YA Weekend Audio: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Flame in the Mist
Publisher: Listening Library (May 16, 2017)
Length: 10 hrs and 19 mins
Narrator: Nancy Wu
On the surface, Flame in the Mist seemed like it had everything I ever wanted: a delectable premise complete with complex world-building featuring a setting inspired by Feudal Japan, as well as solid protagonists including a crossdressing heroine at its center who has even been compared to Mulan, the warrior woman from Chinese legend. And indeed, I wanted badly to love this book, but on deeper reflection, I feel it may have missed the mark here.
Mariko is the daughter of a samurai, fated to be a bartered off in a political marriage while her twin brother Kenshin, already a renowned warrior in his own right, will be the one to take up their father’s mantle. At seventeen years old, she is arranged to be married to the Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort, and is packed off along with a full convoy to accompany her to the imperial city of Inako. On the way there, however, their wagon train is attacked by a group of bandits known as the Black Clan, and only by sheer luck does Mariko manage to escape the bloody massacre. With everyone thinking she is dead, for the first time in her life Mariko can finally take control of her own destiny. She learns that someone had hired the bandits to ambush and kill her before she can reach the palace, and now she’s determined to find out who.
Donning the disguise of a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan. But as she soon discovers, a life of banditry isn’t easy. The head of the gang, a wandering ronin named Takeda Ranmaru is a skilled fighter with a sharp mind who keeps a tight watch on his men, and his second-in-command is his best friend named Okami who is extremely loyal to his leader. Gradually though, Mariko gains their trust, allowing her a glimpse into the inner workings of the Black Clan as well as the dark history which led to the friendship between the two young men. Meanwhile, her brother Kenshin is also hot on Mariko’s trail, believing her to be still alive. In his persistence to track her down, he does not realize that his actions are threatening to expose Mariko and bring down everything she has planned.
To be clear, I did not think Flame in the Mist was a bad book. There were, however, a couple things that really bothered me. First was the character of Mariko, who was less than impressive, to say the least, considering how her much vaunted intelligence and cunning did not manifest. It actually pains me to see her character compared to Mulan, because Mulan was capable and did everything for the love of family, while Mariko was ineffective and was driven by her own pride and hubris. I think what nettled me the most was the fact we were constantly beaten over the head with how smart she was, or how she was always able to best her opponents because of her astounding talent for reading people and so on and so forth. This is exactly why authors should always try to show and not tell, not least because you want to avoid looking foolish when what you are telling is nowhere close to what is being shown. When I looked at Mariko, I saw a girl who wore all her emotions on her sleeve, who would turn into a tongue-tied idiot every time she was caught off guard (which happened a lot), and who couldn’t lie convincingly if her life depended on it. She would have been killed many times over if the leaders of the Black Clan had not inexplicably given her a pass for all her missteps and transgressions, and I simply could not be persuaded to believe Mariko could have made it as far as she did by means of her own limited judgement and insight.
Then there was the romance, which had all the poise and finesse of a reluctant skydiver being shoved out of plane. Too many YA reads are ruined for me these days because of poorly timed romantic developments, and you can add Flame in the Mist to that growing list. It felt too forced and rushed, not to mention the fact that Mariko’s choice of love interest also ended up projecting some major developments in the ending. If I could describe the romance here in one word, it would be: Hokey. The whole thing smacked of clichés, and sadly these hate-to-love stories have become so overdone and familiar in YA nowadays that if you’re not going to be adding anything new, I’m afraid I’m just not that interested.
Finally, while I was prepping for this review, I went back to look at my notes for The Wrath and the Dawn and couldn’t help but notice that a lot of my issues with the author’s writing have cropped up again in Flame in the Mist. I can’t really put my finger on it, but something about Renée Ahdieh’s writing still strikes me as trying too hard. For one thing, she seems overly fond of her flowery descriptions and overwrought metaphors, and while I was more forgiving of the purple prose in her debut, I guess I’m just a little less willing to overlook it now.
Despite my criticisms though, this book was a decent enough read, even with all its flaws. It is merely a disappointment because of its capitulation to convention and personally it’s a letdown whenever a protagonist fails to meet her full potential. But if you’re looking for a standard YA read to pass the time, Flame in the Mist is perfectly up to the task. I’ll put the sequel on my “might read” list for now, even though I’m pretty sure I know how things will play out.
Audiobook Comments: The audiobook didn’t work too well for me this time around, though it is through no fault of the narrator, Nancy Wu. She gave a great performance, and I enjoyed her narration here as much as I have enjoyed her narration in the past for other audiobooks like Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. As I believe I’ve mentioned before though, the audio format makes purple prose a lot more obvious, and the distraction kept me from fully enjoying the listen.