Flame in the Mist by Renee AhdiehFlame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist by Renee AhdiehWe meet our protagonist, the rather precious Mariko, being carried roughly through the forest in her palanquin. Next thing she’s the target of an attempted assassination. So begins our tale of magic, samurai and deception in Flame in the Mist‘s ancient, feudal Japan.

Mariko is on the way to the Imperial Palace to meet her betrothed when her convoy is attacked. At just seventeen years old, she has little say in such minor matters as her future husband. What’s more, this is a political move set to cement her family’s social standing. So when her convoy goes up in flames (along with everyone in it except Mariko), her first thought is for her family’s honour. She reasons that if she can find out who exactly tried to murder her and why, she can save her family face and return home without having to marry the emperor’s son. She murders a peasant that tries to attack her in the woods, steals his clothes, and sets off to find the Black Clan she reasons are responsible for her murder.

So far, so good. Despite slightly shaky plot motivations, Mariko is a woman firmly on a mission, and after lurking around a deserted watering hole for a few days, the Black Clan (a mysterious bunch of exiled samurai) materialises and Mariko decides to try and infiltrate them. After a continuous and gruelling set of tasks and chores, she eventually wins the trust of the nebulous clan but finds herself falling for the brooding Okami, best friend of the clan’s leader. And here is where Renée Ahdieh goes all Twelfth Night on us: Okami will never fall for the true Mariko, thinking she is just a little boy, and many gender-confused antics ensue.

There is a lot about this story that will appeal to both YA and adult readers. The setting of feudal Japan is enchanting and refreshing after the heavily European-centric fantasies. A feisty female protagonist will be a comfortingly familiar trope and the usually straightforward love interest is given an interesting twist with the gender confusion. For the most part, characterisation is pretty solid too, though it is actually the supporting cast that is most compelling. Mariko tends to err on the infuriating side with the constant reiteration of her goal. We know she’s trying to infiltrate the Black Clan to seek revenge on who she presumes plotted to kill her. Ahdieh reminds her readers of Mariko’s motivations just a few too many times for them to be convincing; instead, they distract from an otherwise sound plot.

Whilst Ahdieh’s writing has oft been praised for its poetic prose, it sometimes felt a little stifling. Some lines were just too much, to the point where they erred into not making much sense at all. But those few mishaps aside, it was generally refreshing to have a YA author take their time in evocative descriptions as opposed to being a slave to plot.

Flame in the Mist (2017) is sure to have a wide appeal, especially with the fanbase Ahdieh has already accrued. Lovers of fantasy and historical fiction alike will be sure to be reaching for this one and whilst maybe not all will clamour for the sequel, Ahdieh is sure to have some readers eagerly anticipating the next instalment.

Published May 16, 2017. From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass. The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace. Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track 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.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.