Mariko has always known that being a woman means she's not in control of her own fate. But Mariko is the daughter of a prominent samurai and a cunning alchemist in her own right, and she refuses to be ignored.
On her way to join her betrothed, the emperor's son Minamoto Raiden, Hattori Mariko is ambushed and left for dead by an infamous group of bandits known as the Black Clan. In an attempt to prove herself worthy of more than a political marriage to further her family's standing Mariko disguises herself as a peasant boy and makes a plan to infiltrate the Black Clan, find out who hired them to kill her, and exact her own revenge. But as Mariko spends more time with the Black Clan's leader, Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, Ōkami, she begins to see that things aren't as simple as she once thought.
Flame in the Mist had an interesting premise. A girl who longs to invent things and be of more use to her family than the standard role of being a nobleman's daughter allows, bandits who are more than they appear, and a dash of fantasy for good measure. Unfortunately, although entertaining enough to read, Flame in the Mist falls just below the mark on more than one of these counts.
Mariko is a great idea for a character. She is very smart, with a mind for inventions, and a desire to be and do more than her family allow. Unfortunately the reader is simply told these facts over and over, with very little in the way of actually being shown these aspects of Mariko's personality. Mariko does invent things, such as throwing stars and smoke bombs, but her motivations often seem muddy at best. What is clearer is Mariko's motivation to infiltrate the Black Clan in the first place. Mariko's desire to end her life's pattern of being ordered around by men is a constant thread throughout the story and something I, for one, never fail to enjoy seeing in YA fiction.
If there is one strength here it is in Mariko's need to align herself within her growing relationships with the Black Clan and her lasting allegiance to her family and her brother, who will not rest until he finds her. It is only a shame that these relationships are let down at times by an inability to really see who Mariko is as a person, rather than simply being told what she is.
You may have seen Flame in the Mist described online as 'Disney's Mulan set in Feudal Japan' but, aside from Mariko's time spent disguised as a boy in a camp of men, the two stories really have very little in common, which is likely a good thing. Mariko's story is interesting in its own right. However, this entire novel almost feels like a set up for the real story, the true beginning of which is revealed in the last few pages.
With the elements revealed to the story in the last few pages of this book, there is every chance that the next in the series may be full of a lot more excitement and, hopefully, a lot more character but I, unfortunately, will probably not be picking it up to find out.