Official Summary: 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 Black Clan and track 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
My Thoughts: Ever since I first heard about this book, I knew I needed to read it. While not a Mulan retelling, it does have a lot of similarities and parallels to the story. En route to marry her betrothed, Mariko’s convoy is attacked and she is the sole survivor. Dressing as a boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan, the prime suspects in her attempted murder. But things get complicated when her twin brother, a gifted samurai, goes searching for her and she begins falling for a member of the Black Clan. It’s a wonderful book with lots of political intrigue, intriguing characters, and a beautiful romance. Now, let’s step into the magical world of feudal Japan, and discuss my thoughts on the novel.
This book was filled with excellent characters. Mariko, though not physically strong, is immensely clever and always faces her fears head on. She invents many amazing things in this book, including the throwing star and a smokescreen grenade. She’s inquisitive and curious, causing the noble class to label her “odd.” She’s also stubborn and doesn’t always know when to keep her mouth shut.
And, of course, she’s on a mission of vengeance… for herself. While she is, in part, trying to avenge the rest of her convoy, she is largely in this for herself. Mariko dreams of proving her worth beyond her marriageability. She listens tirelessly for any information on why the Black Clan would target her and continuously plans ways to destroy them. She’s a complex, well-rounded character and I fell in love with her almost immediately.
We also have some great side characters, including Okami and Ranmaru. Okami is an incredibly gifted fighter, despite the lazy affect he displays. Equipped with mysterious powers, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He is as stubborn as Mariko, though he’s gathered more wisdom in his short, difficult life. He’s suspicious of interlopers and doesn’t suffer fools. He’s an excellent parallel to and love interest for Mariko.
Ranmaru is the leader of the Black Clan and he’s a master of the political sphere. He knows how to talk his way around anyone and will do anything for his friends. We also spend a lot of time with Kenshin, Mariko’s twin brother and the great Dragon of Kai. He’s an exemplary tracker, but isn’t the best at reading people. He tends to discover things too late and struggles with the meaning of honor.
Then we have some colorful minor characters, like Yoshi and Ren. Yoshi is a middle-aged cook and a member of the Black Clan. He’s blunt and gruff, but deep down he’s caring and well-meaning. He cooks all his food with care, but underneath hides a warrior. Ren is a bit of a bully, but deep down he cares for others. While not my favorite of the bunch, he did add some flavor and variety to the Black Clan.
As I said earlier, the romance was excellent. If you love the hate-to-love trope, then this is the perfect book for you. Mariko and Okami start off at odds. Mariko hates him because she believes him to be one of the culprits who attacked her convoy. Okami doesn’t trust Mariko— or, as she calls herself, Takeo— and with admittedly good reason. They have an excellent back-and-forth that borders on bickering. But you can see as they slowly grow to care about each other, against their better judgment. Ranmaru is even aware of it before they are. And once they get together… Damn, those lines! Stab me in the heart, why don’t you? I can’t wait to see how they’ll progress in the sequel.
The plot was largely character-driven, which I always love. The information gathered and choices they make dictate where the story will go. And there are some epic plot twists you don’t see coming. Even when you think you suspect something, it never goes quite the way you think.
While we stay largely in Mariko’s point of view, we occasionally get Okami’s, Kenshin’s, and the royal family’s. This adds to the story by allowing a bit of dramatic irony. We know more about the scope of events than the characters do, allowing us to follow along easier and hypothesize more.
Political intrigue also adds another layer to the story, raising the stakes and forcing the characters to think more shrewdly. And that ending was rough. Phew! It’s going to take me a long time to get over that.
Thematically, this story explores family and what makes it such. It compares biological family with found family and weighs the merits of each. There is also a lot of discussion of honor and what makes something honorable or dishonorable. It also postulates that there could be a gray area, that you can do a dishonorable thing for an honorable reason and vice versa. It considers identity and masks, asking how much of a mask is actually false. After all, there is always some truth in a lie. It’s a very thought-provoking read, as well as an entertaining one.
My only complaint was that it took a few chapters to get into and that Mariko was kind of in a character loop at the beginning of the book. While it was realistic, it was also kind of annoying. But once you get to the part where Mariko dons her disguise (which is relatively early in the book), it gets really good and more than makes up for any flaws.
All in all, this was an excellent novel. It immerses you in a different time and culture and adds a dash of magic. While not all questions were answered, it was still wrapped up rather well. For a cliffhanger, that is. I fell in love with these characters and was shook to my core by their romance. I am very happy to say that Renee Ahdieh has yet to let me down, and I cannot wait for the next installment. A story well told.
My Rating: 4.5