A Mulan retelling set in Feudal Japan by one of my new favorite authors? I think yes!! I was so so excited to start this novel after finishing Renee Adhieh’s other duology, The Wrath and the Dawn. And now I am having a really hard time writing this review. I truly loved this novel. It was so fun and beautiful and I adore the characters. And yet I think there are some serious flaws that commonly haunt YA and undermine this otherwise gorgeous book.
The first in a planned duology, Flame in the Mist follows Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who is attacked and left for dead on her way to meet her betrothed, Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s consort, and her brother who is seraching for her. Determined to protect her and her family’s honor for the damage this attack might leave, and to find some freedom of her own for a few brief moments, Mariko begins an intense hunt for her would-be assassins, dressing as a boy to infiltrate their ranks and plotting to bring them down. And yet, as she begins to find herself a valued member of the team and her intelligence an appreciated asset, she is forced to question the life she has known and the truths and code of honor that she has lived by.
Flame in the Mist (a lovely title on its own), is packed full of beautiful language and interesting world building. I thought the plot was really well paced. We get into the heart of the story quickly and it’s pretty action-packed from the beginning. I was drawn into this story from the first pages.That Mariko doesn’t know how to fight was a real draw to me. She learns to find her own strength and focuses on embracing her strangeness. Allowing her to experience the world as a boy (albeit a not very respected one) makes some interesting observations about women’s roles and the lack of respect or seriousness with which she is treated as a girl.
And yet. We hear a lot about how clever and smart and one step ahead Mariko is, but it takes a while to finally see it and I could’ve done with a little less tell and a little more show. It’s great to hear all the other characters say she is these things and value her “strangeness,” but I’d rather just have that acted out.
Somehow, she becomes an even more frustrating Strong Female Character. She is so different and so unique, as one soldier asks her, “what kind of girl are you?” Her ingenuity and her inventing prowess mark her as strange, an anomaly rather than what might be the norm if things were different. And honestly, does it always have to be the lone woman within the group of men, earning their respect by becoming part of the crew? We get snippets of some other women in the novel, but they aren’t allowed any time to become real. Please, please, I would love two badass ladies working together in a YA novel as real, 3-dimensional characters (if you have read anything like this, send it my way!)
I thought the romance in the novel was wonderful though! While the whole “hate to love” set up felt really similar to The Wrath and the Dawn, I get sucked in by this trope when it’s done well. Looking back, I’d like a bit more gray area. Not everyone needs to have an altruistic motive to make them worthy of love. Characters can be a bit more complicated than that. But really, if you’re looking for a good love story that doesn’t overwhelm the action, this is definitely for you!
Finally, the magic system was pretty confusing. I get that there were just some hints of magic that are setting up something larger in the next book, but it was a little too vague. This can work if the narrator/MC gives us something to go on: Is this out of the ordinary? Is magic a thing? Are you as you confused as us or do you get it? But we didn’t really get any guidance either way here. That being said, I’m excited to see where the magic goes in the sequel!
Oddly, and I’ve read other reviews that mention this as well, none of these things bothered me while reading, but after I was done and sat down to begin this review. The story itself is wonderful. I read it in two days and am dying for the next one, I can’t wait! The characters are likable if frustrating at times, and the relationship’s, both the romantic one and Mariko’s relationship with her brother and her way of life, are interesting and allow room for growth. Even with all these problems, I highly recommend this book. Adhieh’s writing is incredible and she has quickly become as instant-buy author for me!