The third Legend of the Five Rings novella from Fantasy Flight Games, Across the Burning Sands turns the spotlight on the Unicorn Clan and outside of Rokugan (the first focused on the Phoenix Clan and the second on the Scorpion).
In so doing, Across the Burning Sands puts the Unicorn in a situation that is in literal terms very similar to what we’re used to, but narratively quite different. It is similar because the Unicorn are, as always, the strangers. In a typical Legend of the Five Rings story, the Unicorn are different because they still maintain many of their ‘gaijin’ ways, despite having returned to Rokugan centuries ago. Across the Burning Sands follows Shinjo Shono (heir of the Unicorn Clan Champion) as he travels out of Rokugan to al-Zawari (if Rokugan is a pseudo-Japan and the Unicorn are pseudo-Mongols, then al-Zawari is the capital of a pseudo-Mesopotamian/Islamic caliphate). Just as in Rokugan, the Unicorn stand out. And, while some of the Unicorn with Shono have some experience there, Shono himself is almost entirely clueless, which we have seen to a lesser extend with the Unicorn in Rokugan. However, this serves a very different narrative purpose than it does in Rokugan. In Across the Burning Sands, Shono’s ignorance is used to slowly introduce the reader to the caliphate, which is making its first serious appearance in the modern Legend of the Five Rings. While it is possible for the Unicorn to be a lens for readers to learn about Rokugan, it is more often the case that it is the Rokugani customs that are the known and taken as the norm. So the usual L5R Unicorn story is to learn about how the Unicorn are different, while here the nature of the Unicorn largely takes a back seat to showing off al-Zawari.
The novella does a good job of that introduction, spooling out details without too many mountains of exposition and letting the reader feel clever by filling in the gaps that Shono can’t (“oh, the ‘fat unicorn’ is really a rhino”). Long-time Legend of the Five Rings fans will also get some old school fankids excited by providing new twists on favorites like Moto Chagatai and Shono (including how Shono gets one of his trademarks). Unfortunately, I found it hard to care about much of anything that happened with Shono until near the end, because he spends much of the book loudly and relentlessly bemoaning the fact that he had killed his betrothed during the course of the Unicorn/Lion conflict. I get it, he’s depressed, I don’t need to read another internal monologue about it every third page.
Still, a worthy pickup for the L5R aficionado. In addition to the novella itself, there’s the usual glossy pages at the back with more in-setting information (although no RPG material in this one). This provides more objective information about the caliphate (both natural and supernatural), plus an account of Shinjo’s journey out of Rokugan.
Oh, and it comes with alternate art versions of card for the Legend of the Five Rings LCG, including Shono looking all pretty in the cover art from the Novella (see above image).
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of … oh, who am I kidding, FFG doesn’t send me review copies.