Okay, before I get into my thoughts on the book I have to start with a rant about reviews I've been seeing: This is not a Mulan re-telling. Stop comparing this to Mulan. Please. STOP. Mulan is based off a true story about a warrior woman who dons men's clothing and joins the war effort in China. This is about a high born Japanese girl who impersonates a boy in order to travel through some magical woods and hunt down ninjas. Just because a story involves a woman dressing as a man/boy, and is set in Asia, does not mean these are the same story, or even similar. (Hint: these stories are not similar at all.) There are tons of stories about women dressing up as men to infiltrate their society for one reason or another, and I don't see them being compared to Mulan. Which means this is happening because both of these stories are set in Asia. Chinese culture and Japanese culture are very different. They are not the same place. So yeah. Please stop. /end rant
Alright, now that I've gotten that off my chest lets dig into my review, shall we?
There is a lot to love about this book. Mariko starts out being soft and somewhat spoiled, and by the end of the book she has embraced her inner badass and come into her own. Her transformation takes place over the course of the book (instead of in a slap-dash chapter, which is so often the case in stories like these), and as a result it is convincing and rewarding. Even when I thought she was acting foolishly I believed in her reasoning, and I wanted to see her succeed. Stated more plainly, I liked her and I thought Ahdieh did a good job with her character development. The secondary characters were also decently drawn. The love interest was straight up teen lit stock bad boy, but most people will find that appealing. I did really appreciate that there wasn't a love triangle.
This book is filled with terms and concepts rooted in feudal Japanese culture, which I loved. Since I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy of this book it did not have a glossary in the back (finished copies will). Unless you are familiar with this time and region you will likely want to make use of that glossary. I was very thankful that I've studied Japan or I might have been a bit lost. The book talks a lot about Bushido, and many of Mariko's actions (as well as her brother's) are rooted in this philosophy. It adds a richness and additional layers to the story. It was refreshing to see an author actually do their best to evoke a sense of feudal Japan, instead of just giving people katanas and calling it good.
The world-building was a mixed bag. As I was discussing above, Ahdieh did a good job of transporting me to Japan. However, I was a little thrown off by the mystical elements. There is magic in this world, but it doesn't get used that much until late in the story. The magic wasn't very well developed, and I found myself uncertain as to what the rules were and whether it was common or not. I'm hoping that will be fleshed out more in the future.
So generally speaking this book has a lot going for it. Adventure, good pacing, well developed characters, and decent world building. So then why am I not rating this book higher? Personal taste really. I think this book is going to be a perfect 10/10 for a lot of people, and I'm looking forward to pressing it into the hands of teen readers. Where it fell down a bit for me was, well, it was very teen. Which is unfair, I know. The structure of the romance with the broody and mysterious boy was something I've read so many times I now find it a bit tiresome. The language was fairly simplistic. The plot was predictable. None of that was particularly damning, but it didn't elevate it to Amazing for me. Again, it's a personal taste thing.
All that said, if you're looking for a fast, fun, teen read, with plenty of wonderful Japanese flavor, a strong and clever heroine, and a dash of magic and romance, this book will leave you happy and waiting for more.