By Anya Shukla
Loyal readers may know that one of my pet peeves is when a YA book attempts to cross over to the adult section (and vice versa). Today, I discovered a very relevant article in The New York Times—coincidentally featuring a BIPOC author, Jason Reynolds. If you want to know what YA literature should look like, I’d recommend checking it out.
Not really related to “Flame in the Mist,” but just something interesting. Anyways…
Review: In Renée Ahdieh’s “Flame in the Mist,” Hattori Mariko knows that her worth is tied to her upcoming marriage to one of the most influential men in Wa. But when members of the Black Clan, a rebel group, raid her traveling party in an attempt to murder her, she sees an opportunity to escape from her societal confines. Mariko disguises herself as a boy to infiltrate the Black Clan and determine who wants her dead. She gets caught up in a web of intrigue, magic, and power plays among the ruling class.
While subtler themes and character development would have made the book’s events more realistic, Ahdieh incorporation of Japanese culture differentiates this book from others in the fantasy genre. My Rating: 3.5/5.
What I Loved: The incorporation of Japanese samurai culture with the fantasy storyline. Admittedly I do not know much about Japanese history, but a History.com article gave me a quick crash course. Ahdieh draws on concepts like “bushido,” a samurai’s code of honor and a theme which pervades the entire book, and interweaves her storyline with adapted historical events, such as the rule of the Minamoto clan, the rise of the Black Dragon society, and the treason and death of an acclaimed samurai. Writing during an era with increased interest in historical revivals (see: “Hamilton,” “The Great,” “Outlander”), Ahdieh looks towards (underappreciated) East Asian culture for inspiration. Much like “The Marrow Thieves” (BIPOC Book #5), this infusion of heritage both adds to the plot and leaves the reader with a richer understanding of history.
Plus there were shapeshifters and sorceresses and lots of suspense! I mean, when the book starts with the anticipation of a son rising and setting “fire to all his father’s enemies” (pg. 34), you know there’s gonna be some action. Ahdieh delivers with a heady dose of palace intrigue, fight scenes, and multiple cases of hidden identities.
What I Didn’t Love: Part of my criticism comes from the fact that “Flame in the Mist” was compared to “Throne of Glass” series (a fantasy about a female assassin). I love “Throne of Glass” because it showcases characters’ growth over seven books, helping me understand the nuances and multidimensionality of each individual. In contrast, “Flame in the Mist” condenses several ideas—the themes of femininity and control, a full-fledged romance—over the course of approximately two weeks, book-time-wise.
With more space and page count, Ahdieh could have drawn out these relationships and themes, giving them more room to evolve. Instead, the messages read as in-your-face. Mariko almost constantly thinks and talks about her need for dominance when faced with patriarchy: “I am not ready to cede control” (pg. 355), “I have never wished to be controlled by my surroundings” (pg. 397). I got the message the first time. You’re controlled by society as a woman and crave the freedom you have when disguised as a man. Maybe this repetition comes because of this book's YA audience, but I personally don’t need a theme repeated quite so overtly.
Not to mention, on almost every other page, Ahdieh utilizes sentence fragments to accentuate the action. To showcase the words’ layout:
“It blossomed in Mariko’s chest, spreading like a swallow of perfectly brewed tea.
Simple. Instinctual” (pg. 73).
“But Mariko could not silence the thrum of her thoughts.
Could not squelch her curiosity” (pg. 77).
I can handle this technique once or twice per chapter, but its frequency in “Flame in the Mist” feels like too much for me. Unfortunately, everything Mariko does appears hyper-dramatized.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “I believe we are all things, depending on the situation. Given the right time and the right circumstance, any man or woman could be water or fire or earth or wind” (pg. 398).
Up next: “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging In America" by Laila Lalami.