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.
It’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy Ahdieh’s previous work The Wrath and the Dawn. So naturally I came to this book with some trepidation. The summary was really what drew me in, because I’m a sucker for anything to do with East Asian cultures in modern literature, cinema, or music. So I took a gamble. It mostly paid off.
First off, I’ll begin with what I did enjoy. Mariko, for the majority of the novel, was a great protagonist to have. She’s smart, an inventor, and has a certain amount of pluck in her that I can admire. My favorite heroines are always the ones that overcome their self-doubt and turn themselves into heroes, which she does. The backdrop to the story is also overflowing with magic, wild landscape, and fascinating places that I found myself easily immersed in. Also, that supporting cast though! Yoshi easily became my favorite character, with the others of the Black Clan shinning from time to time. But that was the root issue I had, they only shinned from time to time.
While I did rate this book higher than Ahdieh’s other novel, I have at least a paragraph of vices to get out, so hold with me. Primarily, I did not feel a strong connection with the characters, Yoshi not withstanding. Characters like Okami, Kenshin, and Ranmaru were all interesting enough, but lacked any real depth to make me connect with them. I’ll save Okami for a harsher rant later on in this post, so for now I’ll only speak on the others. Kenshin, Ranmaru, and the other not named or non-important Black Clan members all blended together for me. There were a few things to set them apart, Kenshin is leader of the Black Clan, Ranmaru has some serious sociopathic tendencies and is Mariko’s twin, but that was it. Their relationship to Mariko seemed so superficial that I almost didn’t believe she had alliance like feelings for them.
Furthermore on the characters this book, like Wrath and the Dawn, is split between several stories, almost like the writer can’t decide which one she wants to tell more. We are often skipping from Mariko, to Ranmaru as he searches for her, to the emperor and his mistress. While the story eventually shows how the three are related besides the obvious it left me feeling a little stretched. There seemed to be much more happening than under 400 pages could contain, and it probably would have done Ahdieh better to have a longer book. (It can be done, and people will buy them. Just look at Lunar Chronicles’ Winter or the book Seraphina. Look at the Inheritance Saga for crying out loud.) The amount of stuff happening really took away from the character development, and world building here, and honestly that’s a tragedy.
For me at least, the decision for story and romance over world building and character development is egregious. This is a book written for a Western audience, in a non-Western inspired fantastic setting. The fact that this happened is actually amazing and huge, but a let down. Western readers are not going to understand the dynamics and mythologies of Eastern setting very well at all, which made this a great moment to introduce them to these concepts and build a world the author could expand upon easily. But instead we got a glossary in the back of the book, and little integration into an unknown world. Okay. It’s fine.
Now, the real moment of me ranting. Okami. I’ve said it before how I feel about the majority of male characters written in YA novels, and just because Okami is technically a character of color does not earn him an excuse for being bland, ridiculous, and annoying. To prove my point, I made the following checklist (feel free to use with credit):
If they hit more than two of these than CONGRATULATIONS! You probably have a shitty stock romantic interest on your hands who is more cliches and regurgitated societal expectations than actually well written character. Unfortunately, Okami and his forced hater to lover backdrop romance fall smack into this list.
Come on, hater to lover? What is this ABC Family? I might be more forgiving were this not the exact same route Ahdieh took with her last book, and something I’ve seen done repeatedly in film and literature. Having some asshole turn out to be pretty okay is not sweet. It teaches young girls and women to romanticize abusive traits in real life men, and allow them to get away with just being assholes. There is nothing romantic or interesting about Okami. Ranmaru could use some shaping, but I find him much more favorable to be QUITE honest.
To finish up, I’m going to link to a few other reviews that will be a little more focused than mine. These reviews are written by a Japanese American (and another reader who’s ethnicity I can’t speak on) who read the book, and address the accuracy of the culture depicted much better than I can. (Besides, no white bitch needs to be tooting the horn of inaccuracy when it comes to a culture she doesn’t understand.) So check out Eri’s review and Michiko’s review for some more context.
Stop with the sentence fragments, I know English grammar is a Western concept but it makes your writing look really fucking sloppy.