Penned by David Annandale and published by Aconyte Books, Curse of Honor marks the return of full-length novels to the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) universe. Inspired by feudal Japan (and, to a lesser extent, other parts of eastern Asia), L5R is a fantasy universe first introduced 25 years ago with the Legend of the Five Rings Collectible Card Game and subsequently explored through board, card, and roleplaying games, a series of novels, and more recently novellas from Fantasy Flight Games. The world focuses on the samurai of Rokugan and conflicts both external and internal, exploring themes of honor, glory, and tragedy.
While the Empire of Rokugan has seven great clans, and a multitude of minor ones, Curse of Honor does not tell the story of Rokugan as a whole, or even of an entire clan. Instead, it takes place in a single stronghold of the Crab Clan. The Crab are tasked with being the Empire’s first line of defense against the Shadowlands, which represent a significant physical threat, but also a spiritual one, capable of destroying mind and soul along with the body. With that narrower focus, Curse of Honor doesn’t ask the reader to go into the novel already knowing the setting or force the reader to sit through a bunch of exposition to catch up.
At its best, Curse of Honor feels like an Alien movie; a tense, dimly-lit thriller where the protagonist gets extended action scenes, discovers horrific tableaus, and has to grapple with the growing paranoia of those around her. It’s too bad that the novel doesn’t have a better opening or conclusion to go with that.
Curse of Honor is the tale of Kakeguchi Barako, the second-in-command of the military forces at Striking Dawn castle. The castle is politically fractured, as the daimyo’s only child, Kakeguchi Haru, is grossly incompetent, lending weight to the Hiruma family’s claim to the land. Meanwhile, Barako’s personal life is permanently on hold, as the object of her affections is pledged to never romance, and so the two women have mutually concluded that honor precludes them from even voicing their feelings.
Then Haru, forever seeking to prove himself, sets off a string of debacles, resulting in the loss of vital supplies, the deaths of scores of the soldiers stationed at the castle, and the incapacitation of Barako’s commander/love interest. Worse, Haru’s actions unleash a supernatural evil. It plagues the castle from both without and within, threatening to fracture the unity of the samurai of Striking Dawn when they need it most. Barako must try to defeat the forces arrayed against the castle, navigate the political fray between the Hiruma and Kakeguchi, and deal with her own emotional disjoint over the incapacitation of Ochiba.
Barako is relatable, presenting a Rokugani point of view in an easily understandable way. Similarly, through her Annandale gives the reader the necessary understanding of Rokugani politics and supernatural practices that lets the reader get what they need without feeling like a lecture. Barako is tough and interesting, playing into samurai drama and against some tropes – her tragedy is not sentimentality, but not allowing herself to be emotional and vulnerable enough. The story really brings home the meaning of the title of the novel.
Unfortunately, to get to Barako’s part of the story, the reader first has to sit through a long section of Haru. He’s the point-of-view character at the start of the book, but it’s obvious that he isn’t going to last. Or maybe that’s my optimism talking, because Haru seemed so insufferably useless that he couldn’t possibly be the main character. He’s self-centered and indecisive. He’s very aware of his own incompetence and yet still possessed of an overweening pride. Annandale even has him act like a bully to the lower-caste characters who are around, a technique that’s frequently used by L5R authors to convey to a western audience that a character is a total jerk. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have some material from such a point of view. I’ve read plenty of Stephen King novels where characters are introduced just enough to let you get a feel for them before they die horribly. But Haru does not leave us after a few pages, instead remaining the primary point-of-view character for about the first third of the book. I get that some of this was necessary, because the plot requires an initial set up and the Barako isn’t present for that. But it made the early stretches of the book a slog. Clearly, Annandale succeeded at portraying the character … I just didn’t enjoy sitting through it. Oddly, this overpresence of Haru extends to the book covers, which present the book as if it was Haru’s story and do not even mention Barako, the primary protagonist of the book. The answer to the cover’s question – “Can he find glory amongst the ruins?” – is very obviously “not a chance.”
After the central action horror, Curse of Honor doesn’t quite stick its landing either. There’s a point where the story gets to what could be an ending point. It’s not an end point that represents wondrous victory for the protagonist. But that can be a great way to end an L5R story. The setting, and the samurai drama from which it draws inspiration, have tragedy as a central element. There is a cost to honor. The “good guys” don’t always win. Or, even if they win in some sense, they lose in others – victory has a cost, or is only temporary. For me, the story felt complete at this earlier point in time. But then it kept on going – not feeling like there was really more story to tell but more like the book was obligated to get to an ending point with more “finality.”
Ultimately, then, Curse of Honor is a solid middle with a compelling protagonist and chilling narrative, bookended by an overly-extended introduction and a conclusion that takes the story past its natural ending point. It’s a welcome return of novels to the Legend of the Five Rings universe, but not one without its flaws.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of an advance review copy.