Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on June 8, 2017
I picked up Renée Ahdieh's Flame in the Mist on a whim as the description appealed to a lot of themes I like: high-born girl disguising herself as a boy in order to survive, taking control of her life, infiltrating a gang, discovering things that challenge her pre-conceived beliefs, and the like. And for the most part, I was not disappointed. It reads smoothly, the pacing is well done, and the characters are fairly engaging. That said however, it did have a couple things that I ended up having a problem with, which I will mention later. But for the most part, it was indeed an enjoyable read.

Mariko is the only daughter of a high-ranking samurai noble. An ambitious samurai noble who has arranged for her to marry the emperor's second son. While on the road to meet her betrothed in the capitol, her convoy is attacked in the forest by a gang of bandits with the express purpose of killing her. In spite of everyone else in her convoy ending up dead, Mariko miraculously survives, but only because she is believed to be dead. Thrown into a hostile environment of which she has learned nothing in her privileged life, Mariko has only her wits to rely on to survive. And her daring, which prompts her to disguise herself as a boy and then find and infiltrate the Black Clan, the gang she believes assaulted her convoy, in order to find out who was behind the attack meant to kill her.

Here's a sample of the prose style:

"Fear knifed through Mariko's center, its aim hot and true. She knew she could not afford to let a boy like Ōkami see even a hint of distress. She had to get free of these men. Had to gain the upper hand somehow. Seeking a way to distract herself -- any weakness in the strength surrounding her -- she studied Ōkami's fingers. They were long. Strong. His forearms were corded with muscle. His hold on the reins was loose. Easy. Which meant he was likely an accomplished rider. Any attempt to unseat him would be ill-advised.
-- But perhaps Mariko could unseat him in other ways.
-- "What kind of a name is Ōkami?" she began, her tone low and brusque.
-- "You really don't learn, do you?"
-- "You mocked my name, even though your parents named you after a wolf?"
-- "They didn't."
-- Despite all, her curiosity took hold once more. "Then it's a nickname?"
-- "Stop talking," Ōkami said. "Before I pass you to someone who really will beat the impudence out of you."
-- She paused. "Wolves are pack creatures, you know."
-- Anther rumble of coarse laughter rang out from behind them. "I just admit that boy is tenacious, even in the face of doom."
-- Mariko felt Ōkami shift in the saddle to address the cook. At that, she took the opportunity she'd been waiting to catch him unawares.
-- She bit into the skin just above Ōkami's knee. Hard.
-- He cursed loudly, causing his horse to rear. Mariko almost slid headfirst from her perch, but Ōkami took hold of her in a firm grip, catching her at the last possible moment.
-- He yanked her toward him, chest to chest, grasping her tight by the collar of her threadbare kosode. Mariko expected to find fury in his eyes. Instead she was met with an impenetrable expression. Not the cold sort. But rather carefully veiled, though his eyes were remarkably clear. Like glass in a cavern at midnight.
-- Mariko returned his stare, her heart thrashing wildly. "If you were me, you would have done the same thing." She could not prevent her voice from quavering on the last word.
-- "No, I wouldn't." Ōkami's dark brows lowered. Shadowed his gaze. Something tugged at his lips. "I would have succeeded."

Note: One important thing people need to know before picking up this book: this is not a stand-alone novel. While nothing in the title or the jacket description reveals it, this is very obviously intended to be the first book of a series as it ends on a number of cliff-hangers. And while Flame in the Mist falls into the category of YA fantasy, the reader should be advised that the actual fantasy elements are few and far between, at least in this volume. That said, however, the two that were present are key to the long-term plot.

The only real problem I had with Flame in the Mist - the reason that I ended up giving it four stars instead of five - is that a great deal of the plot depends on the central character, Mariko, who is described as being keenly observant, somehow missing the equivalent of an 800-lb gorilla in the room for pretty much the entire book. I can't say more about what she misses without getting into spoiler territory however. But a great deal of what happens is dependent on her missing it and continuing to miss it when it should have been increasingly obvious from when she first manages to infiltrate the Black Clan. It caused me to have real trouble finding Mariko credible as the character she was described to be.

Overall though, highly recommended for anyone who enjoys good YA fantasy and particularly for anyone who likes such stories in Asian settings and cultures.
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