Smoke in the Sun by Renee Ahdieh
Following Okami’s capture, Mariko has no choice but to infiltrate the Imperial Palace in the desperate hopes of rescuing him. She tricks her brother, Kenshin, and betrothed, Raiden, into thinking she was held against her will by the notorious Black Clan, playing the part she was always meant to play– the dutiful, naive bride-to-be. While they try and decide if Mariko is still loyal to the throne, she must also unravel their secrets. Most importantly, she must learn the truth behind the assassination attempt on her carriage that led her to the Black Clan.
While pretending to be consumed with her upcoming nuptials, Mariko instead uses her royal standing to peel back the layers of lies and deception surrounding the imperial court. But each secret further ensnares Mariko and Okami in a political scheme which threatens their honour, their love, and the very safety of the empire.
Thanks so much to the wonderful Hodder and Stoughton for sending me this book in exchange for a review.
Last year, I put book one of this duology, Flame in the Mist, firmly on my list of best books of 2017. Renee Ahdieh’s prose and style has such a unique flair, and she manages to really grapple with some significant and contemporary issues through her fantasy fairy-tale rewrites. In Flame in the Mist, the familiar story is that of Mulan, one of the most popular Disney Princesses ever, and more importantly, the Chinese tale of the female warrior Hua Mulan. In her duology, Ahdieh alters the tale, incorporating Japanese culture rather than Chinese. One of the things I loved most about it is how it incorporated issues of female agency into a thoroughly enjoyable novel.
Smoke in the Sun does the same amazing things with questions of women’s roles in society, but it turns it waaaaay up to eleven. And then a bit further. The main character, Mariko, has entered back into an arranged marriage with the brother of the [now-Emperor] in order to win his trust and help her real love, Okami escape. Mariko is one of my favourite characters in YA because she is just so badass. She is clearly quite capable when it comes to fighting and physical strength, but what I love most is how she really comes into her own as a strategist. Whenever she came up with a new bit of alchemy to help Okami, I couldn’t help but gasp at the ingeniousness of the whole thing. Mariko is a brilliant, shining example of a female protagonist. She has to deal with quite a lot of sexist crap along the way, but she turns those stereotypes and opinions of women against those who are voicing them, allowing their prejudices to serve as a weapon at her disposal. She’s just so awesome, and I think she’s probably one of the best developed characters I’ve seen in YA for some time.
“She would earn herself a place of trust in the imperial court. Forge alliances wherever possible. Undermine the cause of the emperor at all turns. And do whatever it took to free Okami, the boy she loved […] Everything in life began with an idea.”
One of the other things that really drew me to Smoke in the Sun is its description of Japanese culture. Ahdieh has clearly done her homework, and although I did have to frequently glance at the glossary at the back of the book, I was thrilled that so many terms and bits of culture were woven into this book. Everything, from the clothing, to the landscapes to the way warriors fight in this series has been meticulously researched and it totally shows.
To be honest, I’m in love with it, almost every single line and word made my toes curl in anticipation. The writing isn’t the fastest paced you’ll find out there on the YA shelves, but it also goes at a nice speed, and there’s enough tension in there to pack the pages with a good dose of drama. Which I am super pleased about. So often, second books in series fall into the pitfall of being too similar or just not as good as book one. Smoke in the Sun surpassed Flame in the Mist for me. There were plenty of twists and turns in there to keep me hooked, and the ending really did leave me thinking. I’m sure it’s going to be a bit of a marmite ending for some people, just because it is so unexpected, but I thought it concluded in the right way and I’m so pleased that it did.
If I had any niggles with this book at all, I will say that it was a little difficult to get into at first. So much happened at the end of Flame in the Mist, and there’s been quite some time between the two books in the series being released, and I probably needed a refresher re-read to prepare me for this. On top of that, since the names and honorifics are words that I generally don’t encounter in Western culture, I found it a bit hard to keep up at first with who was who, especially since the first few chapters bounce around from perspective to perspective. Obviously, that’s just me not being familiar with the names and terms, but again maybe a re-read of Flame… would have helped me pick up Smoke in the Sun much quicker. Still, it only took about 50 pages or so until I felt confident knowing what was going on, so maybe a re-read isn’t strictly necessary for all readers.
Overall, I’m giving Smoke in the Sun 9/10 stars. I love the character of Mariko, and the plot and the setting are really well crafted. I struggled a bit to get into the book at first, and some of the other characters faded into the background a bit, but it was yet another solid, thrilling read from an enchanting author.