Death’s Kiss: A Daidoji Shin Mystery
It’s always a joy to read any of the books published by Aconyte Books, given how slick and polished they are, and the fantastic roster of talented authors that the publisher has managed to gather together to develop the gaming and RPG properties they have access to, but I have to admit that I was particularly looking forward to Death’s Kiss from Josh Reynolds. Reynolds is one of my favourite authors thanks to his incredible writing skills, as well as his ability to create engaging, three-dimensional characters and attention-grabbing plots regardless of the setting that he’s writing in; and his first Daidoji Shin Mystery novel, Poison River, was one of the finest pieces of work I’ve ever encountered from him. I reviewed it here on the blog a few months ago, and found it to be a complex, compelling and fast-paced adventure with an engaging and multi-faceted protagonist in Crane Clan noble Daidoji Shin. Set in the demon-haunted world of Rokugan, from the popular Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game, Reynolds deftly blended together Clan-based politics and occult elements with a classic detective story to create a perfect introduction to both the game world, and Daidoji Shin, as the noble investigated the case of a shipment of poisoned rice that rapidly became a complex blend of politics and culture that led to a trail of bodies and a wide-ranging conspiracy. Populated with a suite of memorable and engaging characters imbued with Reynolds’ characteristic dry wit and perfectly-judged sense of black humour, Poison River was a hugely enjoyable read and I was delighted to see that the novel ended with the pronouncement that Shin would return in a second adventure. I was eager to see exactly what kind of situation Reynolds would throw the Kabuki Theatre-loving noble into this time, and dived into Death’s Kiss as soon as I could.
As Death’s Kiss opens, Daidoji Shin is supervising the rebuilding of the Foxfire Theatre, almost burnt to the ground by the events of Poison River, and now Shin’s property – along with the Kabuki troupe who perform there. It’s been some months since the fire, and the renovation has been long, costly and – most importantly – boring for Shin, who longs for some kind of distraction from watching labourers and trying to disentangle the theatre’s web of debt. Unfortunately, said distraction is a trade envoy from his Clan, and also his grandfather, demanding his attention and a detailed account of his finances. However, the arrival of Iuchi Konomi, noblewoman of the Unicorn clan and a general meddler in delicate affairs, suddenly drops a complex matter in Shin’s lap. Calling in a favour, she asks Shin to travel to the distant city of Hisatu Kesu – deep in Unicorn Clan territory – and investigate a murder. An arranged marriage between two vassal clans led to an argument between the betrothed, and the would-be husband being killed by the bodyguard of his fiancé; the Ronin then attempted to flee the city rather than commit ritual suicide as was demanded of her. Once again, in the murky world of Clan politics, a seemingly open-and-shut case rapidly becomes far more complex – and life-threatening – than Shin initially expects once he travels to the distant city.
Cleverly, Reynolds keeps the plot of the novel fresh by radically changing the location, the new city of Hisatu Kesu being distinctly different to the City of the Rich Frog; far more provincial and populated with characters far less polished, and as likely to kill rather than plot and scheme and blackmail their way out of trouble, it’s a setting where Shin can no longer be the confident, near-arrogant noble he was in the first novel. That’s even more apparent when it becomes clear that the local magistrate tasked with resolving the issue is openly hostile towards Shin thanks to their shared history, and that neither vassal family wants to see the other triumphant, making even the simplest of investigations almost impossible for the Crane Clan noble. The inclusion of a major crime lord trying to increase their control over the city, and a blind assassin representing a revolutionary group operating in the murky and dangerous back-alleys of Hisatu Kesu, only add to the complexities that Shin must try and overcome if the city – and region – is to be engulfed in chaos, innocents lose their lives, and the guilty get away without punishment. It’s a real escalation in the stakes for Shin, and Reynolds deals with it expertly, slowly but surely increasing political and cultural tensions around the noble in order to test the character and see how he deals with it while trying to ensure that some form of justice is done.
I haven’t had a chance to check whether Hisatu Kesu is part of the existing background setting for the role-playing game, or an original location for the novel; but regardless, Reynolds rapidly creates an authentic atmosphere that feels exactly in line with the strictures of the game. The city is a rougher and less polished location than the City of the Rich Frog, and also far more vibrant than the setting of the previous novel: perched on and around a mountain in order to exploit the hot springs that bubble just underneath the rocky surface, the city lacks the luxuries and resources to which Shin is accustomed. There’s also more than just hot springs under the surface – class and clan tensions churn away just as dangerously, and it rapidly becomes obvious that this city is a powder keg just waiting for a spark; this becomes clear even in the terrain itself, where the rich nobles live higher in the mountain, away from the filth and stench in the city itself where the peasantry are forced to reside, even having to put up pretty banners and lights for the nobles to see during the night. Reynolds has a deft eye for small, contextual details like this that add greatly to the weight of the plot, drawing the reader into the narrative, bringing them all together in order to make great use of those social and economic tensions to propel the story forwards.
Those tensions also come in the form of the complex political machinations between the two vassal families at the heart of the arranged marriage and murder, as well as the larger Clans trying to ensure that their conflict doesn’t erupt into open warfare and plunge the city into chaos. There are some interesting elements integrated into the plot about territorial rights and disputes over raw materials, which further enrichen the narrative; and the same with the comparison between the merchants, the nobles and the Hinin – the poor and the displaced who are the unseen and despised caste who also act as the lifeblood of the city. It’s a deeply fascinating element of the wider plot of the novel, and one that Reynolds artfully develops as the narrative unwinds; a number of seeds are planted by the end of the novel, and it would be a great disappointment if Reynolds was not given the opportunity to allow them to flourish, given how much potential that they have.
Finally, there’s a delightfully varied and engaging suite of characters in Death’s Kiss that really makes the novel a pleasure to follow, alongside the writing and plotting. There’s a returning group of characters from Poison River which act as Shin’s household: lethal, cynical bodyguard Kasami who acts as a helpful foil to some of Shin’s more impulsive schemes; the piratical Captain Lun, who delivers Shin to the new city; and incorrigible manservant Kitano, a likeable rogue who Shin uses to infiltrate gambling dens. Reynolds deftly builds up the web of relationships between them, rarely liking one another, but happy enough to serve a master more decent than most. They’re joined by new characters who help round out the narrative, like harassed city magistrate Iuchi Batu and his complex friendship with Shin; Zeshi Shijan, trying to balance the demands of his own clan with an attempt to prevent war with the Shiko; or the blind assassin Emiko who serves the revolutionary Iron Sect, an intriguing character with multiple layers to her that I hope to see appear in future Daidoji Shin stories. Shin himself continues to be a delightful protagonist to accompany through the novel, full of snarky comments and witty asides, as well as astute observations of the political and social elements of Rokugan society and the harsh stratification of the Clan system. A man who appears to be nothing more than a lazy dilettante is, in fact, someone in possession of an incredibly sharp mind and a determination – often to the point of stubbornness – to investigate injustice even if society and his equals – and betters – wish it otherwise.
Death’s Kiss is another brilliant Rokugan story from Josh Reynolds, a fast-paced, intricately-plotted and highly rewarding journey through the Legend of the Five Rings setting, in the company of a charming, debonair protagonist with hidden depths and a knack for witty dialogue and amusing asides. In Daidoji Shin, Reynolds has created the perfect protagonist to act as a guide into the world of the roleplaying game, deftly guiding the reader through the complex political and mythological elements of the Rokugan setting alongside a story that has the perfect blend of action, political intrigue and high drama. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Daidoji Shin is by far the best protagonist to come out of the all of the Legend of the Five Rings titles published by Aconyte Books so far – and perhaps even all of the books published by Aconyte as a whole. I very much hope that Reynolds will be commissioned to write further stories featuring Daidoji Shin, because as Death’s Kiss so aptly demonstrates, Reynolds and Aconyte are a winning combination.