Review: Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh

Review: Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh

Smoke in the Sun

By Renée Ahdieh

YA, Historical Fantasy

For weeks, seventeen-year-old Mariko pretended to be a boy to infiltrate the notorious Black Clan and bring her bould-be murderer to justice. She didn’t expect to find a place for herself among the group of fighters—a life of usefulness—and she certainly didn’t expect to fall in love. Now she heads to the imperial castle to resume a life she never wanted to save the boy she loves.

Ōkami has been captured, and his execution is a certainty. Mariko will do what she must to ensure his survival—even marry the soverign’s brother, saying goodby to a life with Ōkami forever.

As Mariko settles into her days at court—making both friends and enemies—and attempting Ōkami’s rescue at night, the secrets of the royal court begin to unravel as competing agendas collide. One arrow sets into motion a series of deadly events even the most poerful magic cannot contain. Mariko and Ōkami risk everything to right past wrongs and restore the honor of a kingdom thrown into chaos by a sudden war, hoping against hope that when the dust settles, they will find a way to be together.

oOo

This is a really good follow up to Flame in the Mist, but it focuses more on the love story between Mariko and Ōkami so I wasn’t quite as riveted as I was with the first book. Still lots of ninjas, though. There’s more political drama in this one as well. Mariko is in the imperial city and everyone; the emperor, empress, concubines, heirs, and ladies-in-waiting all have an agenda and are all maneuvering to get more power. That definitely keeps the pages turning. There’s a sorceress in the palace as well, so we keep that thread of fantasy going throughout the book.

Mariko is still the fierce and adaptable character we had in the last book, but Smoke in the Sun is more love story than adventure story. To me, it sometimes feels like Mariko’s interactions with Ōkami are a little too HOW DO I LIIIIVE WITHOUT YOUUUUUU. Sure, Ōkami is set to be executed literally any day, but, they’ve known each other all of three months or so.

Calm down.

Or maybe that’s a solid reaction. I don’t know. I’m aro/ace, my gauge on appropriate romantic reactions didn’t even get installed.

Anyway, we’re given better introductions to Roku and Raiden who we meet in Flame in the Mist. Roku is the heir apparent and his brother, Raiden, is Mariko’s betrothed. They’re brothers and thick as thieves even though their mothers hate each other. As Roku gains more and more power though we begin to see that he’s not just a cunning and spoiled little prince, he’s also a genuine sociopath.

Raiden is little better, constantly following his brother’s orders and whims, but as the story continues we see the two begin to diverge. As Roku becomes more and more depraved, Raiden becomes more and more uncomfortable and begins to question his blind loyalty.

Meanwhile, Mariko and Ōkami are in the background with “I Will Always Love You” playing on repeat and the rest of the Black Clan waving their lighters in the air.

But, even with this being more a love story than anything else, I will happily read this again because it is a wonderful conclusion to Flame in the Mist. And I still love Takeda.

 

You can find Smoke in the Sun by Renée Ahdieh at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author here.

 

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Review: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

Review: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist

By Renée Ahdieh

YA, Historical Fantasy

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.

oOo

Oh boy, you know I love me some ninjas. I had this book at the checkout counter before conscious thought caught up to me. It’s hard to find good fantasy with ninjas. I don’t know why; their mythology is ripe for excellent stories. But Ahdieh has made an incredible story with a smattering of supernatural elements that elevate this Finding Yourself/Love story from good to great.

Mariko is a wonderful protagonist. She comes from wealth and has lived a life of luxury, but she doesn’t fall into that floundering fish out of water trope we often see with wealthy characters suddenly thrust among People. She’s smart, adaptable, resourceful, and fierce. But she still has her blind spots. She’s the daughter of a well known samurai and as such she’s never known cold or hunger and this book takes the time to show her that the lovely bubble she grew up in doesn’t apply to the peasants working the fields. This is as much a political drama as it is an adventure and love story.

The Black Clan speaks true to the workings of ninja clans in feudal Japan. They’re ronin and peasants who have banded together for revenge against the ruling class. But we get a little bit of the mythos with our Black Clan leaders, Takeda and Ōkami, who have made a deal with a demon to get supernatural powers.

My favorite of the boys is Takeda, he’s a cheeky little jackass and I just adore him. Ōkami swings between apathy and agitation, depending on how much Takeda is teasing him. The two are best friends and have been through hell together and it shows. There’s a lot of friendship on the page, but so much subtext in all of their interactions you know the author has taken the time to think through the entirety of their lives, not just what’s written down.

I say this with pretty much every book I read, but I don’t care about romance or love because so often those stories follow the same formula over and over again. It’s tedious. But Ahdieh throws a nice little twist into things. When Mariko meets Takeda and Ōkami, she’s dressed as a boy. No one knows she’s a girl in disguise and they treat her like they would any other boy.

Which makes things delightful when Ōkami starts catching feelings. So much fun. I’ve read other books where a character poses as a boy but the love story doesn’t start its arc until they’re revealed as a girl, because gods help us if a someone finds themselves attracted to what they think is the same sex. So a round of applause to Ahdieh for breaking the trend and making this fledgling romance funny and true to life.

The story ends on a cliffhanger. While Mariko is out searching for the people who want her dead, her twin brother, Kenshin, is searching for her. He, like everyone else in Mariko’s previous life, think she’s meek and fragile and likely being horribly traumatized and brutalized by being captured by bandits. So when he finally finds the Black Clan stronghold there’s an intense battle and we get to see Mariko, once again show off her intellect not only in the weapons she designs but also in how she figures out how to end the confrontation when the Black Clan begins losing ground.

This is definitely a book I will read again, not only because I love all things ninja, but because Ahdieh has written a great character with Mariko and a compelling story. Even if you take out the ninjas (but why would you?) you’d still have a page turner on your hands.

There is of course a sequel, Smoke in the Sun, where we see Mariko heading to the imperial city and the nest of vipers that awaits her there.

 

If you’d like to pick up Flame in the Mist, you can find it at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author, Renée Ahdieh

 

Review: Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

Review: Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

By F.C. Yee

YA, Fantasy

Genie Lo is one among droves of Ivy-hopeful overachievers in her sleepy Bay Area suburb. You know, the type who wins. When she’s not crushing it at volleyball or hitting the books, Genie is typically working on how to crack the elusive Harvard entry code.

But when her hometown comes under siege from Hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged. Enter Quintin Sun, a mysterious new kid in class who becomes Genie’s self-appointed guide to battling demons. While Genie knows Quintin only as an attractive transfer student with an oddly formal command of the English language, in another reality he is Sun Wukon, the mythological Monkey King incarnate—right down to the furry tail and penchant for peaches.

Suddenly, acing the SATs is the last of Genie’s worries. The fates of her friends, family, and the entire Bay Area all depend on her summoning an inner power that Quentin assures her is strong enough to level the very gates of Heaven. But every second Genie spends tapping into the secret of her true nature is a second in which the lives of her loved ones hang in the balance.

oOo

I feel that anyone out there flogging themselves about less than perfect scores on tests and worried about future career paths will relate to Genie. Genie is a hyper-rational sixteen year old girl and it takes quite a bit for Quentin to get her to finally believe the fantastic and otherworldly things that are happening. It’s nice to have a character who translates their fear of the unknown into concrete mathematical equations and proven scientific theories. Even if all that rationale doesn’t work on magic and gods.

Quentin is…well, he’s a god in mortal form. So if you’ve seen Thor, I’d say Quentin follows that character arc really well. He’s kind of a jackass when Genie first meets him and she does everything she can to tell him to piss off. It’s great to have a protagonist that doesn’t immediately swoon over the cute new weird kid in class. It’s not until halfway through the book or more that attraction is even brought up. Again, it’s really nice to have that. So often in YA books we’re introduced to our protagonist and then two possible love interests within the first two chapters and it’s. so. Boring.

Not here! And the relationship between Genie and Quentin is so wonderfully organic. It’s not like all at once they’re BFFs and then dating. Genie still routinely butts heads with Quentin and resists all the weird things happening in her ordered life. Their personality clashes are consistent but not extreme enough to make their attraction to each other feel forced. It’s so much fun to read their interactions even while they’re not battling demon hordes.

I hope to see more adventures from Genie and Quentin. The way the book ends it could either work as a standalone or as a series. I really like all the characters introduced in this book, not just Quentin and Genie, but our secondary characters as well. So get out there a buy this book, so we can see more from F.C. Yee!

 

You can find The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And learn more about the author here.

Review: Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

Review: Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

Ice Dogs

By Terry Lynn Johnson

MG, Adventure

Lost.

That’s how the fourteen-year-old dogsledder Victoria Secord has felt ever since her father died. A champion musher, Victoria is independent, self-reliant, and, thanks to her father, an expert in surviving the unforgiving Alaskan bush. When an injured “city boy” and a freak snowstorm both catch Victoria and her dog team by surprise, however, a routine trip becomes a life-or-death trek through the frozen wilderness. As temperatures drop and food stores run out, Victoria must find a way to save them all.

oOo

Of course spending a few months in Alaska working with dogs I had to pick up a book about sled dogs. If you have someone in your life who’s interested in mushing then I would highly recommend this book. The author did the leg work to make this book authentic. The commands and equipment used and even Victoria’s attitude toward her dogs are very true to life. There are a couple of moments of artistic licensing, like when Victoria falls off the sled but manages to catch up to them and gracefully hop on the runners. When I told the mushers about that scene they all laughed. Dogs are great, but they will 100% leave your ass if you fall off.

Victoria is a headstrong and stubborn character. Sometimes she reads like she has something to prove, but nothing concrete ever comes up. She’s well received and respected in the mushing community as a great young musher, so it’s not the usual “woman must prove her place” trope that this could have fallen in to.

Victoria is pretty messed up from her dad’s death just shy of a year prior. Her dad is the one that taught Victoria to run dogs and how to survive out on the trail and that was their thing. Her mom is categorically uninterested in dogs and that puts the two at odds. That’s a problem, because Victoria wants to go look at some more dogs from another musher who’s getting out of them, but her mom doesn’t want to drive her there. So Victoria, in all of her teenage righteousness, decides to take herself there using her own dog team while her mom is at work.

Now, first off, if she found a dog, how was she going to get it back? Second, she was born and raised in Alaska, it’s late winter/early spring, but she doesn’t even bother to look at the weather before undertaking this journey. Third, she’s never taken a team over to this musher’s house and plots a vague course on how she thinks she can get there and packs according to that.

This is where the book started to lose me.

You can’t set this character up as someone who knows how to run dogs and survive in the bush and then have her make these huge oversights. I can understand the hubris that lead her to packing for her trip based on what she assumed her team could do. But not checking the weather? Again, it’s late winter/early spring in Alaska and she’s going on a thirty-five mile run with her dogs through unfamiliar territory.

Our “city boy,” Chris, is pretty much a stock character of “fish out of water” trope He’s from Toronto who just moved to the area four days ago. He is the physical manifestation of “If things continue to get worse, I’ll have to ask you to stop helping.” Literally everything he touches just bursts into flames. I wasn’t really sold on his character and their friendship arc felt a little stiff.

Overall, this is a good story. It’s full of action and it’s tearful towards the end when Victoria finally accepts that her dad’s death was an accident and no power on Earth could have saved him.

I would recommend Ice Dogs for anyone who enjoys adventure and action.

 

You can find Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson at:

Barnes and Noble

Amazon

And learn more about the author at her website