It’s with a heavy heart that I finally admit that Renee Ahdieh’s newest fantasy book didn’t live up to my expectations.
The premise was absolutely fascinating, and I braced myself for tons of amazing fighting scenes, court intrigue, and general badassery. What I actually got, however, was far too much brooding and far too little action.
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.
Rating: 2 of Mariko’s ninja stars. Minor spoilers.
1. First off, MARIKO.
Oh, Mariko. My small, sage brooder/philosopher.
I spent the book alternating between giggling at her words and also wanting to smack her in the face with one of her ninja stars. Which, by the way, she very conveniently invented because she’s just that special!
Let’s start with the positives: She was a very confident, spunky protagonist.
She grows from a pampered bride-to-be into a slightly less pampered but still stubborn-as-ever soldier of the Black Clan. And despite not being physically strong, Mariko is described as resilient and incredibly sure of her own intelligence (sometimes to the point of arrogance)… and those are basically the only nice things I can say about her, because she was just so incredibly annoying. Like, I-want-to-tear-an-entire-stack-of-tissues-into-little-pieces annoying. I-had-to-create-an-entirely-new-shelf-on-goodreads annoying. I-stopped-reading-the-book-to-scream-into-my-pillow-multiple-times annoying.
Mariko was . . . odd. Curious. Clever. Perhaps too clever, as her father always said. It has never been meant as a compliment, though she had always taken it as one.
Her “cleverness” is practically shoved down our throats. But being sure of your own intelligence, and actually being intelligent, are two very different things. For such an apparently perceptive young girl, I found her glaringly, embarrassingly clueless.
From what I observed, Mariko spends the majority of the book stumbling around after the Black Clan, trying her best to be devious but really just digging herself into an even deeper hole. Being inside her head was exhausting, not to mention her line of reasoning was questionable at best.
Oh, and and along the way, she very conveniently invents a couple of miraculous weapons! How fantastic. How intelligent. The entire world applauds you.
Today her thoughts were consumed by murderous retribution. Mariko had dreamed of setting fire to the Black Clan’s camp no less than ten times in the past hour.
Maybe Mariko should do less evil plotting and more actual… doing. Maybe she should stop uttering platitudes and start carrying out her ingenious plans. (Hon, I hate to break it to you, but you’re about as scary as a bunny rabbit with a carrot sword.)
I have to say, though, I liked that she doesn’t just waltz into camp with everyone magically accepting her. She has to earn it, for the first time in her life. Earn trust, earn respect, earn her place in the Black Clan. Which, BTW, she’s totally going to destroy. Even though that Ōkami guy looks super hot, and has chiseled abs, and moves with gorgeous catlike graceful grace… DO YOU SEE WHERE THIS IS GOING?!
2. …The romance.
“Do that again,” he said in a dangerous whisper. “See what happens.”
“Is that a threat or a promise?”
That time, he did smile. But just barely.
This romance has all the subtlety of Yoshi’s boiled eggs smashing you in the noggin. Their slow “build-up” classifies as hate-to-love, I guess, but their love for each other comes out so suddenly, it’s startling. I found the entire scenario in which they finally realized their mutual attraction to each other sort of funny, highly unrealistic, and oddly disturbing.
It really makes me wonder whether Ōkami has been silently and furiously suppressing his attraction to Mariko the entire time she was masquerading around as a boy.
To clarify, I found Ōkami much more likable than Mariko, partly because he didn’t wax on about how clever he was all the time. But I still don’t understand their relationship, I find no joy in reading their pointless banter (which tries too hard to be all witty and deep?), and I personally didn’t feel any chemistry between them.
No awkward love triangle pops up, thank goodness, or I would have imploded from disappointment. Romance is arguably one of the driving forces of this novel, which makes it ten times worse.
Conclusion: I do not ship.
3. The”magic”. Was it magic? I still don’t know.
Now, the magical world-building can be summarized in three words: WHAT. WAS. HAPPENING.
The purpose and function of this entire “magical” system is yet to be revealed. Instead of creating suspense, this lack of clarity just provoked my irritation, because I would really like to know what’s going on. I shouldn’t have to rack my brain to understand what’s happening, and I’m not even going to get started on that completely ridiculous ending.
The author leaves a heck ton of loose ends- not only in the unexplained random magical happenings, but also in the random new characters who keep popping in and out whose names I keep forgetting.
From Kenshin’s anger management problems, to Ōkami’s slow-motion ninja moves, to even that empress’s (was she an empress? I’ve honestly forgotten) shadowy antics, there was so much happening, yet so little actually making sense.
4. The pretty, flowy writing.
Mariko took a small bite. The white of the egg was cool and creamy. Light as a feather. Its center was the warm yellow of a dandelion. Steam rose from it in a perfect curl.
^ This is Mariko eating an egg. The description stretches on for two pages. We get it, Mariko. The egg is good.
Ahdieh’s writing in her previous duology, The Wrath and the Dawn, was beautiful, and it could, at times, mesmerize me with its poetic language and colorful descriptions.
But this type of writing also had a tendency to bog me down. The flowery prose and exaggerated attention to detail can be a pain to slog through, especially when nothing of substance is happening in the plot. Which, unfortunately, happened to be the case for the majority of this book.
Her style of writing is much the same. While I admit that I did enjoy the rich depiction of Japanese culture (one of my favorite parts!), in the end, I was faced with the same problem I had with her debut novel. The pretty writing began to drag down the pace, to the point where I stopped caring what happened to any of the characters. At times, the prose also just served to accentuate the disappointing lack of action and unnecessary plot points.
I quickly tired of her whimsical metaphors and comparisons to the earth and whatnot. No one needs this many long-winded descriptions of someone’s attire- if I have to read another word of what Mariko or Yumi or Ranmaru was wearing, I’m going to SHRIEK.
5. The side characters were forgettable.
I quite lost track of the side characters. To this day, I still don’t understand their purpose, and most of them have no discernible personality traits aside from their association with Mariko.
6. On the up side: quotable material!
I could really see that the author put in a significant amount of effort to make this book empowering and inspirational. Mariko, unfortunately, was neither of those things.
She may occasionally make me want to rip out my own hair, but I’ll give her this: she has some pretty sweet one-liners.
I feel like I can just frame a few of these quotes in my room to make me feel better about life. Though I might not have particularly cared for the characters, or the plot, or the romance, the little tidbits of wisdom were cool! Okay, some of them didn’t really make any sense, but here are some of the especially quotable ones:
There is such strength in being a woman. But it is a strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try.
A blossom can split through rock, given enough time.
True weakness is weakness of the spirit.
Basically, this entire book was disappointment. The concept was so incredibly fascinating, but it just let me down completely. I read this so, so slowly that at one point, I forgot what had happened and started over. I ACTUALLY STARTED OVER. I have NEVER had to do that before.
However, I will still definitely be on the lookout for the sequel. I have too many unanswered questions to just give up on this series now. This is a very, very loose Mulan retelling, so don’t come looking for one.
Lots of people probably loved this book- I don’t know what went wrong with me? If you ever decide to pick it up, I hope you enjoyed it more than I did! 🙂
P.S. Mariko, you are a DISGRACE to Mulan.