Thursday, August 10, 2017

Flame In the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

"Words are foolish. Promises are useless. Anyone can say anything to get what it is they desire. Believe in actions and actions alone."

Seventeen-year-old Mariko is on her way to the imperial city of Inako. She is travelling to Heian Castle to meet the emperor and his second son, Raiden, her future husband.Mariko is being traded like property to "elevate her father's standing amongst the ruling daimyo class." Mariko has been raised for one purpose - the marry an important man.

As her convoy approaches the Jukai forest, it stops and Mariko is told by Nobutada, her father's most trusted samurai, that the soldiers are reluctant to travel through the forest. Nobutada, not wishing to anger the emperor, decides they will pass through the forest despite the worry that the Black Clan has been seen nearby recently.

However Mariko's convoy is attacked and all the samurai are massacred. Trapped in her litter, her dead maidservant Chiyo on top of her, Mariko overhears the members of the Black Clan arguing about whether she is dead or not. To ensure her death, the Black Clan set fire to the wreckage of the litter. Terrified, Mariko decides to face the enemy and escape from the burning litter. But the Black Clan flee in the face of an attack by the wild beasts of the forest unaware that Mariko has survived.  Mariko escapes being burned alive only to find herself captive of a dirty man who plans to take her to them. However Mariko outwits the man and kills him in self-defense. She steals his filthy clothing, shears off her hair so she can pass herself off as a boy.

Mariko wants to know who wants her dead and why. She also worries her reputation will be sullied if it is discovered she has been lost in the forest with murderers and thieves. After five days of creeping through the forest, Mariko learns the location of the favourite watering hole of the Black Clan. But her encounter with them goes a much different way than expected. When the Black Clan arrives, they are confronted by a giant who agrees to fight the clan's best fighter. Mariko learns that their leader is Takeda Ranmaru, who she remembers is the son of a dishonoured samurai. The clan's best fighter is a tall, lean boy with a scar across his mouth whose name is Okami. When the giant and his men cheat, Mariko warns the Black Clan, saving their leader. After the fight Mariko is taken captive by the clan and taken to their camp deep in the forest. The members of the Black Clan do not know her identity or that she is a seventeen year old girl. But Mariko is determined to learn as much about them as possible and why they wanted to kill her. Then she plans to exact her revenge.

Meanwhile Mariko's brother, Kenshin, known as the Dragon of Kai, leads a group of samurai in the hunt for his sister. They come upon the burned norimono and the bodies of fifteen samurai in the forest. But Kenshin's keen eyes discover that his sister survived the attack and fled into the forest. He also discovers that she killed a man and is now passing herself off as a boy. With this knowledge he returns home and decides to journey to the imperial city of Inako to discover what the emperor's family knows about Mariko's disappearance. But Kenshin, the famed Dragon of Kai makes an astonishing discovery that changes everything.

In the city of Inako, His Imperial Majesty Minamoto Masaru, sovereign of the Empire of Wa, walks through the gardens reminiscing on his childhood friends whom he had to execute in order to consolidate his reign. The death of two friends, Asano Naganori who loved justice and Takeda Shingen who favoured honor weigh on his mind.  His second son, the crown prince of Wa, Minamoto Roku will rule after him; his first son Raiden will not. His mistress, Kanako, the mother of Raiden arrives to tell Masaru that Hattori Mariko, daughter of Hattori Kano is two days overdue and there are rumours that her convoy was ambushed in the Jukai forest. She does not believe the girl has survived the attack.

As Mariko spends time with Black Clan she learns about herself and discovers all is not as it seems in her world. Little does she know that she will be forced to decide what she believes and where her loyalties lie.

Discussion

Flame in the Mist is an engaging historical adventure/fantasy set in feudal Japan which takes its inspiration from the Chinese folktale of Mulan, a famous woman warrior. The story weaves together two main threads and a lesser thread; Mariko with the Black Clan, Kenshin the Dragon of Kai in his search for his sister and events that occur in the Imperial Palace in Inako.

In Flame in the Mist, Hattori Mariko ends up in the Jukai forest with the Black Clan whom she believes has attempted to murder her. Her time with the Black Clan reveals that all is not as it seems and that Mariko's view of the world is naive. Flame in the Mist traces Mariko's evolution in her understanding of the world in which she lives.

When Mariko is first in the camp of the Black Clan she is determined "to know why the Black Clan had taken her to their camp. Who they were exactly. But most of all, she needed to discover why they'd been sent to kill her. And by whom." To accomplish this, Mariko decides to stop being difficult, to follow orders and to earn their trust. Once she has their trust she plans to exact her revenge. But this creates a conflict for Mariko who feels deceit is dishonorable. She wants to follow the way of bushido - code of samurai warriors. "A true warrior would face her enemies without flinching. Not slither about in the shade."

However as she spends time in the Black Clan camp, Mariko learns about the tragedy that has touched Ranmaru and Okami; that both were sons of honorable samurai who were betrayed by the emperor and then murdered to consolidate his reign. A series of experiences force Mariko's to face what is really happening in the world around her. The first of these occurs in the tea house in Hanami, where the maiko, an apprentice geiko, forces Mariko to consider how fortunate her situation has been.

The second event that really changes Mariko's thinking is the attack on her father's estate. After witnessing Okami give money to an elderly woman in Inako for poor children, Mariko suspects that the Black Clan take money from the wealthy to give to the poor. This is confirmed when the Black Clan decide to attack Mariko's family estate in retaliation for her brother's actions.

Just before the attack on Hattori Kano's granary, as Mariko and the Black Clan are riding through the fields, Mariko begins to really look at the people at work. She realizes she has no memories of the workers ever smiling in her father's fields. She watches a family share a meal even though there is not enough food for everyone. Mariko realizes she has seen only what she wants to see, despite priding herself "on being the girl who saw things no one else saw. Who noticed the world not as it was, but as it should be." Mariko remembers the smiles of her father's workers as "wan" and "aged" and that her father saw them as being ungrateful. She understands the Black Clan want to redistribute her family's wealth "back into the hands of those who worked the fields. Tilled the soil. Reaped the harvest." This new understanding creates immense conflict within Mariko; she loves Okami and the ideals of the Black Clan appeal to her, but the Black Clan is attacking the very people she loves - her family.

By the time she sets out to find the Black Clan to warn them of Kenshin's impending attack Mariko has no doubts about her life. "Mariko had lived a life of wealth and privilege. A life spent blissfully unaware of the suffering around her. A life she herself had never fully appreciated. Her mother did not give without expecting something in return. Her father only ever took." Even Kenshin was without honor - he had massacred an old man and his grandchildren in the forest and tortured Ren. She realizes "how small her world had been. What it meant to be truly challenged."

Renee Ahdieh has crafted another strong female character in Mariko. Determined to learn who tried to murder her, Mariko finds she must confront her fears of being discovered to be a girl, of the jubokko tree and of the Black Clan.She must also confront the reality of her family's injustice towards the poor and the workers and that her father is concerned more with power.

Author Renee Ahdieh wanted the character Mariko to embrace her femininity, to see it as a source of strength.This comes out near the end of the novel when Mariko is recovering from the raid at the tea house. Okami's sister, Yumi questions Mariko as to whether she has ever fought back. When Mariko denies ever having fought back, Yumi calls her out: "Because, Hattori Mariko, you are not one to conform to any man's expectations. Is that not --in a way-- a manner of fighting back?" Yumi encourages her to embrace her power as a woman in their world. "There is such strength in being a woman. But it is strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try." At great risk Mariko travel to the Jukai forest to warn the Black Clan about her brother's impending attack. Later on she gives herself up in the hopes of saving Takeda Ranmaru and when he is taken captive she again sacrifices herself by asking to be taken to the imperial palace rather than home with her brother.

Flame in the Mist explores many other themes including those of friendship, revenge, forgiveness and the meaning of honor. Like her other duology, The Wrath and the Dawn, Ahdieh incorporates the enemies-to-lovers trope and it works reasonably well as the tension between Okami and Mariko is maintained well into the novel. Ironically neither character knows the true identity of the other. And although when they first meet their values are much different, by the end of the novel, Mariko, her eyes open to the reality of life, begins to share the ideals that Okami holds. Ahdieh also sets the stage for the next novel which will likely be set at least partly in the Imperial palace at Inako. There is a subplot involving intrigue at the palace as the Empress Genmei and the Imperial consort Kanako appear to be working against one another.

Flame in the Mist is another excellent piece of fiction by Renee Ahdieh and is highly recommended. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of both fantasy and romance will be aptly rewarded.


**spoiler alert**

This is a summary of the backstory for the second novel that is due out next year.

The end of the novel ties together many lose ends but leaves new questions. Takeda Shingen, Asano Naganori and the Emperor grew up together as boys. Takeda Shingen valued honor, Asano Naganori valued justice and the boy who was to be emperor valued ambition. Takeda Shingen who was the last shogun, was executed for treason by his friend Asano Naganori. The novel begins ten years in the past when Shingen's son, Takeda Ranmaru witnesses the death of his father by seppuku. Mariko was the little girl who saw the distraught Takeda Ranmaru after his father's execution. Realizing his mistake, Asano tried to enact justice but himself was executed by being hung upside down in Yedo Bay.  The story is now set ten years later when Mariko is being sent to the Imperial palace to marry the son of the Emperor. The Black Clan is made up of its leader Takeda Ranmaru and Okami who Mariko comes to believe is Asano Tsuneoki. However Takeda Ranmaru and Asano Tsuneoki have switched places. In fact, Okami whom she loves is actually Takeda Ranmaru. Asano Tsuneoki switched places to save Takeda Ranmaru's life as a way to pay off the debt of his father murdering Ranmaru's father years ago. This is revealed when the false Takeda Ranmaur has no idea of the weapon, the Furinkazan which is a special sword, Raiden offers him.
Mariko offers herself up in exchange for the freedom of the Black Clan, but Takeda Ranmaru also insists on being taken. Mariko insists on being taken to Inako to begin her life in the Imperial court. The novel ends with Her Imperial Majesty Yamoto Genmei, Empress of Wa murdering the Emperor by poisoning him and drowning him in a pond.
Also Amaya, the woman who loves Kenshin is alive and is in the care of Kanako, the emperor's consort and the mother of Raiden who was betrothed to Mariko. Kanako sends her Raiden to find Hattori Kenshin.


Book Details:

Flame In The Mist by Renee Ahdieh
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons     2017
392 pp.

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