Review – Poison River (Legend of the Five Rings Novel)

Poison River (releasing December 1, 2020) is the second entry in the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) universe from Aconyte Books (the fiction publishing arm of Asmodee). L5R is inspired by feudal Japan (and, to a lesser extent, other parts of Asia). The nation of Rokugan has an Emperor, but also seven great clans (and numerous minor ones) with their own competing power bases. In Poison River, Josh Reynolds spins a detective novel that is both fun and completely accessible to those who are new to Legend of the Five Rings. Poison River doesn’t have the weight of epic storytelling and worldbuilding that some of the L5R novels from decades ago have, but it is probably the single best Legend of the Five Rings novel for purposes of just picking up and having a good read.

Protagonist Daidoji Shin (coming to more mystery novels near you) is a relatable character – one of those lovable wastrels who has quite a lot of talent, but chooses to fritter it away (by society’s standards) because he isn’t interested in traditional measures of success. The events of Poison River provides Shin with the gift motivation. Shin, having caused some embarrassment to his noble family, has been sent off to manage his clan’s trading operations in the City of the Rich Frog – a reasonably important city, but not one where the Crane have major interests.

A poisoned rice shipment and political machinations result in Shin being chosen as an investigator by the city’s Imperial governor. Suddenly, all of the esoterica that Shin has learned in years of leisure pursuits pays off, and we learn that Shin has an eye for something more than the lead actress in the local kabuki theater troupe. If Reynolds’s investigator in the Wrath of N’Kai read like a noir detective, Shin here gets to play a bit of the Sherlock Holmes, with bodyguard Hiramori Kasami serving as a katana-wielding Dr. Watson. Kasami gets to serve both as source of expension (when scolding Shin on his failure to live up to expectations) and recipient (when Shin explains his theories).

Shin’s investigation requires him to navigate the political intrigues of the great Lion and Unicorn clans, as well as the minor Dragonfly clan, who divide most of the city’s trade interest between them. He must also delve into a web of underworld connections, pawns, and masterminds – the pirates, gamblers, black marketers, and shinobi. Shin doesn’t take himself particularly seriously, which serves him well in both arenas – to allow him to himself to be underestimated in the former and to allow him to meaningfully interact with the latter at all.

Somewhere, I am sure, there will be L5R diehards who will grump at the way that Poison River often acknowledges the particulars of Rokugani etiquette only for the purpose of explaining how it’s being disregarded. For example, Shin directly accuses other samurai of lying, which is the sort of thing that will tend to result in a fatal duel at a Legend of the Five Rings RPG session. To this I say “pshaw.” I’m not sure how anyone could write detective fiction while meeting the highest standards of Rokugani formality. But Reynolds’s looser application of these formalistic strictures is a positive, not just a necessary evil. Rokugan could not function if its nobility actually resolved every single squabble with a ritualized duel. The portrayal in Poison River is, ultimately, probably more “realistic” than the high-strung formalism of some L5R fans.

L5R grognards may also be up in arms at Reynolds’s aversion to specialty lingo (the example of this that stood out the most was the use of the the phrase “ritual disembowelment” instead of “seppuku”). I don’t know if this lack of specialist terminology was necessary, but I can’t find fault with it. This is a novel intended to be read beyond diehard fans, so it needs to be accessible. This position of mine probably won’t be a surprise to longtime readers of my reviews, as I have never put too much stock in heavy use of Japanese terms in the world’s writing (overuse of such was, for example, the one quibble I had with Robert Denton‘s The Sword of the Spirits, which I think was the best of the recent L5R novellas).

As a long-time L5R geek myself, who heavily participated in certain card game events that helped direct relevant parts of the grand story of a prior version of the universe, I must admit that I took some personal pleasure in Shin employing the Kitsuki Method – that is, actually considering evidence of what happened, instead of the traditional Rokugani methodology of simply accepting the word of the highest-status individual in the vicinity.

Poison River was an excellent read. It provides an introduction to the flavor of the Legend of the Five Rings Universe without drowning the reader in minutiae. The protagonist is interesting, the conspiracy he investigates is coherent, and his adventure riveting. I would recommend this to all but a few longtime Legend of the Five Rings fans (see above), or to anyone who thinks that a feudal mystery might be interesting.

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