(Goodreads summary here.)
All in all, I was majorly impressed with Flame in the Mist. I remember liking The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger when I read them last summer, but I wasn’t enthralled by them. That is not the story for this one.
I will take any and all re-imaginings of Disney movies. I know this book isn’t meant to be an explicit retelling, but there’s no denying it’s similar to Mulan (yes, I know the story of Mulan is older and more than just Disney, but that’s what I am familiar with). Regardless, Flame in the Mist is undeniably its own story. There are similarities, but only because it’s a similar plotline in a similar world. In some ways, I was more intrigued by Mariko’s desire to find out why she was nearly murdered than Mulan’s desire to save her father from war. It was a more intrinsic motivation that left more room for personal growth and change that Ahdieh utilized to its full advantage.
I absolutely adore Ahdieh’s worldbuilding. Because she uses real civilizations and cultures for the basis of her stories, she includes all the traditional words and other cultural signs to indicate that the world is not the typical Western one. The diversity is wonderful, and Ahdieh doesn’t let you get away with not learning something about the cultures her novels are based on. In both Flame in the Mist and The Wrath and the Dawn, especially Flame in the Mist, I started off a little confused about the magic system. It doesn’t really play a central role to this story, but it is mentioned as being a driver of the plot in small ways, so I feel like I would understand more of what was going on if there were some hints at how it works. I know it’s not essential since it isn’t a story about magic, but I still don’t understand where it comes from and what its overall purpose is. Also, there’s no mention of how magic is perceived in society, which seems odd to me. It makes the world fall just a little short of believable. People clearly know how to use some types of magic, but there’s no indication if they’re doing it secretly because it’s taboo or if it’s accepted but not encouraged or if it’s something everyone is aware of but turns a blind eye to. These are the things I like to know so that I have some gauge of what magic is like in the novel.
As for the plot itself, it kept throwing me for a loop. I often find myself predicting where plotlines will go, especially in fantasy novels, so I was really impressed that I was shocked with at least 2 plot twists. I think a lot of it has to do with Mariko being unpredictable, which I’m not entirely sure is a good thing, but I’ll get to that in a bit. I was really surprised that we get thrown straight into the action by the end of the first chapter. Again, I’m don’t really know how I feel about that. Sure, it got me hooked right away, but I think I prefer knowing a bit more about the world and what’s going on more generally before the action starts. I guess I’m just an exposition kind of person.
Now, I really wanted to like Mariko. She has a lot of potential to be a super badass feminist, and in a lot of ways, she is. She defies expectations and questions why things are the way they are for her. But she still has this idea of what it is to be a woman and that she has to be something different. It’s a very “I’m not like other girls” kind of feeling which drives me nuts. And it’s this way for most of the book. She seems to learn by the end that not everyone has to be like her to be independent, but I’m not convinced she has really gotten over the idea that she’s superior because she’s different. She’s getting there, but I think she still has a ways to go. I also found a lot of Mariko’s thoughts to be a little too repetitive. Every chapter for the first half of the book, it’s “I feel like I fit in here, but I can’t begin to like it because they tried to kill me” and “I hate Okami and Ranmaru but they don’t seem that bad.” It gets a little boring, okay? I get it, you’re conflicted. Please show me how you’re overcoming that conflict, what you’re doing to make a change, instead of just telling me about it. This conflict made it hard for me to understand what Mariko was going to do next, which kept me on my toes but also prevented me from really connecting with her. Her actions and beliefs are inconsistent and not just because she was learning and growing as a character; she just seemed fickle, and not in an endearing way. Despite all the shortfalls I found with her character, I was still 110% invested in her story. I wanted her to get everything she wanted while still doing the right thing.
For as indecisive as she is in taking action, Mariko acts immediately on her romantic interest, who I won’t name for spoiler reasons (mostly because this is one of the things that surprised me). She just jumps right in, which is refreshing because for once she seems to know what she wants, but I also found it a little odd, particularly because, once again, there’s no lead up into how she feels. One second she is adamant how much she hates him, the next she’s making out with him. I’m all for the enemies-to-lovers tropes, believe me, but I like seeing that change happen over time (I’ve talked about this before with Children of Blood and Bone), and it just wasn’t there with Mariko. There’s no progress, no points where you can really say, “Oh, this is around where her thoughts on him changed.” For me, it makes for an unimpressive and frankly unappealing take on the trope.
Although I had some issues with the characterizations, I was wholly entranced by Flame in the Mist. The plot and intrigue made up for nearly all of the shortcomings in the characters. Although I do tend to prefer novels that are equally character- and plot-driven, I found myself being totally content with this book being plot-driven. I loved it far more than anticipated.
What did you think of Flame in the Mist? Do you prefer it to The Wrath and the Dawn? What are your predictions for Smoke in the Sun?