Review: Flame in the Mist

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Goodreads Synopsis:

The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

I greatly enjoyed Ahdieh’s first series, so when I saw she had a new one coming out, and that it was marketed as a Mulan retelling, I was all over it! I was not disappointed. Though I felt the story of Mulan was a bit of a read for this  – beyond the girl disguised as a boy there wasn’t really much in tandem with the Disney tale – it was so well done. The trademark lyrical and atmospheric writing of Ahdieh takes on a whole new world and I can’t wait to see more of it.

The main character, Mariko, is very contradictory in a very intruiging way. She’s very analytical and thinks everything through to the detail, yet she’s earnest and almost childish in her hunger for adventure. She’s always thinking, weighing her options, looking for moments to strike, while at the same time completely out of her depths in the battles she choses. She’s fascinating in how well she sensors herself, but it’s also clear that Okami and Ranmaru – the two rebel leaders – can see through her most of the time. She’s a complex character, and shows a lot of growth, first in outbursts of emotion or thought around Okami, then in the slowly altering perspectives from what she’s been taught and kept naïve about.

While this is a fictional world, the influences of imperial Japan are really well done. Specifically the importance placed on honor and loyalty. Furthermore I really admire any author who is able to blend the setting of an ancient place, while keeping language and actions modern enough for us to relate to well.

Beyond Mariko, all of the characters are incredibly complex and nuanced. Okami is a fast favorite, as the mysterious bad boy usually is, but he’s got so many layers to unravel. He’s instantly intriguing in the obvious power he contains and the cunning and intelligence behind his lazy façade. The dynamic he and Mariko have with constantly challenging each other shows how evenly matched they are. It’s also obvious they feel a connection, which is interesting to watch given the circumstances. Her brother Kenshin is obviously devoted to his sister, but it’s clear he is also devoted to maintaining the image of a proper samurai and member of the upper echelons of society. He goes through some intense internal struggles and I look forward to see how he continues on in the following book(s).

Pretty much all of the characters, no matter how primary they are, are full of nuance and mystery, but I would be writing forever if I went into all of them. The political climate is slowly unraveled, presenting us with layers of subterfuge and treachery from a power hungry leader who sees himself as only doing what’s necessary to maintain rightful control. And as we see glimpses of his sons, you realize how much further that ambition goes. Is anyone not trying to make a power move?

Overall this was amazing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next installment.

Review: The Rose & The Dagger

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Goodreads Summary:

I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

While I found the start of this second – and last – installment a bit slow, it quickly picks up and sends us on a similarly romantic and dangerous journey as the first book.

I loved that we got to see Shazi and Khalid interacting without the what-ifs of the first book, they are truly devoted to each other, and secure in their relationship, and it was great watching them become more deeply involved now that all the secrets from the first book are out.

I really enjoyed seeing Shazi’s sister take on a bigger role in this book as well. Family has always been a driving force for Shazi, and it was really interesting watching she and her sister navigate a newly complicated relationship, and the blind trust they put in each other. I also enjoyed seeing Irsa come into her own, in her own way. Irsa and Shazi are very different from each other, but they both have the same strength at their core and I loved seeing it displayed in different manners.

The old and new cast of secondary characters were all amazing as well, they brought in different perspectives, new insights, and some crazy plot twists that I don’t think any of us could have come close to guessing. The development of Tariq, the relationship of Jalal/Khalid and Jala/Despina, and the changes of Jahandar were all amazing sub-plots to this epic journey.

Overall, this series was beautiful in is language, diversity, and original take on classic tales. I can’t wait to see what this author churns out next, she will definitely be someone I revisit.

Revisiting: The Wrath and the Dawn

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Goodreads Summary:

A sumptuous and epically told love story inspired by A Thousand and One Nights

Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.

She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.

I loved this book, it was simply beautiful.

I haven’t read a book in 3rd person in a while, and it was done so well. The different POVs were easy to decipher and I think it did a fantastic job at getting us inside the heads of the various characters, as well as letting us see them under different lights. All of the characters see themselves in such different ways than they are portrayed and I thought the various lenses really helped us see the different sides of each of them and only made the relationships between the characters more believable and deeper.

I absolutely loved the relationship between Shazi and Khalid. Both of the characters are interesting to begin with, but the two of them together are a force. I actually wasn’t a huge fan of Shazi in the beginning, I thought she was arrogant (a term Despina – her handmaiden – is not scared to point out) and a bit full of herself, if not determined and curious. Khalid had me intrigued from that first night they spent together, he’s mysterious, conflicted, and bearing the weight of a terrible punishment.

Shazi is brutally honest with Khalid from the beginning and I knew she was going to force him to confront his own feelings. Watching her try to figure him out, while battling her own curiosity and growing affection toward him, was so interesting. She never changed as a person, but she was able to see past her first impressions and allowed herself to admit she was wrong. I think it showed a lot of personal growth on her side. She becomes softer when she’s with him, while never handing over any of her strength. Similarly, Khalid is able to find a partner in Shazi, she doesn’t forgive him for his past, but she proves to him in other ways that he is not a monster and he begins to live up to the man he has wanted to be. The Khalid we see in the end is finally able to confront his fears and become a true leader. I also loved that their love for each other never seemed selfish in the scheme of the curse, especially with the role Shazi’s father and first love played in everything.

All of the secondary characters are interesting and well developed, though I really hope we see a bit more of Despina and Jalal’s relationship in the next installment (their short story really helped me get inside their heads a bit better). They each have different motives for ultimately the same problem – Shazi being the new Calipha. And watching each of them deal with that problem, and seeing which emotions they resort to, and what actions that leads them to is very interesting.

Overall, this book was so amazingly written. I have so many highlighted passages. The writing was lyrical yet easy, it was touching and conveyed so much emotion in so few words. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Shazi and Khalid, for Rey and the kingdom, and to learn more about the magic that Shazi’s father has been meddling with. And finally, isn’t this book great in it’s diversity, it’s set in the Greek/Persian empire, in the twist of a tale that isn’t Grimm based (though you know I love those)!