On the whole, Flame in the Mist was solid. I expected a well-researched setting, a sympathetic protagonist, and a nuance extending beyond most YA. I got all of it and more.
Some notable points:
Historical flair – I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority on Imperial Japan, but as a longtime lover of historical fiction, it becomes clear whether an author really cares about their setting or just romanticises an aspect of it without much idea of what it’s all about. Ahdieh falls solidly into the first category, as I knew from The Wrath & the Dawn. I’m again impressed with her integration of real locations and culture with a low fantasy premise.
Mariko – She was reasonably intelligent and I was pretty impressed by her bravery, especially near the start when she’d just gotten attacked and had to make her way through Jukai Forest alone. At the same time, she never screamed Manic Pixie Dream Girl and her “Hear Me Roar” vibes were limited to where appropriate, which was great because “true weakness is weakness of spirit.” I was scared for her on more than one occasion when she did something incredibly rash or audacious, but if she didn’t take all those risks the plot would never move forward, so I digress.
Pacing – The first half was…meh. Between the beginning and Hanami, the plot kind of dragged, the biggest conflict going on being Mariko’s frustration with Ren (who’s a bit of a dickhead) and her inner conflict over whether she hated Okami or wanted to get in his pants (this being a YA novel with romance on the blurb there wasn’t really much conflict at all). These scenes were interspersed with boring scenes of Kenshin looking for his sister, some of which could have been cut entirely. After Hanami though, shit gets real, and Ahdieh does a wonderful job of keeping the momentum going right up til the end. By the last few chapters I was racing through.
Ending(s) – I say this because there’s an actual ending for the main plot line, then there’s another chapter, literally called “An Ending,” which jumps to a character’s POV for the first time. I won’t spoil anything about the second ending but it very much has the vibe of a GRRM epilogue, even if the twist is obvious from the first lines of the scene. Genmei, though–I’d be lying if I said that I’m not looking forward to see what this conniving, spurned empress does next. Along with the shady Kanako, it looks like we’re about to have a war of the queens. Bring it on.
As for the major ending with the main characters, I can’t say I was surprised either. The part with Mariko “going back” has been done to death as a setup for the sequel, from TW&TD to A Court of Mist and Fury to Glass Sword. That said, it opens up a fair amount of possibilities for the next book, so I don’t mind too much. One of the things I appreciated most about the way Ahdieh wrapped up her novel was that it left, in my opinion, just the right amount of plot points hanging.
Overly serious tone – Others have mentioned qualms with Ahdieh’s prose, which uses a tonne of fragments in its quest to lend weight to every single moment. It’s as if FITM were written to be as quotable as possible; even moments that are trivial in the grand scheme of the story are written as if they were the climax. It gets rather excessive and overdramatic, and sometimes you just think “cool story, bro” when Mariko makes an overwrought declaration of her determination for the hundredth time. The constant fragments are a pet peeve of mine–if you really have to write like that, I prefer em dashes.
Secondary characters – Most of them didn’t quite click with me. I never quite felt the spark between Mariko and Okami, although their romance was realistic enough as two scarred people coming together to find love. Ranmaru (or should I say fake Ranmaru) left barely any impression on me for good or bad, and none of the Black Clan are fleshed out well enough for me to care about them one way or the other. It was the same way for most of the other secondary cast, maybe bar Kenshin. Kenshin was interesting as a young nobleman punching above his weight in many ways, in love with a peasant woman and torn between standing behind his father’s iron rule and his own desires.
The banter – None of it was cringeworthy, which is a great plus. Also a great plus was that Mariko dished back as good as she got and didn’t flinch in the most intimidating of situations. There are times for timid heroines, but for this story of war and scheming it’s nice to have a tough-as-nails heroine. That said, I didn’t find much chemistry in the exchanges between Mariko and Okami, as I suppose was the intended effect.
Verdict: At the end of the day, there was something “missing” to Flame in the Mist. It ticked all the boxes but didn’t have the depth that makes me fall in love with a book and want to reread it for missed details, the wow factor that makes me wish I could forget it to enjoy it for the first time again. Between The Wrath and the Dawn and this, I found the former more compelling as a whole.
Recommended to: Fans of historical fiction and suspense