Mulan and so much more, or my review of Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist

Flame in the Mist (Flame in the Mist, #1)

By: Renee Ahdieh

Publisher: Putnam

Publication Date: May 16th, 2017

Format: Hardcover


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.

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I have been hyped about this book for a *long* time, ever since we heard Renee herself describe it as ‘Mulan meets the 47 Ronin’. Of course I preordered the book, so that we could start reading it the day it came out. And of course I adored it (how could I not?) Bonus: I get to see Renee Ahdieh herself at Flyleaf Books tonight–come say hi, to both me and her (and Roshani Chokshi!).

What Renee neglected to mention is that Mariko is even more badass than Mulan, which was an immediate plus for me. Granted, her best skill is not her prowess with a sword, or the ability to woo a prince while dressing as a guy, but rather her mind. From the first chapter, we see Mariko as quick-thinking in a way that’s wonderfully out of the box. And that remains her primary trait, even as she also acquires other badass skills. Time and time again, it’s her mind, rather than her sword arm, that saves her. I couldn’t get enough of this–sure, just about every YA fantasy hero is smart and badass, but I loved how Mariko’s intelligence was repeatedly highlighted. I also loved how she’s a scientist and an inventor, figuring out how to make a version of gunpowder all by herself (hence the title, I suppose).

But there were other elements of this book that were absolutely delightful. Mariko was engaged to one of two princes before her caravan was set on by bandits, and so her disappearance/presumed death upsets the political balance of the imperial city. The situation–two scheming wives, two scheming half-brothers, a country that’s basically a powder keg–was fascinating to me, and added a definite tension to the book. It was very clear that Mariko was playing for higher stakes than just her own freedom. And her brother Kenshin (despite his name evoking nerdy childhood memories) was also intriguing, mainly in how he was folded into this political narrative even against his twin sister.

Oh yes, and the subtle, creepy magic throughout the book was excellent. It was there, in a way that was obvious, but it was an understated and frankly creepy part of the book.

But, of course, all of the best parts of the book involved the Black Clan, the ninja/ronin/Robin Hood figures living in the middle of an enchanted forest. I thought the way they dominated the plot–as rebels, as bandits, and as honor-bound men–was powerful. I loved every interaction Mariko had with any of them, especially all of the ones where she was pretending to be a guy. Every member of the Black Clan, from the leader to the cook, was well done. Oh, and let’s not forget about Okami, the Wolf. Because yes, there is a love story in this book, and it is epic (especially since most of it happens when everyone things Mariko is a guy).

But let me take a moment to gush some more about it. One of the things that made me absolutely fall in love with this book was the part where Mariko admitted she wasn’t a virgin. Especially having grown up in a culture where her virginity was the only thing anyone put any value on, the fact that her rebellion was sleeping with a random guy was amazing. And then those decidedly steamy scenes with Okami were even more amazing. I love how Renee so simply, yet so powerfully, destroys the purity-obsessed culture her characters (and we) live in. And how she also gently subverts the idea of sex=love that’s so prevalent in YA.

I’m not saying that this book was perfect, because there were sections where I was confused about motives . But for the most part I did really enjoy the book–and the ending, as chaotic as it was, also left me just about screaming. If the next book came out tomorrow I would be overjoyed, but I’m pretty sure authors love torturing their fans just as much as they love torturing their characters. So I’ll be waiting VERY eagerly for the second book–and in the meantime, come join me in seeing Renee and Roshani at Flyleaf Books!

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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.

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