My first contact with Bearers of jade had been through a now forgotten blog posting referencing the excellent "Mirror, Mirror" adventure that supposedly was so scary that AEG removed it from the supplement. It would be many years after that mention until I finally got a copy of the supplement for my collection and suffice to say that as a horror fan my expectations were high. Did Bearers of Jade live up to the hype? Boy oh boy it did.
Where are we?
Let's get some context before diving in though. The treatment of the shadowlands in 1st ed. L5R was always a bit off for my taste. Basically it is your off-brand Mordor stand-in propped up to be a constant source of evil goblins and miscellaneous monsters that your PCs can go and beat up with impunity. Sure, a lot of lip service is paid to the idea that the Shadowlands are a horrible corrupt wasteland that threatens the very existance of every living thing in Rokugan. But the previously published material (the otherwise solid Book of the Shadowlands) only reinforces the fact that it's basically just another tolkien-esque monster-town. Only with asian flavoring. And hey, It´s all behind that trusty wall right? No need to bother with it if you are not even going to do monster-bashing in your adventures.
Not so in Bearer's of Jade. This book details the horrors that skip the wall altogether and paints a picture of a setting filled with shadowy corners overflowing horrific secrets and tragedies that no wall can keep back. As the book mentions in an early fiction, the duty of many crab sentries is merely to scream before they die, so that hopefully somebody can deal with whatever gets past them before the night is over, and the implication of the book is that the horrors behind the wall are at least a known entity. Whatever lurks in the quaint little village that suddenly went dark and from which no magistrate ever returns? Not so much.
So how does it read?
In terms of authorship I cannot say I'm familiar with the authors's other work to properly gauge their output, but they sure nailed the vibe with this one. The structure of the book is similar to other L5R splats, what with the different chapters dedicated to a core concept (monsters, artifacts, corrupted humans, etc. all framed as the collected findings of the ronin Shugenja Seikansha in several scrolls (which can be used as handouts). Unlike books like the Way of Shadow, you don't get a lot of info on Seikansha himself within the book, but that's ok, as the whole idea is that this is more or less his scrapbook of in-universe anecdotes, letters, reports, interviews and collected legends.
The lack of a strong central voice that narrates the proceedings could be a detriment to a lesser book, but works like a charm for Bearers of Jade as due to the subject matter each chapter feels like a collection of short horror stories with some similar governing themes, and you quickly get the idea that it would have been impossible to frame this as the first-hand recollections of the adventures of some heroic Shugenja when the horror element kicks in on each story and you realize that even the victorious accounts of felled beasts can't hide the fact that each story is coated in sacrifices and horrific consequences for all involved.
To read each and every report and letter is a delight that will spark plot hooks and inspire more than one GM looking to put some horror in their rokugani adventures. The authors made the right choice to more or less steer far off from the established cast of horrors inherited from the CCG, and resort to folk tales and literary influences which spawned creatures and concepts much more appropiate for a moody RPG than the fantasy monsters originated from the card game. A good example of this is in the "bestiary" chapter where you can see for instance, how a child-murdering demon that can disguise herself as anyone's mother is a concept that exists outside of the influence of the stat-block-driven monsters from the previous shadowlands Book.
Thanks to judicious layout that keeps all the crunch relegated to inocuous sidebards when dealing with the main chapters, the book is an engrossing read and only a few apendices drop the in-game fiction facade to deliver some solid advice for running horror adventures and dealing with stuff like mass combat with undead monsters. The only weak front for this one would be the art, which although functional is really not in the right style for the type of material (this was the book to give to White Wolf's Illustrators instead of the usual stable of AEG contributors).
Should I get it?
I have to give Bearers of Jade my highest recommendations. It's one of the best splats published for the line and a solid entry into anyone's collection. The only caveat really is that the book is as cursed as the content it holds, as there is no way that any GM could return to the good ol' Rokugan of Honor and Bushido after putting this book down. There's no way that the friendly maiden the party finds at the tea house doesn't have a mouth under the hair after this, or that the bag of rice a friendly yasuki sells them isn't a bag of oni eggs that will hatch in the bowels of a PC.
Recommended without reservation. Get this book!
PS. you also get the final details on what happened to the Snake clan here. I should bitch about how they stretched this one out over 3 splats, but really, the concept of the Shuten Doji is so cool it makes up for it.