“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”
There hasn’t been a book in a long while that has enraptured me as strongly as Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh. I’ve been in a bit of slump for some time now, only reading sections of a book and then losing all interest in it. When I first heard about this particular story, I knew I would at least enjoy it because it encompassed plenty of elements from my favorite movies and folklore. That I wound up loving it makes me incredibly happy because I can safely say that this book is my current favorite read of 2017! It was pitched as a mix between 47 Ronin and Mulan, so of course I was interested before the title and cover were even revealed. (However, unlike Mulan, this story takes place in feudal Japan and focuses on samurai and the seven tenets of Bushidō .)
This story is told through a third person narration, with perspectives shifting between our main character Mariko and occasionally her twin brother Kenshin. It begins as Hattori Mariko is carted within a norimono on her way to her betrothed— the emperor’s second son. Along the path she and her legion are forced to wander through the dark forest or risk being a day late for their arrival at the palace. But then they are attacked in the middle of the night, and Mariko scarcely escapes with her life after setting a farce display for her murderer’s to make certain they believe she is dead. Knowing that to wander the woods nearly naked and alone—and as a woman—Mariko harks on every ounce of self preservation to stay alive, but is sought out by a vagabond whom had been stalking her. In the end, she leaves the forest after chopping off lengths of her hair and donning the guise of a boy who’d run away from home.
She sets off to find her attackers with the hope of discovering their secrets and finding out why she was targeted in the first place. Yet things don’t go as planned, and soon she finds herself admits the ranks of the Black Clan, her supposed killers and a group of renegade warriors, and she must keep up her disguise if she wants to see the light of day while also gaining their trust and learning their ways. But as the story goes on, Mariko comes to the revelation that perhaps she was miscalculating everything from before she was even sent to the emperor’s home. And with this knowledge comes darker questions with answers she will have to face and suffer the consequences of.
The heroine has quite an aversion to men because she believes them to be only what she has seen— dominant in her society: conquerors, masters, and slavers. She has been so thoroughly shielded from the true world that her political union doesn’t phase her in the beginning of the book as much as it does at the end. Mariko is often being called “odd” and “curious” throughout the novel, both of which she initially describes as being frowned upon but comes to realize only makes her who she is. She begins to own those titles. Especially considering her knack for creativity, which is her passion for inventing things such as weapons and makeshift lanterns. Mariko is an inventor and a warrior, but her femininity is never washed away, even as she pretends to be a boy, because she is always mulling through an inner struggle with her identity in that she ponders the strength of being a woman. This invokes the very focal point of her character development— which is handled carefully and crafted with beautiful scenes. A particular section of this book that exemplifies this character arc is when Mariko and her group of warriors visit a Teahouse. It is during their visit where Mariko first sees a Geiko, and this is what transpires:
Geiko were referred to as living, floating works of art. The very idea had ruffled her sensibilities. That a beautiful woman could be nothing more than a form of entertainment, left to the vices and pleasures of men.
But as Mariko watched—transfixed—while a geiko clad in layers of tatsumura silk drifted across the spotless tatami mats, she realized her first mistake. This young woman did not stand or move from a place of subservience. Nor did she convey any sense that her existence was based solely on the whim of men. Not once did the geiko’s gaze register the newest arrivals. Her head was high, her gait proud. The poise with which she moved—the grace with which she took each of her steps—was a clear testament to years of training and tradition.
The young woman was not a plaything. Not at all.
And although Mariko is without a doubt my favorite character, the members of the Black Clan slowly stole my heart as well. They were equals parts Robin Hood and the Lost Boys, not at all what I had been expecting and definitely a good surprise. Without giving away too much, because to talk about these characters would mean I have to spoil something inevitably, I can tell you that Ōkami is the love of my life and I really hope to read more about his past in the second book (because yes, there WILL be a second novel)!
Which in turn brings me to another thing I adored— the romance. It’s not heavily packed into the tale, which I very much appreciated considering the pillars behind Flame in the Mist are based upon a woman discovering the strength of being herself and following her hearts desires. However, when it is mentioned… let’s just say I wasn’t prepared for how deeply I’d invest myself in the pairing that came about. It was the type of slow burning, enemies-to-lovers trope that I fall for every time, and yet it was unlike any of the others I have read. Partially due to the characters, and partially because of the pretty writing in this novel.
Ahdieh has such wonderful prose and whimsical imagery. You could sell me a story about two rocks sitting atop a bigger rock and I would give it a five-star rating if the setting and imagery deserved it. And with the setting being feudal Japan, it was something rare and breathtaking for me to journey through. I can’t speak for everyone when I say that I believe this story was well researched in terms of the historical accuracy, because I’m not Japanese and did find myself struggling with some terms, (there is a glossary in the back) but to someone who rarely encounters this type of setting, it felt thoroughly edited and authentic. Here’s a little piece of what to expect:
The outskirts of Inako now pressed beyond the fields and forests that had ringed its borders in the past. Snaking through the city’s center was a gentle flowing river littered with dying blossoms. Its petal pink waters were a painted stroke separating the tiled roofs on either shoreline—a swell of blue-grey clay, rising like the sea, bandied about by a storm.
There were many plot-twists and action scenes in this book, some of which I had suspected since the beginning but wound up second guessing the more I read. It was well thought-out and leaves plenty of room for a sequel… considering the ending wasn’t really an ending, more or less one path on a bridge overlooking the far side (aka Book II). I was dreading how much was left to be answered by the time I reached the final chapters, but upon realizing that there will be more books to come I felt much better and happier with the placement of where this tale left off. However, I can tell you there are many cliffhanger and Ahdieh really must love to keep her readers on their toes.
The only compliant I had, if any, was the magic system. We don’t really hear much of it until the commencing parts of the story, which probably means we will see a great deal of it in the second book. But there were a few things I still don’t understand, even though I’ve reread them twice to check if I missed something. I’ll probably reread the whole book another hundred times before 2018.
I hope you all enjoy this one as much as I did! Book two is too long away. I’m not sure how I can cope for another year!
My Rating: 5/5 stars