Book Review – Poison River

Book Review – Poison River

Next up in the Aconyte book line for L5R is Poison River, a detective novel by Josh Reynolds. In Rokugan however, it’s not as simple as putting together the clues and pointing at the bad guy. Our protagonist, Daidoji Shin, has to navigate the intrigues of the City of the Rich Frog if he wants justice.

Poison River by Josh Reynolds is the second Legend of the Five Rings novel from Aconyte Books. I’ve already discussed in a previous article how Curse of Honor is a perfect entry point and explains some of the key details like Bushi and Honor. Poison River is a different beast. For someone unfamiliar with the setting, it’s still a gripping and engaging story full of mystery, Samurai, Ninja, and Pirates. For someone who already knows the background, it’s dripping in detail of everyday life in Rokugan and expands on existing lore in interesting ways.

City of the Rich Frog

The story is set in The City of the Rich Frog, an important trade city that is contested between 3 of the major clans- the Lion, the Unicorn, and the Dragon (represented by the Dragonfly clan). This bubbling tension is managed by a governor from one of the Imperial families, Miya Tetsua, who is tasked with maintaining the peace. This is all stuff explained in the book, but readers familiar with the lore may already be aware. It’s a major city, so it feels very different to the border outpost in Curse of Honor. It’s full of people and character and life. It is a fantastic setting choice. The story delves into the people of Rokugan and we get to know a range of characters across the multi-layered strata of Rokungai society.

The main character of the story is an intriguing Courtier called Daidoji Shin. He is asked by the Governor to investigate a mystery around a poisoned shipment of rice. Shin is possibly the worst member of the Crane clan, a Courtier who has disappointed his family enough to be sent to this city of only minor significance to the Crane. Wonderfully, he is also a perfect exemplar of the Crane clan, for his status and position are the product of a carefully orchestrated plan on his part to be free of the burden of responsibility. This allows him to indulge in a wide range of studies, many dubious in nature, in which he excels. This character really reminds me of the classic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, a polymath genius not particularly interested in playing by society’s rules. That his bodyguard, Kasami, is a no-nonsense Bushi who occasionally berates him like Watson does to Sherlock, adds to that image.

A second significant character is Nekoma Okuni, a renegade member from the Cat clan. This is of particular interest to long time fans as the Cat clan are a new addition to the background. They appeared in the core roleplaying guide with a single paragraph and no more since (at least that I’m aware of). This means that every word Okuni speaks and every breath she takes adds to the tiny bit of lore we have about them. She’s not the only Shinobi either. Delightfully, we’re not dealing with black pyjamas and magic powers styled-Shinobi. Instead, these are rough and bloody creatures, only separated from common thugs by dedication, competence, and skill. 

The focus on Honor in Legend of the Five Rings has often been a source of criticism. The idea of a society rigidly adhering to a strict code of the warrior not only stretches the imagination but carries with it negative stereotypes. Where the previous book Curse of Honor gave us Bushi struggling to live up to the code, Poison River gives us the rest of the picture. Some of the characters, like Shin, have a cavalier approach to Bushido, treating it more as a guideline than a firm set of rules. Others like Okuni, a Shinobi, consider themselves outside the strictures of Bushido and see it as a weakness in its adherents. It might not always be obvious, but the book digs a lot deeper into the concept of honor than you might initially imagine. The Shinobi have their own code of honor even if others don’t understand it. Although Shin might ignore the social niceties at times, he strives for the truth, shows courage in the face of danger, is compassionate to those others might ignore, and is a fine example of many (if not all) of the pillars of Bushido. Meanwhile, individuals seen as paragons of virtue in the city have their own sins, turning a blind eye when it suits them and much worse. This is the Bushido I’ve always known from the lore, not a checklist of things to do, but an unattainable ideal full of conflicting ideals that can never fully be reconciled. For the majority of Rokugani, it’s a luxury that real life doesn’t allow and this book captures it nicely.

Shinobi tools art from the LCG

Putting aside my excitement for all the wonderful background, the story itself is gripping. Like any good mystery, it teases out the info giving you enough hints to try to piece things together yourself before revealing the answer along with two more questions! As the story develops, we learn more about the characters we know and are introduced to new ones. Links and connections between characters become an ever-growing web, often in surprising ways. At no point did I ever feel lost, and the gradual process of Daidoji Shin digging deeper into the mystery and the workings of the city felt very natural. The final big reveal certainly caught me off guard, and I was delighted to see the author didn’t fall into easy tropes but instead peaked behind the curtain and considered how the world actually worked and not the surface illusion.

This book was an absolute delight, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series. For more info on the book and how to order it, check out Aconyte Books and if you want to know more about Josh Reynolds and his inspiration for the book, give a listen to the interview The Table is Yours did recently with him about the book.

If you have any comments or feedback please post them in the comments section below. Check us out on the Imperial Advisor website, podcast, and YouTube channel for more discussion about the L5R LCG.

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