The Heart of Iuchiban by Evan Dicken is set in the mystical world of Rokugan. From the popular Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying and card games, Rokugan is a fantasy world based roughly on feudal Japan. There are seven clans (Crane, Lion, Crab, Scorpion, Unicorn, Phoenix, and Dragons) that divide the land of Rokugan and there is little love or trust between them. The only thing connecting them is loyalty to the emperor. But an old threat becomes relevant again and they must find a way to work together or the empire will fall. Can they do it?
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Aconyte for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of The Heart of Iuchiban: A Legend of the Five Rings Novel contains some spoilers!]
The Heart of Iuchiban is more than just a basic war book
Dicken’s tale initially presents itself as a war tale. The seven clans are assembling to put down a peasant rebellion. The clan leaders are squabbling and backstabbing each other before they even start the march toward the unrest, each trying to look the most important.
The imperial forces finally meet the rebels in battle but what should have been an easy victory for them turns into a slaughter. The rebel forces are untrained but unrelenting, even death doesn’t stop them! The entire imperial force is completely wiped out and no one in the rest of the empire knows anything even happened. It looks like the story is over before it starts.
A murder mystery and unlikely companions
Then Dicken cuts to inspector Naoki, a young Dragon clan inspector. She is following the path of a serial killer who is wiping out Dragon nobles. As she tracks the killer she meets a Phoenix priest, Irie, whose mentor seems to have been involved with the murder somehow.
The priest wishes to prove her mentor’s innocence so she joins Naoki in her investigations. Eventually, they run into the same undead forces that decimated the imperial army and realize that the two things are connected. They also meet up with others who are aware of the threat and are working to stop it.
An ancient sorcerer named Iuchiban used forbidden dark magic and almost tore the empire apart a few centuries ago. He lies in a tomb near the peasant uprising and Naoki and her companions believe that two of his disciples are trying to locate that tomb and resurrect him.
They decide that the best thing they can do is locate the tomb first and destroy Iuchiban’s remains before his followers reach him. Each of the seven clans is represented among Naoki’s companions and there is deep distrust between them. But they must find a way to move past all that if they are to work together and save the empire from this vile threat.
Another step forward for equality in fantasy novels
Rokugan is based on feudal Japanese culture, with a few differences. The obvious difference is the real magic that permeates the world but the best difference is the equality within the realm. In Rokugan both men and women can hold any position in society.
This has always been a failure of the fantasy genre. Somehow a genre that encompassed elves and fairies, dragons and demons, magic and sorcery, couldn’t imagine a world where gender didn’t limit a character. But in Rokugan, celebrated samurai are both male and female and no one bats an eye. Women hold jobs as inspectors and were honored priests and the world continues to turn.
Moreover, they were not judged differently for being women in those positions. Their gender was never even remarked on beyond pronoun usage!
I would say this is unique in fantasy literature, except I amazingly just finished reviewing a book, Empire of Exiles, that had the same unprecedented gender equality in its society. I am beyond excited by these books and hope that they represent a step forward in the fantasy genre as a whole!
The Heart of Iuchiban will especially please ladies who dream of a world where they can be anything without their choice being shocking. I imagine the forthcoming books will be just as remarkable for what they don’t remark upon.
A fascinating dynamic in The Heart of Iuchiban
The Heart of Iuchiban may be about defeating an ancient evil sorcerer, but it is even more about the relationships between the characters. By the time we get into the meat of the story each of the seven clans is represented in the party and it’s obvious they filter their evaluations of each other through the lens of the clans.
There are constant references and comparisons to the clans and how someone is “supposed” to act depending on which clan they come from. The level of prejudice is a little ridiculous at times and feels fatalistic because none of the characters really breaks from their expected roles.
The group does learn to trust each other, sorta, and work together despite being from different clans. But it would have been nice for them to break from their clan-defined personalities and be more than just avatars for their clans. I think that if the characters had seen that the clan characteristics are just stereotypes that don’t fit everyone there would have been greater trust in the group and things may have gone better for them.
An interesting mystery sets up this series
The characters in The Heart of Iuchiban work their way through a great mystery with a well-designed labyrinth of puzzles to solve together. It was quite enjoyable working out the riddles with them. However, this book very much fell into the trap of the cliffhanger. I have mentioned this before in other reviews so I won’t harp here, but the main point of this book was to set up a continuation of the rest of the series and that lowers my opinion of it a bit.
Still, Dicken introduces some great characters and gives a broad overview of Rokugan and its political workings without being boring. He also crafted some top-notch puzzles for the characters to solve. I did really enjoy the story and do recommend it, especially if anyone is looking for a new series to draw them in.
My Rating: 8/10
The Heart of Iuchiban: A Legend of the Five Rings Novel by Evan Dicken is available now. Do you plan on reading it? Let us know over on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our latest Aconyte book review, In the Coils of the Labyrinth!