Flame in the Mist

Flame in the Mist was written by Renée Ahdieh and first published in 2017. It is a historical fantasy story set in Feudal Japan, focusing on a teenage girl out for revenge on the shinobi clan who want her dead. The book forms the first part of a planned series, though at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

Hattori Mariko has never been a perfect daughter. Blessed with a keen intellect, she has always sought to learn as much as possible. Yet it is finally time for her to serve her father. The Emperor’s son, Raiden, has requested her hand and Mariko has no choice but to accept. While she has never met Raiden, the marriage will secure more power for her father and ensure that he can move up through the political strata of Inako.

Everything goes wrong while Mariko is on her way to their first meeting. Her convoy is attacked as it passes through the woods and all of her servants are killed. As Mariko flees into the night, she realises that the infamous Black Clan – a group of mercenaries and assassins – are responsible. Vowing that she will have her revenge, Mariko cuts off her hair and disguises herself as a boy. If she can only be accepted into their ranks, she knows that she can destroy them from within.

Yet the Black Clan’s trust is not easily won. Mariko finds herself under the scrutiny of their leader, Ranmaru, and his sullen second-in-command, Ōkami. They make quite clear that if Mariko slips up, she will find herself facing a gruesome death. To make matters worse, Mariko’s brother Kenshin is searching for her. As a well-regarded samurai, it’s not long before he has enlisted the help of the Emperor’s sons. Kenshin suspects that the Black Clan has its hand in Mariko’s disappearance, and is willing to kill every last one of them to get her back.

If you’ve read my FAQ, you’ll be aware that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction. The exception to this is stories set in Feudal Japan. I am a real sucker for samurai stories. I love their setting – the social divides, the strict belief in honour, the rich mythology. Words cannot express how excited I was to receive an ARC of Flame in the Mist. It’s unfortunate that I was left feeling so utterly disappointed.

Flame in the Mist could have been a fantastic novel but it let me down on almost every level. Let’s start with the world building. To get across the sense that this novel is set in Japan, the author inundates the reader with many Japanese words, all of which are written in italics to catch the eye. If you’re not familiar with things like Japanese clothing, honorifics and weapons, you may need to keep your thumb in the glossary page as the meaning of these words is never really explained in the text.

Yet, beyond this, the novel didn’t feel especially Japanese. There was a misconception throughout the story that Japanese women were powerless and inferior to men. While it’s true that women had a perceived responsibility to their fathers and husbands, they were not regarded as being lesser citizens in the way that Mariko claims. Indeed, women were often trained to fight in order to protect their homes, and could even become assassins. Knowing this kind of spoiled the experience of reading this novel, as it really undermines the feminist message of the story.

Added to the distinctly un-Japanese feel of this story was the very confusing magic system. Magic and spiritualism in Flame in the Mist was never explained. Some people, like Ōkami, were shown to randomly have powers but it was implied that they did not have these from birth. It was also never explained how these powers functioned and what their limitations were. Similarly, yōkai (mistranslated in this story as forest spirits) seemed to be real, yet it was unclear what exactly they were, what form they took, and whose side they were really on. This all just felt unimaginative and made the setting of the story highly forgettable.

I’d like to say that my only issues with the story were the world building, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. As the novel opened on the attempted assassination of Mariko, there was a lot of scope for a rich tale of political intrigue. This immediately drew me into the plot, but it failed to maintain my interest for long. Not only is Mariko a bit of a blank slate, but the author insists on telling the reader what she thinks and feels at all times, while never truly showing it.

This was by far my biggest issue with the story. Very little actually happens on page. We’re merely told about it. This ranges from character attributes to scenes that are vitally important to the plot. The time jumps make matters even worse. It’s really unclear how long Mariko spends with the Black Clan as we see so little of it. We’d get a glimpse of it one chapter, and then the next would be set days later. To make things more confusing, in the time that Mariko succeeds in winning the trust of the shinobi, Kenshin seems to do little other than to ride to the capital and back. Just how long was Mariko with the Black Clan? Did she really befriend them in a matter of days or is her brother just very slow?

Even the way that the novel is written felt unsatisfying. Andieh writes in solid purple prose, often using several words where one would suffice. This bogs down the story, often making it feel like a chore to read. It doesn’t even end on a very satisfying note. The final twist is a bit too transparent and the book cut off on a cliff hanger that left far too many loose ends. We don’t find out anything about the secrets of Ōkami and Ren’s pasts, just what Kenshin’s deal was, or what the hell Kanako was doing in the latter half of the story. I really hope that the second half of this duology has a lot more closure.

And then there were the characters. First, perhaps I should point out something that I’ve been skirting around. A lot of Mariko’s story is lifted from Disney’s Mulan. In case you haven’t seen this film, it’s a story set in Ancient China, focusing on a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the military. Even the motto of the Black Clan brings to mind a certain catchy song from the movie:

Be as swift as the wind. As silent as the forest. As fierce as the fire. As unshakable as the mountain.

Yeah, that’s just a little too close for comfort, isn’t it? Yet Mariko is far whinier that Fa Mulan ever was. She constantly fails at behaving like a boy, yet incessantly tells the reader that she’s far more intelligent than any of them. Yet the only fruits of this intelligence that we see are applied off-page.

Mariko invents the shuriken, the fire bomb and the smoke grenade. I am not joking. Yet we never find out how she came by the knowledge that she would surely need to be able to do this. To make such things, she would need advanced knowledge of blacksmithing, aerodynamics and chemistry. As the book establishes the fact that Mariko never had anything to do with people outside of her own household, how would she come by such knowledge? I can’t imagine that her father had scrolls about explosives just lying about the place.

Yet, for all her intelligence, Mariko never has the foresight to ask the Black Clan if they had anything to do with the attempt on her life. For me, this felt like the biggest weakness of her character. For someone so supposedly smart, she jumps to this conclusion without evidence and clings to it until close to the end of the story. Just why? It’s blatantly obvious that it’s not going to be them. Mariko just gets so caught up with infiltrating their ranks (reminding the reader every now and then that it’s purely for revenge, just in case they forgot this), that she never questions that they may not be guilty!

The other characters are just 2-dimensional and wholly unpleasant. The members of the Black Clan spend the first half of the novel being unnecessarily cruel to Mariko, right until a certain point when they all seem to decide that they love her. Of course, Mariko also instantly falls in love with one of her tormentors (Ōkami), even though he never says anything nice to her. And, of course, the feeling is mutual. As soon as Ōkami realises that Mariko is female, he instantly admits his attraction to her too. You would think that this would be somewhat confusing for him, or at least he’d have some problems with Mariko’s constant lies. Apparently not…

Anyhow, I’ve definitely ranted for long enough. Flame in the Mist is slow and unsatisfying, bogged down with too much exposition and purple prose. While it contains some interesting ideas, its execution just made it feel overly long and did not endear me to any of the characters. This is certainly not a novel that I’d recommend.

Flame in the Mist can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Children of Blood and Bone | Arkham Reviews

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