- Page Count: 368
- Release Date: May 16, 2017
- My Rating: 5 stars
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.
had this pitched to me as a “loose retelling of Mulan set in feudal Japan,” (which I will address at the bottom) so I went into it with pretty high expectations. But that still didn’t prepare me for HOW AMAZING this book is.
“Be as swift as the wind. As silent as the forest. As fierce as the fire. As unshakable as the mountain.”
(Very minor general spoilers… nothing too serious).
The story starts with a young boy watching his father’s execution, which provides some background on the emperor’s sketchy decisions and the boy’s future motivations. This all gets wonderfully complex, but I also don’t want to spoil the plot. So maybe just take my word for it that this story is WAY more elaborate than I’m going to make it sound…
The main character Mariko has been raised in a sheltered, very privileged life so she could someday marry well and elevate her father’s social standing. She’s on her way to marry the prince when her convoy is attacked by the Black Clan. Bravery doesn’t come naturally to Mariko, who’s more of a planner. Her mind is her strongest weapon and she’s invented some pretty neat things. But right from the start of the story, she’s forced to take action. An ongoing theme is how “we choose what we are in any situation, be it a word or an idea.”
Mariko knows if she returns home, her parents would just send her off to marry the prince again. So she disguises herself as a
guy and sets off to learn who tried to kill her and why. She wants to “keep her family’s honor intact and prove her worth beyond the marriage market.”
Her brother Kenshin is a samurai known as The Dragon of Kai. His POV tracks Mariko and shows his hardened resolve to get revenge on the Black Clan for a mounting list of reasons. Kenshin & Mariko’s close relationship is both adorable and heartbreaking as they start to have opposing goals.
Mariko ends up joining the Black Clan with the goal to “follow orders. Engender trust. Strike when they least expect it.”But they turn out to be different than she thought. As they rob the rich and give to the poor, Mariko discovers her father’s been treating others poorly and wakes up to a new reality: “true weakness is weakness of spirit. Mariko had lived a life of wealth and privilege. A life spent blissfully unaware of the suffering around her.”
Mariko has some truly incredible character growth over the course of the story as she decides she won’t be a useless prize to be sold and begins to fight for the new home she’s found. I absolutely loved how stubborn, fierce, and honorable she was. She learns that “the only power any man has over you is the power you give him.”
I loved so many of the Black Clan members, but Okami is the greatest. He’s a leader who eventually teaches Mariko to fight and it’s quite possibly one of the most adorable hate-to-love romances I’ve found. I just ship them SO MUCH. I had a stupid grin on my face in so many parts. Okami’s an amazing feminist and neither one of them is looking to the other to complete them: “she was not a half. She was wholly her own.”
All of the characters are super well done, actually… their decisions all make total sense (even the ones you hate to see happen). I liked how Okami’s character has a ton of depth and is fighting a lot of inner battles, too. The pages are pretty much packed with his wise insights on life:
“I believe we are all things, depending on the situation. Given the right time and the right circumstance, any man or woman can be water or fire or earth or metal.”
“You deny the truth of our inclinations.”
“No. I deny being a slave to any one thing. In any situation we can choose who we are and choose who we want to be.”
Renee Ahdieh also makes some amazing statements on the different kinds of strength of women. I’ve been getting tired of books that try to create strong female characters by showing how they don’t need a man etc because that is STILL defining women through men… it’s just by their absence in that case. I wanted to hug this book for allowing the women to be complete characters in their own right without fitting any one image of strength.
The Black Clan goes to a tea house, where Mariko asks a geiko if she’s 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.”
You know a story’s good when you don’t want it to end and are still thinking about the characters later. It did kind of lose my attention a bit around 30%, but the last half just kept getting better and better! Honestly, the plot was really well paced. A lot of people are asking if this is better or worse than The Wrath and the Dawn, so let me just say that they’re different books. That’s about it. The styles feel different, but I don’t think that necessarily means one is “better.” They were both 5 star reads for me!
I absolutely loved the setting, too – it’s an amazingly detailed, gorgeous version of feudal Japan with hints of magic. There are political schemes, realistic social issues, and some seriously hilarious moments. I loved everything and really hope this can be made into a movie someday!
When I originally said elements reminded me of Mulan, that was in no way because it’s set in an Asian country. The fact that the main character disguised herself as a guy, doesn’t want the other guy fighters to discover her identity, has an awkward bathing scene, was trained to fight by the leader whom she eventually falls for, etc all had hints of Mulan. And yes, those are pretty general concepts now that I look back at it… but I was told this story was a retelling, so maybe that’s why I was looking so hard for the familiar elements and having fun with that.
If I said that Cinder was a retelling of Cinderella, that doesn’t imply that I think Chinese and French culture are interchangeable. I was never once merging Chinese and Japanese cultures in my mind by looking for how basic elements from Mulan’s story could be placed in a new context. My absolute favorite thing in books is when parts of one story inspire little things in another, so sometimes I also freak out about very small details that aren’t that big overall (like when I saw hints of Mulan in Princess of Thorns).
But after stepping away from the story for a few weeks I really don’t think this is a retelling in any way. It’s 100% its own story. (And honestly, “inspired by” seems like a bit of a stretch to me as well, but I suppose there are still the very basic similarities you can have fun with if you want to look for them). So to everyone who was excited for a retelling: this is an incredible original story and you’re going to love it so, so much.
Thank you to the publisher for sending me an ARC. The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.