A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Flame in the Mist is the first in a historical fantasy duology from best-selling The Wrath & the Dawn author Renée Ahdieh. Set in feudal Japan, it's a twist on the Mulan tale (popularized by the Disney movie). But Mariko's reasons for passing herself off as male are as much about uncovering the truth and self-protection as they are about helping her family. The story contains a good bit of samurai sword and knife violence (as well as an unforgettable act of ritual suicide) and peril that kills/injures supporting characters. As in Mulan, there's a romance that blossoms from a banter-filled friendship. The romance is slow-building, given the circumstances, but once Mariko's truth is revealed, it's rather fast and furious (neither character is a "maid," and there is one love scene). Readers ready to immerse themselves in the story will learn a great deal about ancient Japan, the samurai system, and the rules of living under the emperor.
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What's the story?
FLAME IN THE MIST is the first in a duology by historical fantasy specialist Renee Ahdeih, who once again uses a folktale as her inspiration for a story set in a different culture. In the same way that Wrath and the Dawn is a take on the Shahrazad story, Flame in the Mist is a twist on the Mulan tale but set in feudal Japan instead of China (as fans of the Disney retelling will notice). On her way to meet her betrothed, the convoy of the emperor's "second" son (by his beloved consort), wealthy protagonist Hattori Mariko, is brutally attacked, making everyone believe she's dead. The sole survivor and intended target of the assassination attempt, Mariko realizes she must disguise herself as a young man, Sanada Takeo, to evade her would-be killers. But Mariko also plans to ingratiate herself with the Black Clan, the rogue group of mostly young ronin (masterless samurai rebels) she believes are responsible for her "death." As Takeo, Mariko becomes the Black Clan's newest recruit, learning from its young and handsome leader Ranmaru and fierce, mysterious warrior Okami aka "The Wolf." Meanwhile, Mariko's twin brother, legendary warrior Kenshin, is certain his sister isn't dead and seeks the help of the emperor's two sons to find her.
Is it any good?
Renée Ahdieh once again serves up a lush, page-turning historical fantasy led by a fierce female protagonist who's on a mysterious, life-changing journey that teaches her about the world and herself. Mariko, like Shahrazad in The Wrath & the Dawn, believes she's on a particular quest for the truth -- and to defend her family -- but she ends up discovering there's so much more to the story than she initially thought. Mariko is strong-willed, curious, opinionated, and liberated far beyond what's expected of an upper-class girl engaged to royalty. But she's also sheltered and unaware of just how oppressive the emperor's reign is for the poor villagers who do everything for their lords. It's a pleasure to see her slowly question what she's held true -- particularly about the Black Clan and their intentions.
Although not as overtly romantic at first, the love story in Flame in the Mist becomes quite fiery in the last act. The suitor is easily identifiable early on, but readers have to get through dozens of chapters of him verbally sparring with "Lord Lackbeard" (what the Black Clan members call clean-shaven, small "Takeo") for sparks to finally fly. At one point, before Mariko is revealed to be a young woman, her love interest even confides in his best friend that Takeo makes him "question everything about himself." Told in alternating perspectives, the book focuses primarily on Mariko, Okami, and Kenshin. Fantasy fans should note that those elements are limited to some shape-shifting and supernatural gifts that characters possess. Most of the story is rooted in an alternate but realistic version of the times of the samurai. Readers who love rich, descriptive language, historical details, and feminist heroines will find themselves immersed in this Mulan-meets-Princess Bride title.
Talk to your kids about ...
What do you think about the violence in the book? Does realistic violence affect you differently from fantasy violence?
How does this book address themes of historical sexism and caste discrimination? Do you consider Mariko a feminist heroine? Why?
What do you think and/or hope will happen in the second and final Flame in the Mist book?
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