Genre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A captivating fantasy set in feudal Japan with mythology, monsters, samurai and just the right amount of romance. There’s definitely a lot to like about this story and with a heroine who uses her knowledge and talents rather than special powers or fighting skills we have someone we can all relate to.
Synopsis (from GoodReads)
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’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.
Yay!!! At long last we finally have a YA fantasy with a female main character we can relate to. Mariko may not have special snowflake super powers, be particularly blood thirsty or have incredible fighting skills which allow her to defeat all of her enemies and save the world in the blink of an eye but this story is all the better for it. She’s scared a lot of the time, she’s physically weaker than the boys but she’s smart and inventive and learns to use those abilities to hold her own and find her place.
There is a real girl power theme running throughout this book, which I loved, but unlike most YA fantasy stories this power doesn’t come from Mariko competing to show she’s just as strong or fierce but from realizing she has unique skills that make her just as valuable, something a lot of girls can relate and aspire to.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of action as this story is packed full of it. It begins with a young boy watching the execution of his father (which was brutal but gripping) and from there on in it doesn’t let up. I’ve seen a lot of reviews describing it as a Mulan retelling but while Mariko disguises herself as a boy and has to learn to fight that’s pretty much where the similarities end. There’s no noble purpose of trying to save her father by going off to war in his place but a slightly more selfish desire to find out who was behind an attack on her and also to find some freedom from the role she’s being pushed into.
There are a few twists and turns in the story and it definitely makes for some addictive reading. I have to confess there weren’t many twists that surprised me, I had an inkling around most of them, but it was still enjoyable following Mariko on her journey of discovery.
There is a bit of romance in this but it’s not too heavy and I really liked it as it has that hate to love thing going on. There’s a definite spark between Mariko and a certain bandit and one of the highlights of this book for me was the banter and teasing between them.
The other characters and the world the author creates were also fantastic. Ahdieh has a real talent for describing both people and places so that you can perfectly imagine them and they feel completely real.
With all these pluses this book could have been a five star read but it’s not quite perfect. It’s a little lacking in originality, Mariko does some downright silly things despite supposedly being clever and great at reading people and it felt like the magical elements were a bit light. I would have really liked to have a bit more explanation of the magic system in particular, although maybe the author’s leaving that till the next book in the series.
Overall it’s a great story and definitely one I’d recommend.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC