My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars
Length: 416 pages
Release date: 5 June 2018
After Okami is captured in the Jukai forest, Mariko has no choice—to rescue him, she must return to Inako and face the dangers that have been waiting for her in the Heian Castle. She tricks her brother, Kenshin, and betrothed, Raiden, into thinking she was being held by the Black Clan against her will, playing the part of the dutiful bride-to-be to infiltrate the emperor’s ranks and uncover the truth behind the betrayal that almost left her dead.
With the wedding plans already underway, Mariko pretends to be consumed with her upcoming nuptials, all the while using her royal standing to peel back the layers of lies and deception surrounding the imperial court. But each secret she unfurls gives way to the next, ensnaring Mariko and Okami in a political scheme that threatens their honor, their love and very the safety of the empire
“It did not matter that the sun refused to shine. Mariko was not beholden to its light.”
That extra quarter star is just because Smoke in the Sun was so bloody enjoyable to read. While Flame in the Mist waffles about uneventfully in overwrought prose for significant portions of the book, its sequel is a fast-paced, twisty ride worthy of Renée Ahdieh’s finest writing. Few second books can claim such noticeable improvement over their predecessors, and this one hits the jackpot.
In the Empire of Wa, Ahdieh crafts a chilling political climate where the threads of magic and power are inseparable. The fantasy elements that were only occasionally seen and felt so out of place in Flame in the Mist are brought to the forefront and developed if not explained, allowing the rich folklore that forms the series’s backbone to shine. As a result, whereas Flame in the Mist reads like tentative alternate historical fiction with bits of mythology, Smoke in the Sun reads much more like a bona fide high fantasy loosely inspired by feudal Japan. If Ahdieh’s success at telling this bold, original story built on magic is anything to go by, that’s a good thing.
More compelling still than the black magic and bargains with demons is how the book engages with morality and ethics within the context of its characters’ journeys. I suspect that exploration of morality has always been one of Ahdieh’s strong points; it must be, for her to have pulled off a book based on One Thousand and One Nights and made the wife-killing king a hero.
That affinity returns in full force in Smoke in the Sun, where there is a raging lunatic tyrant worthy of Caligula who arguably isn’t the narrative’s direct antagonist. That title, synonymous with the culprit behind the attempted assassination on Mariko that kicked everything off at the start of the first book, belongs to someone far subtler and with many more layers. That the heroes praise and look up to this person in varying measures, and never feel the sting of their betrayal, is a powerfully unconventional storytelling decision.
Mariko and Ōkami run into their fair share of moral quandaries scheme to escape Heian Castle, but nowhere is the grey morality as fascinating as in Minamoto Raiden, without a doubt the gem of the novel. I’d go as far as to suggest that while Flame in the Mist was Mariko’s story, Smoke in the Sun is really, beneath all its sleight of hand, about Raiden. Without divulging specifics, what a wonderful character arc.
The Black Clan is somewhat sidelined to focus on court intrigue, and honestly, that was probably the right choice. Raiden is more nuanced, conflicted and convincing than Tsuneoki, Ren or the rest of the outlaws whose names I can’t remember. Meanwhile, Mariko’s ingenuity sparks to life when she’s amongst her enemies–previously, the reader is told but rarely shown that she’s a brilliant alchemist, and she finally proves herself more than worthy of the praise. The interactions of Genmei, Kanako, Raiden and Roku make for a captivating portrayal of a gleefully cunning royal family, where blood means little and loyalty even less.
Renée Ahdieh’s writing style retains its trademark surreal elegance, made much more readable than in Flame in the Mist thanks to an appropriately weighty plot. The abstractness still makes events a little hard to follow at times. It feels especially implausible that Mariko, soon to be sister-in-law of the deified emperor, so easily sneaks through Heian Castle without being noticed. But these aren’t major issues in that they shouldn’t impede most readers’ enjoyment of the novel, and Smoke in the Sun remains a worthy finale to a fine duology.
*Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*
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