Flame in the Mist (Renée Ahdieh)

5 stars

“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. When she is ambushed by a group of bandits known as the Black Clan enroute to a political marriage to Minamoto Raiden – the emperor’s son – Mariko realises she has two choices: she can wait to be rescued… or she can take matters into her own hands, hunt down the clan and find the person who wants her dead.

Disguising herself as a peasant boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan’s hideout and befriends their leader, the rebel ronin Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, Okami. Ranmaru and Okami warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. But as Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets that will force her to question everything she’s ever known.”

So, ‘Flame in the Mist’ had been one of my most anticipated reads of this year ever since it was announced. That’s a lot to live up to and I was both excited and nervous when I received an ARC copy, wondering whether it could live up to my expectations.

Thankfully, I adored this book…

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Characters

Mariko, our protagonist is more interested in inventing things, whether they be objects that explode or those more practical, than being a Daimyō‘s daughter. The funny thing is that she’s actually kind of useless at first in the society of the Black Clan. She can’t cook, can’t cut fire wood, has pretty terrible upper body strength, and manages to make an enemy of pretty much everyone she meets. Maybe sometimes overestimating her own cunning and making chaos of situations, she’s a nightmare and I loved her.

Her twin brother, Kenshin, also known as the Dragon of Kai, is already a greatly revered Samurai warrior. He is equally as fierce as his sister and deeply protective of her, sometimes struggling with tenents of Bushidō relating to self control. One thing I couldn’t work out during the book is whether Kenshin actually has some magic of his own, mages are rare in the book but destruction seems to come to him far too easily. Fear for his sister, the complex political wranglings of the Imperial Court and having to lead a band of Samurai almost twice his age seem to push Kenshin to the brink and I’m pretty curious and worried to see how the next book works out for him.

Okami is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourite characters. Seemingly a little lazy and unkempt, the actually rather dangerous and dark-magic-wielding  second in command of the Black Clan has some of the best lines in the book:

‘My life has been filled with death and lies and loose women…I regret everything else.’

Like, what am I supposed to do with that? Witty and a dashing facial scar? He almost comes with a sticker on his head saying ‘this one is going to be your favourite character‘. I also enjoyed just how infuriating he found Mariko in her guise as a young man, seeing her as little more than a burden and a risk to the Black Clan.

Ah, hate to love, isn’t it glorious?

Story

Often touted as a combination of the Chinese story of Mulan and the Japanese tales of the 47 Rōnin, I will say that, plotwise, it takes a lot more from the latter. It is a Mulan retelling to the extent that Mariko disguises herself as a man and in some aspects of the romance, but the actual story is much closer to the Japanese stories of the rōnin, leaderless samurai, seeking revenge for the death of their daimyō.

It’s a slow story, but I’m glad that was the case. Ahdieh’s descriptions and character building take time and space, she has a wonderful way with words that often made me want to read the story aloud. Likewise, she takes time to allow character relationships to blossom, often leaving the exact feelings of characters towards one another as confused or amorphous, which, let’s be honest, is often exactly how close bonds form.

One thing I have, unfortunately, found over my years of reading is that it’s really difficult to find fantasy set in a Feudal Japanese setting that doesn’t make my eyes roll out of my head. Between painful tropes, fetishization and a basic misunderstanding  of Japanese cultural identity, finding good books has really been luck of the draw. This book was a breath of fresh air in that respect.

Flame in the Mist‘ is a sensitive portrayal of a fantasy feudal Japan. The story could not be told without its setting, it’s much more than scenic window-dressing, with Ahdieh addressing the political and cultural implications of Bushidō, ‘the way of the warrior’, as one of the central pillarstones of the story. It explores the duality of a fantasy Edo period and shogunate culture, where warriors such as the Samurai lived by the laws of Bushidō, including benevolence, integrity, loyalty and honour, but the structure of society enforced strict hierarchies with little or no social mobility. Ahdieh does a good job of explaining some more unfamiliar concepts in text, especially the omnipresent Bushidō code and the political importance of Geiko and the tea ceremonies.

It’s a story about revolution and social change, which, let’s be honest, is incredibly relevant right now. It asks questions about the status quo, about why it should be allowed to persist, whether it is even ethical for it continue in the way it is. Okami, for example, is vocally critical of the way of the Samurai and what he sees as unquestioning loyalty to an underserving upper echelon of society. I’m really excited to see how Ahdieh tackles some of those issues in the next book!

Note

I have seen one or two people comment that the use of Japanese in text is confusing or distracting for them. I would say that a) there’s a glossary at the back, b) the words are pretty easy to understand from context and cultural osmosis, and c) you’d probably just accept it if it was a fantasy novel. If you come from a martial arts background like me (Kendo), then you will probably have no problem with the words at all.

Conclusion

It was amazing, I read it too fast and now I’m going to have to wait painfully for book two. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy set in feudal Japan then this is the book for you; it’s beautifully written, sensitive to culture, has a perfect romance and is just, genuinely, everything that I wanted it to be.

Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for a copy in return for an honest review.

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Miranda and Caliban (Jacqueline Carey)

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4 stars

Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant.

There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from?

The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love. 

“Thou art the shoals on which Caliban wilt dash his heart to pieces.” 

I will admit, it’s been a while since I read ‘The Tempest’, though I think you could probably never have read it and quite happily enjoy this book. ‘Miranda and Caliban’ is a retelling focusing on the younger years of the two protagonists, only entering the events of the play at the very end.

It was a beautifully crafted book, delicately written as Carey’s work always is, meandering through lush prose and rich fantasy. ‘The Tempest’ has often been lambasted for its dearth of female characters and this story seeks to address that, giving an important voice to a character who is used mainly as a tool in the original text. Likewise, in ‘The Tempest’ I always felt slightly uncomfortable that Caliban, an Algerian man, was written in a way that seemed to suggest he both abhorred and adored his own subjugation. In this retelling both Miranda and Caliban are shown as prisoners of Prospero, prisoners of societal prejudices even on an island cast out into the sea.

I can say straight out that this book will not be for everyone. It’s a cruel, hard book. Miranda and Caliban are kept under her father’s finger through physical punishment and emotional manipulation. She is both revered by her father and treated like dirt, on one hand taught the basics of his complicated magical arts, on the other forced to do menial tasks in kitchen work and cleaning. Prospero’s misogyny throughout the book left me with such a bad taste in my mouth, which I suppose shows the book is doing exactly what it intended to. Likewise, Caliban is subjected to horrific cruelty and unrelenting racism throughout. He adores Miranda, sees her as the sun in his otherwise grey, caged life, but he knows that he will never be allowed to be with her. It becomes so ingrained in him that, by the end, even he believes he is not good enough. Unfortunately, as this is a retelling, neither of our young protagonists gain their hearts desires.

This is a beautiful, lyrical book, filled with strange magic. I adored how Carey writes the capricious air spirit, Ariel, truly a creature of nature, beholden to no one other than themselves. I, personally, loved the heady, rich way that she writes, as if every paragraph is laden with heavy buds. I know that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I can imagine that for some readers this book would be their idea of their worst nightmare, meandering, maudlin and unrelenting, but, for me, it was like being taken on an out of body experience.

So, if you enjoy reading a book for the feelings, for the journey and development as opposed to the plot, this is definitely a book for you. Even though it was sad, sometimes making me feel a little numb inside, it was so rich and immersive that I couldn’t blame it. It’s a book that makes you feel a lot of things, though not all of these sensations are so easy to pin down.

Many thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

The beautiful cover is by Tran Nguyen.

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The Bear and the Nightingale (Katherine Arden)

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“In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, willfull girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.” (Random House)

5* stars

There are some books that are just meant to be read with the cold wind whistling down the chimney and a spiced cup of tea. This is one of them.

I’ve always been a big fan of Russian classics, reading wide-eyed into the night from tomes larger than my head, imagining Princes and Princesses fur bundled in sledges against the driving snow, or farmer’s daughters dancing around the kitchen bread ovens. I was unsure as to whether a modern author would ever be able to capture the wild, hard beauty of Russian history quite like a writer who had lived through it. But this book proved me wrong.

Rich, heady, and yet unyielding in its honesty, embracing the juxtaposition that is the beauty and bleakness of life in a rural northern Russian village far from Moscow. The breaking of bread fresh from the oven, the frail snowdrops raising their heads against the ice, the dull blue lips of a child who froze in the dark winter night.

I fell in love with the wildness of Vasya, our protagonist, and how she felt like a creature of the woods herself. Wilful, clever and obstinate, she was a character after my own heart.

Arden brings to life the elemental superstitions of Russian folklore, from the timid house spirits to the powerful godlike figure of Morozko, Father of the Frost and the Winter Wind. Even if you are not familiar with Russian folklore, Arden manages to gently explain mythological origins in text without the reader ever feeling overwhelmed. I was also impressed with how easily she managed to convey the increasing discord between the old ways and Christianity in the rural hamlets, where farmer’s left offerings to the house spirits to protect them and yet simultaneously felt guilt for looking beyond the church for help. It’s a fascinating time in history that Arden has managed to mould into the most beautiful story.

I feel I could probably ramble about how much I love this book for a good while. I can still remember curling up to read it on my kindle in the dark and just feeling as if I had stepped into another time entirely.

Rich, vibrant, and utterly scintillating; I recommend this book to anyone who is drawn to the winds of the winter, to the warmth of the open fire or the cavernous depth of the night sky. I recommend it to anyone with a soul.

Many thanks to Random House Books for an advance copy in return for an honest review.

A song for reading: Anuna- Noel Nouvelet 

The Hidden People (Alison Littlewood)

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4 stars

“Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth – but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.

Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the ‘Hidden People’ supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away …”

I’m very fond of a faery tale. Being Welsh, I’m a little more familiar with the mythologies of the Old Celtic countries than English folklore, but both seem to overlap on a key point: their depiction of faeries as wild, elemental, not-entirely-benevolent beings. This book goes one step further, dealing with old country folklore and looking at the flaws in the human condition, seeming to ask whether it is humans themselves who are the most inhuman of all…

Character: 4/5

  • Albie is not the most likeable or reliable of narrators and I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the book. Albie is a young, rich, newly-married man, an insufferable snob and an unconscious misogynist. The story could not happen as it did without the miscommunications that occur because he does not treat his wife as a human being.
  • I actually found it really interesting to see a book written with the same condescending tone as many classics, but with that tone being used to critique the treatment of women during the period, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status. There were a number of times where Albie thought that his wife, Helena, was acting like some kind of bizarre fae creature, but as a reader you can just tell that she thinks he’s ridiculous and is upset by something that he has said and done. Once or twice I was actually scared that he might do something to hurt her. Such a unreliable point of view was frustrating and sometimes very disconcerting, but very well done.

Worldbuilding: 4/5

  • The setting of this book is amazing. I loved the descriptions of the backward, rural village with the fairy rings and the terrifying old ‘wise women’. There are some truly gorgeous scenes spent under the night sky, ethereal, charming, wonderfully creepy. You spend the entire book questioning yourself. Are fairies real? Am I maybe the one who is backward and misunderstanding? Littlewood does an incredible job of imbuing the world in such a way that you understand why folklore developed in the way that it did.
  • It makes you wonder how much of the ‘changeling’ lore was built upon the fundamental misunderstanding that women are somehow different to men? If a woman is wilful, is not subservient, miscarries a child it somehow meant that there was something wrong with them, that they were unworldly and somehow not human women. There were some parts of the story that were painful, seeing just how little control some of these women had over their own lives.

Ending: 3/5

  • Whilst I enjoyed it, I felt that the ending was maybe a little open. I suppose it would have not made much sense to impose an ending on the reader, especially after a book that had been been based so much upon questions. But I did find myself wishing that there was something more, something that made the ending memorable.

The Nitty Gritty: 4/5

  • ‘The Hidden People’ is a beautifully written book, rich and wild in the ways of some of the classics referenced within. Littlewood mentions ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Goblin Market’ in text and she manages to put some of that magic and bleakness into her own work. Think looming hedgerows and wild oaks, fairy rings and dark moons.
  • My one qualm is that I sometimes felt that the book felt a little repetitive and maybe lingered overlong on scenes that could quite happily have been condensed into one. Some of the power was maybe diluted a little by too many words.

Conclusion

  • This was not an easy read but a fulfilling one. Questions are not entirely answered, you end without feeling that you will ever be certain what it was that happened, or that those who truly deserve to be punished ever will be. But I also felt it was a strangely real book and a strangely tender one. By the end the characters are finally true to themselves, even though it might not be the most satisfying or happy conclusion. Definitely a book that I would recommend to a lover of the classics, folklore and the old tales.

For readers who enjoyed: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke) , The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter), Smoke (Dan Vyleta), Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

Thank you very much to Quercus Books for a copy in return for an honest review.

And I Darken (Kiersten White)

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“No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she’ll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.”

I really wanted to adore this book, I mean, what’s not to like, a brutal, fierce female lead, a gory and underexplored part of history, that sounds like it ought to be great. I did enjoy this book but I didn’t adore it as I’d wished.

Positives first, I thought the decision to make Vlad the Impaler a woman was great, I mean, having a female character that was largely amoral and brutal is exciting. I have some qualms with how this decision affected some of the historical elements of the book, especially the relationship between Radu and Sultan Mehmed, but, who knows, that could be addressed in book two.

I also really loved a) that it’s set in a period of history that’s been largely overlooked by fiction and b) that it portrays Islam in a positive light for once, rather than the stereotypical war mongering rubbish of many books set in the Islamic world.

The machinations within the Court and the political wrangles with the vassal states within the Empire were my favorite parts of the book. The struggles of a young Sultan and Lada’s battle to assert her control over soldiers who automatically assumed her unfit to lead simple because of her gender are the stand out parts of the novel. The personal and political implications of age, ethnicity and gender were explored in a way that never made you bored. I would perhaps have liked to witness more of the political struggles within the Sultan’s Harem, since having a female lead made that much more possible. I cross my fingers and hope we see a little more of the lives of the women in the Harem in the next book. I think their stories are just as important and potentially even more interesting.

I suppose one of the problems was that it lacked ‘richness’. I wanted to be regaled by the opulence of the Ottoman Empire, to experience the vast buildings, the rich silks and heady scents but instead I found myself feeling a little distant from it all. Sometimes I lost track of where exactly I was supposed to be.

I had a similar problem with the characters. Lada and Radu are interesting characters but they’re lacking the little something that would make them ‘fascinating’. I found Lada’s internal monologue a little ‘one track’ and repetitive, and whilst I generally enjoyed her character I wasn’t sure it was as fully realised as it could have been. I would have liked to have gone a bit deeper into her motivations and maybe focused a little less on her preoccupation with Mehmed.

I found Radu’s motivations clearer, I liked his quiet, intense internal dialogue and the way he worked around the problems he faced. I was less interested in the tortured LGBT plotline…I wondered why we couldn’t have a Radu confident in his sexuality, after all, in history Radu and Mehmed were supposedly lovers.

I also felt that Lada wasn’t entirely the ‘feminist’ lead she was touted to be…or, at least, she wasn’t given a chance to be. She struggled with a lot of internalized misogyny, seemed to, at times, openly despise Radu’s more ‘feminine’ attributes and just generally seemed to dislike every single female character she met in the book (not that there were many…). I’m hoping it’s part of her character arc, that she realizes the strength in being a women, not simply in trying to emulate the behaviour of the men around her, but I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

Objectively, this was good book. However, it didn’t give me that sensation of mindless love I get after reading some books, where just thinking about it makes my heart leap. It gets 3.5 stars because, despite my problems with it, it’s fresh, interesting and generally well executed.

I will be really curious to see where the next book takes us.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Books who gave me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Wolf by Wolf (Ryan Graudin)

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Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them-made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same. Her story begins on a train.

Germania, 1956. Over ten years since the Nazis won the war. 17-year-old Yael is part of the resistance, and she has just one mission: to kill Hitler.

But first she’s got to get close enough to him to do it.

Experimented on during her time at Auschwitz, Yael has the unique ability to change her appearance at will. The only part of her which always remains are the five tattooed wolves on her arm; one for each of the people she’s lost. Using her abilities, she must transform into Adele Wolfe, Germany’s most famous female rider and winner of the legendary Axis Tour; an epic long distance motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo, where only the strongest (and wiliest) riders survive. If she can win this, she will be able to get close enough to kill the Fuhrer and change history forever.

But with other riders sabotaging her chances at every turn, Yael’s mission won’t be easy. . .”

 

The first thing that really struck me about this book was the visuals. We join our protagonist, Yael, staggering from a packed death camp train into the gaze of a Nazi Death Doctor.

 

‘A floodlight bathed him. The pure white fabric of his lab coat glowed and his arms were stretched wide, like wings. He looked like an angel.’

 

Tell me that didn’t make you shudder?

 

We have the beautiful, deliberate motif of Yael’s tattoo, five wolves with five stories, interspersed among her journeys across the world. The deliberate affront to Yael’s very identity of having to wear the face of this blue eyed, blonde haired Aryan ideal. The heart breaking brutality of the Axis tour and its fragile alliances, kids that should be enjoying their adolescence, not fighting and dying for the honour of an Iron Cross.

 

This novel is deeply, deeply sad. Beautiful but sad. Even the landscapes are bleak and desolate. The darkness of a pine forest, the wide sandstorm wracked expanses of the Sahara, the lonely high mountains of Central Asia.

 

I’ve actually found it a very difficult book to review. Part of me wants to just go ‘it’s REALLY good, go read it! Which part is my favourite? ALL OF IT’ though that feels a little like cheating. So I’m going to try and be a bit more methodical about it.

 

Plot

Graudin said that the Axis Tour was partly inspired by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s ‘Long Way Round’ (which I geeked out about for quite a while because I loved that series) and you can really feel that. It’s hard and dusty and lonely and you end up craving the company of other characters as much as Yael. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the tour and the relationships of the young competitors with the stories of Yael’s wolves. It imbued the story with a sense of hope, that even in the darkness and depravity of this world there are still brave and good people. I wasn’t actually sure what to expect with the ending. Would her plan work, would it not? All I will say is that I can not wait for  ‘Blood for Blood’ and I want to know what happened between Luka and Adele in the last Axis tour!!

 

Characters

I fell in love with all the young characters in this book…even those who were antagonists. Every single character had a motivation that maybe wasn’t immediately obvious but mattered to them. Each character was the hero of their own story. The fleeting glimpses into their thoughts and feelings, and Yael’s realisation that many of them are bound by responsibility and fears of their own is so humbling.

 

Yael’s relationship with Felix, Adele’s real life twin, and Luka, the perfect frenemy, was just so interesting that I could have very happily read another four hundred pages of just them out on the road. The tension between the three main characters had me reading through the night, wondering how it would be defused. I just want to know what happened between Luka and Adele, ok! There’s a novella (Iron to Iron) from Luka’s POV, about that tour, but it isn’t available in the UK and it’s breaking me.

 

A Note of Warning

It takes a very brave and talented author to write this era of history well. It’s very easy to fall into insensitive pit traps, and even though Graudin avoids this very well, I still feel I ought to warn people that this is a book about Nazis. It is a book that humanises kids that grew up through Hitler’s Youth (or the fictional continuation of Hitler’s Youth) and if you’re not in the right place for that, for whatever reason, then maybe give it a miss.  I’m going to say that, for some, this may be an uncomfortable read.

 

Overall

I just want to read ‘Blood for Blood’ (and find a way to read ‘Iron to Iron’). I would like it now, I don’t know how I’ll wait til October to see how this ends! This was a really hard book to review because I loved it down to its bare bones and it’s damn hard to talk about how the very words feel like a song that you want to go on and on.

 

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, many thanks to Orion Children’s Books for giving me a copy in return for an honest review.