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Book Review – Death’s Kiss

“This is perhaps the most idiotic thing you have ever done,” Kasami said. Shin nodded cheerfully.

“Yet,” he corrected, “that I have done yet”

Daidoji Shin and his longsuffering bodyguard, Hiramori Kasami are back for another adventure in Josh Reynolds’ Death’s Kiss, the latest Legend of the Five Rings novel from Aconyte books.

For anyone who hasn’t read Poison River, Daidoji Shin is a nobleman who never ceases to be a disappointment to his relatives. Despite coming from one of the great families of the Crane Clan, he is an idle layabout, perpetually bored, and failing to follow the courtly manners and protocols that govern decorum in Rokugan. Quietly shuffled away to the City of the Rich Frog, he managed to make himself unexpectedly useful in his first outing for Aconyte, when solving the surprisingly complicated case surrounding a poisoned rice shipment that had put provincial factions from 3 of the Empire’s Great Clans on the brink of war. It turns out that beneath the feckless exterior, Shin possesses a keen mind, honed by many, many books read to while away the hours: add to that his willingness to put noses out of joint by asking impolite questions, temper it with just enough learned from the lessons given to all young Samurai to keep himself alive, and the young Crane has ended up with a level of aptitude for untangling mysteries that few would have predicted.

Following (And disapproving of) Shin’s every step is Kasami, his Yojimbo (bodyguard). Having initially felt honoured to be assigned to a crane of such noble birth, Kasami quickly became disillusioned by Shin, and now spends most of her time trying to talk him out of whatever it is he’s gotten into his head to attempt next. Despite her constant grumbles, and the ever-present worry that Shin is going to get himself into something that Kasami cannot get him out of, there seems to be genuine affection beneath the frustration she shows with her master, and you get the impression that it would be more than simple shame at failing in her duty if she did fail to keep him safe.

Picking up a little while after the events of Poison River, Death’s Kiss sees Shin asked by an acquaintance from the Unicorn clan (a minor character from the first tale), to go and investigate a murder that has taken place within her family’s territory. Two minor merchant families, both vassals of the Unicorn, have been at each other’s throats for months, if not years, but peace had seemed on the horizon with an upcoming marriage alliance… right up until the groom confronted his bride-to-be in the street, and her Yojimbo cut him down dead! Now, the Yojimbo sits in prison, and only the intervention of Shin stands between her and execution. Most people involved seem convinced that allowing the execution to go ahead, and quickly too, is the best way for normality to reassert itself, but Shin has no intention of allowing that to happen if he can help it.

Travelling upriver from his home, Shin finds himself in Hisatu-Kesu, a town of ill-repute, where law and order sit on a constant knife-edge: it seems to be accepted (if not necessarily acknowledged) by most that many aspects of life in the city lie under the control of local crime lord “Honesty Sama.”

An interesting additional ripple for Shin to consider, is Batu, the provincial magistrate, and an erstwhile acquaintance of his. Batu paints an interesting contrast with Shin: both have practical insight and nous that is sometimes overlooked by outsiders, but where Shin seems happy to use an “accidental” faux pas as an ice-breaker, Batu is heavily constrained by his position, trying to balance maintaining authority with the knowledge that he lacks the resources to trouble the crime-lords who truly rule his city

Death’s Kiss felt like a real step up from Poison River (which was a pretty good book to begin with). Having established his central characters, Reynolds inserts them into a rather more complex situation: a seemingly simple provincial dispute that could actually have huge implications for the fate of the entire empire. Beyond the bickering nobles and jostling merchants, another force moves, unseen, determined to upend the central ideas on which imperial society is based.

I also liked the way that Death’s Kiss added another (minor) character to provide us with an added element of contrast for Kasami. Katai Ruri, perpetrator of the murder which sets the events of the novel in motion is also a Yojimbo, but where Kasami’s loyalty is unflinching to the Crane, Ruri is a Ronin –  a Samurai who had already broken the ties with her clan, and become a wandering figure without allegiance, long before she wound up in jail for murder. In a society like Rokugan where Honour is so paramount, the very fact that Ruri has not ended her own life is a mystery to Kasami – albeit a mystery in which Shin is able to find further clues to unravel the greater puzzle.

Whilst Death’s Kiss starts out as a story of two antagonistic families of Unicorn and one meddling Crane trying to untangle the situation, it soon becomes apparent to the reader that there is at least one more interested party, manipulating events from behind the scenes. I don’t want to spoil the details, but I really liked the character of Emiko: she’s an interesting figure in her own right, as well as introducing a group who have a lot to say about the general order of things in Rokugan, in a way that is quite resonant for contemporary life.

All-in-all, I really enjoyed Death’s Kiss – it’s obviously one to read after Poison River, but it’s an entertaining story, which starts to hint at bigger things to come. I’ll admit to being fooled by the twist until very late on, but even if you manage to guess where the plot is going, it’s an entertaining journey to follow along. The main cast continue to develop and new figures are added with the continuing levels of diversity that we’ve come to expect from an Aconyte story. Unlike the first story, Death’s Kiss doesn’t conclude with a “Daidoji Shin will return in…” but I hope we see him again soon, and that the full consequences of the deal he was forced to make this time around will be properly realised…

This review was based on a digital advance copy of the book provided to me by Aconyte.

Published by Dor Cuarthol

I work for a University, have a 5 year-old son, and spend what little free time remains playing Board and Card games.

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