Review: Flame in the Mist - Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh
Series: Flame in the Mist #1
My rating: {★★★★☆}

YA Fantasy
Published May 18th 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton

Source: Hachette Australia via NetGalley
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 ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she's quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she's ever known.
Reading Flame in the Mist was not the experience that I expected it to be. Don't get me wrong - I loved it (I did rate it four stars after all!), but I think I went into this both expecting something else and being pleasantly surprised when I didn't get it.

I only read Ahdieh's other series, The Wrath and the Dawn, pretty recently (beginning of 2017) and I absolutely adored it so I was really looking forward to being able to fall in love with another of her worlds and set of characters and hand out all the stars once again. Unfortunately this one fell a little short of a five star for me but there was still plenty to love in this book and the wait for the second is going to be excruciating.

First of all I need to explain that this isn't exactly a Mulan retelling... It's more of an 'inspired by' kind of story. I actually really appreciated the twists that were put into this and the fact that it's completely its own tale.

Set in feudal Japan, the story begins on the intrepid and heart wrenching note of a boy witnessing his father's execution. It wasn't nearly what I was expecting to read when I first opened this book and yet the grittiness and indomitable spirit of the book took hold of me and I was swept away.

Our main character is Mariko and she is far from the typical YA heroine; she is no femme fatale; she doesn't know how to fight; she has no special talents of any kind (save for her wits and her determination) and, other than being betrothed to the son of the Emperor she is not 'the chosen one' in any way. She is just a girl who doesn't want to be treated like someone's property; a woman in a man's world.
Hatorri Mariko was not just any girl.
She was more.
As I grew accustomed to in Ahdieh's previous books, the world building and sense of place while reading was just astounding. The settings are always vibrant and full of avid details - you can just imagine yourself to be there. The tastes, the smells, a real sense of history and culture - everything is ALIVE and as a reader you are immediately transported.

The descriptions of food are particularly divine which is again, something I grew accustomed to in Ahdieh's previous books. Even something so simple as an egg became a taste sensation when described so artfully by Ahdieh.
The white of the egg was cool and creamy. Light as a feather. Its center was the warm yellow of a dandelion. Steam rose from it in a perfect curl. In short, it was quite possibly the most delicious thing Mariko had eaten in her entire life.
I can't possibly review this book without also mentioning the diversity. Not only is it set in feudal Japan (so we have Japanese characters, customs and traditions etc.) but there is also a disabled character AND the book is wonderfully feminist. I was thrilled at how the disabled character was handled as well - the disability didn't define the character. To me, it was just a great representation.
... Mariko marveled at the fluidity of his movements. His wooden limb did not hamper him. Nor did it grant him any advantage, in that heedless way of stories. It was not a gift, nor was it a blessing.
It simply was. Just as he simply was.
The romance was understated in this book and yet it was so perfect. I definitely felt the sizzle and enjoyed watching the hate-to-love relationship (my favourite romance trope!!!) unfold on the pages.
“You don’t believe your great love is out there, simply waiting to be found?”
“Do you?” Mariko pitched her voice low. Graveled with disbelief.
Ranmaru’s broad lips spread into an easy smile. “I believe the stars align so that souls can find one another. Whether they are meant to be souls in love or souls in life remains to be seen.”
There are some fantasy aspects introduced in this book although it's not heavily played upon. There's a lot of magical realism here though I think it could be expanded a lot in book two.

I was captivated and entertained throughout and I loved reading about all of these characters, even the side characters and I cannot wait to see more of them in the next book. There are twists and turns and everyone seemed to have their own agenda - overall it's a great blend of fantasy, history, political intrigue and action.
“There is such strength in being a woman. But it is a strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try.”

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