Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh
We 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.
This one sounds interesting — I’ll keep an eye out for it at the library. Thanks, Ray!
I like the feudal Japanese setting.