(Goodreads summary here.)
If you read my review for it, you’ll know that I loved Flame in the Mist when I read it earlier this summer. I’m honestly surprised it took me so long to pick up the sequel. However, I think that gap between finishing the first and starting the second actually hurt my enjoyment of this book. It wasn’t very long (only about 2 months), but I still had to refresh my memory of what happened in Flame in the Mist when I began Smoke in the Sun. For me, it probably means that I wasn’t as invested in the series and characters as I thought I was. Still, I enjoyed reading this and am glad I finished the duology.
There will be minor spoilers for Flame in the Mist going forward, since they’re essential to the story of Smoke in the Sun.
Smoke in the Sun starts off right where Flame in the Mist leaves off. I was concerned that there was a large chunk of narrative time between the two books, but that’s not the case. I did appreciate that you get right back into the action without any breaks. It’s definitely the kind of story where any gaps in time would just be confusing and annoying.
Going off of that, one of the biggest issues I had with this book was the pacing. While Flame in the Mist happens over about a month, all the events of Smoke in the Sun take place over the span of about a week. While you would think this makes the book move along, since more action occurs in a shorter period of time, I often found the story dragging. Where the first book does have a lot of physical action, Smoke in the Sun is mostly political drama, where you don’t quite know who has what motives. I typically am a fan of political intrigue, but for some reason I wasn’t really digging it in this book. I think the shift from an action-based narrative to a mind game-based narrative really threw me for a loop. Maybe I just wanted to see more of Mariko physically fighting her own battles the way she did in Flame in the Mist. Don’t get me wrong; I totally appreciate her using her mind as a weapon. It’s definitely an important attribute that I wish we saw more of in YA books (Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse is a great example). I guess I just thought Mariko really found herself physically in the first book, but we don’t get to see a lot of it in book 2.
My biggest complaint with the pacing was the ending. I feel like the first 7/8 of the book dragged, and then, all of a sudden, everything happened at once in the last 50 pages. I specifically remember looking and seeing that I only had 30 pages left and the real climax hadn’t even begun. I was so concerned that I stopped reading and checked to make sure there wasn’t a third book I didn’t know about. It was really very frustrating to have everything wrap up into a neat little bow in the last 20 pages, with practically no explanation as to how it got that way. I really wanted to see how the aftermath of the climax affected each character, rather than just having a nice, happy ending that gave you no insight into how the characters reacted to it. It’s especially disappointing when the sheer size of the cast is taken into account. There are so many characters who aren’t even mentioned in the last 20 pages. I know Mariko is the main character and that Okami is the love interest, so he’s the other character we’re supposed to be really invested in, but I want to know what happened with everyone else. I mean, a huge reveal happened with Tsuneoki towards the end, but we hear nothing about what that means for his future. Kenshin’s and Raiden’s worlds are turned on their heads, and we don’t get to see what the aftermath of either. For all the loose ends that get tied up for Mariko and Okami, several are left untouched for literally every other character, which isn’t fair to any of them. It really kills me that so many things were left unanswered about most of the characters just for the sake of having Mariko and Okami as the central happy ending. I would’ve liked to see the middle of the story a bit sped up and the ending slowed down. I wouldn’t even have minded if some events in the middle were mostly skipped over if it meant that we saw more of the aftermath of the ending.
Okay, so that was a lot of negatives, but there were plenty of things I did like about this book. As I already mentioned, it was refreshing to see Mariko in a setting where she could use her mind. The palace drama allowed her to really play to her strengths, which I loved seeing. For as much as I did love seeing her develop her fighting skills in book 1, it was nice to see her doing what she is a natural with. Her sense of justice never wavered, which was especially important to me, since I was worried the new situation might alter her character.
Okami’s character in this was a pleasant surprise. I was worried that we would get too much of his perspective, which would have been really boring and repetitive, given that he spends 3/4 of the book in a cell being beaten. That being said, the parts that do focus on him take place after he’s out and really improve him as a character. My main complaint with him the first book was that he didn’t step up to help others the way I wanted him to. I felt that Tsuneoki was really the hero in Flame in the Mist, which I think was the point, since Okami is a pretty typical anti-hero. However, Okami really does take a leading role as a willing hero in Smoke in the Sun, which I thought made him far more compelling. Now, that being said, I thought his transition into wanting to be a leader was a little too abrupt. Sure, there’s a major secret that gets revealed to him, but he does a complete 180 in terms of his worldview in about 2 paragraphs, which I always find frustrating (and I’ve complained about it before and will probably continue to).
As far as secondary characters go, I’m really happy we got to see more of Yumi in this book. Do I wish we could have seen even more of her? Absolutely. But I was happy to see more of her badassery. I think a lot of the reveals were really expertly timed with pretty much every character, but Yumi’s reveals were especially enthralling; they left you with the perfect “I should have seen it coming” feeling without the sense of immense predictability. One of the things Ahdieh does very well is not dropping plot twists out of nowhere. They build up and, even if they surprise you, it’s really easy to go back and realize that, yes, the hints are all there. The art of it really mirrors that of suspense as a whole genre, even if the twists are slightly more predictable in nature.
A lot of the problems I had with Flame in the Mist were resolved with Smoke in the Sun, namely that the sequel felt far more character-driven than plot-driven. Still, I found that Smoke in the Sun didn’t quite hold my attention as well as the first book did, largely due to the slow pacing of the majority of the novel. The ending really did hurt my opinions of the book, which really sucks because it was so close to being a great book. It gave me the ending I wanted and expected for Mariko and Okami, but not for every other character, even though I was just as invested in them as I was the main couple.
Did you enjoy Smoke in the Sun? Where there moments you wish the pacing had been different? Are there other books that ended far too quickly and left too many things untouched? Do you find endings that just focus on the main characters immensely frustrating as well?