Flame in the Mist
by Renée Ahdieh
Publication Date: May 16th 2017
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Find This Book: Flame in the Mist
**Something I need to get out of my system before I review**
It’s kinda upsetting that this is being called a Mulan retelling. I’m not sure if the author has addressed this or not, but this isn’t a Mulan retelling. ‘Girl dressing as a guy’ is such a trope in YA books but nobody calls those other books Mulan retellings... it feels like the only reason people are saying that is because a ‘girl dresses like a guy in east asia' while totally ignoring that fact that the plot is nothing like Mulan and also ignoring the cultural differences of China (folklore of Fa Mu Lan) and Japan (setting of Flame in the Mist). Ahdieh did such a fantastic job of recreating Feudal Japan and it just feels so disrespectful to blanket her work like others have been doing. Fa Mu Lan is a woman warrior of Chinese Legend/Folklore. She was known for practicing martial arts such as kung fu, for being skilled with the sword, and for mastering archery before joining the Chinese army to fight invading nomads. She fought in the army for 12 years and returned home after it was over- all without ever being discovered to be a woman. Even if you want to compare the better know Disney film “Mulan” to this novel, the similarities stop at “woman disguised as man” which, again, is a pretty common trope in Fantasy and YA to begin with. This novel is so entrenched in beautiful Japanese culture that it’s genuinely upsetting for it to be called a ‘Mulan retelling’ seemingly only because they are both from East Asian settings.
I don’t know why, but for some reason I thought this book was a standalone? So watching the pages dwindle down made me super anxious considering that there was still so much unanswered. Thank goodness there will be a second book! With hopefully a cover just as gorgeous as the first. Seriously- I adore this book cover!!!
I liked how blurred the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were for most of the book. It felt like the grey in-between was finally being acknowledged and that the protagonists and antagonists were that way because of circumstance and misunderstandings. A stand-off between the Black Clan and Mariko’s betrothed was honestly a bit of a let down because a clear ‘bad guy’ was defined. I liked the idea that each individual thought that what they were doing was best and that they all just happened to be on opposing sides and that was offset at the near end.
I also really really liked Mariko as a main character (though the POV occasionally switched). Frequently in YA Fantasy the female main character acts like an idiot and is downright annoying to read for me. Take Meg from the Iron Fey trilogy or Clary from the Mortal Instruments as examples. This was not the case for Flame in the Mist! Mariko isn’t perfect but she generally did smart things and made decisions that I think I would have made if put in a similar situation. She fought and lied to protect herself, she didn’t get boy-crazy, there was no “insta-love”, and she even kept her budding feelings in check for the most part. She was curious and asked the right questions and knew the right time to ask them. Additionally, she made use of her odd and inventive mind and had great discourse about the place of women in society. She even had a healthy amount of doubt for everyone. She never trusted anyone on blind faith- even her family- which was enjoyable to read.
The other characters were cool and mysterious, and rightly so considering Mariko was meeting them along with us. Did I get as much detail and background information as I would have liked? No. But I’m sure we’ll be given more information in the next book! The book had some awkward pacing a points, and a bit of romance but very lightly romantic. This book also has some complex and a bit confusing political dynamics underlying the obvious political dynamics, so I hope that gets fleshed out later. With assassinations, tea and good food, magic, and samurai warriors- this book pretty much has it all!
Furthermore, it was so fantastic to see a book including a Feudal Japan lifestyle, weaponry, and culture. Bushido (the way of the warrior), Samurai and Ronin, honorifics, politics, mythology, Shoguns and Daimyos- these were all things I learned about and came to appreciate and respect through academics and my own research. I haven’t read a single other YA book like this and it was so rewarding to read and just know that this book now exists. Diversity is so important, *looks up at paragraph above where I had to distinguish between China and Japan*, especially in children’s books. The glossary at the end defining Japanese words and ideas is a great learning tool for this book as well. Kids need to be able to see themselves, their cultures, their pasts, and learn about other cultures in literature in order to create understanding and acceptance at their age. As an East Asian minor, I hope to discover more novels like this because it was fantastic and so rewarding to experience all I had learned now outside of the academic setting. Honestly, this book was so hyped up and I think it lived up to the hype. Excited for the next book!!!