Curse of Honor
Although Aconyte Books, the newly-established publishing arm of Asmodee Games, has only been in operation for a short while, I’ve rapidly become a huge fan of the titles that they have been releasing, with editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells taking advantage of the impressive range of gaming properties that Asmodee Games has available to commission some fantastic titles. The Tales from the Crucible anthology was one of the best sci-fi/fantasy anthologies that I have read in a very long time, filled to the brim with fresh, original stories brimming with positivity and excitement from a range of talented authors; and Josh Reynolds’ occult detective novel Wrath of N’Kai, based on the venerable Arkham Horror range, was a fantastically grimdark and chilling tale that used Reynolds’ skills as a writer to great effect. A whole slew of new titles have been announced by Aconyte on social media, or can be found on Amazon and Goodreads with a little digging, and I am genuinely excited to see all of these wonderful gaming properties brought to life in a range of novels and anthologies.
This wide of range of properties that can be utilised is one advantage that Aconyte has, but the other must surely be Llewelyn-Wells and her ability to bring in some of the best writers in the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres to develop those properties. Tales from the Crucible had a number of great veteran and up-and-coming authors, such as Thomas Parrott and Robbie MacNiven, and of course Josh Reynolds needs no introduction. But for the publisher’s third title, they have managed to acquire one of my favourite writers – David Annandale, who has written a host of absolutely amazing Warhammer stories, including some of the best novels and novellas in Black Library’s new Warhammer Horror imprint. Annandale’s first contribution (for there appear to be more coming down the pipeline) is Curse of Honor, based on the Legend of the Five Rings RPG and CCG setting from Fantasy Flight Games. While I hadn’t been familiar with Five Rings before picking up an Advanced Review Copy of the novel, some research showed that it looked like an awesome setting with a huge amount of potential for cool storytelling. I loved the cover art by Nathan Elmer which really set the mood for the novel, and the back-cover blurb which promised demons, samurai and supernatural horrors. As those are some of my favourite things – especially the whole supernatural horror! – I couldn’t wait to dive in.
Curse of Honor opens with Hida no Kakeguchi Haru, junior member of the aristocratic family that resides in Striking Dawn Castle, leading a merchant caravan towards the castle and safety. An experienced soldier but also deeply arrogant and desperate to prove himself to the Daimyō Akemi that he has earnt the right to be her heir, Haru has recklessly pushed ahead with the final caravan, despite the obvious dangers of the coming Winter. Much-delayed by landslides and then rockfalls, Haru, his guard contingent and the caravan are unable to escape the coming snowstorms and are cut off from the safety of the Castle. Trapped in a cavern system that is perilously close to the immense Walls that protect humanity from the demon-infested Shadowlands, Haru’s exploration of the caverns leads to a terrifying discovery. He finds a mysterious, abandoned city that sits behind the Wall, yet seems wreathed in the essence of the Shadowlands. Arrogance and pride bond together to make him become obsessed with the city; seeing a way to finally prove himself worthy of the Kakeguchi name, Haru returns with an expedition to explore the city, only to lead his warriors into disaster. A single samurai is the only survivor, returning to Striking Dawn Castle to tell of Haru’s disapperance within the city.
From there the garrison of the castle, and the Kakeguchi family, are thrown into chaos as a relief force is sent into the city to rescue Haru, only to discover that the heir presumptive has been altered by his time there. Time spent in a place that is twisted, deceptive and utterly terrifying in nature; a location that Annandale imbues with a deeply unsettling nature and malign kind of intelligence, populated by monsters with all-too human faces. Haru is returned to Striking Dawn, at great cost and after some amazingly choreographed action sequences against an undead foe; but those in the castle must now contend with the insidious evil that has returned with him, and attempt to defeat it – if that is even possible given the immense power it can wield over the environment and the undead.
Annandale has given us an engaging, atmospheric and expertly paced narrative, but this is far from the only element in the novel that makes it such a success. Just as important are the carefully-crafted characters that populate Curse of Honor, and also the detailed background work that has done to integrate the Five Rings setting into the novel’s overarching plot. Annandale continues to have an incredible eye for characterisation, with each major character in the novel feeling like fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional people that react according to the customs, culture and social norms of the Five Rings world, rather than merely to the requirements of the plot. To take just one example, when protagonist Haru is introduced in the opening moments of the novel, we are able to understand the motivations and flaws in his character within only a few pages. He is arrogant, demanding, utterly disdainful of lesser castes and hollowed out by lack of self-confidence; yet he is also an experienced warrior and traveller, and able to make calculated decisions based on that experience. In turn, that experience means he over-estimates his own abilities and potential to resolve situations in his favour, which leads to the disastrous confrontation with the mysterious city.
With Haru, Annandale is able to create a fully-formed and multi-faceted character within a few hundred words, where other authors might take entire novels to flesh out a character to the same degree. The other characters in the novel are just as well written and portrayed, even those that take relatively minor roles in the narrative; I was particularly taken with Ochiba, veteran warrior of the Crab Clan who has chosen the way of the sword in the face of the immense pressure from both social norms and the wishes of her family, performing her duties for the Daimyō Akemi in spite of the fact that by doing so, she has cost herself the possibility of ever entering into a romantic relationship. Annandale has created a cast of thoroughly engaging characters whose interactions seem realistic, and dictated solely by the realities of their universe. For Annandale also does a stellar job of showcasing the politics that coalesce around Striking Dawn Castle, and the rival families populated the fortification; the constant politicking and careful social and political manoeuvres by every major character form an intriguing background to the main plot, as we see the powers in play that attempt to ensure that the Kakeguchi family remains in command of Striking Dawn and the tremendous (yet deeply honourable) duties attached to the castle. All of this, of course, is also enmeshed in the rigid class and clan system of the Tokugawa-era culture used for the Five Rings setting – the firm, unyielding boundaries between merchant and aristocrat, and senior and junior members of a household, and the inherited arrogance and disdain that comes with such a system.
With Curse of Honor David Annandale once again demonstrates why he is one of the best authors currently writing in the fantasy (and science fiction) genre, able to utilise his absolute mastery of atmosphere, sublime prose and skilful characterisation to turn his hand to any setting that he is tasked with writing. Curse of Honor is a deeply compelling and sophisticated novel, with Annandale using the Five Rings setting to weave a thoroughly enjoyable story about arrogance, ambition and rigid caste systems that are deftly merged with the grim realities of the supernatural, demon-infested Shadowlands and its many occult dangers. As with all of the other novels and novellas I’ve read from Annandale, I found myself drawn effortlessly into Curse of Honor; indeed, there were several times where I found myself losing track of the time and reading deep into the night, something I’d considered almost impossible after being exhausted dealing with two small, hyperactive children and a full-time job amongst other demands on my time. I really cannot recommend this novel strongly enough – Annandale is a deeply talented author and I look forward to seeing what his next project is, both for Aconyte Books and also should he ever strike off into his own unique settings.