REVIEW: Smoke in the Sun – Renée Ahdieh

Smoke in the Sun cover

Author: Renée Ahdieh (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder

Genre: Historical fantasy, high fantasy, YA

See Also: Flame in the Mist

After Okami is captured in the Jukai forest, Mariko has no choice – to rescue him, she must return to Inako and face the dangers that have been waiting for her in the Heian Castle. She tricks her brother, Kenshin, and betrothed, Raiden, into thinking she was being held by the Black Clan against her will, playing the part of the dutiful bride-to-be to infiltrate the emperor’s ranks and uncover the truth behind the betrayal that almost left her dead.

With the wedding plans already underway, Mariko pretends to be consumed with her upcoming nuptials, all the while using her royal standing to peel back the layers of lies and deception surrounding the imperial court. But each secret she unfurls gives way to the next, ensnaring Mariko and Okami in a political scheme that threatens their honor, their love and very the safety of the empire.

I very much wanted to plough straight into this book after finishing Flame in the Mist, but I made myself hold off until my holiday, as I knew the tone and story would be exactly the sort of thing I wanted to read while I sunned myself on the beach. The star-crossed romance, the outlaws-vs-aristocrats narrative – all the perfect holiday read. Things ended on a bit of a cliffhanger with book one, and book two naturally picked up almost immediately afterwards. It seemed that all that had been cut out was travelling time from the final scene back to the royal palace for the start of the next stage of the story.

As you would expect, the structure and focus of this is different from the first. While Flame in the Mist was essentially a novel of the training montage from Mulan with added romance storyline thrown in, and a bit of extra magic for flavour, Smoke in the Sun becomes a political thriller set within the court. Is the new emperor mad, or is he justified in the way he handles potential threats? Is Mariko’s betrothed as cruel as his brother, or just misguided? Can Mariko trust anyone?

I found things got dark very quickly in this book, and although Adieh handles it with a light touch it’s still very bleak. Children are killed or tortured, people are branded, murdered. For me, Adieh got the line right between enough description to raise the tension and the stakes, without making the details pornographic in their horror. She has enough respect for her victims not to become too graphic with the imagery, and I believe that says a lot for her as a writer. Instead, which I found very effective, she chooses to let the reader fill in the blanks by describing the reactions of the witnesses around these horrific acts. By focusing instead on their disgust and horror the viscerally of the torture is filtered somewhat – we see it mostly in silhouette and reflection, rather in direct, glorious technicolour. It’s very well-judged, and means that the book can be dark and serious without become impossible to read.

I found that the conspiracy which was introduced in the first book wasn’t given as much time as I expected. The conspirator was revealed to the reader early on, but there were more pressing matters for the cast to attend to. Unfortunately it means that the cast never quite discover who set up Mariko in book one to be assassinated. It was fortunate that, for all the plots twisting around each other, things made way for each other and slotted into place for a very neat ending. Surprising characters got redemption, but it felt satisfying and, in places, understated. There was nothing left wanting, although perhaps personally spending more time with these characters wouldn’t hurt.

There was an interesting, and very traditionally Japanese, theme of what makes a good leader and whether wanting to lead is the same as being able to lead. Responsibility to your leader vs responsibility to your men and your personal honour. If the book had been longer, this could perhaps have been done a little more subtly. I’m glad this wasn’t dragged out into a trilogy – it didn’t need a third book – but perhaps if this book was a little longer, perhaps half again, we could have really bedded into the sinister rise of the new Emperor, and of the separate conspiracies firing across each other. I also would have liked to have seen some more of the aftermath, of the rebuilding and the way characters grew into their evolutions.

I think reading the two books back-to-back might alleviate some of these issues, although tonally they are very different so there is a clear delineation. But seeing the growth continually in one go rather than split across two shorter books could mean that it didn’t feel like some things were a little less developed than I would like.

These feel like books that could easily be re-read without too much stress though. Ahdieh gets a lot of tropes done really well, but also writes a fluent plot with an easy narrative and handles it respectfully.

Briefly:

  • A tonally different book from part one, this one more court conspiracy and coming-of-age/into power story, looking at what makes a man, a hero, and a leader. The fantasy is more prevalent in this than book one, but still treated less as a plot point and more as world building which is unusual.
  • While it deals with dark issues, Ahdieh treats them carefully without going too deeply into details and making it difficult to read. Instead she manages to build the tension without being too horrifying.
  •  It works really well as a duology with Flame in the Mist, as they are both clearly separate acts within the same story. It would be nice if one or both of the books had been a little longer, but they are quite easy reads and smoothly narrated.

Book Rating: 4/5

Series Rating: 5/5 – I enjoyed the pair of them together and I think they would work well read back-to-back, perhaps published in an omnibus. I think I would be interested to read more of Ahdieh’s work in future based on this.

 

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