Flame in the Mist: Renée Ahdieh

★★★

Since childhood, Hattori Mariko has always been regarded as a bit odd: too curious, too inventive for a girl of her high station. But even oddness can’t protect her from fate. As she travels by litter from her parents’ home towards the imperial city of Inako, she feels no different from any other well-born young woman, being forced into a marriage not of her choosing. Far away in Inako, in the enchanted precincts of Heian Castle, her betrothed waits: Minamoto Raiden, son of the emperor himself. But between the Hattori lands and Inako lies Jukai Forest, the haunt of ghosts, spirits and desperate men. And Mariko’s entourage, having entered the Forest, will never emerge.

A band of ruthless bandits attack the convoy, killing everyone and torching the litter. The only survivor is Mariko, left for dead, who manages to pull herself to safety. She’s certain that she knows who the culprits are: the Black Clan, a band of lawless ronin. But it’s clear that this wasn’t a random attack. These weren’t opportunistic thieves, but assassins. So why would the Black Clan come after a young woman? Who could possibly want Mariko dead? She has two options. She can run home, to be comforted by her parents and sent off again, in another litter, to the same fate. Or she can take charge of her own future, adapt to her new freedom, and find out the answers for herself. Disguising herself as a boy, Mariko sets off on a mission to infiltrate the Black Clan and discover the truth.

Yet the Clan are not what Mariko expects. They are, after all, ronin rather than common murderers: masterless samurai, bound together by loyalty and honour. At their head is Takeda Ranmaru, the son of the last shogun, dispossessed of his birthright after his father’s forced suicide ten years before, and simmering with the desire for revenge. And at his side is his closest friend, the enigmatic Ōkami, called the Wolf, whose fighting skills verge on the miraculous. Mariko is determined to hate these men but, the more she learns, the more she begins to become dangerously fascinated by them. Can they really be responsible for the attack on her convoy? What do they really want? And how can she protect them from her brother, Hattori Kenshin, the Dragon of Kai – fearsome warrior, fierce samurai and best tracker in the land – who will already be out searching for her?

I came to this book absolutely blind, knowing nothing about it or the author, and found it very enjoyable, if a touch too adolescent in places. There are lots of moments where Character A dwells on the feelings she’d have for Character B if she didn’t absolutely hate him, of course, and Character B comes across as less like a lawless brigand and more like a brooding high-school student. But that seems to be common in most of the romance novels I’ve read, where supposedly sensible characters are (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Benedick) transformed into oysters. Mariko is an appealing, capable heroine, although aspects of her successful masquerade as a boy did stretch credulity (I’m amazed at how many disguised women manage to avoid having their periods). What I liked about this book was the setting: feudal Japan, with its code of bushidō, its courtly politics and its geiko houses. There are touches of the supernatural – not spells or wizards, but Asian-style magic, such as shadow-warriors, spirits or ninja powers. And Adhieh writes well, with plenty of dramatic tension and mystery to keep us engaged until the finale.

This wears its credentials as a young adult novel on its sleeve, but it’s perfectly diverting even for fully-grown readers who fancy a spritz of romance tinged with the fantastical. It’s clearly only the first part of a longer story and I’d certainly like to see how it ends. I see that Ahdieh has also written two books based on the Scheherazade legend: The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, which I might try in due course.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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