Summary: The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place–she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort–a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.
Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love–a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.
Thoughts: I am very much torn on my opinion of Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist. On one hand, I’d had it recommended to me as being really good, and I did enjoy much of the story. On the other hand, I found the world-building distractingly shoddy, which detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel as a whole.
Long-time readers of my reviews may know that I’ve repeatedly gotten burned out on YA novels, and while I do dip my toes back into those waters now and again, it’s with mixed results. I may find something good, but most often, it seems I find something that I can best describe as lackluster. Something I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t go into books expecting to dislike them. If I think that I will actively dislike a book, I won’t waste my time reading it, and instead will seek out something I think might be more to my taste.
And Flame in the Mist could have been more to my taste. But as I said, the world-building kept pulling me out of the story and making me question the amount of research that went into the writing of this book, because to be perfectly blunt, it feels like a good half of said research was just reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha.
Allow me to elaborate. First, I’d had this book described to me as “Japanese-inspired fantasy.” Websites listed the book as “set in Feudal Japan.” Neither of these really holds true, at least in my eyes. If it was meant to be set in a secondary world inspired by Japanese history, then it made too many mentions of real places and historical figures to fall comfortably into that realm. If it was meant to be historical fantasy, then it had too many anachronisms to be properly set in the time period it was meant to be.
Best I can figure, Flame in the Mist is set roughly in the 1200s, or there abouts. I’m estimating this based on mentions of actual historical figures. But, there are a number of other things that don’t fit on that timeline, such as the shamisen (not introduced to Japan until after the 1600s) and what awkward mention of what I assume is the Tatsumura Textile Company (not established until 1894). I’d generously say that maybe this novel was actually set in the early 1900s, except that doesn’t fit at all with Japan’s situation at the time. So, this book remains set in some time that didn’t actually happen.
Which is why I can only class this as bad historical fantasy. It draws too many specifics from real people and places to be passed off as a fantasy inspired by history, and gets too many things wrong for me to settle into the historical setting. To put it in context, it would be like reading a novel set in England in the time of Alfred the Great, only people are mentioned drinking tea. It may seem like a small thing, but when you see it, you can’t unsee it, and it definitely doesn’t fit. You can say it’s merely inspired by that time and place, but when you bring in actual historical figures, you kind of commit yourself to the same kind of accuracies, and if you can’t follow through on that commitment, it’s going to trip some readers up. Too much of the real world to be fantasy, and too many anachronisms to be the real world.
There are only certain things I know enough about to be this picky, but Japan is one of them. I don’t know everything, of course, but I know enough to spot these problems when they crop up in what I read. For someone who is interested in Japan but who doesn’t have the kind of in-depth interest that would make the inaccuracies stand out, then there won’t really be a problem. But from my standpoint, I do have that depth of interest, and the problems did stand out.
I made an earlier accusation that half the research done for Flame in the Mist was the author reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha, and I’d like to elaborate on that. I have read that book and seen it’s film adaptation I don’t know how many times at this point, it remains one of my favourites, and from that perspective, it was easy to see the influence. The awkward mention of the Tatsumura Textile Company I mentioned earlier was two in-novel mentions of “Tatsumura silk,” which isn’t any particular kind of silk, but just silk processed and woven by Tatsumura Textiles. But “Tatsumura silk” was mentioned in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, an the context given was that it was used for very fancy kimono.
There’s more than that. The protagonist, Mariko, is described as having her personality be very much “like water,” echoing the same pronouncement of Chiyo’s personality (the protagonist and narrator of Memoirs of a Geisha). A description of this in Flame in the Mist was at one point given almost word-for-word like part of Mameha’s dialogue in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie. Or how about the line, “I’d rather chew sand,” which was said by Pumpkin in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, as well as Okami in Flame in the Mist. There is a Japanese idiom that translates that way, and it was used correctly, but when it comes to English-language media relating to Japan, I’ve pretty much only ever seen that phrase used in that way in this novel and that movie. Combined with the other things I mentioned, it was honestly a surprise to me to not see Arthur Golden mentioned in the acknowledgements.
So what did I like about Flame in the Mist? The story itself was pretty interesting. It follows Mariko, a young woman on her journey to her husband-to-be, only that journey gets cut short when she and her entourage are attacked in the forest. She alone survives, and is dead certain that the ones who slaughtered the others are the Black Clan, enemies of her family. She makes the decision to disguise herself as a boy in order to infiltrate them, to gain their trust and let their guard down so that she might have her revenge. She manages the first parts of this, at least, but in so doing, not only does she come to suspect that perhaps the Black Clan wasn’t actually behind the attack after all, but also falls in love with one of its members.
I’m not quite sure I’d call this a coming-of-age story so much as an eye-opening story, one in which Mariko starts off so certain of everything, only to later be revealed as one of those characters who is startlingly ignorant about many things while the whole time believing she sees more than most. It’s a story of a young woman trying to make her way in the world in her own way, pushing back when the world tries to stop her, but also a story in which she herself, her own mind and understanding, is one of the things she has to overcome. I admit, while I don’t like characters who are as brash and falsely self-assured as Mariko started out, I do like stories in which such characters come to understand that there’s more to the world than what they thought they knew. There’s a scene in which Mariko sees workers in the fields, harvesting rice, and sees just how hard they’re working, how worn out they all look by their labour, and reflects that she’s seen all these same people before, doing the same work, and never once came out of her own thoughts to actually see them. She assumes they were content, because she was content.
I have to say, it was also nice to have a female YA protagonist who wasn’t a virgin, too. Not that I have problems with virgins or anything, but I’ve seen a number of YA novels where part of the romantic and sexual tension comes from, “I want to get it on with you, but I’ve never done that before and I’m too nervous we either have to stop Right Now, or else you need to convince me because that’s sexy.” Which is fine, and lots of people are nervous and unsure and don’t have sex the first time their hormone start raging, and it’s good for people to see that you can say no and have that respected. But I think it’s also good for people to see examples of characters who have done it before, and gone on with their lives because that’s just what people do. Your life isn’t over if you have sex for the first time with the person you don’t end up permanently partnering with. Nor does having sex with more than one person make you promiscuous or less deserving of anything. Both of these are tropes I’ve seen handed down in fiction over the decades, neither are tropes that I particularly like, and each does its own kind of harm, so I was really pleased to see that Flame in the Mist fell into neither of those categories.
In the end, what I can really say about this book is that it was okay, but in an unbalanced way. The story was good, especially after the first few chapters had passed and Mariko really started to show who she was. The writing was fine, even if the author used some odd turns of phrase every now and again. But what really spoiled it for me was the historical aspects, the pieces that were out of place and pulled me out of my reading groove whenever I came up against them. Plus the cribbing from Memoirs of a Geisha. It got increasingly difficult to hand-wave some of those issues. As I mentioned earlier, if these sorts of things don’t bother you, or you don’t have the same kind of oddly obsessive-compulsive knowledge-seeking that I do about beloved topics (I’ve long suspected it’s an ADHD thing…) then what bothered me likely won’t bother other readers. For my part, though, I can label Flame in the Mist as… okay. Not something I’ll likely read again, not part of a series I’m likely to continue with, nothing I can say was either so good or so bad that it made much of an impact on me. What it did well, it did well, and where it fell, it fell hard. I guess your mileage may vary as to how much either of those aspect affect you.