some bizarre reason, Flame in the Mist has been described in some write-ups as a retelling of Mulan, and here comes the only way in which that’s a useful reference; Mariko then disguises herself as a boy and infiltrates the Black Clan with some vague plan of revenge. She talks a lot about how clever she is and invents some weapons. Now that I think about it, maybe writing this plot synopsis has been the obstacle preventing the successful completion of this review.
Bravery did not come to her naturally. She spent too much time weighing her options to be brave. Too much time calculating the many paths before her.
But Mariko knew it was time to do more. Time to be more.
She would not die a coward. Mariko was the daughter of a samurai. The sister of the Dragon of Kai.
But more than that, she still held power over her own decisions.
For at least this one last day.
She would face her enemy. And die with honor.
That’s not all. Mariko’s brother is a samurai, which is pretty cool, and there are a few sections set in the imperial palace with the emperor and his feuding wives, and these parts are intriguing too. If anything, the chapters that diverge from Mariko’s cross-dressing adventures are the more interesting parts of Flame in the Mist, as Mariko grated on me somewhat with her frequent avowals of intellect in the face of some pretty questionable decision-making. There’s a disappointingly inevitable romance as well and that’s never a happy moment for me.
Some of the points covered in Flame in the Mist engage; the expectations on Mariko to marry and do as she’s told are depicted as unfair and, more than anything, a waste of her potential, and her increasing frustration hits home. Despite being trapped in her male disguise, Mariko finds a kind of freedom in her immersion in the masculine culture of the Black Clan, which offers a fresh spin on gender in YA fantasy stories.
Hattori Mariko had lived a life disdaining much of the silk and luxury her status had afforded her, and there was a delicious comfort in no longer having to put on airs that had always seemed so foreign to her. She slouched lower on her bench. Scratched unabashedly at her shoulder. Sat with her feet spread. Ordered whatever she wanted, without hesitation. And met every man’s gaze full on when addressed.
The problem I find in considering Flame in the Mist is that, two weeks after reading it, it hasn’t stayed in my mind. I read a fair number of books but my recall is usually strong; it strikes me as a bad sign that, while I can remember samurais and geiko culture, I don’t have any strong feelings about any of it. Aside from this, looking at the responses of some other reviewers has given me the impression that the unique location, which drew me in initially, is misrepresented in quite dramatic ways. This may not necessarily spoil a reader’s enjoyment of the book, but it does cast doubt on any positive feelings I had about it as a reflection of a period in history.
What’s definitely good about Flame in the Mist is the writing; Ahdieh has an elaborate and evocative style which elevates even the most mundane descriptions, and it was this which maintained my interest to the end. I’ve not read Ahdieh’s other books but they’ll certainly be featuring on my reading list in the future.
Ultimately, Flame in the Mist didn’t fully engage me, but I know that not all readers will experience the same issues I had with the book; my expectations weren’t met, perhaps because my expectations were wrong. I would still recommend that other readers give the book a chance.
Flame in the Mist is available now at GPL.