I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I went into it. The only thing I knew was that I really, really wanted to read Renee Ahdieh’s previous series The Wrath and the Dawn, and so I hoped Flame in the Mist would grab my attention in the same way. Renee’s writing is really wonderful, and I liked the characters and the setting of this novel, but some aspects of the story and the fantasy system fell flat to me and didn’t feel properly brought to life.
Flame in the Mist is about Mariko, the daughter of a prominent samurai, who is attacked by the mysterious bandits the Black Clan as she travels to marry a man she has never met in the imperial city. Furious and determined to prove her worth to her family as more than a pawn to be sold in marriage, Mariko sets out on a mission to find the Black Clan, infiltrate them, and find out who paid them to kill her. She dons the disguise of a boy and does just that, and delves into a world of secrets, lies, intrigue and war.
I enjoyed Mariko’s character and the Black Clan as a group. At first, I thought that Mariko might be a typical feisty strong female lead, but she is more than that. I appreciated that her strength lay more in her mind than in her physical abilities – she is not a fighter, although she tries. I also liked that we see her grapple with doubts and questions, as well as with a desire to be brave even though she cannot escape the fact that she is terrified. Okami and Ranmaru are the other two central characters in the Black Clan, and Mariko’s brother, who we follow as he tries to track his missing sister. I enjoyed reading about the connections between these characters, and especially that there were different types of relationships. The romance does not overpower the story at all, but instead there is just the right amount of love for me, and there are also great friendships in the novel. My main issue was that the book swaps perspectives between these characters quite a bit, as well as some other minor characters, and sometimes the way this was done felt disjointed and confusing, and I felt like Renee Ahdieh spread the narration too thinly among too many characters.
I have tried to pick apart exactly why I couldn’t connect to this story fully, and I couldn’t find a single reason. The opening half of the story felt very flat to me, principally because I couldn’t really understand why Mariko was doing what she was doing. I understood that she resented being married off, and I understood that she wanted to prove that she was more than just a weak girl, but I couldn’t understand how she made the link from that to infiltrating the Black Clan to discover why they had tried to kill her. After the initial section of Mariko trying to find the Clan, we then have to sit through a large chunk which consists of her being treated as a sort of servant, and read as Okami and Ranmaru question whether they trust her. I think that because I was bored in this first section, I missed some vital details about the characters Okami and Ranmaru that made the second part harder to understand and get excited about, even though I felt like the story was picking up. I couldn’t remember the details about the pair’s history, and I’m still not sure I understand it.
The fantasy was also a bit vague. I found it so intriguing – there were trees that suck the blood out of people, and foxes made of smoke, and characters that could fly. But I had no idea where any of this came from and how it worked. I felt like the magical aspects of the book were quite randomly dropped into the book and for quite a large chunk of the book I wasn’t sure if this was a fantasy novel or a sort of historical novel. When magic did turn up, it was merely shown for a passage, then it vanished again. It felt so random that I felt like it could have been taken out of the novel altogether and the story would have still functioned equally well without it.
Overall, there were parts of this book that I liked a lot and others that, although I didn’t dislike, I just didn’t really get. I would have loved for the story to have picked up quicker and for aspects of the novel to have been a bit clearer, specifically the magic system and the characters’ pasts and goals. Although I didn’t love this book, I think that I will read the second instalment of this duology when it is released just to see where the characters end up and where the story goes.