Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Flame in the Mist

Mariko, 17 year old daughter to an esteemed samurai and a favored family, has no illusions that she is to marry the emperor's son to benefit her family and their position. Her convoy is attacked by a gang of thieves called the Black Clan leaving her the only survivor. After killing an assailant and stealing his clothing, Mariko chops off her hair and disguises herself as a boy  to investigate the Black Clan gang. She gets closer than expected when they kidnap her and recruit her into the bottom rung of their ranks with the abusive treatment and gruelling work to prove her loyalty. She takes to her new life, makes friends, and even falls in love, but it's all getting in the way of her one true goal: revenge.

Conceptually, a retelling of Mulan sounds like a great idea. However, the characters, the worldbuilding, and the writing are so uneven and inconsistent that it fell apart for me. So much about Mariko doesn't make sense to me. She feels like her potential is squandered as a woman only meant for the feminine arts, marriage, and raising children, which makes sense. However, she has disdain for her entire gender and sees herself as above it. I hate the "not like other girls" trope because it's meant to make the main character seem so special and also put down other girls and stereotypically feminine things. It's annoying, overdone, and a lazy way to make the character stand out. Mariko suddenly adapts to living as a homeless person and as a Black Clan trainee. I find it hard to believe that someone pampered their whole life wouldn't complain a little bit or not know what to do in that situation. She's also the inventor of the smoke bomb and the shuriken, which plays into her being super special. The smoke bomb is used in battle without even being tested first, putting herself and her crew at risk. Her skill with the shuriken is suddenly perfect with no training or practice at all. I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough for a lot of her behaviors and accomplishments.

Mariko contradicts herself constantly. She's inept at so many things, but delusional about it. She claims to hate "feminine" emotions (as if boys aren't emotional), but her emotions control her actions most of the time. Whenever she feels self concious or judged by her appearance, she dismisses it as being weak and feminine. She puts on a calculated act that would work if every one of her later actions didn't contradict it, usually accompanied by explosive emotion of some kind. She pats herself on the back for "infiltrating" the Black Clan base when she tried to escape numerous times and only stayed because she was drugged. In her head, she strives to be samurai-like and virtuous, but she turns around and constantly lies and steals without recognizing how counter to her views it is. So many of her stupid decisions should have left her maimed or dead due to her lack of planning, emotional instead of intellectual motivation, or the need to prove herself. Mariko is definitely flawed, but she's also not likeable and not someone I would want to root for.

The world is set in rural Japan. For most of the book, I thought it was more of a historical retelling outside of fantasy, but there are a few instances of magic. The magic system is  never explained at all. I thought maybe she was mistaken or describing things weirdly, but the one character who uses magic seems woefully out of place in this otherwise historical setting. The Black Clan members open up to Mariko way too soon and don't guard against her despite being a successful and skilled gang that would know she might turn on them if given the opportunity. The writing is a bit clunky and tells a lot rather than shows, as evidenced by Mariko's behavior. She says and thinks so many things that are shown to be contradictory to what actually happens. The one part of the book I liked was how the two love interests resent their romantic feelings and try to work against them. Other than that, A Flame in the Mist was a chore to get through with the numerous problems I had with Mariko and her internalized misogyny plus the leaps of logic in the rest of the story. I won't read any more of this series, but I bought her previous series that I hope doesn't suffer from these same problems.

My rating: 1.5/5 fishmuffins

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