UK Publisher: Hodder
Genre: Historical fantasy, high fantasy, YA
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.
I’ve been struggling to find my rhythm with books recently, and started about three before settling on this one, but when I did I bombed through it. It’s easy to read, the characters are engaging, and there’s plenty of plot without it being too dense or laboured. It’s a little like Mulan meets Robin Hood, complete with a dude being attracted to the girl-disguised-as-a-boy and being unable to explain why the new lad makes him feel all funny.
Whilst it is a fantasy, this first book is actually fairly fantasy-light. There are small mentions of magic, of monsters in the forest, deadly trees, and Okami’s special abilities, but for the majority of the book these are described as almost set-dressing. The focus is more on Mariko’s personal development and the political struggle which brought the characters to this point. There is no legendary ‘chosen one’, no battle between monsters and humans, no apocalypse. The fantasy elements are flavouring in this book – I wonder if they will be explored further in book two.
As this is a duology, there is a sense by the end of the book that you are in the middle of the story – the tension actually reaches its highest point by the time the book ends, and whilst some issues are resolved, many are not. In some cases, the resolutions have created more storylines and questions which need to be addressed, but I have a lot of faith that Ahdieh will do this.
She seems to be a conscientious author, and I can see from her catalogue that she is well-versed in writing historical fiction. She certainly seems to have the terminology and tone of the fantasy down – I’m unclear if the world is actually supposed to be Japan, or inspired by the country (as with Empress Of All Seasons, Girls of Paper and Fire, The Priory of the Orange Tree, and The Poppy War did with their respective geographical grounding), but at no point do you question the world and the locations. I think part of the strength is that she does not try to be too ambitious with her world – she keeps the locations and plot tight, which allow for it to feel very streamlined and gives time for plenty of character development whilst not feeling like anything is being glossed over.
I also really like the exploration of the treatment of women in society, although this is done with a much lighter hand than perhaps other books. Perhaps this is because Mariko spends the majority of the book outside of normal society, in hiding, all her reflections on how she is restricted by societal expectations of gender are reserved to memories of how she was treated, rather than us seeing it evidenced directly. It might also be because Mariko is the only major female character in the book. Yumi is not introduced until halfway through, and is situated away from the majority of the narrative, and Amaya is reduced to a handful of lines and couple of longing thoughts from Kenshin.
Whilst I understand the set up of the plot – like Mulan – does not easily allow women to be involved in the action, hence the need for Mariko’s disguise, I hope that in the sequel we may see more women as part of the narrative to fully emphasise the message Ahdieh is putting forwards. Without other women for contrast, the point falls a little flat. I did enjoy the book, however, and it was only something I realised later, on reflection, rather than anything which hampered my enjoyment of the narrative. The seeds are set for other female narrators in the second book, however, so this may change as the story develops and broadens its scope.
I have the sequel as an ebook all ready to go, I can’t wait to see what it holds.
- Robin Hood meets Mulan, with bandits living in a forest, a bit of gender-disguise, and a bandit becoming confused about his feelings to the new boy – many tropes for which I am utterly weak.
- I like that Mariko is not an easy character, and things do not come easily to her – most notably her social skills. She is abrasive and rude, and spends too much time thinking rather than acting.
- I would have liked to have had Okami’s narrative arrive sooner in the book, because his perspective really gave us an alternative view on Mariko – until then we only have her personal view of herself.
- The tension is ramped up with book 1, I’m looking forward to book 2.
Rating: 4/5 – I did bomb through it, but as always I will balance my final verdict once I have read the complete series.