Mariko had everything growing up in feudal Japan. Daughter of a prominent samurai and betrothed to the Emperor’s favorite consort’s son, Mariko was set to live a luxurious, near-royal life. Her future was determined by a generation before her and all she has to do is sit still and be pretty. However, Mariko is an alchemist genius and she wants more in life than just becoming a trophy wife. Her wishes and dreams get granted in the most unfortunate way when en route to her own wedding she gets ambushed by an infamous group of bandits that not only want to rob her entourage, but also want her dead. Instead of seeking help from a neighboring village, she takes matters into her own hands by infiltrating the group while playing a runaway boy.
Flame in the Mist is a new series by Renée Ahdieh, the best-selling author of The Wrath and the Dawn duology. Marketed as Mulan meets the Throne of Glass series by its publishers, Flame in the Mist is a book full of adventure, royal conspiracies, and romance. Fans of otome games such as Hakuouki will really enjoy this new series as the storyline nearly follows a script for one. Typical girl who is special in a particular way gets pulled from her normal life into a complicated scenario that involves a band of handsome men and thus an adventure of self-discovery and love begins. As stereotypical as that may be (even for a young adult novel), the book is a fun romp through a fantastical feudal Japan with a magic system that is uniquely fascinating. Unfortunately the content that makes the book interesting doesn’t get fully fleshed out as this first book acts more like a teaser to the mind-blowing landmines that’ll continue in its sequel. The wait for the second book will be excruciating.
Most of the real action takes place in the second half of the book as the first half is spent on setting Mariko upon her path for revenge and meeting the mysterious band of misfits and possibly demons of feudal Japan. In fact, it takes a while for the reader to even figure out, which character is Mariko’s true love interest due to all the men around her.. There’s the cocky leader, who hates the protagonist for no apparent reason, the mysterious brooder, the kind mature one who everyone likes, and Mariko’s actual fiancé. With all the men in the story, the romance could have taken its time developing, but unfortunately it gets ruined when the man of the hour just suddenly appears to have feelings for Mariko and vice versa. The scene and following scenes that happen between them however are steamy in the tamest way a young adult novel can get before entering new adult territory. The scenes would have been more satisfying if the author had included a few more scenes alluding to their chemistry.
The fantastical elements of the book also suffer from being swept under the rug until the last moment. While it is briefly mentioned in parts throughout the book, the presence of demons and magic doesn’t begin to play a more prominent role in the story until near the end. What little is shown, however, is probably the best parts of the book. There’s a royal conspiracy unfolding in the story that relates to Mariko’s assassination attempt, which alludes to demons and magic, but Renée doesn’t let her readers know the full story just yet.
The overarching storyline, minus the whirlwind romance, is more reminiscence of something that came out of Game of Thrones. A lot of adventure, little fantasy, couple ships, royal conspiracies, battle for a throne, revenge, etc., this book seems to have it all. Instead of a Mulan inspired story, it reads more like an Arya Stark spinoff story that’s set in feudal Japan. While Flame in the Mist starts slow the novel shows great promise at the end leaving its readers wanting more.