Blog Tour, Review, and Giveaway: Counting Wolves by Michael F. Stewart


About the Book

Counting Wolves
Michael F. Stewart
Publication date: August 14, 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

The Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the lair of an adolescent psych ward.

Milly’s evil stepmother commits her to a pediatric psych ward. That’s just what the wolf wants. With bunk mates like Red, who’s spiraling out of control; Pig, a fire-bug who claims Milly as her own—but just wants extra dessert—Vanet, a manic teen masquerading as a fairy godmother with wish-granting powers as likely to kill as to help; and the mysterious Wolfgang, rumored to roam for blood at night; it doesn’t take long for Milly to realize that only her dead mother’s book of tales can save her.

But Milly’s spells of protection weaken as her wolf stalks the hospital corridors. The ward’s a Dark Wood, and she’s not alone. As her power crumbles, she must let go of her magic and discover new weapons if she is to transform from hunted to hunter.

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Review:

Four-star rating

I received a free copy of this book from Xpresso Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the review copy!

Counting Wolves was a pleasant surprise for me. When I requested an ARC of the book, I was anticipating a dark fairy tale set in a creepy psych ward with sadistic nurses and tormented teenagers who aren’t crazy but can’t convince anyone of that fact. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved a book like that, but I ended up loving what Stewart actually delivered – a look at mental illness and recovery through the lens of a fairy tale – even more.

Fifteen-year-old Milly Malone, the book’s protagonist, knows that fairy tales are more than mere stories – after all, she’s being stalked by a creature from one of the tales, a ravenous wolf that’s out for her blood. The only way to keep the wolf at bay is a magic spell, which requires Milly to count to 100 every time she wants to speak, enter a doorway, take a bite of food, etc. Although Milly knows the spell’s necessary to keep herself and her loved ones safe from the wolf, no one else understands her motivations, and she ultimately finds herself locked away in a pediatric psychiatric ward.

Stewart does a fantastic job of imbuing his novel with symbolism, and the role fairy tales play in Counting Wolves is one of the things that appeals to me most about this book. Milly’s mother raised her on these tales as a way to teach her important lessons, and so fairy tales are how Milly views the world. There are myriad references to these stories – “What big teeth you have, Doctor” – and several of the fables Milly’s read over the years are interspersed throughout the book. The people she meets in the ward are the embodiment of various stories, like the comatose “Sleeping Beauty,” and it’s fascinating to see all of the fairy tale threads woven into the tapestry of this novel.

“This is how every fairy tale starts. With the storyteller explaining to the reader just how it is. There once was a girl named Milly who was the wolf’s coveted meal. Whose father left her in the clutches of an evil stepmother. Whose stepmother imprisoned her with monsters.

At first, Milly’s compulsions are exasperating to read about, in that waiting for her to count all the time can be frustrating and tedious. Her counting consumes her and alienates her from everyone, including the reader. After a while, though, as I grew used to Milly and more information was uncovered about the root of her battle with the wolf, I found myself less annoyed and more intrigued/sympathetic. I was especially enthralled by the sections of the story that focus on Milly’s respective relationships with her deceased mother and new stepmother.

I really appreciate how Stewart approaches mental illness in this book. As much fun as I admittedly have reading psychological thrillers and books about eerie asylums, it’s gratifying to see a positive portrayal of mental healthcare. It’s so rewarding to watch Milly gain strength and courage and to watch her personality emerge once she stops letting her fears define her. The progression of her treatment strikes me as believable and realistic, though I’m not an expert and can’t say for sure.

One of the only negatives about this book for me was Milly’s fellow patients. It’s not that they’re poorly written; it’s just that I didn’t really connect with them. They’re very intense, and while they’re memorable, they’re not especially likable. The times when they exhibit endearing traits are overshadowed by really bizarre, off-putting behavior, like masturbating in plain view or mentioning that they once slit a goat’s throat as part of a Satanic ritual. The characters did grow on me a bit by the end of the novel, but I still wouldn’t say that I felt comfortable around them.

That aside, I greatly enjoyed Counting Wolves and will likely seek out more of Stewart’s work. While this story wasn’t the dark, twisty psychological thriller I originally anticipated, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve read those kinds of books before and will almost certainly read them again, but I haven’t come across many books about mental illness that use fairy tale symbolism effectively.

Author Bio

Michael F. Stewart is winner of both the 2015 Claymore Award and the 2014 inaugural Creation of Stories Award for best YA novel at the Toronto International Book Fair.

He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. In addition to his award winning Assured Destruction series, he has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights are published by Scholastic and early readers are out with Pearson Education.

For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS–a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next.

Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s first Writer in Residence. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.

Michael is represented by Talcott Notch.

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Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch Book Cover Akata Witch
Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a "free agent" with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she's finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin’s First to Read program for the review copy!

Unfortunately, Akata Witch just wasn’t for me. It didn’t hold my interest, and I spent much of the book compulsively checking how many pages I had left and hoping that I was almost at the end.

I’ve seen Akata Witch hailed as “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” but the book fails to live up to the hype. There are similarities between Akata Witch and the Harry Potter series – both star a preteen misfit who discovers they possess magical abilities and must be taught to wield that magic in order to fight an evil wizard – but Akata Witch lacks the richness and the “wow” factor that made me fall in love with Rowling’s novels.

Okorafor’s book stars a 12-year-old albino girl named Sunny who doesn’t feel she belongs. She’s picked on at school, and at home she has to deal with annoying older brothers and a father who doesn’t appreciate her “otherness.” Everything changes, though, when she learns she is a Leopard Person, or someone who possesses magic juju. She also finds out that she’s fated to be one fourth of a coven that’s purportedly destined for a great purpose. Like Sunny, her fellow coven members are very young – the oldest is about 14 or 15 – but they do their best to train and make ready for their ultimate battle with an evil Leopard Person who’s gone rogue. Much of the book focuses on the four coven members honing their juju, going to lessons and field trips, and teaching Sunny about the world of the Leopard People.

As much as I love fantasy stories, this particular one didn’t resonate with me for some reason. I was incredibly bored and didn’t feel the sense of wonder, delight, or amazement I usually experience when I read fantasy. Part of my problem is that I wasn’t enamored of the plot or the characters, who were flat at best and annoying at worst. I had a tough time connecting with them, and I partially blame this on the third-person point of view. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had a lot more personality if the story had been filtered through Sunny’s first-person viewpoint.

That said, there are a few interesting and creative bits of magic in the book now and then, like masquerades – spirits that enter the world through termite mounds; tungwas – balls of hair, flesh, and teeth that float around and explode at random; and wasp artists that build spectacular creations out of found household objects but are notoriously melodramatic if they feel their work isn’t valued:

“‘It’s a wasp artist,’ Orlu said. ‘They live for their art. If you want it to live for a long time, make sure you let it out like you’ve been doing, and show it that you appreciate its work.’

‘I’d smash the thing,’ Sasha said. ‘My sister had one when she was small , and when she forgot to give it praise once, it got pissed and stung her. Its sting paralyzes you for ten minutes so that you can do nothing but watch it build its ‘final masterpiece’ and then keep watching as it dramatically dies. The damn things are psychotic.’”

By far the most positive aspect of this book is that it opened my eyes to just how narrow my worldview is; it wasn’t until I read Akata Witch that I realized how rarely I read books that are set in a country and culture very different from my own. Growing up in the U.S., reading American books, and watching American movies and TV shows, my understanding of the world has been admittedly limited. I so infrequently venture outside of my comfort zone when it comes to books and other media that I was – stupidly – unprepared for Akata Witch’s descriptions of foods, expressions, residences, etc. that were so very unfamiliar to me. Sometimes this led to confusion (I still don’t understand what a “rapa” is, and what on Earth is a chewing stick?), but for the most part it was a humbling reminder that “my” way of life isn’t “the” way of life. This book showed me that there is so much I don’t know, and so much that I don’t even realize I don’t know.

One thing that really struck me was the fact that there are so many people speaking so many different languages in many scenes of the book. There’s no guarantee that everyone who needs to interact with one another in a given situation will speak the same language, which leads to a constant need for translation. This is viewed as the norm, as nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a stark contrast to what I’m used to in the U.S., where some people can sadly be rude – and downright ugly – when they hear people speaking anything but English. There’s even a reference to this in the book, which is, again, quite humbling:

“The toucan man scoffed. ‘They don’t teach them to understand others, they teach them to expect others to understand them,’ he said in English. He humphed and said, ‘Americans.’”

Bottom line? Much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of Akata Witch, I really struggled with staying invested in the story and characters. It just didn’t hold my attention, and I can’t say I’ll be reading the sequel when it comes out later this year.

Titanic Fans, Rejoice – A Review of The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The Midnight Watch Book Cover The Midnight Watch
David Dyer

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel--the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author's own experiences as a ship's officer and a lawyer.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy!

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer’s account of the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in years. Dyer’s ability to bring history to life with his beautiful writing and poignant attention to detail, coupled with his talent for heightening dramatic irony, make this book a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the Titanic disaster.

One of the most tragic and compelling things about the Titanic, aside from the staggeringly high death toll, is that the catastrophe could and should have easily been avoided. There were so many opportunities to avert disaster: If only the ship hadn’t been traveling so fast in the dark ice field…. If only there had been enough lifeboats for all passengers…. If only another ship could have arrived on the scene sooner, and saved more lives….

This last “if only” is the focus of The Midnight Watch. History tells us that the Californian, another steamer, was only six miles away from the Titanic when she struck the iceberg. The crew saw the distress rockets and were close enough to save hundreds of lives – yet they did nothing. 

The Midnight Watch delves into the mystery behind what happened that fateful April night, and man, is it fascinating. The point of view jumps from the crew of the Californian, trying to cover up their failure, to a young girl on board the doomed ship, to an intrepid reporter who won’t rest until he gets to the bottom of the Californian’s dirty little secret:

“People tell me there’s no such a thing as love at first sight. I don’t know about that. But I do know that there’s such a thing as a story at first sight. And there was something about these men – their stillness, perhaps, or maybe their unimpeachable solidarity – that told me at once that something strange had happened on this ship, something more than ‘a nice little story.’”

Dyer does a brilliant job of setting all of the pieces in place and building the reader’s anticipation and sense of dramatic irony. I had goosebumps for the duration of this book and was in a constant state of helpless dread. Modern-day readers know how the story of the Titanic plays out, but the characters in the book do not, and that’s what makes The Midnight Watch so heart-wrenching. All you can do is sit and watch as the events unfold.

You’ll shiver when, on the night of April 14, the captain of the Californian casually tells the officer on duty that “it should be a quiet watch tonight.” You’ll cringe when you listen to the White Star Line’s spokesman naively ensure the media, shortly before the ship sinks beneath the waves, that “his understanding was that [the damage] was slight and the ship was making her way to Halifax under her own steam.” You’ll silently, futilely plead with the characters to pay closer attention to the warning signs, and chills will go down your spine when the unwitting crew of the Californian watches the “mysterious ship’s” lights finally blink out in the wee hours of the morning on April 15.

Dyer has a gift for choosing descriptions and details that bring this story to life in excruciating vividness. He immerses you in the sounds of foghorns calling in the night and Morse code tapping in the wires room, and paints a picture of sailors “lying in their bunks with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside.” He writes a scene from the perspective of a passenger on board the sinking Titanic who spots the Californian‘s lights and waits patiently, but in vain, for rescuers to arrive. His reporter reveals the horrifying statistic that “fifty-eight first-class men had found their way into the lifeboats but fifty-three third-class children had not.” Every sentence Dyer writes cuts straight to your heart.

One of the things that I found fascinating about The Midnight Watch is that it focuses not just on the night of the Titanic disaster, but also on the fall-out that takes place afterwards. Dyer shows the reactions of the world as they learn the ship’s fate and describes the U.S. president’s grief at the loss of his friends who were on board. He depicts the moment when the ship Carpathia semaphores the number of dead to the Californian – 1,500 lost – and goes into detail about the U.S. Senate’s investigation into the the causes of the tragedy.

My only complaint about The Midnight Watch is a minor one: it’s tough to keep all of the characters straight. There are lots of people to remember, and trying to keep track of all of their names and jobs and why they’re significant to the story is challenging at times.

All things considered, I couldn’t be more impressed with Dyer’s debut novel. It’s so good it hurts, a rich, fascinating book that does what all great historical fiction should: sparks curiosity in its reader and inspires them to discover more about the subject matter. Highly, highly recommended.

In Which I Express My Frustration Via GIFs: A Review of In A Gilded Cage by Mia Kerick

In A Gilded Cage Book Cover In A Gilded Cage
Mia Kerick

Lucci Grimley is indeed alluring—crowned with a mane of long blond hair, and blessed with an enchanting musical talent that draws a brave rescuer to a high tower hidden in the forest.

However, this modern-day Rapunzel is a young man, sold as a child to the wealthy and childless Damien Gotham for the price of a fast car and a pile of cash. And Lucci’s heroic prince is William “Prin” Prinzing, a handsome college student and star soccer player, hired to care for the grounds of the lavish Tower Estate. Prin climbs an extension ladder rather than a long golden braid to gain access to Lucci’s second floor bedroom window, ultimately penetrating the secrecy surrounding the cloistered young man.

Friendship, and soon romance, blooms. The tower captive eagerly gives his loving innocence to his brave rescuer, which sends the strict and reclusive Gotham into a frenzy of jealous rage. With Prin, Lucci gets a taste of real life, and he wants more. Together, the young men must face Gotham’s ruthlessness and pay the price of liberating Lucci.

 

Thank you to Xpresso Book Tours for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fair warning: this is going to be a rant.

I went into In A Gilded Cage fully expecting to love it, as the description makes it sound like exactly my type of book. Not only is it a modern-day retelling of Rapunzel, it’s also a male/male romance. What more could I possibly ask for, right?

Well, for starters, I’m not sure “romance” is the right word for the relationship between the book’s two protagonists, Prin and Lucci. To me it’s less a love story and more the story of one person taking complete advantage of another person’s vulnerability and innocence. Allow me to explain.

Lucci is the adopted son of a ridiculously wealthy – and hideously controlling – business mogul by the name of Damien Gotham. Gotham is a total creep and actually bought Lucci from his parents when he was a young boy so he could “lift [Lucci] out of squalor and place (him) in surroundings befitting [his] beautify and potential.” To Gotham, lifting Lucci from squalor essentially means imprisoning Lucci in Gotham’s mansion and controlling every single move he makes for the rest of his life.

Gotham isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, over-protective helicopter parent – he’s legitimately crazy and abusive. Lucci is isolated from the world, with only Gotham for company. Gotham dictates how Lucci spends every minute of his day, how he talks, what he eats, even how much water he may drink. His standards for “appropriate” behavior are unattainably high, and the punishments he doles out when Lucci can’t measure up are imaginative and horrible. And don’t even get me started on how far over the line his physical relationship with Lucci is. Yick.

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I hoped things would look up for poor, victimized Lucci when his “prince charming” showed up…but nope. The relationship that develops between William “Prin” Prinzing and Lucci makes me cringe just thinking about it. Even though Lucci’s almost 21 during the main events of the book, his isolated upbringing has left him so innocent and naïve that the relationship between him and Prin feels like the relationship between an adult and a child.

Lucci doesn’t understand what friendships are, let alone sexual encounters. At one point when Prin is sticking his tongue in Lucci’s mouth, Lucci pulls back and innocently asks, “Is this the way of friendship, Prin?” He honestly has no idea what’s going on. Lucci doesn’t even know the names for his various pieces of anatomy – he calls them his “man parts,” for crying out loud. It’s such an unequal relationship, where Prin has all the knowledge and power and Lucci is just trustingly going along with whatever Prin tells him.

Prin knows something’s not right with Lucci’s home life, but is rescuing Lucci his first priority? No, of course not. He’s more concerned with how far he’s able to get with Lucci sexually. He’s basically like, “Hey, I know you’re being abused, and you have zero concept of the world beyond your creepy dad’s house and his carefully-selected servants, but rather than doing anything REAL to help you, I’m going to feel you up in my truck instead. ‘Kay?”

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The sexual scenes are intensely uncomfortable because they almost feel like instances of statutory rape. It doesn’t help that every time Prin and Lucci have a sexual encounter, Lucci compares the experience to his interactions with his adopted father. For example, there’s a scene where Lucci runs his hands over Prin’s bare chest while envisioning his father’s chest hair. And then there’s this gem from one of Lucci’s POV chapters:

“‘I notice that [Prin’s] hands are trembling as Father’s often do when he gives in to his need to touch me.’”

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I felt like screaming at Prin for so much of this book. It’s like, dude – can we remember that Lucci’s father makes him cuddle with him in bed at night, naked? And that he withdraws food and water from Lucci if he feels Lucci is not appropriately affectionate during those cuddle sessions? And forces Lucci to kneel on a grate for hours as punishment for other minor “infractions”? With all this in mind, do you really think sexing him up is your best course of action? As opposed to, oh, I don’t know – HELPING HIM ESCAPE?!

Even if Lucci and Prin were both happy, healthy, well-adjusted people, I’d still wince at their love scenes, which are mega-awkward and not sexy or sensual in any way. Please, share in my horror and discomfort with this quote about Lucci’s second-ever erection:

“‘It is happening to me again, Prin.’ I take his hand in mine and press it to the stiffness of my private part.”

And how about this:

“I pull him down so his privates dangle before my face, and I open my mouth more eagerly than does a baby bird to his mother.”

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The scene that really pushes me over the edge, though, is the one where Prin takes his sock off and wipes Lucci’s mouth with it after fellatio. Yes, you read that right – he uses his dirty sock, which was just on his sweaty-ass foot while he was doing yard work, and uses it to WIPE LUCCI’S MOUTH. *Gags*

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If there’s one saving grace in In A Gilded Cage, it’s the presence of Prin’s awesome parents. They don’t have a huge role in the book, but the few scenes they’re in are pretty great. What I appreciate about Prin’s mom and dad is that they’re fantastically supportive of Prin and very much in love with each other. Their lives aren’t easy – they got pregnant and married at 17, live in a trailer and work long hours as custodians – and yet they’re blissfully happy and still full of love for one another after so many years and hardships.

Still, my fondness for Prin’s parents isn’t nearly enough to redeem the rest of the book in my eyes. The serious issues with the supposed “romance,” as well as the amount of cringing I did while reading, make In A Gilded Cage an absolute “no” for me.

Review: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist Book Cover Flame in the Mist
Renee Ahdieh

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass.

The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track 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.

 

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!