I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

Do you get all giddy at YA historical fantasy? Are you craving new diverse fiction? Did you dig Mulan? If you answered yes to all three of those questions, then Renée Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist is just for you.

At not-quite seventeen, Hattori Mariko suddenly finds herself engaged to the Emperor’s son after some political maneuvering by her father. When her marital caravan is attacked on her way to the palace and everyone slaughtered, Mariko barely escapes and flees into the woods. Everyone blames the band of brigands and rogues who operate under the moniker the Black Clan, and Mariko’s twin brother Kenshin, a seasoned warrior known as the Dragon of Kai, sets out to track her down. Realizing her only way to prove her worth while also protecting her reputation is to figure out who tried to kill her and why, she pretends to be a boy and joins the Black Clan. There Mariko’s innovative intellect thrives. So too does her heart.

Flame in the Mist is a very entertaining novel. It’s also a story you’ve heard before, even if the setting is creative and unique. There’s cryptic political intrigue, intriguing magic, and plenty of characters who aren’t what they seem. I definitely recommend it overall, despite some of the less successful elements. Speaking of which…

YA has a romance problem—as in there’s way too much of it, and it’s almost exclusively between straight people acting out one of three tropes: star-crossed lovers, enemies-to-lovers, or love triangles between two opposing boys and a torn girl. Flame in the Mist plays the enemies-to-lovers heterosexual romance without any attempt at subversion or satire. It’s one thing to have two characters who initially dislike each other eventually fall in love, but what makes it my least favorite trope is that the romance is nearly always inevitable and uneventful.

The two characters (usually straight) fall in love because there’s no one else romantically appropriate. Every character not the potential couple is either too old, too young, or otherwise unavailable. In Flame in the Mist, Mariko is straight, young, heteromantic, and in a plot where she’s about to be married off, so obviously she’s going to have the hots for a Black Clan boy. Process of elimination leads to a single candidate very early on, which means spending a large chunk of the book watching the two resist a predestined attraction. There’s no real reason for them to hate each other in the first place other than they’re on opposing sides, and no real reason for them to fall in love, other than because that’s the trope. I kept waiting for Ahdieh to twist the trope into something interesting, but the unexpected never arrives.

At least the romance is fiery. The attraction is fierce but not reckless. Both know exactly what they’re getting into and that the chances of a happy ending are slim to none. It’s also one of the few choices Mariko makes that is wholly her own and without regard to the wishes of her family or emperor. Even her choice to insinuate into the Black Clan in the first place is ultimately a choice made to salvage her family’s reputation and continue her engagement to the prince.

This gets at my biggest conundrum with Flame in the Mist. In an interview, Ahdieh insisted the book “has a very feminist vibe; I wanted Mariko to embrace what are traditionally feminine characteristics, which many see as weak because our idea of strength is shaped by the male gaze. I wanted her to find strength in her femininity.” Feminism is about equality for all people. It means acknowledging that the patriarchy hurts us all, not just women, and it means working with an intersectional perspective to redress inequity. Where Ahdieh sees Mariko finding strength in her femininity, I see “I’m not like those other girls.”

Mariko is your typical Strong Female Character. She eschews the traditional feminine trappings of feudal Japan for masculine ones, expresses her empowerment through no-strings sexual encounters and learning how to fight like a man, and is forced to make great personal sacrifices to save men. She’s also the only woman with substantial screen time. A few other women make brief appearances, but they’re either killed off or appear so infrequently that they’re stuck at being two-dimensional (a curse also inflicting even the non-Kenshin male characters, frankly). Given the penultimate scenes and epilogue, I suspect at least two of the other female characters will get some much needed expansion in the sequel.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Ahdieh here. I’d hazard a guess that Flame in the Mist’s version of feminism has more to do with Ahdieh blending historical restrictions and modern ideals. She can’t make Mariko’s opinions too contemporary without breaking the historical setting, but it still feels like she missed the mark a bit.

Mariko might not be the YA feminist hero of 2017, but she is pretty kick-ass. For a teenager, she has a sturdy head on her shoulders and a strong sense of what’s right. She’s smart enough to know when to challenge an unjust system and when to shut up. Despite her restrictive upbringing, she knows exactly what she wants even though she doesn’t always know how to get it. She’s too clever by half, but in an endearing, intelligent way. It’s too bad she hasn’t (yet?) met Genmei, the emperor’s vengeful wife, or Kanako, his scheming consort. Mariko could learn a lot from them about the subtle arts of manipulation and revenge.

The rest of the cast is fascinating and fun. The emperor’s two wives are conniving and cruel, but with good reason, and his sons, Roku and Raidan, are just what good villains should be. Yoshi has a real Baze Malbus vibe, Ranmaru is riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and fingers crossed we get to learn more about Ren’s troubled past. Ōkami is sure to be a fan favorite, what with his good looks, brooding bad boy sensibility, and sharp-edged charm. He’s the third most important character in the book and has the most direct interaction with Mariko, so we get to thoroughly explore his personality.

Kenshin was probably my favorite of the non-Mariko characters. Where Mariko learned early on to contemplate and analyze, Kenshin is all surface. Yet as he hunts for Mariko, he starts to question for the first time in his life the way of the world. Mariko has long accepted that the way things are and what she wants will often be two unrelated states; Kenshin is only encountering that now. Both siblings are placed by society into roles they might not necessarily choose for themselves and both are very good at playing those parts, but as Mariko learns to love Kenshin’s world of power and excitement, Kenshin is more reluctant to do anything about his deficits.

There isn’t much magic in Ahdieh’s historical fantasy. There are hints of alchemy and brief appearances of a smoke monster, but the magic is sprinkled on top rather than being integral to the plot. I’m still not sure how it works in this world or what the rules are for its use. So far the magic is more a deus ex machina rather than system-wide feature, but hopefully the finale will get more explicit.

Thing is, everything I grumbled about above is nearly invisible during the actual reading experience. Ahdieh is so good at telling a story that I didn’t really notice any of the thematic weaknesses (or weren’t bothered enough to get thrown out of the story) until after I’d finished. It’s not until you’ve had time to sit with it that the seams start to show. I loved spending time in this world and watching Kenshin and Mariko evolve emotionally. Flame in the Mist is the kind of book you think you can read in quick bursts but that ends up sucking you in for hours at a time. The need to find out what happens next to Mariko and Kenshin was overwhelming.

Setting aside my issues with the thematic elements, the story is rife with heart-pounding action, immersive settings, and aching romance. Ahdieh is an eloquent writer of provocative, layered dialogue and descriptions. Moments of violence or frantic action are broken up in staccato-like paragraphs, a trick I think works well at heightening anticipation. Flame in the Mist is chockablock with details that build out into a vast, intricate world. Sometimes Ahdieh spends a little too much time on description or exposition, but it’s all so interesting in and of itself (Gorgeous clothes! Beautiful gardens! Swoon-worthy boys! Traditional tea ceremonies!) that I didn’t really mind. There’s a real sense of history and culture in her fictional historical Japan, and you know right from the beginning where every character fits into that world, both in the sense of where society has put them and where they’d rather be.

From the moment I heard about Ahdieh’s new duology set in a magical feudal Japan, I knew I had to review it. Her Wrath and the Dawn series has been on my To Read pile for ages now, and not for lack of trying. Although Flame in the Mist didn’t quite live up to my admittedly high expectations, consider me a Renée Ahdieh fan forever and always.

Flame in the Mist is available from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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