When I first heard that Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh was a Mulan retelling set in feudal Japan, I immediately put it on my TBR list. This story started off strong but left me wanting by the end.
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.
I am a huge fan of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy trope. There’s something about a girl proving herself an equal amongst men without the baggage that comes with gender expectations. Mariko, as a boy, was my favorite part of the novel. She was a great heroine. She was brave, clever and had a mind for science, which led to the creation of deadly inventions. She wasn’t the typical badass fighter heroine. She knew physical strength was her weakness so she put her mind to work.
There was a significant amount of female empowerment in this novel, which I liked but it came on a little too strong at times.
“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”
“She remembered Chiyo telling her that finding one’s match was like finding one’s other half. Mariko had never understood the notion.
She was not a half. She was wholly her own.”
I was feeling this novel until Mariko was revealed as a female. Each time someone new discovered her secret, I felt the reader was robbed of the character’s real reaction. They were too accepting, too quickly. I was also blind-sided with the main love interest. I was watching a certain someone and then BAM! She’s suddenly kissing another guy. It was the strangest kind of whiplash, where I had to take a moment to change my allegiances before continuing to read.
I wish this book was a standalone because I wanted the relief of a resolution sooner. The ending packed in too many unanswered questions and unresolved plot threads. Since it’s the first in a series, they’ll be more to come to resolve these things, but I would have been more satisfied with a neater ending.
Overall, I really liked this book. I was hanging on every word until the end. I’ll be reading the second book to see what happens next.
STARS: 4 out of 5