Could I pass up a loose Mulan retelling with fantasy elements? The answer was a resounding no. What I got was actually much more: more intrigue, more cogs working in the background, and a few more questions.
Flame in the Mist begins on a caravan ride as our protagonist, Mariko, is on the way to her arranged marriage to the Emperor’s son. Feeling trapped within her role, her future seems to be out of her hands. But as her party is ambushed by the Black Clan in an attempt to kill her, Maiko must find more courage than she knew she possessed. Determined to figure out why she was attacked, she dresses as a boy set to infiltrate the Black Clan and find some answers. But she is quickly captured and must prove her worth in order to stay alive. However, the longer Mariko spends in their company, the more questions she has. Questions not only about why she is wanted dead, but about herself and her family.
While this is marketed as fantasy, there are actually only a few hints to the plot. At first, I was a little disappointed, but it is clear from these few clues that the fantastical elements will play a much larger role in the future (and in surprising ways). The actual plot has many times where it hints at things we cannot see. There are many things at work in the background which will be revealed in the second. Overall, the plot testifies to our ability to see what we want to see. This willingness to ignore reason, and confirm our suspicions allows hatred, hurt, and fear to spread.
This story reminded me a lot of Mulan, but there were a few differences that left me with questions. One of the largest was the difference in relationship between Mariko’s relationship versus Mulan’s. To me, the romance in Flame in the Mist, escalated quickly and sort of exploded with passion and fire. That was fine, in and of itself, but I was taken aback. Additionally, their relationship is full of denial, even of their friendship. Perhaps that makes it more interesting, but I felt like I believed Mulan’s a tad bit more.
In terms of characters, I enjoyed, overall, the main characters. I could empathize with the way Mariko feels trapped by her options and I admired her morals. (Although I did get a little tired of her saying how smart she was all the time). However, I felt I didn’t see enough of Kenshin, and I wish there had been more moments where we could have seen their sibling bond. Additionally, I was a little frustrated that we only got to see Okami’s perspective after the big reveal.
My favorite part of the characters was the transformation Kenshin and Mariko undergo as they grow up and discover the world is not what it seems. For Mariko it’s a humbling experience where she must acknowledge her own privilege and decide who she wants to be in terms of morals and identity.
Mariko undergoes some interesting observations as she is posing as a boy. (I feel like I’ve read more and more crossdressing books recently). She feels free, even as she’s pretending and lying, to be bolder, more aggressive. At the same time, she makes many observations about the geisha lifestyle and the power that women can have. In these aspect, I was interested in what Mariko learns about her own identity.
All in all, this was a first book that left me awaiting the second. While there may have been a few things that made me pause, or with questions, I am so excited to see where the next one takes us. It’s unfortunate I have to wait so long since I read this one early!
Disclaimer: I received this book from First to Read in exchange for an honest review.
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