Poison River: The First Daidoji Shin Mystery
I think that one of the first things that strikes me about any fiction written by Josh Reynolds – regardless of genre or length – is the engaging, unique, and quite often quirky nature of the story’s protagonist. I’ve read quite a lot of stories by Reynolds over the years, from his excellent Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar fiction for Black Library, through to his brilliant Royal Occultist series set in the Occult Detective genre, as well as a variety of other works; and his protagonists are always memorable characters that manage to outshine even his skilful work in world-building, plotting and characterisation, becoming something of a signature that unites all of his fiction. For example, let us take the protagonist of his latest novel, Poison River, out now from publishers Aconyte Books. At first glance, Daidoji Shin is – as the novel’s back-cover blurb bluntly states – nothing more than an ‘unrepentant wastrel with a taste for scandal and dice’, whose only interests are gambling, attending Kabuki theatre performances, and generally trying to get away with as little as possible. Indeed, his first appearance in Poison River seems to reinforce this notion, Shin outrageously cheating at a game inside a seedy, distinctly disreputable gambling den in the depths of the City of the Rich Frog. Pursued by a group of men who have taken offence to his dry humour and open cheating, only the presence of his bodyguard, samurai Hiramori Kasami saves his from a severe beating or worse, the veteran warrior effortlessly dispatching most of his pursuers and maiming another. And yet, as the novel progresses, we get to see hidden depths to Shin’s personality, and a shrewd, calculating mind allied with a sense of honour and a desire to prove himself despite his reputation in the Crane Clan. He’s an eminently fascinating, self-aware character and a superb protagonist, someone that grabs you from the very first page and then effortlessly whisks you through the rest of the novel.
It isn’t long after being pursued from the gambling den that Shin finds his comfortable, easy life in the city becoming exponentially more difficult, as the Imperial Governor abruptly summons him to his manor and tasks him with investigating a shipment of poisoned rice that has been discovered by the Dragon Clan, one of the major powers in the City of the Rich Frog. Complicating matters tremendously for Shin’s investigation is the fact that, while technically under the jurisdiction of the Governor, in reality the city is a political and cultural (and sometimes literal) battleground between several powerful clans; although the Dragon, Lion and Unicorn Clans officially cooperate and trade, it’s well-known by Shin and anyone else living in the city that each Clan wants full control of the city and its prosperous trade routes. The entire place is a powder keg, and the discovery of the poisoned rice has the potential to cause an all-out war between the Clans that could devastate both the city and its population, and the region as a whole. Suddenly finding himself thrust into the murky politics of a city where no-one is truly neutral and everyone owes allegiance to at least one of the Clans, Shin is forced to employ his considerable intellect, diplomatic skills, and position as a neutral member of the Crane Clan to find out who poisoned the rice; why they did so; and how to give the Governor sufficient evidence to pull the Clans back from the brink.
Having the city be effectively divided between the different Clans is a brilliant idea, instantly providing both a tense, febrile atmosphere of political intrigue and back-stabbing (again, often literally) and a complex labyrinth that Shin must carefully and deftly navigate. It really draws you into the plot, which Reynolds deftly unfolds, different layers meshing together to tell a compelling and often delightfully unpredictable story. One moment we’re dealing with the complex machinations of the different Clans working in the city, and then we’re looking at the role of the samurai, ronin and shonin in Rokugan society – all warriors of a kind, but with very different outlooks and treatment by society. Reynolds brings Rokugan society in all of its elements – political, social and cultural – to life as the novel progresses, creating a vibrant, engaging and above-all convincing society. What appears to be a relatively simple investigation into the poisoned rice soon unravels into following a series of bodies strewn across the city, with Shin confronted by shadowy figures and hostile, uncooperative Clan officials who seem to want nothing but engage in open conflict. In addition, he soon has to figure out what links the deafly rice with a kabuki actress prone to disappearing for long periods of time from her acting troupe, and the consequences of his own actions in being effectively exiled to the city by his grandfather. The world-building is second to none, allied to pitch-perfect plot progression, and muscular evocative prose laden with Reynold’s trademark snappy and desert-dry witty dialogue that often evokes a smirk as the pages turn. I’d also like to commend both Reynolds and Aconyte Books for the Character List at the end of the book – it’s immeasurably helpful both as a reader and a reviewer, and I wish more titles had them.
Speaking of the characters, Reynold has always been good at developing even minor characters in his books, and Poison River is no exception to this. Shin is a fantastic protagonist, especially the character curve that he travels along as the plot unfolds, and Kasami makes for an excellent ‘straight man’ role, dutifully obeying Shin while also trying to ensure he doesn’t get killed or – perhaps even more importantly – shame his Clan. The various Clan officials are portrayed just as skilfully, each Clan distinctive and sufficiently different that you’re always able to remember which Clan is supposed to be undertaking which secretive plot despite the pace of the plot. And without going into spoilers for the novel, characters like Captain Lun – ‘Free Captain and occasional Pirate’ – and Nekoma Okuni, kabuki actress with a mysterious past, make delightful companions as they appear throughout the story.
Poison River is the second book I’ve reviewed from Aconyte Books set in the Legend of the Five Rings game universe, and if anything it’s even better than David Annandale’s fantastic Curse of Honor; while it isn’t set on the shadowy, ragged edges of humanity’s empire, in an area infested with demons, it still occurs in an environment that’s just as dangerous and deadly. Reynolds is the perfect writer for the world of Rokugan, creating an instantly compelling and multi-faceted protagonist to effortlessly draw us into a fast-paced and complex political thriller that entertains with every page. I really cannot wait to see the next Daidoji Shin Mystery, and I’m delighted to see that the cover art and title – Death’s Kiss – have just been announced by Aconyte Books on social media. I’ll be picking up a copy just as soon as I can, and I heartily recommend anyone reading this do the same.