The Flower Path
I must admit that, of all of the books due to be published by Aconyte Books this year, Josh Reynold’s The Flower Path has been at the top of my ‘most anticipated’ list ever since it was announced back in 2021. There’s a couple of reasons behind that – firstly, Reynolds is an absolutely superb writer at the top of his game, who has this incredible talent to somehow create brilliant, engaging stories regardless of the setting or genre (and whether it’s his own setting or an I.P. setting like those published by Aconyte Books); and secondly the Rokugan setting – the Legend of the Five Rings – is rapidly becoming one of my favourite I.P. settings I’ve ever read, thanks to the wide variety of talented authors that Aconyte have hired to write engaging and original stories in it. The two together – author and setting – have combined to create something truly memorable – the on-going Daidoji Shin Mystery series. With this series, Reynolds has taken the classic detective story trope and skilfully blended it together with the complex political and social structures of Rokugan’s Clan-dominated society to create something truly memorable and original. Set in and around the key trading hub of the City of the Rich Frog, Crane Clan dilettante, wastrel and trade representative Daidoji Shin finds himself developing something of a reputation for solving difficult, often thorny political mysteries that cannot – or will not – be touched by anyone else in the city.
Gaining friends and enemies in equal numbers, by the time of The Flower Path Shin has established his reputation as a skilled investigator and intellectual, and even found time to acquire a theatre and act as a patron to a performing troupe. These two elements form the central core of the third novel in the series, as Shin finds that his lead performer has been murdered just minutes after opening night has started. Anyone in the theatre could be a potential murderer, and the suspects include influential and powerful representatives from all of the major Clans, as well as every member of the performing troupe. Certain that the murderer will escape as soon as the final curtain falls, evading justice forever, Shin finds himself racing against time to identify the murder, as well as unravel the complex string of political and personal plots, machinations and schemes that stretch throughout the Foxfire Theatre. The concept intrigued me, as did the superb (and by now iconic) cover art by John Anthony di Giovanni, and I couldn’t wait to see what Reynolds had in store for Shin and the City of the Rich Frog this time around
While Poison River and Death’s Kiss – the previous books in the series – ranged across City of the Rich Frog and even ventured into adjoining provinces – for The Flower Path Reynolds has taken the intriguing decision to confine the entire novel within the Foxfire Theatre, and set the entire plot within the timeframe of a single play. In lesser hands this might have limited the narrative, but Reynolds has done such sterling work in terms of worldbuilding and character development over the previous two books that it instead lends the plot an intense, claustrophobic and often surprising atmosphere, as Shin finds himself racing between the stage, changing rooms and private boxes of the theatre as he attempts to find out why, exactly, his leading actress was first poisoned and then eventually murdered. Reynolds understands that the key to constraining the narrative to one building is to maintain an even pace and not remain in a single room or location, and effectively makes use of almost every conceivable room that could be found in a theatre – from the stalls of the common audience members, to private viewing chambers, and even obscure places like hidden trapdoors where actors fall into or instruments like drums are hidden. It creates a delightful variety as the plot unwinds, with Reynolds constantly keeping the reader guessing as to where the next clue will be found – or the next suspect hunted down and interrogated. The environment and atmosphere are masterfully handled, to the extent that I never became bored or questioned why the plot was kept solely inside the theatre; Reynolds is more than experienced – and talented – enough to create plausible reasons for keeping the audience and players within the building that still mesh with the social and political nuances of the setting.
A good detective story – especially one confined to a single location – is nothing without a stellar cast of characters, and as usual Reynolds delivers in spades; not only does he manage to further flesh out the existing cast of characters from the previous novels, but he also introduces some intriguing and engaging members of Rokugan society from a variety of castes that help to propel the narrative forward. Daidoji Shin continues to be the most engaging, captivating and original protagonist in any of the titles thus far published by Aconyte Books, and I actually think might be the most well-wounded and developed protagonist Reynolds has ever written. More experienced and skilled at his unique blend of detective work and social navigation, Shin has had some of his rougher edges sanded off in comparison to his earlier adventures, and while the stakes are as high as ever, Shin feels far more confident and assured this time around – deftly uncovering the twisted complexities of the murder-mystery and delivering as many blows as are hurled against him by the gathered worthies (and unworthies) of Rokugan society. His motley but talented group of household servants and aides continue to entertain and act as foils for Shin to bounce off of during his investigation: world-weary bodyguard Kasami becomes a little more fleshed-out this time around, and unrepentant gambler and manservant Kitano feels more integrated to his role and less like a fish out of water, their development indicating that Reynolds devotes as much time to developing secondary characters as the protagonist and antagonist. The members of the Three Flower Troupe performing in the Foxfire Theatre are also brought into focus, with their complex relationships and rivalries knitted into a background for the murder investigation as a whole. As for the new characters – while too much detail would potentially spoil the plot, I was particularly enamoured wit Iuchi Konomi and Shinjo Yasamura, senior and influential nobles from the Unicorn Clan who appear destined to become further enmeshed with Shin and his future investigations. I also need to make special mention of the delightfully surly and arrogant Arban-Ujik, a nomad bodyguard who sparked off of Shin and Kasami in particular, and who I dearly hope we see more of in future novels.
The Flower Path is nothing less than Josh Reynolds at the height of his considerable talents as an author, an intricate, complex and tightly-plotted murder-mystery perfectly integrated into the Legend of the Five Rings setting, and populated with a richly-imagined cast of characters to create an elegant novel that might well be the best thing that Reynolds has ever written. There’s a subtlety and nuance to the writing that’s above even the best of his previous stories, and the Rokugan setting seems to bring out the best in Reynolds in ways that perhaps previous IPs didn’t. If so, then that’s credit to the good people working at Aconyte Books as well as Reynolds himself, and I can only hope that we will see a fourth (and fifth and sixth) Daidoji Shin novel published by Aconyte in short order. I’ll certainly be reading and reviewing them if so.