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 really enjoyed this story. It was well written and I loved the overall plot and world-building. However, there’s just something about this book that left me with mixed feelings about the story.
I think the first half of the story dragged a little bit and as a result, the last thirty pages or so were packed with a bit too much action. The beginning was quite slow, and it was halfway through the book before I really got interested. There was a point where I was thinking that this seemed a pretty typical YA plot, and seemed quite predictable, until the last thirty or so pages where everything just got out of control really quickly. At that point, it actually got a little difficult to follow, and I had to re-read a few passages, but besides that, I quite liked it. I’m just a little sad about the ending – it was such a good ending/bad cliffhanger, and I really want the next book soon.
The world-building was great. I love the fact it’s set in feudal Japan, although it seems to be a fictional setting rather than a historically accurate setting. In saying that, I haven’t actually researched this, but it seems like it’s set in a time where the shogun about to overthrow the emperor and daimyō before the Meiji period/Tokugawa shogunate (which is the only part of feudal Japanese history I’m familiar with). There’s a lot of references to Japanese culture like the geiko, the invention of the throwing star, and various alcoholic beverages such as sake and umeshu that the characters drank which makes the setting more authentic. There’s also a slight fantasy element, which I actually really liked. It didn’t really take away from the important elements, such as the plot or setting.
I’m really appreciative of the fact that this is a story that’s set in feudal Japan with a modern(ish) twist, but at the same time, the use of some of the vocabulary was questionable. As someone who is a mere learner of Japanese, I think that the choice of some words could’ve been different to make its meaning more emphatic. For one instance, in the context where Mariko’s maid just got killed, she said 「すみません」(sumimasen)、which to me means something like “excuse me, I’m sorry”, when the more emphatic apology would be 「ごめんなさい」(gomenasai). It’s just little emphatic nuances of the Japanese language that threw me off a little. In saying this, I do not claim to be a Japanese expert; although I did learn quite a bit about this particular historical era and lots of new Japanese vocabulary I probably would not have learnt otherwise.
I also can’t decide if the use of the name suffixes was authentic or just somewhat distracting. Maybe it’s because every time Japanese vocabulary is used, I’m reminded of the fact that maybe the whole book should be in Japanese, as opposed to being in English with Japanese words thrown in the mix. However, there are some really great lines of prose that I loved and are honestly beautiful sentences.
“Beautiful words were beautiful words, even to the most practical of minds.”
As for the characters, I have quite mixed feelings. I adore Mariko and her strength, tenacity, wit and cleverness. She was really firm in all her beliefs until she wasn’t, and she found strength in the things she didn’t necessarily think she would. I liked Okami, and Renmaru, As much as I liked all these characters, there wasn’t really that much character development, and I think that’s what was really lacking in this book. The romance was also really rushed – while I think the characters complement each other, I just thought the whole thing moved too quickly and was therefore pretty unrealistic. I think if characters who were sidelined in this book had some more page time or character development, the story would be richer and even more captivating.
“I believe the stars align so that souls can find one another. Whether they are meant to be souls in love or souls in life remains to be seen.”
The plot twist at the end I did not really see coming – I think Ahdieh has a gift of surprising everyone when they least expect it, and this was no exception. By the end, the little things that bothered me at the beginning didn’t really bother me anymore, and I enjoyed going on this emotional rollercoaster with all the characters. I loved all the themes of feminism, courage, loyalty and bravery that the book explored through the characters although I would’ve liked to see more character development.