I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin Random House and their First to Read program for the review copy!
Flame in the Mist, you had me at “dangerous gang of bandits.” Authors, publishers, listen up – if you ever want to get me to read your book, all you have to do is make the slightest mention of thieves, bandits, or other disreputable rogues and I will be at the bookstore or library in a flash. These sorts of characters are my kryptonite, and the ones in Flame in the Mist are especially delightful.
Flame in the Mist follows the adventures of Hattori Mariko, a young woman whose traveling party is attacked on the way to Mariko’s wedding. Though she survives, Mariko is presumed dead, and she takes advantage of the newfound freedom this brings from obligation and expectation. Disguising herself as a boy, Mariko strikes out in pursuit of the Black Clan, the notorious band of thieves she presumes to be responsible for the attack. Her hope is to bring them down from the inside, and thus prove to her family that her worth goes beyond that of her value as a bride.
The Black Clan members are everything a rascal-loving reader could wish for. First off, there’s Ranmaru, their leader. He’s young, sharp, and canny, too clever by half. Then there’s his right-hand man, Ōkami. Known as the Wolf, Ōkami is the Black Clan’s deadliest warrior. He’s enigmatic, dangerous, and aloof, and his interactions with Mariko are my favorite parts of the book. The two needle one another constantly, and Mariko is both annoyed by Ōkami and drawn to him.
“‘If you were me, you would have done the same thing.’ She could not prevent her voice from quavering on the last word.
‘No, I wouldn’t.’ Ōkami’s dark brows lowered. Shadowed his gaze. Something tugged at his lips. ‘I would’ve succeeded.’”
Mariko herself is an interesting character, though I’m not sure I can truthfully say I like her. She has certain traits that I respect, and I could sympathize with her, but there’s something about Mariko that kept me from fully connecting with her. I did appreciate that she seems like a real person; not annoyingly inept, but not unrealistically capable, either. I like that she knows her own limitations and goes about finding ways to work around them. Likewise, she is able to acknowledge disappointing truths and deal with them accordingly. She’s smart and a quick study, but still errs and misjudges from time to time. She has weaknesses and flaws and frustrations, the most interesting of which is her resentment of the strictures placed upon her as a woman. She aches to prove herself and rages against her femininity like a trapped moth beating its wings against a glass jar.
“Mariko suddenly felt acutely aware of her appearance. Almost self-conscious. A feeling she disdained.
So much like a girl, despite all her efforts to the contrary.”
During Mariko’s time with the Black Clan, she attempts to insinuate herself into their ranks. She’s at a disadvantage among the older, tougher men but does everything in her power to show herself as willing and able to contribute. At the same time she works to unravel the mysteries surrounding the band. Ranmaru and Ōkami are particularly inscrutable. You get the sense that everyone in the book has secrets, and everyone is lying. You’re always trying to keep up and figure out who people are, what their motivations are, and whether they can be trusted. This constant second-guessing kept me engaged from beginning to end, so much so that I read the entire book in one sitting.
“That same awful feeling of being mocked took hold of Mariko. Vicious, unrelenting hold. Making her feel so much smaller than those around her. So much less of everything when all she wished was to feel taller and stronger and braver. So much more. It made her afraid to be herself. Afraid these men would see how every step she took each day was a lie.”
One last thing worth mentioning about Flame in the Mist is that it’s set in a magical version of feudal Japan. This means there are samurai, and bloodthirsty trees, and shape-shifting, and tea houses, and beautiful, mouth-watering descriptions of Japanese cuisine. I’m hopeful there’ll be even more of these things in the second book, which I will certainly be reading. There’s so much going on in the world of Flame in the Mist that I want to soak in as much of it as I can!