Thursday, July 20, 2017

[Review] Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

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Publication (dd/mm/yyyy): 16/05/2017
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 402
Source: Library
Genre: YA {Fantasy | HistoricalAsian}

Violence | Sexual Content | Profanity

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My Rating
My thoughts

I really like strong female protagonists, and Mulan is my absolute favourite Disney movie of all time - Mulan manages to be a perfect balance of brave, strong and fierce, and vulnerable, and her gruelling journey into the Chinese army is both harrowing and inspiring. Any book that might bear any resemblance to Mulan unsurprisingly attracts me, so it probably goes without saying that I was highly anticipating Flame in the Mist, which had been heralded as a Mulan re-imagining of sorts, but set in Feudal Japan with fantasy elements. I did, however, go into this with many hesitations (see: mixed reviews). Unfortunately for me, this time I was right to be apprehensive about this book, it didn't sit right with me at all, and you have no idea how disappointing it is for me to have to say that. It's probably better to go in not expecting anything like Mulan.

In Flame in the Mist, Mariko, daughter of a prominent Samurai, is devastated when her troop is infiltrated on their way to Inako where she was to be married off to a man she had never met before. She is the only survivor. Convinced that the Black Clan--an infamous ragtag group of thieves and murderers--was behind the attack, and that someone else had ordered her to be killed, she disguises herself as a boy and hunts them down so that she can find out why they did it, and who is after her.

I love Japanese culture, and will eagerly read any story that is set in Japan or even has Japanese characters or elements. I will say that, personally, this book did manage to capture some of the customs of traditional Japanese culture, such as the geiko/maiko, which will satisfy most readers. I appreciated the sprinklings of Japanese phrases and words that were embedded throughout the story, just in case you needed reminding that this book was set in Japan. 

The story is told in third person narrative, alternating between different characters' perspectives. I would be lying if I said that Ahdieh could not write. In fact, there were many passages interspersed throughout the narrative that surprised and impressed me with their beauty. At best, her writing is sleek and polished. At worst, it is more telling rather than showing, overly verbose, afflicted with irrelevant details. I grew tired of being told that this character was feeling a certain way, or that this character was [insert personality trait]. I also didn't care much for the short sentences that seemed to me as though the author was trying hard to be ominous or create suspense, but rather the writing as a whole fell flat for me and grated more than anything else.

One of the biggest deal-breakers for a book is an unlikeable protagonist. Mariko was just annoying. We are told that she is smart, but some of the decisions she makes, and her thought process in general, had me shaking my head. She comes off to me as very selfish, and she just could not make up her mind as to whom her loyalties lie. She firmly declares hatred towards the Black Clan and everything they stand for, but she doesn't seem to actually know anything about them until much later on, so she has just jumped to conclusions on every front imaginable. I will say, however, that she did well at the beginning when she was alone in the Jukai forest, and she certainly is resilient and strong-willed, determined to see things through to the end, which is a highly admirable trait to have.

Another big deal-breaker, determinedly even more destructive in my eyes, is a forced romance arc. Flame in the Mist is plagued with a romance arc that is essentially jammed down your throat, which may delight some readers, but I certainly was not a fan. Basically, the relationship between Mariko and one of the members of the Black Clan goes from 0 to 100 when the guy runs to tend to her injuries (following a fall) and discovers that she is actually a woman. I felt like instead of actually treating her, they locked lips and then swiftly went back to animosity/rivals/???. The thing is, I love the enemies-to-lovers trope, but there needs to be a gradual build-up! Like, the guy barely had a second to adjust to the fact that she is a woman, and then they have this steamy romance scene? What?! I don't believe that you can just discover a person is actually another gender and then automatically flip a switch and say that it's okay to make out now, never mind that I had been vibing you before which kind of confused me because I thought you were a dude back then. Please tell me I'm not alone in this! I just found it so unnecessary, and I felt quite uncomfortable reading it at all.

The Black Clan was pretty interesting, and I did like reading about them overall. I would have liked to have known more about their backstory - how did they come to be? How did they all meet each other, how did they become "The Black Clan"? I would have liked a big DNM where they swap horror stories from their pasts or just something that glued them all a bit more together? I didn't get a true sense that they were a fully cohesive team, but maybe with more time, perhaps in the next book I'll feel it. Otherwise a lot of the time it was just Ranmaru and Okami... and the others. Like who's Ren? I mean, I know that he liked to torture Mariko, but who is he? The only ones I really liked were Okami and Yoshi, the cook.

Another character that deserves to be mentioned is Mariko's twin brother Kenshin. As the son of the household who will eventually take over the family name and title, he has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He is an experienced warrior and swordsmen in his own right, and he spends the majority of the novel searching for Mariko. But I just didn't really care about him. He was unapologetically single-minded and serious, and I just did not care. Maybe he came off as too one-dimensional. I'm also not really sure what the author wanted us to feel about him? Did she want us to feel empathetic to him, did she want us to care whether he lived or died? 

Lastly, the ending was shocking, as was the author's intention, and while it does leave me wanting to know what is going to happen next in the following instalment to the series, I was honestly just so glad that I had finally finished the book. There were some elements that I enjoyed immensely, but unfortunately the bad outweighed the good for me. I had high hopes for this book and was royally let down. The biggest consolation for me is knowing that I didn't end up buying myself a copy so at least the experience was free.


First lines:
"In the beginning, there were two suns and two moons.
"She read people much like she read books. (190)
"But it had been Mariko's first time, and--for that one time only--she'd wanted her body to be her own. The decision to be hers and hers alone. Her body was not for sale. It did not belong to her parents to sell to the highest bidder. Nor did it belong to Minamoto Raiden or to any other man.
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. (197)

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I have received this review copy in return for an honest review.

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