Book Review: Flame in the Mist

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: I loved Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, so I was really excited to read Flame in the Mist. From the summary it looked like it would hit all the beats that I love about fantasy – smart heroine, dashing fight scenes, a bit of magic, and a plot where nothing is as it seems. Flame in the Mist does hit all those beats, but for some odd reason it took me a while to get into the story. I initially wasn’t feeling Mariko; I can’t truly figure out why it took me so long to warm up to her. Markio is an extremely intelligent young woman who is quite observant (a quality that I love in a character) and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is inquisitive, always asking questions which was a wonderful device Ahdieh used to get background information across. She’s decisive and is full of agency in this novel. When she learns that her parents had arranged her marriage, she rebelled in the most unique way – not that her parents know it, but Mariko feels like she has taken some control over her life with that one act. When the kiss comes between her and the mysterious Wolf, she is the one who initiates it. Clearly, as I describe her Mariko is a great character, but for some odd reason it took me a while to make a connection with her. I think it is because while Mariko is main character and we are in her head a good portion of the book, we are also in the heads of other characters fairly early in the book as it sets up the mystery. To me, it brought a sense of distance from Mariko that I didn’t fully connect with her until the plot became fully focused on her time with the Black Clan. I also feel like the pace of the novel changed from that point on as well and I was really able to dive into who the Black Clan truly were and what they stood for, as Mariko became comfortable with her abilities and becoming a member of the group.

On the other hand, Ahdieh did her due diligence in her research on feudal Japan. Granted, I am not an expert, but the world that Ahdieh created felt very real and believable, with the exception of the inclusion of magic, as if the events in the story could really have happen in history. The detail to which she describes the various locations bring to life Mariko’s world and all who inhabit it. Ahdieh weaves folklore into the story, such as the terrifying Jubokko tree that feeds off of human blood, as part of the every day world. Feudal life is accurately depicted as well as the tension between nobility and commoner when a call for change begins. Mariko is from the noble class and very quickly learns what life is like for those who are not. This is never more apparent than when Mariko and the Wolf have to run from a teahouse and visit an orphanage that the Black Clan gives money to. Ahdieh describes the teahouse with such glamor, from the motions the geikos use when performing dances, to the descriptions of the building itself, that when Mariko encounters the orphanage, the feeling of the book practically changes. The orphanage is the exact opposite of the teahouse and Ahdieh’s powerful prose juxtaposes the harshness of the orphanage to the teahouse beautifully. Ahdieh’s careful and accurate description of Mariko’s world is ultimately what makes Flame in the Mist so enjoyable. It’s so easy to get lost in the world Ahdieh created and imagine the time of the samurai.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good fantasy, buy this book.

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New Release

This week brings us a fantasy release.

Flame in the Mist (Flame in the Mist #1) by Renee Ahdieh
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

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. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

Title: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 369 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

Review:  I really enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen so I was really looking forward to A Crown of Wishes. Initially I was hoping it would be more of Amar and Maya’s story, so I was a bit sad that it was not. However, I do love “sequels” that are not really sequels to a story, but rather the story of a peripheral character from the first book. I do like when authors do that because it gives us more of the world but from a different perspective. We get a sense of the young woman Gauri has become from her and Maya’s brief interaction in the first book. We learn she has become a fierce warrior and is willing to take risks her brother won’t. Outside of that we don’t know much about her, so A Crown of Wishes allows us to learn more about Gauri and so much more. We also learn more about Vikram, the soul whose thread Maya has to make a decision about in the first book. In Crown of Wishes, we ultimately learn what her decision was and how it has affected his life. All that being said, I totally and completely loved the book!

One critique of The Star-Touched Queen”that I had was there was so much description that it sometimes slowed down the story a bit. With A Crown of Wishes, while Chokshi’s signature lyrical descriptions of the Otherworld are there, the strength of this novel comes from the character interactions between Gauri and Vikram. In this novel, Gauri and Vikram both narrate so we get to spend time in each of their heads as they go on the journey to the Tournament of Wishes, and their time in Alaka, where the tournament is held. They begin their relationship as enemies, barely trusting each other. In fact, their first interaction was a delight to read as their chemistry practically flew off the page. Both are equals to each other and treat each other as such, which is refreshing as Vikram doesn’t see Gauri as a “female warrior” but just as a warrior. Both also have emotional walls surrounding them due to the way they were raised, and through their experiences, they eventually learn to open up and trust one another. As they do, the sarcastic barbs between them become less and less, and they become more honest with each other. Again, refreshing as there was none of the “noble idiocy” trope in this novel at all. They truly become a team who works together to solve problems and survive the tournament. Of course they fall in love too, but the development of their relationship is a healthy one full of mutual respect for the other’s skills and their flaws. And as they came to love each other, they were able to grow as individuals as well. Gauri and Vikram’s personal growth and relationship growth is what made this book so wonderful.

Chokshi also added a new character to the narrative who reflects the main theme of the story – personal choice. While the premise of the tournament is to gain wishes, through their experiences Gauri and Vikram learn that wishes cannot solve all problems, and that it’s our choices and how we use them that do. The character, Aasha, is a vishakanya who was taken from her family at the age of 4 and raised to be an assassin. She longs for a different life, however, and her attendance at the tournament allows her that opportunity as everyone, both human and non-humans, are all contestants in the tournament. For her, all she wants is to have choices in life, and through her actions, befriending Gauri and Vikram when it is dangerous to do so, is an example of how our choices matter in who we become, who we believe ourselves to be. I loved her character and I’m hoping that if there is a third book, we’ll have more of Aasha’s experiences.

Recommendation: I was planning on reading this novel slowly, but got so caught up that I did a marathon session. You know what that means, you have to get A Crown of Wishes now!

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New Release

This is the week that The Edge of the Abyss is released. Check out Jessica’s review of the first book in the series – The Abyss Surrounds Us.

The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2) by Emily Skrutskie
Flux

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

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Review: The Bone Witch

Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 400 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Review Copy: eARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Review: I enjoyed Rin Chupeco’s first book, The Girl from the Well, and jumped at the chance to follow her into the fantasy genre. And while there were some good things about The Bone Witch (the heroine, her brother, lush descriptions, the whole idea of asha, and this specific type of magic), there were a lot of things that either weren’t or just didn’t work for me.

The heroine, Tea, is an engaging narrator, and the glimpses of her in the future, having changed radically from the girl we get to know during her asha training, is intriguing. I wanted a lot more progression on this front, but that’s where the structure of the book undercut itself. Between every chapter was a very short scene of the future, between Tea and an unnamed Bard, and these scenes either constantly killed the momentum of the past or set us up for excitement that took far too long to materialize. If the interruptions had been less frequent (and had been a more coherent narrative, not mostly Tea preparing to raise or raising creature after creature after creature), this might have worked; as it was, it became an irritating distraction, especially once it became obvious that the past Tea and the future Tea weren’t going to be any closer to each other in this book, attitude/philosophy-wise, than they were at the start of it. Having the Bard narrate the future segments felt like a deliberate choice to keep information from the reader (like who Tea’s dead love is and what her plans are for all the monsters) rather than the best choice for telling the story. I felt frustrated, not teased, throughout.

The thing that disappointed me most was the portrayal of the country Drycht. It’s obviously supposed to be the stereotypical conservative Muslim country analogue, what with a kingdom mostly of sand, a king with an “iron grip,” its women veiled, and its stance on gender roles. I cannot think of a single character in the book (aside from the Drycht envoy who is scandalized that Tea is wearing bold colors and must be calmed by being allowed to go on a rant about the shamelessness of women—and he is supposed to be “a progressive man in comparison [to his fellow countrymen]”!) who has anything good to say about the country or the people, aside from occasional praise of its trade goods.

This negative narrative isn’t subtle, either. The nameless Bard was “born in Drycht but was banished when [he] came of age for [his] freethinking ways.” While Farhi, one of the maids, has a name, she never actually speaks on the page (so far as I can remember) and always behaves negatively/distantly toward Tea. One of the heroine’s mentors says flat out “This is Kion, miladies, not Drycht. We are at an age where men and women stand together on equal footing, unlike our barbarian brothers to the south.” To top it off, there are two referenced honor killings: a dance performance “about a woman from Drycht to be executed for dishonoring her family when she fled with a disreputable lover” and a separate incident, where it is revealed that the girl the Bard loved unrequitedly was killed by her father for running away with a bricklayer. (This moment isn’t about this unnamed girl or the not-the-Bard!boy she loved at all, it is explicitly about Tea and the Bard. Because we make the tragic murder of a girl in love all about us, apparently.)

This negative portrayal is never pushed back against in the text, so it doesn’t appear to be a misguided attempt at having a prejudiced narrator. It is simply gross, disappointing, and makes me wonder what other red flags I may have missed in the mashup of other cultures in this fantasy world. I am interested in hearing from other readers and reviewers on this subject.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are some good ideas here, the constant interruptions from a future stranger are terribly distracting and hinder, more than help, the main narrative, and the Islamophobic content under the guise of a fantasy culture is not redeemable.

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Mini-review: America

Title: America
Author: Gabby Rivera
Artist: Joe Quinones
Publisher: Marvel
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: 
At last! Everyone’s favorite no-nonsense powerhouse, America Chavez, gets her own series! Written by critically-acclaimed YA novelist Gabby Rivera (Juliet Takes A Breath) and drawn by all-star artist Joe Quinones (HOWARD THE DUCK), Marvel Comics’ brand new AMERICA series shines a solo spotlight on the high-octane and hard-hitting adventures of the one and only America Chavez! America has always been uncontestably awesome, and as the newly appointed leader of the Ultimates, she’s now officially claimed her place as the preeminent butt-kicker of the Marvel Universe! But while leading a team of heroes and punching out big bads is great and all, it doesn’t really leave much time for self-discovery… So what’s a super-powered teenager do when she’s looking for a little fulfillment? She goes to college!

Review: 
Last year I kept hearing about the fantastic debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. I finally read it earlier this year and loved Juliet. When I heard Marvel had asked Rivera to write about America Chavez, I knew I’d have to read it even though I didn’t grow up immersed in all things Marvel. A queer Latina with superpowers sounded beyond amazing.

With very little background knowledge, I expected to be confused, but since it was the first issue, readers get a brief explanation of America’s backstory. There’s a nice bit of superhero action in the beginning where we see America’s power and then some more intimate scenes to get a feel for America as a person before she heads off to college. I loved the campus map and the highlight of Sonia Sotomayor. What a college! A standout is the Department of Radical Women and Intergalactic Indigenous Peoples.

The artwork is fantastic and it was fun to get to know a bit about America’s personality in this first installment. As a newbie to comics, I’m not sure if they always leave you wanting more, but this one did. The first issue came off as an appetizer so I am definitely looking forward to the next issue which comes out next week.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Extras:
Click here to see cool twitter video

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