Genre: Fantasy Age Range: YA Star Rating: 3.5 stars Series: yes - first book in duology
The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.
So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.
The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt 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.
Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.
When I read this book last year, I really liked it (a solid 4-star read), but a re-read has brought out a few of the flaws (and many cliche plot lines).
The most frustrating thing, and the main reason I knocked half a star off, was the writing. The style felt self-important to me, and stilted. There are so many short sentences. One after another. Sentence fragments. Probably meant to draw attention and highlight something. But it’s distracting. Jarring. Pulls out of the narrative.
Not to mention the many short paragraphs.
A whole page can pass this way.
The effect loses impact quickly.
Because it’s overused.
Yes, I have tried to mimic the style, to show how frustrating it can be. Not to mention the number of filter words. As he remembered. X could smell.
The book is laden with descriptions, and many are both flowery and somewhat contradictory .
“The pain blossomed across her forehead like a dribble of water.”
I’m sorry, what? If it ‘blossoms’ it’s going to spread in many directions, but ‘a dribble of water’ is small and flows one way.
Enough about the writing style, and onto the characters!
I like Mariko. She has a nice arc – a little cliched (a combination of the classic ‘I’m stronger/braver than I thought and can do so much more than the world tells me I can’ and ‘I’ve been so sheltered from the world and what my family’s really doing’). There’s nothing wrong with these arcs, and done well they can be really good. Ahdieh does execute them well, investing you in Mariko’s journey.
Her skills as an alchemist don’t come up until the final third of the book, which was a bit frustrating (I’m studying chemistry, so show me the science!). And even then it was wasn’t magical at all (my lines between chemistry and alchemy in books). I do understand that the terminology is probably more appropriate here, but it also played into the sheer lack of magic in the book. There’s so little of it, and I like a little more in my fantasy books (but I always err on the side of high/epic fantasy over low fantasy).
At times, the ‘I’m frustrated about how the world treats girls as second-class’ felt a little forced and trying to scream that it was a feminist book. It’s a plot line I’m seeing a lot, not to mention the ‘MC must dress like a boy to get anything done’ idea. This overuse is tiring me out, not to mention it perpetuates the ‘not like other girls’ idea, the one that touts ‘masculine’ strength as the only – or best – strength by showing ‘strong female characters’ trying to emulate the men. There are so many types of strength, and the most commonly depicted ‘masculine’ strength can wander very close to a toxic masculinity (or be slap-bang in that category).
The ‘oh no, I’m falling in love with a boy I’m supposed to hate’ cliche also came up. Yeah, he’s nice enough, but it’s so predictable.
There are several additional POVs to Mariko’s. Her brother pops up now and again, and there are so many unanswered questions there. Unfortunately, they’re not the ‘I want to know what happened’ kind but the ‘I feel like I’m supposed to understand but I just don’t’. Also, his love interest pops up a few times (not a POV) but she didn’t add anything to the story – didn’t offer a new side to him or seem to impact the plot at all.
There are maybe three chapters from the women of the imperial court that felt more like attempts to say there’s more going on in the world than Mariko’s story. I’m really not a big fan of this technique as it feels like a cop-out, an easy way to inject more tension rather than hinting and teasing it out of the main POV. Not to mention it feels more like a set up of a later book than actually adding anything to current book – and it yanks you out of Mariko’s story.
I went into the book, unable to remember the plot at all, but as I read it more or less came back to me (even if I could only remember the events a chapter or so ahead). I didn’t mind that, as it meant the twists were a semi-surprise but they did feel set up. it meant that reaching them felt more satisfying than any re-read so far – which was nice.
I’m about to dive into the sequel, SMOKE IN THE SUN. It’ll be the first time I read it (as it’s only just come out in paperback!), so hopefully I focus more on the plot this time and less on the details.
Read my Reviews of other books by Renee Ahdieh
Flame in the Mist (this series):
- SMOKE IN THE SUN (#2)
The Wrath and the Dawn:
- THE BEAUTIFUL (#1)