“If I am marching to my death, then I will march to it as a girl. Without fear.”
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.
Since The Wrath and the Dawn was one of my favourite reads this year, I was a bubbling pot of excitement to read Flame in the Mist, Ahdieh’s latest release and the first book of a brand new duology. I fell in love with Ahdieh’s lush, poetic prose in Wrath and I was eager to be transported to another of her beautiful, historically inspired worlds.
When I heard that it was a story based in feudal Japan I knew that we would be in for a decadent cultural feast as is Ahdieh’s style. And I was not disappointed; the descriptions of the setting and food are rich and evocative. It’s all those little details that give the story dimension and life. I could wander around all day in a world of Ahdieh’s making and not get bored of the breathtaking imagery.
Yet unlike Wrath, Flame in the Mist didn’t turn out to be quite the page turner I was anticipating, which is surprising considering there are so many similar elements between the two at first glance. In both books we have a determined female protagonist on a quest to find answers and vengeance for a deep wrong-doing, a hate-to-love romance, some political intrigue, and wonderfully detailed culture woven through. So where did Flame fall short after such a success with The Wrath and the Dawn?
For one, I found the characters failed to drive the plot in a believable way and weren’t developed as much as they could have been, resulting in me feeling disconnected from them, and therefore to the plot. The only character who sparked any kind of interest in me was Ōkami, and even he was shrouded in mystery with almost no backstory revealed. Everyone else was either unlikeable or seriously lacking depth.
So let’s talk about Mariko, because we did not get along at all. She is the number one hinderance to my enjoyment of this book. Being the main protagonist, she is the primary connection between the reader and the story and gives us the lens which to see it through. However, I disliked her so damn much and consequently had little interest in whether or not things worked out in the end for her. What was so unlikeable about her, you ask? Well. There are so many things, I need to put this in list form.
1. There is so much telling of how she is the most smart, most special warrior in her own narrative and by everyone else who knows her.. yet she fumbles almost every opportunity to show us this apparent all-knowing mind.
2. In fact, she actually misjudges the actions of those around her more often than not. She is highly suspicious yet wrong on almost all accounts.
3. She is full of vengeful plans and almost never puts them to action. Her weak reminders to herself of what her goals are do little to restore her focus when she gets invariably sidetracked by hot guys.
5. And then there is her childish rage at being mocked. When she finds herself at the end of a gibe, her reaction is so disproportionate to the actual offence. I laughed incredulously after reading an entire page describing her outrage at being told… that she needs a bath because she smells. I mean, lighten up, Mariko. You probably do stink.
6. Her entire mission is implausible from the beginning. Anyone with a brain like Mariko supposedly has would recognize their strengths and weaknesses and realize what they are and aren’t capable of. It would follow much more realistically after being attacked in the woods for her to go to the city and play society there to find her answers, because that is the life she knows. But her ego is too big for that, thus she must choose the most risky and unrealistic path.
7. I really could go on and on. Eyeballs were rolled a lot.
After the first few chapters, she becomes less of a participant in the plot and more of an observer of the events happening with or without her influence, while she feebly fumes like it’s still all about her. Her character could have been cut from the book altogether and the focus instead on Ōkami (who actually has a significance to the underlying political intrigue) and the story would have remained more or less the same.
Mariko isn’t the only unnecessary character either. Most of the cast of side characters seem to exist only to take up space to fill the story with people, rather than add anything of value. There are no helpers, no clear antagonists. There are plenty of pseudo-philosophical conversations with these characters which don’t seem to go anywhere within the covers of this book. Kenshin, Mariko’s twin, took up a sizeable portion of the book with his point of view chapters and yet we still know almost nothing about him. His actions are heavily influenced by his parents’ approval and even that dynamic is hardly explored as the parents are only mentioned in a reminiscing way, rarely making an appearance. I ended up skimming through most of his point of view content.
While I have a weak spot for a good enemies-to-lovers romance, I really didn’t feel it this time. Without revealing any spoilers about who is involved, I will just say that there isn’t enough of a build up or a transition between the burning indignation and sudden desire. When it does explode into a fireworks display of attraction, Mariko suddenly sounded strangely abusive to me with thoughts like: ‘Wanted to best him in all ways. Wanted to kiss him silent.’ Should I find that romantic? Because it does absolutely nothing for me apart from making me feel a little bit stabby.
Luckily there was an interesting twist at the end that salvaged a little enjoyment for me and I finished wondering what happens next. Ahdieh has shown her ability to write incredible books so I still have hope that this story will continue on a stronger note. If I do decide to continue with this story and read the sequel I would hope to find a little more depth to the characters with a lot less telling and more showing.
Have you read Flame in the Mist yet? Let me know some thoughts below!
My rating: 2/5 stars
Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Genre: YA, fantasy