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Review: To Chart the Clouds A Legend of the Five Rings Novel by Evan Dicken

As always I want to thank Aconyte Books, Netgalley and Evan Dicken for granting me access to an ARC of this book to review.

Aconyte’s growing line is seeing a lot of wonderful prose books being created that are based on RPGs, LCGRPGs or TTRPGs. While Legends of the Five Rings LCG might be being cancelled, at lease by Fantasy Flight Games I am so happy to see that Aconyte continue to come out with wonderful stories within that world. Sometimes it is difficult to create a novel based on a game, particularly one with a rich lore and a plethora of characters not to mention that normally sees people taking on roles but to date Aconyte’s Authors are smashing it.

To Chart the Clouds focuses on the border tensions between rival samurai clans slowly escalating into possible war over a hidden valley. The diligent yet underappreciated clerk, Miya Isami, develops a new triangulation technique for map-making, her traditionalist superiors at the Imperial Cartographic Bureau Heap scorn upon her. Until her novel approach exposes a swathe of missing land on the border between Scorpion and Lion Clan territories and Isami discovers more than just a simple mapping error. This discovery could finally find the resolution to the endless territorial squabbling between the secretive Scorpions and proud, warlike Lions. An Imperial Treasure dispatches Isami with her fresh insights and relevant neutral standing in the families of the kingdom to the Spine of the World in a bid to contain the conflict. But Isami is far from welcome to the mountains. It now falls to a simple clerk to negotiate between the clans, uncover the truth and discover the location of the hidden valley before the fragile peace is finally shattered by war.

From the first few sentences I felt like I was transported to the world of the Five Rings. Like any good GM Dicken weaves the tale around you and while we are following Isami we still feel very much invested. The tension is present from the very first chapter! With very limited spoilers – I thought our heroine was going to be gone before we even got to know her! If that doesn’t make incredible world building and terrible roleplaying flashbacks I don’t know what does! A few chapters down and we have the first ‘backstab’ and honestly I knew this was going to be good. The intrigue and tension is always just below the surface and I loved it. You are always on the edge of your seat wondering just who Isami and you can trust, what is going to happen next.  As a Shakespeare fan I also adored Isami’s initial meeting with the Lion and Scorpion clan representatives, Shinzõ and Keisuke certainly had the infamous ‘Do you bite your thumb at me’ scene from Romeo and Juliet feel to it. In fact they became favourites because of it. I am also slightly biased to the Scorpions in general but don’t judge me too much for that!

Despite being set in an established world, Dicken builds on this and makes it his own. From the description to the people and landscape everything vividly comes to life while you are reading, and it is a joy to read. Particularly the description and information on the cartography itself – the detail is mind-blowing. I won’t lie at first I was worried – would I get bored reading about maps? Well firstly this is not just about maps and secondly I might have never had more fun reading about cartography. It was actually refreshing, of course you have the Samurai and the ronin and superb action but to have a lead character who is ‘just’ a cartography clerk was is something I didn’t know I needed. The fact that Isami is often overlooked is the key to allowing her to solve, or at least try to solve the mystery of the missing land. It also gives her freer reign since no one expects any trouble from Miya Isami.

I honestly loved this one – the build up and the execution, the twists and turns, the characters and Keisuke! A wonderful and perfect representation of how to take a game setting and turn it  into a gripping high fantasy novel that is extremely hard to put down and will definitely be re-read.

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