Death’s Kiss (by Josh Reynolds) is the second mystery novel featuring Daidoji Shin, Crane Clan “wastrel” turned detective. I air quote in there because Shin, although he’s presented as having a reputation as a layabout, he is socially adept, highly educated, and pretty decent with a sword, making him perhaps the most skilled “wastrel” in recent memory.
Death’s Kiss is the second appearance for Shin, who first showed up in Poison River, where he first made a foray into investigative work while serving as a trade envoy in the City of the Rich Frog. Both novels, of course, take place in the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) universe, an Asian-fantasy-inspired world that’s been around for decades but has been getting a renewed fiction push lately. Poison River is not my favorite L5R book, because I’ve been around for those decades too and my favorite is going to be some deep cut from 25 years ago. But Poison River is probably the single best L5R book to just pick up and read.
Death’s Kiss mostly holds up to the standards of Poison River. Having hung out for a few months in the City of the Rich Frog, Shin (along with sidekicks Hiramori Kasami and Kitano Daichi) departs for Unicorn lands to investigate a murder mystery. Not so much the “who did it” part, but the why and what brought things to that point. Shin remains in some ways a fairly un-Rokugani citizen of Rokugan, most exemplified by a dedication to Truth in an empire that is generally focused on appearances. Shin winks at Rokugani sensibilities, using charm, utility, and social status to get away with not following the rules of polite society to the letter. That willingness to not shackle the character to a super-strict interpretation is part of why Death’s Kiss is very accessible. Reynolds has, however, had pulled back from Poison River’s almost total elimination of Japanese ‘jargon’ that usually fills Legend of the Five Rings fiction.
Shin’s investigation here remains quirky by the standards of the Emerald Empire, although there is more social sleuthing here as compared to Poison River, which was more about evidence discovery. In a way, then, it is more noir than Sherlock Holmes, with Shin pushing the right social buttons to get people to divulge information. Not that anyone could ever mistake Shin for Philip Marlowe. Death’s Kiss is a fun romp, keeping you interested from start to finish in both the characters and the mystery to be solved. The blizzard of suspects, friends, and rivals does make it a bit difficult to keep track of the cast, but not enough to significantly detract from the story.
Overall, I would heartily recommend Death’s Kiss. The book doesn’t rely on Poison River, so reading the first Daidoji Shin book is not necessary, although (unsurprisingly) you’re still better off reading them in order to get a better feel for where Shin and his sidekicks are coming from.
P.S. Some longtime Legend of the Five Rings fans will be delighted to know that some Kolat show up in Death’s Kiss, although the organization’s name is never used.
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