Title: Flame In The Mist
Author: Renée Ahdieh
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 16th May 2017
Rating: ★★★★.5 (4.5 stars)
The first of a new trilogy by The Wrath and the Dawn author, Renée Adieh, Flame In The Mist is an exciting mash-up of Mulan and 47 Ronin. It isn’t a retelling of The Ballad Of Mulan, but rather a faint echo of Mulan’s spirit (and, you know, the passing oneself as a boy, thing), giving us Mariko, a girl who is bright and brave and unafraid to enter into a world reserved almost exclusively for men. We switch out the concept of a girl replacing her father in the army (with her family’s blessing, unlike in the Disney retelling of the Ballad) for a girl bound for an arranged marriage, who finds herself cast out into the world with little reason to head for her betrothed and all the reason in the world to choose her own path. But what begins as a quest for answers and for revenge, turns into a complex series of events that will change Markio’s life–and her heart–forever.
When Hattori Mariko is told she must marry into the Imperial family, she accepts this duty as any good daughter might: she wishes to honour her family and do what is best for their reputation, in spite of marriage being the last thing from her mind. Especially since she has far better things to do than play at being a doll in which to dress prettily in silks. Things such as continue tinkering with her many inventions, however small. She has a bright mind and wants nothing more than to prove her worth beyond her station and gender. Yet things are as they must be, and Mariko accepts her fate with grace and honour.
Except that inside she is slowly dying at the notion of what her life will become. Hattori Mariko was never meant for the dull security of marriage. She was always meant for more.
When tragedy strikes on her way to the Imperial palace and she is betrayed, Mariko seizes her chance and flees into the night; it’s that, or die. Though she could make herself and the fact that she survived known, she has no idea who it was who betrayed her and if, should she finish her journey to meet her betrothed, she would be again only travelling to meet her doom. With only the knowledge that the infamous Black Clan is responsible for the attempt on her life and the blood spilled in the Jukai forest that night, Mariko takes on the appearance of a boy and thrusts herself into the hidden world of mercenaries and dark power. Soon she finds herself in the midst of the very people she believes tried to murder her, taken into their fold and privy to their secrets.
Only nothing is ever as it seems, and soon Mariko learns that the Black Clan is not what they appear. As she grows closer to the members of the clan, Mariko realises that the world has never been black and white, but is cast in infinite shades of grey. The only constants are power and honour and she begins to rethink everything she ever thought she knew about both.
Meanwhile, Mariko’s twin brother, Hattori Kenshin, refuses to believe that Mariko is dead. He is a skilled tracker and he finds evidence that leads him to believe that she escaped the slaughter that befell her party in the forest. He can’t fathom where she went, but he trusts that his cunning sister has a reason for having vanished. But with the betrothal to the prince being such an important step in their family’s ascension, Kenshin knows he must tread carefully so as not to draw suspicion and shame. Mariko is now by herself in the wild and with unknown persons possibly still eager for her death–the last thing he can do is draw attention to the fact that she survived at the same time as not wishing to jeopardise the marriage by news of his sister’s death. Kenshin, the Dragon of Kai (the moniker bestowed for his prowess in battle and his skill as a samurai), must navigate carefully if he is to bring Mariko home and keep her both safe and leave their family’s honour–and his own–intact.
But a force moves in the shadows, with its own agenda and with eyes where those it watches least expect. The only question is when it will move.
During all this, two boys are bound together by more than blood and through a bond that runs deeper than the honour their parents chose to throw to the wayside before them. One has designs on revenge and reclaiming his rightful title and position, whilst the other wishes only to quell the anger and shame at their pasts and live in anonymity. Yet when all these paths finally converge and become entangled with one another, everything is set to change.
Flame In The Mist is the first of what is set to be a trilogy that is equal parts political intrigue and adventure, with a lost legacy to reclaim, a powerful betrothal at stake and the true meaning of both honour and friendship on full display within the vivid and exciting world that Adieh has presented. Easily one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2017, Flame In The Mist blends an rebellion against gender roles and conformity seamlessly with an exhilarating story of exiled warriors and old magic, all whilst delivering a page-turner of a book that left me eagerly awaiting the next.
One thing I will mention is how disappointed I am by the fact that Ahdieh chose not to include any queer rep. Especially given how much the historical context of Japan lends itself to the acceptance and even celebration of queer relationships, especially between men in the context of samurai etc. It’s actually a little lazy and generally demonstrates that most authors won’t even consider even a hint of queer rep. It’s alienating and unfair, not to mention, very unrealistic–especially in the context of the Black Clan and their interpersonal relationships with one another.
(P.S. Not sure whether this next applies more to the writer or the publisher, since italicising foreign words is a Thing in publishing, or if it was an inconsistency of the eArc I received from NetGalley by the publisher, but there seemed to be little to no reason or rhyme regarding which Japanese words were typed in italics and which weren’t. Arguably the words that are more “familiar” and less “foreign” were left un-italicised (e.g. kimono, samurai, sake, etc), and yet words such as ‘tabi’, ‘hakama’, ‘tantō’ and ‘rōnin’ were presented in italics, even though it’s also arguable that these words are just as familiar. To further illustrate the seemingly random choices regarding italics, words such as ‘kata’ were left without italics, when in fact this is a word related specifically to martial arts and form and therefore would be less familiar than perhaps ‘rōnin’. Generally the italics seemed a little confusing regarding where they were used, with little consistency. But then I’m of the opinion that no italics to designate foreign words is better.
Further, it would have been amazing for, in the glossary of terms, perhaps, for the kanji used to write all of the character’s names to be included. As someone studying Japanese (including kanji), it would have been a nice little touch and also I am a nerd so there’s that, too.)