Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: The Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Goodreads synopsis:
The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she's quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she's ever known.

Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn duology was one of the fantasy debuts that I most enjoyed in the last two years. She has a deft touch with words and is great at creating the atmosphere of each world. She’s definitely a fantasy author to look out for over the next few years. There are definite parallels to Mulan in The Flame and the Mist, but very loosely. The Flame in the Mist is set in feudal Japan, as opposed to feudal China, but an obvious parallel is lead character, Hattori Mariko, adopting the guise of a boy in order to infiltrate the mysterious Black Clan. By doing this, she seizes control of her own future for the first time in a life that had thus far been sheltered and her destiny (marriage) decided for her.  

The pivotal moment, after she has apparently been attacked by the Black Clan and is threatened by a stranger, comes with this line:

‘I will not be bandied about by men any longer. I am not a prize to be bought or sold.’

With that, and the actions she follows it with, she reclaims her agency and sets the events of the story in motion. Ahdieh’s novel explores gender roles, and class, in feudal Japan (with definite relevance to the modern day too) and Mariko comes to stand out to the reader as a feminist mouthpiece within the culture of the book. When it seems sudden and forced, it is because there is not so much insight into her internal life (and can come across as being ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ – this also goes for a few of Mariko’s other traits, such as her ingenuity) before the pivotal moment of her seizing control, but it becomes an invaluable part of who she is and will definitely be of value to readers, especially teen girls and boys who are reading fantasy for the first time.

The feudal setting of Japan is rich and detailed and was a joy to read about. It is a slow-burner and definitely a world that you grow into, but it’s very much worth it and is rich, vibrant and elaborate. My main reading experience of Japan has come through Haruki Murakami – which is obviously very different – so this was a new experience for me and Ahdieh drew me in masterfully. There’s definitely still a lot to be revealed about the characters’ pasts so I’m looking forward to that. Nothing about the book was predictable so I was genuinely riveted and eager to unravel the mysteries while reading. I am not a big fan of the romance angle that seems obligatory in YA fantasy, but the romance in The Flame in the Mist is very much secondary, a slow-burn and the element of disguise and mystery between the characters is very compelling. They are certainly interesting characters in their own right, with their own paths to follow – and very much equals, though I felt the male character did suffer from the brooding anti-hero trope.

The magical/fantastical elements are used sparingly in this book, and a little vaguely, but perhaps they will have a bigger role to play in the sequel. Mariko’s brother, Kenshin, also has some POV chapters and this provides a good foil – though we don’t get so much insight into his internal life. It will be interesting to learn more about Mariko’s family and their goals, and whether they’re all as honourable as she believes. I want to keep reading already. 

I would recommend this to anyone even loosely intrigued by the premise. I think there’s much more to come from Ahdieh and I will certainly read on with interest. I really admire how she’s willing to dive into a variety of cultures and create such rich stories with many layers of mystery and intrigue that need time to be unpacked fully. 


  • “We are so much more than what we do!” Mariko drew closer, as if nearness could invoke a sense of truth. “We are …” she searched her mind for the right things to say. “Our thoughts, our memories, our beliefs!” her eyes dropped to the dying boy. To the evil tree, slowly draining him of life. “This tree is not the forest,” she said softly. “It is but one part.”
  • I don’t want you to be a hero. And I don’t need anyone to save me.’
  • 'Mariko nudged the handle of her spoon with a bound fingertip. “Are you ever angry you were born a woman?” Yumi sat back on her heels and studied Mariko for a spell. “I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.’
  • 'Mariko supposed it was possible all women and men were forced to wear their own kind of masks’

*Thank you to Hodder and NetGalley for a chance to read an eARC of the book.

Monday, May 1, 2017

'Find out what you might become' - Review: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

Goodreads synopsis: 

Noemi is a young and fearless soldier of Genesis, a colony planet of a dying Earth. But the citizens of Genesis are rising up - they know that Earth's settlers will only destroy this planet the way they destroyed their own. And so a terrible war has begun.

When Noemi meets Abel, one of Earth's robotic mech warriors, she realizes that Abel himself may provide the key to Genesis' salvation. Abel is bound by his programming to obey her - even though her plan could result in his destruction. But Abel is no ordinary mech. He's a unique prototype, one with greater intelligence, skill and strength than any other. More than that, he has begun to develop emotions, a personality and even dreams. Noemi begins to realise that if Abel is less than human, he is more than a machine. If she destroys him, is it murder? And can a cold-blooded murder be redeemed by the protection of a world?

Stranded together in space, they go on a whirlwind adventure through Earth's various colony worlds, alongside the countless Vagabonds who have given up planetary life altogether and sail forever between the stars. Each step brings them closer - both to each other and to the terrible decision Noemi will have to make about her world's fate, and Abel's.

I hadn’t read any of Claudia Gray’s books before this year, though I’d heard them recommended. I actually read Bloodline, my first Star Wars novel, back in January and really enjoyed it. I was still mourning Carrie Fisher and it was such a deft and impressive insight into Leia as a Senator and politician. It captured her spirit perfectly and cemented Claudia Gray as someone to look out for.

So when I heard about Defy the Stars, I thought I’d see what it was like.

It could have fallen into many a cliché if it had gone down the full-blown romance route, but it’s actually a deftly-handled look into the complications of a sentient AI and the romance angles are limited and I think you're meant to feel conflicted about them - I suppose for reasons that were also portrayed in the brilliant Westworld series this year. 

Noemi and Abel are both strong characters on their own and are both relating to their circumstances in very different ways. Noemi is a soldier for her planet, Genesis, which is resisting an invasion by Earth and Abel is a lost mech, the most advanced android in the galaxy, stranded in the middle of nowhere – lost to his master/father figure.

Mechs are designed to be disposable, to risk their lives where humans cannot, while Naomi has to come to terms with her role as a Genesis soldier – also expendable for the ‘greater good’ and the consequences that has for her faith. The story is really about them both finding their individual sense of purpose and liberation and learning how to make their own choices. I believe it’s going to be a duology and that the worlds will be fleshed out and it’s certainly left perfectly poised.

‘Conflicts are the price of sentience […] assert your own will. It’s the first step toward being something more than a machine. Find out what you might become.’

I definitely think the U.S. cover is stronger and more accurate to the book. The U.K. one is quite misleading and looks a little like a space-erotica. Which this book is not – at all. It does it a disservice. The book is very action heavy but the strongest moments are Abel’s moments of introspection and his relationship with his creator – Burton Mansfield – Earth’s leading scientist and the designer of androids for the purposes of war. The truth about Burton is something that the reader suspects naturally (recognising those self-seeking human qualities) but there is no reason why Abel should, so it is still emotionally compelling to see him discover the truth for himself and to have his innocence shattered. So much of his character is built around his loyalty to and what certainly seems to be affection for his creator, who he really sees as his father. It is all he has ever known to want – to be reunited with Burton. But his programming has been evolving while he has been stranded, and the narrative becomes him learning that there are other things to want.

‘Burton Mansfield’s greatest sin was creating a soul and imprisoning it in a machine’

Noemi, on the other hand, is intensely passionate, committed to her faith, though also questioning it, racked with guilt over the death of her friend, and determined to save her world, no matter the cost. These two personalities clash but also inform each other and come to teach the other the qualities that it is lacking. It’s very carefully portrayed and built up throughout.

There is definitely room for the narrative to go deeper (perhaps exploring the morality around human and AI nature and interaction even further, as Westworld did) and the political situation to be explored, and hopefully these are things that will be addressed in the sequel. It was a fast-paced and engaging read, even though it didn’t break any new ground in the genre, it certainly avoided its trappings and never fell into over-sentimentality. I’m interested to see where these two characters go and hopefully it only gets more complex. 

Thank you to Hot Key Books and NetGalley for a chance to read an eARC of the book.