I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews for Renee Ahdieh’s newest book Flame in The Mist. It’s been described as a kind of retelling of Mulan, and the feudal Japan setting instantly captivated me. I am absolutely in freaking love love love love with Rumiko Takahashi’s anime and manga InuYasha and have been for a decade now. Beyond that for many many many years I’ve also been an fangirl and totally bananas for the video game Okami which features brush art and a compelling storyline full of mythology, fantasy and horror, as well as the Asian-centric tv show Avatar The Last Airbender which was inspired by ancient China, Korea, and Tibet among other nations.
I’ll tell it to you straight: Renee’s book is none of the above and to be totally honest I really was not impressed with what I did read. And boy oh boy did I read far.
The writing is descriptive but descriptive to a fault, it’s so embellished and that it soon starts to feel forced and excessive. Renee may have been going for deep and poetic, but instead the prose is dragged down by the wordiness and I’m continually pulled out of the fantasy world of the novel.
To give you an idea for this, she spends two whole pages describing how the one-legged cook, Yoshi, a gruff papa-bear type character, boils eggs for Mariko to eat. Yup. In this case, less would really be more. I get the impression that Renee doesn’t trust us to imagine some of these scenes and scenarios for ourselves, so she shovels lump after lump after lump of dense details on us. If they were rocks and I the reader were an unwilling hiker, I’d be crushed to death by them. That’s how extreme it is. Gah.
Another issue I had with Flame in The Mist is that it relies on “telling”. I know, I know, that totally contradicts the excessive details complaint I lodged above, but it’s t-r-u-e, true. There’s so so so so much telling in terms of Mariko’s personality. I never got to know Mariko’s character by her actions. And her dialogue was dull as bricks on the page. It never felt like real words coming out of the mouth of a real girl. The whole thing felt rather scripted. Almost at times like I was reading a screenplay giving stage directions even.
We’re told time and time again that Mariko is brainy and outspoken and a girl ahead of her time. The feature that mostly shows through is her anger and her hatred– something that reminded me far too much of A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith, another feudal Japan disappointment with a horrible protagonist. Yes, Mariko doesn’t take crap from anyone but it feels so generic. As in her rage makes her a Strong Female Character and to that, I cry bullsh*t. Her revenge schtick and furious feelings just make her sound wound up, that doesn’t empower her as a woman.
One of Mariko’s defining traits is that she’s so judgemental. Not just to the dudes, but towards the other females in the book by means of her childhood flashbacks and her thoughts. Female friendships are firmly rooted in my heart, I couldn’t imagine not having my girls in my life. Soooo continuing to see time and time again the absence of that friendship on the page, or the alternative girl vs girl stereotypical clashing is tiring and disappointing. Mariko is also ahead of her time, yes, but the way Renee writes her in, it makes her sound like she doesn’t even remotely fit into the world. She’s far too modern sounding compared to the rest of the characters and that really irked me. I get trying to appeal to girls today in 2017, but a little more historical accuracy would’ve been a blessing, Renee. Sorry girl, but Mariko just DIDN’T do it for me. I wanted to wallop her in the face. And considering that I’m not a physically aggressive person, that’s really saying something.
Many of the other characters were problematic as well. Mariko’s twin brother and the alternating point of view of Flame in the Mist , Kenshin (ha yup, like Rurouni Kenshin) is the dutiful, prized son, with fighting prowess and a devotion to his family. In a word he’s bland. In another word, he’s cardboard. There’s no essence of any kind of energy or spirit about him. What a downer.
The letdowns continue with how each of the male characters in The Black Clan are depicted. They’re all detestable. The group that Mariko tries to ingratiate herself into primarily consists of young men. Said young men: Ranmaru, Okami and Ren are all dicks, and they’re all so similar to each other it’s like all the same person. *sigh* It gets really old hearing about how mean and rotten they are bullying Mariko. And reading about how they spend their time pelting her with rocks, sabotaging her tent, dissing her and what have you. I get it, they’re awful. Yet sure enough she’ll fall in love with one of them – my money is on Okami, who they also occasionally call Wolf because uhhh that’s what the word translates to in English– at least there was no Insta-Romance, but all the same, there’s also not any authenticity or chemistry to Mariko and Okami. I’m sure that won’t stop young adult reading fangirls from SWOOOOONING over him though. 🙄
Flame in the Mist is classified as some fantastical adventure. Yet the fantasy aspect of the book, supposedly it’s most defining element and genre, is only there if you squint. There’s a whisper of the supernatural, of the world of demons and spirits, but it’s not as front and centre as it is in books like Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and Serpentine which are far more magical and full of elaborate world-building, fierce female friendships, and characters that are well-crafted and dimensional. They blend mythology with original storytelling and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Yes they take place in Ancient China instead, but the prose is elegant and captivating, full of all kinds of sensory details, and the relationships the female heroines have with their respective male leads are egalitarian and balanced, much like those of in Studio Ghibli films like Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. I envisioned those books as I went into reading Flame in the Mist and gosh oh gosh, was that a HARD let down.
I made the mistake of forcing myself to read through A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith and although it was less than 300 pages it felt like TWICE that length. Just read my review about in here on this blog. So is it any wonder that I gave up the ghost on Flame in The Mist which was almost double the pages of Darkly? To that I said, NOPE.
I stopped at pg 228, and as a whole, this book was a dead end for me. I had zero incentive to find out WHY the Black Clan decimated Mariko’s traveling party while she was enroute to her fiance in the capital or who was behind the other attacks that went down in the opening pages. Flame in The Mist did not pass go, it did not collect $200. Straight to jail it goes. And my library RETURN bin. Like so many calligraphy tattoos read, I have no regrets about not finishing this book. I’d rather fire up Mulan on DVD, rewatch InuYasha or re-read Cindy Pon’s books to get my fill of a mythical Asian world loaded with out of this world amazing female characters, heart-soaring instrumental scores, and triumphant successes.