The Night Parade of 100 Demons (Legend of the Five Rings)
Over the past year publisher Aconyte Books have been kind enough to send me physical copies of many of the books that they are publishing. Many of them are titles that I have already reviewed, but some of them are novels that I had either missed completely when they were available to review as ebooks, or hadn’t had time to read despite knowing about them. As various things have eased slightly in my personal life, I find myself with a little more time available to undertake reviews, and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to work my way through this backlog – before it gets any bigger! And I thought I would start with one of the earliest paperbacks I got – and the one that caught my eye immediately the moment that I opened the package it was sent in. That book is The Night Parade of 100 Demons by Marie Brennan, and with the exception of some of the Arkham Horror novels, it has the most eye-catching and memorable cover art I’ve ever seen on an Aconyte Books title. By illustrator Nathan Elmer, the cover art for the novel is a striking, ethereal blend of burning houses, embers flickering around them, set against otherworldly light displays coruscating around a mountain wreathed in eerie flames. The entire display is silhouetted by the head and upper body of a Samurai in distinctive headgear, which also serve to frame two other Samurai as they determinedly march forward through the flames towards the mountain. It is a genuinely incredible piece of cover art, one of only a handful that has stayed with me in my many years of reviewing, and I’m determined to get a copy for my study wall – signed if at all possible. The back-cover blurb for the novel is just as engaging as the cover art – weaving a compelling and suggestive tale of two Samurai from rival Clans arriving at an isolated settlement that has seemingly been suffering at the hands of a host of chaotic occult creatures. Uncertain why these creatures are attacking the people living in the settlement, and wary of each other’s political and personal motives, the two warriors must reluctantly learn to overcome their prejudices and work together if they hope to save the remaining settlers – and themselves. It sounded like a fascinating take on a classic trope, and I couldn’t wait to see what Marie Brennan had in store for me.
As the novel opens, Dragon Clan samurai Agasha Ryotora rides through the desolate countryside leading to the outskirts of the distant and isolated mining settlement of Seibo Mura. It’s an arduous journey for the samurai, accompanied only by two ashigaru (guards/footservants), with the aim of responding to a desperate message for help from the settlement. Ryotora arrives to find a settlement in barely-controlled chaos – half the population are dead and the rest are cowering in their simple houses, fearful of the vast numbers of different shapeshifting Yokai (demons) that have been rampaging through the settlement over the past few Full Moons. As he tries to understand what is happening, he finds himself confronted by the unexpected arrival of Asako Sekken, a samurai from the rival Phoenix Clan and far from the lands occupied by that Clan. Already unsettled by the appearance of so many different Yokai, including many who should never have been seen anywhere near the mountainous area, as well as his own, hidden history with Seibo Mura, the arrival of the mysterious Sekken puts Ryotora on edge in an already perilous situation. Sekken claims to be a travelling dilettante, arriving at the settlement out of pure curiosity and with no wider political agenda on behalf of the Phoenix Clan, but Ryotora finds it difficult to trust the other samurai, particularly fearful of the man actually being one of the dreaded Inquisitors who root out heretical thought and insurgent groups across the Emerald Empire. Both men have secretive agendas and their own fears, exacerbated by the presence of the Yokai and the potentially presence of followers of the extremist Perfect Land Sect amongst the surviving settlers; but as the next Full Moon draws closer, the two men find that they have no choice but to combine their experience and expertise to try and locate the cause of the horde of Yokai attacking the settlers, and attempt to resolve the conflict before they are all killed by the demons when they reappear.
As I progressed through the narrative, I was deeply impressed by the way in which Brennan brings the Legend of the Five Rings setting to life, demonstrating an innate understanding for how the setting should function, deftly blending pre-existing lore with her own story to create a story that is utterly compelling and fascinating, the worldbuilding inexorably propelling me through the novel towards its climactic ending. Every element of the story – from the political skirmishing between the rival Clans of the Empire, to the cultural and socioeconomic elements of this backwater settlement, and even the complex lore like the Perfect Land Sect – is well-developed, but perhaps none moreso than the Yokai themselves. Brennan clearly did her research around the subject, both in terms of the Five Rings setting and its real-world inspirations, because the demons who appear throughout the narrative are enthralling in their variety, uniqueness – and varying levels of danger. Brennan brings them to spiritual life with a barely-restrained glee at times, demonstrating how they can haunt and demoralise the settlers and the two samurai even without physically appearing in the village – a section involving a potential exorcism is simultaneously informative and distinctly harrowing – and their eventual appearance towards the end of the novel is a carefully-orchestrated riot of Yokai in all of their terrible and multi-faceted glory that utterly fails to disappoint. The Yokai are practically characters in their own stead from the amount of effort Brennan puts into them, and fortunately that dedication is matched in the cast of human characters found in the novel. While the core cast is relatively small compared to other titles in the Legends of the Five Rings series, each person is carefully crafted and has their own character arc that they develop along as the narrative progresses: I was particularly fond of the young girl Aoi and her shocking secret, and the pompous but oddly-relatable headman Ogano, a man out of his depth. But the best characters by far in The Night Parade of 100 Demons are the samurai duo of Ryotora and Sekken, and their complex, multi-faceted relationship that intertwines culture, politics and hidden, shameful secrets to create something genuinely compelling that forms the heart of the novel. I really can’t say much more without spoiling major elements of Brennan’s masterpiece, but I was both surprised and delighted to see the specific direction their relationship took – something that seems unique to the Aconyte Books, and nearly-unique in tie-in fiction as a whole.
The Night Parade of 100 Demons is a slow-burning, contemplative spiritual adventure novel set in a richly-crafted and finely-detailed corner of Rokugan, the fictional setting of the Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game, populated with deftly-imagined characters and highly engaging worldbuilding, drawn together into a fascinating mystery with some surprising twists and turns as layer after layer of personal and cultural secrets are uncovered by two samurai from rival Clans in the Emerald Empire. It’s a unique novel, the sort of thing that I wasn’t expecting at all from Aconyte Books, and it does huge credit to both author Marie Brennan and the publisher that they published the novel as it is, enrichening both the Legend of the Five Rings setting, and Aconyte Books’ reputation as a whole. There certainly seems to be a great deal of potential for the future adventures of Ryotora and Sekken in their corner of Rokugan, and I hope it isn’t too long before we see another Marie Brennan novel published by Aconyte and set in the Five Rings world.