Poison River is the second story Aconyte have published in the land of Rokugan, home of the Legend of the Five Rings, following Curse of Honor, released earlier this year, as well as the second title from Josh Reynolds. Where Curse of Honor leaned strongly into the Monsters and Horror side of the setting, Poison River focuses on the other key element of Rokugan, the courtly intrigues and constant jostling for position between the land’s Great Clans.
Our main protagonist for the story, is Daidoji Shin, a feckless, idle younger son of a great house, sent to a small city in which his clan has a fairly limited stake, with a remit to keep an eye on the city’s trade. (For those new to Rokugan, the Daidoji are the chief family of the Crane, themselves one of Rokugan’s 7 Great Clans, famed for their skills in courtly diplomacy) Shin has decided that the best way to spend his time in the city is by drinking, gambling, and attending the theatre, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering body-guard, Hiramori Kasami. Kasami is the archetypical Samurai: she is noble, dutiful, and she is both willing and able to swiftly dispatch anyone who threatens the Crane’s life. However, she would much rather see him apply himself to something useful and noble, rather than get into needless scrapes that she then has to get him out of.
So far, so normal: an entertaining-enough odd-couple premise, but nothing by itself to sustain a novel. The twist – and the catalyst for our story, comes in the form of a poisoned sack of rice! With war threatening to break out between the Lion and the Unicorn (each blaming each other for the poisoning), Shin finds his enjoyable, but largely pointless, routine interrupted by an order from the city’s governor to investigate the matter.
As a neutral third-party of impeccable lineage, the choice of the young Daidoji makes a certain amount of sense, but it comes as a surprise to almost everyone around him that he turns out to actually be quite good at this sleuthing business, proving that all those books he had “wasted” his money on were a good investment after all.
Once things get going, Poison River has everything you would hope for from a Rokugan novel – Honourable Samurai preparing to cross swords, and courtiers duelling with words and insinuations. Mysterious Shinobi hunting each other across the rooftops and the docks of the city, and powerful Shugenja with astonishing powers to control and manipulate the elements. There is even a touring theatre troupe who are slightly more than meets the eye.
Poison River is definitely the style of Rokugan Novel I enjoy the most, leaning away from the supernatural/monsters emphasis, and into the inter-personal and the political. The size of the cast can feel a little daunting, particularly if you have as bad a memory for names as I do, but there’s a handy little dramatis personae quick-reference at the back.
I do wonder a little just how accessible Poison River would be for a reader new to Rokugan: the complex politics and interactions are certainly a little easier to follow if you already have a basic knowledge, even if it is as crude and simplistic as “Lions are brash and warlike, Unicorns are uncultured outsiders, Dragons are aloof and Inscrutable” (these are all over-simplifications, but potentially a useful starting point).
Although there are various point-of-view characters featured at different times in the book, Poison River remains very-much Daidoji Shin’s story, so it’s a good thing that Reynolds succeeds in making this apparent layabout actually quite likeable as a character. Although he lacks the genius of a Sherlock Holmes-style master-sleuth, there is a definite sense in which Shin, like the more famous detective, is simply bored with his existence until a mystery presents itself needing to be solved. Overall, I think the book does a good job of showing that there is far more depth to his character than meets the eye, without forcing an implausible transformation on the young Daidoji.
Of the supporting cast, Kasami was the one I would have liked to have seen more development from – this is, apparently, the first in a series of books focusing on the young Crane, so hopefully we will see more of this longsuffering bodyguard and find out a bit more about her as we go.
Aside from the main two, I think my other favourite character was Okuni. There’s always a danger of ninja-type characters becoming a bit trope-y, and I was pleased to see Reynolds making this Shinobi fallible, both in terms of her martial skills, and her judgement and decision-making. (The book as a whole does a good line in making various combatants feel normal, rather than implausibly matchless). Although much of Okuni’s story is a cat-and-mouse, kill-or-be-killed, she is nevertheless depicted as a fully-realised human character, whose relationships with those closest to her feel deeper and more significant than you might first assume, with the bonds exposed slowly, carefully, without the need to unload her entire backstory in a mass info-dump.
Between the various point-of-view characters, the plot starts out in a fairly broad, almost swarming fashion, before gradually pulling those various strands together into a coherent reality. All-in-all, I liked how everything came together for the final resolution, although I did feel a bit underwhelmed the big “reveal” of the ultimate villain behind the various plots and schemes. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling the main plot, but I would have like a slightly grander overall purpose to everything.
Ultimately, I think Poison River works well, both as a story, and even as an entry-point to the political side of Rokugan. Shin is a likeable enough character, despite his wastrel exterior, and the supporting cast are all suitably well-depicted, each with their own distinguishing and appealing features. I think I still prefer FFG’s web-fiction series, or even the (now-rather-ancient and non-canonical since the reboot) Clan Wars novels of the late 1990s, because of the way they tell the more epic stores that concern the whole fate of the land, but that doesn’t take anything away from Poison River, which sets out to tell a much smaller-scale story, and does it very well. Any time spent reading this is definitely well-spent, and I would recommend it to others.