Recently I read two YA books that I really enjoyed, both with strong female leads, vivid world-building, and if I may be shallow for a moment, absolutely gorgeous covers!
It’s a shame I only own these books on Kindle, because I literally adore both of these covers, especially this edition of Flame in the Mist!
But onto my thoughts about the books themselves…
Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh
“Be as swift as the wind. As silent as the forest. As fierce as the fire. As unshakable as the mountain. And you can do anything…”
Mariko may be clever and accomplished, but because she is a girl, her future is in the hands of her father. Unlike her brother Kenshin, who is a respected samurai, Mariko’s lot in life is marriage, and she is on her way to marry Prince Raiden, the illegitimate son of the Emperor when her party is ambushed on the way to the imperial city. Mariko narrowly escapes death and assumes the guise of a young boy to infiltrate the ranks of her suspected attackers, the mysterious Black Clan. However, she soon begins to learn that there’s much more to the Black Clan than she first suspects…
A while ago I read Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, and really enjoyed it, although I liked the first book much better than the second. I really loved what she had done with the Arabian Nights story, and so was beyond excited when I saw that she had done a duology loosely based on the Mulan story, but set in feudal Japan.
As in The Wrath and the Dawn, the setting of this book was exquisitely described (particularly the food…Renee Ahdieh’s books always seem to make me hungry!), and I very quickly found myself being drawn into the setting and the story.
Mariko as a main character was definitely interesting, as although she is physically weak she is definitely strong as a person, randomly deciding to track down the Black Clan herself rather than try and get home. At times I couldn’t really tell her motivations – for example she didn’t seem overly angry, just scared, after her party is attacked, so why search for the killers? – but I loved how she gets by on her wits, rather than being a skilled fighter.
I also liked how the narrative also follows her brother Kenshin, even though he isn’t always a likeable character. The fact that his perspective keeps showing you that he is near her makes it tense, as you wonder if she will get caught and taken back home. I also liked how her relationship with him grows more complex as she begins to learn the truth about her family, and sees for herself some of her brother’s decisions and actions.
I also liked that with this book, the love interest isn’t initially clear. I knew it would be one of the Black Clan, but the one I initially assumed would be the love interest proved to be wrong. I liked her growing friendships however with all of the members of the Black Clan, and how these relationships were complicated by the fact she is pretending to be someone else.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and particularly loved the setting and how vividly drawn it was. I also really like the character of Mariko, even if her actions are sometimes confusing, and I liked the love story at the heart of the book. The ending definitely left me eager to find out what happens next, so I can’t wait to read Smoke in the Sun at some point soon!
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
‘“I’m not going to wear a red dress,” she said.
“It would look stunning, My Lady,” she called.
She spoke to the bubbles gathered on the surface of the water. “If there’s anyone I wish to stun at dinner, I’ll hit him in the face.”’
Katsa is a Graceling – a person born with an extreme skill – and her advanced fighting skills make her a deadly weapon. Unfortunately for her, she is also cousin to a cruel King, and so has spent most of her life being used as his enforcer. Growing tired of this role, she decides to set out on a quest with the handsome and kindly Prince Po to find out the truth behind his grandfather’s kidnap, and along the way she learns the truth about her Grace, and finds herself in terrible peril…but she also finds love.
Whilst I love a strong female character, I have to admit, I did have reservations about Katsa at the beginning of this book. Her strength seemed to come entirely from her fighting ability, and in a way I’m kind of tired of books that portray being a ‘strong female’ as simply being good at fighting. I feel like there’s been litany of books with characters like that ever since The Hunger Games became so huge, and I personally feel like there should be something else to a lot of these kickass female characters (take Celaena from the Throne of Glass series for example – she can fight but she’s also sarcastic, snappy and girly, so has multiple facets to her personality).
However, after a while it became clear that Katsa wasn’t a simple ‘tough-girl’ stereotype, as her strong sense of morality and guilt at having been her cousin’s lackey for so long shines through. I can’t say that she’s my favourite character ever – she was a little too much of a goody two-shoes for my liking – but she was definitely likeable.
Po, however, I loved, and I really liked the way their friendship develops, and gradually blossoms into a relationship. Love interests who are initially snarky and mean are the norm in a lot of YA books, but Po was genuinely sweet and kind throughout, and I really liked that!
I also loved the villain of the novel, although I won’t spoil who it is for people who haven’t read it. The villain’s Graceling power was truly terrifying though, and there’s a strong sense of peril throughout the book, and a few nasty surprises and twists!
The world itself was really well drawn, and I liked the concept of people having Graceling powers that allow them to do extraordinary things, but being shunned for them. I really felt for Katsa’s isolation because everyone fears her, so it was nice to see her develop such strong relationships with both Po and Bitterblue (another amazing character!).
I’ve noticed that there are two other books in this series, focusing on different characters, and I loved the world of this story so much that I can’t wait to return to it in the next two books! I’m particularly excited about the third, which looks to focus on the character Bitterblue, so I’ll hopefully get to it soon!
So have you read either of these books? What did you think?