Hattori Mariko was on the way to meet her betrothed when her carriage was attacked, leaving her the lone survivor thanks to a servant shielding her. Knowing that it was likely that she was the target, she disguised herself as a boy and tracked down the Black Clan, the group she suspected was responsible for the attack. She wanted to find out why someone would want to kill her, as well as exact her revenge. When she found herself one of them, however, she began to wonder if they were really the ones responsible for the attack. In the meantime, her twin brother Kenshin is convinced that she’s still alive, and is doing his best to find her.
I have to admit that this book isn’t as fantastical as I was led to believe. I wanted a magical feudal Japan, and I got… mentions of yokai and a little magic at the end. The scene with a Jubokko was great, but it happened halfway into the book – I stopped at said to my friend Kit (this was during lunch) “finally some yokai!” and she replied, “halfway through the book?”
I don’t mind this with low fantasy, like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin where it doesn’t get really magical until deeper in the book, but with historical fantasy, it read too much like historical when there’s no fantasy element, and I’m not a big fan of historical. I just start questioning details and get indignant about anachronistic language or happenings or… you get the idea. I kept telling myself it’s a fantasy throughout the book. More and more fantasy elements appear towards the end, though, so I’m guessing the next book will be different.
While the fantasy elements took too long to emerge, the romance happened more quickly than I expected. I would have preferred the romance to take longer to play out, especially since this isn’t a standalone – but I do ship the pairing. (There’s one pairing that I’d be even more into, but I don’t think it’s going to happen outside of fanfic.)
What I really liked were Mariko and Kenshin. They were both idealistic, having been raised in a samurai family, following the bushido code. Unfortunately, real life is messy and even an average person might tell white lies, or do unsavoury things to survive – and they’ve never considered their family’s wealth and influence, and how they came to be. I liked the slow dawning awareness each of them went through, as they begin to experience more of the world outside of what they’ve always known.
I also liked the observations about gender as Mariko pretends to be a boy – how much freer she felt even when tied to the Black Clan, and how other people appreciated her intellect so much more when they thought she was male. Speaking of her intellect, I thought it was simultaneously annoying and super cool that she “invented” both the shuriken and the smoke bomb in this book. The daughter of a samurai, shaping up future ninja – how apt. I loved Mariko’s development – in the beginning, she was thinking thoughts that seemed like she looked down on women who only cared about beautiful clothes, but when she got to know Yumi, a geiko from the entertainment district, Mariko quickly realised that femininity did not mean weakness.
I’ve seen others referencing Mulan when talking about this book, and I guess I don’t really see it, other than the cross-dressing bit. Mariko wasn’t like any version of Mulan. In fact, she ran away from someone who wants to kill her, and found herself with a band of misfits – if that reminded me of any fairy tale, it would be Snow White. It doesn’t matter, though. Mariko was smart and inventive, if naive at first, and she may have her share of flaws, but admitting she was wrong didn’t seem to be one of them. I liked her a lot, and I wanted to read more about Kenshin, and his growth to the same level of self-awareness that his sister went through in this book. I’m looking forward to the next book, yes, but more than that – between this and her Wrath and the Dawn books, I think I’d pick up anything with Renee Ahdieh’s name on the cover right now.