Flame in the Mist by Reneé Ahdieh

3/5 Stars
Published by Speak
Published May 16th, 2017

Synopsis: The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place--she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort--a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track 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.

Being that this is the first book by Renée Ahdieh, a beloved author by the book community, that I have read, I definitely held it to high standards. After hearing for months that it was a dubbed a Mulan retelling, I held it to even higher standards. Unfortunately, I felt like I got the shorter end of both sticks and ended up jinxing it for myself. Flame in the Mist was far from the Mulan retelling I was expecting and in a way that let me down. It is a good story on its own, so long as you overlook the comparison to Mulan. I think this story definitely has room to grow in the sequel and I look forward to picking it up, especially because I craved so much more out of this one. I am highly impressed by Renée's sense of world building and attention to detail, as well as her incorporation of the Japanese culture (though I am unsure of whether it was represented 100% accurately or appropriately). This was an interesting book from start to finish, with quite a bit of loose ends left out in the open to be answered in the sequel, which is definitely what pushed me to finish this one in time for its release. 

For starters, I would really like to address the characters in this book. I had a great time uncovering the secrets of the Black Clan and getting to know its members, and found that this was the most intriguing part of the entire book. From Yoshi to Ren, Okami and Ranmaru, I felt that there was this sense of brotherhood between each of them that made me fond of even the most frustrating of characters. You start off expecting these boys to be nasty and rude, you learn to hate them, but then the development of the story reveals secrets you wouldn't expect right off the bat, which in turn defrosts the ice in your heart and allows you to grow quite fond of them. 

Mariko, on the other hand, was not as exciting for me. I admire her strength and resilience, and could only hope to find that much fire and drive in myself one day. However, I sometimes felt like her character was going around in circles. She's absolutely brilliant, resourceful, knows how to use her own skills to her advantage, but at the same time I needed someone to just nudge her forward so she could get a move on in this plot. One thing that I will say was excellently done was this power to all women vibe that took place throughout the story. You see strength not only in Mariko, who has to overcome a lot within the first 50 pages, but also in Yumi, a geiko who speaks valiantly about the power women possess despite living in a man's world. This message that resonated throughout the entirety of Flame in the Mist made it memorable for me. 

One aspect of the book that I really had to question was the romance. It was so abruptly introduced in such a strange and forced way, that I felt like it was all dealt with hastily. If I completely ignore the context of the story then great, I love me a hate-to-love trope, but I cannot for the life of me understand why this romance had to be introduced in the first book, if it even had to be introduced at all. I ultimately think that this pairing will probably work out fine in the next book, but for as of right now it was uncomfortably placed. 

Overall, I felt that Flame in the Mist was an incredibly immersive story that featured exquisite visualizations of Japanese culture. It was this part of the story that kept me so intrigued and glued to the page, because Renée Ahdieh knows exactly how to write out the important details that allow you to submerge yourself into a new world. Though there were some aspects of the story that had me questioning whether I should move forward, I am ultimately glad that I ended up finishing this book. Renée gave herself a beautiful setting for an even stronger plot in the second novel. I am hoping to see Mariko grow into an even more powerful woman, as well as find the answers to these pressing questions I have about literally everything