Synopsis: The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.
Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she’s quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she’s ever known.
Well. That was disappointing.
First off, this wasn’t a Mulan re-telling. I don’t know if it was ever marketed as one, or if people just made that assumption because of the description of this book when it says “Mulan meets…” whatever it is it said. There are similarities, yes, but it’s mostly with Mariko and her disguising herself as a peasant boy to find out who tried to kill her.
Which, for the record, we don’t even get an answer to. I mean, I guess I can assume that someone from Mariko’s convoy who makes a reappearance later in the story is to blame for Mariko and her convoy being attacked, but it’d be speculation, because it’s never explicitly said he attempted to kill her.
This story also takes place in feudal Japan, not China, so… not Mulan.
Anyway, having just come off The Wrath and the Dawn duology high — a series that I loved, by the way — I had high hopes for this one, mostly because it sounded interesting and everyone was hyping it up so much, I wanted to see for myself. Unfortunately, it just didn’t pan out for me.
My biggest issue is the romance. This book would have been just fine without it. I honestly hate the fact that Mariko and Ōkami developed feelings for each other, because I feel like their relationship kind of undermined Ōkami’s character and made him do a complete 180 in his attitude. I damn near almost DNF’d the book because of it.
My next biggest issue was Mariko. For the majority of this book, she does absolutely nothing. She kept waxing poetic about honor and trying to infiltrate the Black Clan to get answers as to who tried to kill her and why, but really, she just remained in their camp doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and plotting (not in that order) without getting any kind of confirmation that The Black Clan did what she assumes. She also kept adamantly declaring that she’s not weak, yet she was.
Honestly, though, this book was just blah. I understand that the writing is supposed to be whimsical, but certain things in this book were written as if they were supposed to have more importance than necessary. There’s unnecessary italicization of certain words and phrases, and honestly, this book didn’t even feel like Ahdieh’s writing, if I’m being honest. I’ve also seen other reviews point out similarities between FITM and TWATD, and while I missed the connection while reading, thinking back, some passages were eerily similar.
Then there’s The Black Clan. I still have no idea what their purpose is even supposed to be. I mean, I got that they’re kind of along the same line as Robin Hood, with how they try to “redistribute” the wealth by giving it to the poor, but that was, like, one scene. The majority of this book keeps the reader assuming that they’re these unsavory thieves who may or may not have killed a bunch of innocents in Mariko’s convoy. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The convoy thing happens within the first chapter, if I remember correctly. If not the first, then the second.
The writing in this one was inconsistent, and thus became repetitive over time. There’s unexplained magic happening, as well as a lot of random characters that come and go for whatever reason, and the last 10% of the book (I read the book on my Kindle via the library app, Overdrive) was confusing as hell. The “final battle” was hardly a battle at all, and it was all just so… anticlimactic.
I expected more, and got way less. I’m assuming that there will be a sequel at some point, based on how open the ending is, and if there is, I don’t know if I’ll ever read it should it be written. This was just one, gigantic letdown for me. I gave the book two stars on Goodreads, but in reality, since they refuse to do half stars, it’s more like 1.75 (which isn’t even a half point, I know, but still, it’s not quite a two).
Edited to Add: I forgot to mention that world building leaves a lot to be desired. It’s supposed to be Feudal Japan, and I would have loved to have seen more of that, but instead we get a whole lot of trees.