Flame in the Mist
by Renee Ahdieh
published May 2017
From Goodreads: 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.
After a few books full of some rather heavy subjects, I was looking for something a little lighter in tone, so when I came across a glowing review for Renee Ahdieh’s novel, Flame in the Mist, I figured I would give it a try. It was available for download through my public library’s OverDrive app, so I downloaded it over my lunch hour and set to reading.
It is, apparently, a Mulan retelling. I failed to see the connection in the prologue, found it early on, but lost it again as the book progressed when stories of Mulan and Mariko diverged again. Will they come back together in the sequel? It’s hard to say, but at this point Flame in the Mist stands on its own as a story that is not quite like anything else. Granted, my knowledge of Japanese history is a bit thin. I could be missing some important fact due to sheer ignorance, but it remains unlike other stories I’ve read.
Seventeen year-old Mariko, like many nobly born heroines, does not want to marry the man her parents have chosen for her but she accepts her fate stoically thanks to the ideals she has grown up with- bushido, the way of the Samurai. She was not taught these principles directly, but she absorbed those lessons and many others from her twin brother, Kenshin.
Her education serves her well when her convoy is attacked on the way to the imperial city. Mariko narrowly escapes with her life, disguises herself as a peasant boy, and without any survival training, manages to make it to the camp of the Black Clan. Mariko believes that these are the men who tried to kill her and she is determined to have her revenge. To do that, however, she must gain their trust and make plan after plan after plan, putting all her knowledge to the test.
Flame in the Mist is, overall, a beautiful story that is well told, about a young woman coming of age and finding her own freedom in a world that does not give freedom to women. It is based upon medieval Japan, but with strange and subtle magics that are delicately wrought so they don’t feel out of place. It is a minimalistic sorcery that is as elegant and mysterious as a geisha. The characters, too, are three-dimensional. Their stories unfold so that the reader can, eventually, feel sympathy for even Mariko’s tormentor in the Black Clan.
If there is one thing that I find fault with in Flame in the Mist, it is the pacing. Throughout most of the book, events unfold at a reasonable pace. Nothing is hurried or drawn out too long, and the reader can get a clear sense of what the world is like and what is happening. But the last third of the book is rushed. There is a part where Mariko must make a difficult decision. The choice she makes- and the well-earned consequences of that decision- feel like they’ve been glossed over when they deserved more attention. Her choice affects the entirety of the rest of the story, as well as those of the upcoming books, but it is treated as almost incidental. With Mariko’s brother Kenshin, too, there are elements that feel abbreviated, and while certain connecting story elements are there, those connections are tenuous, as though the Ahdieh expects the reader to instantly grab the loose ends and fit them together in spite of their ephemeral nature.
But overall, Flame in the Mist is a beautifully-told story, and I look forward to reading the next installment, Smoke in the Sun.