Top Ten Tuesday – Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this latest Top Ten Tuesday participants need to list their top anticipated releases for the second half of 2020.

2020 has so far been a pretty amazing year for books, with some outstanding and impressive novels coming out and blowing me away. However, the year is far from over, and there are a number of incredible and epic-sounding novels set for release in the second half of 2020. In order to fill out this list I have scoured my list of anticipated upcoming releases and tried to work out which of the books coming out between the start of July and the end of December I am most looking forward to.

This proved to be a rather hard list to finalise, mainly because of how many awesome novels are coming out in the next six months. I had to make some hard decisions for this list, and I ended up cutting out several upcoming releases that I am really looking forward to. Despite this, I am rather happy with the eventual choices that I made, and I think that this upcoming list reflects which upcoming novels I am going to have the most fun reading. Due to how impressive they sound and because they have already caught my attention, several of these books in my weekly Waiting on Wednesday articles, and some of them also appeared on my recent Winter TBR list. However, there are also some interesting new books that I am discussing for the first time here, so that should give this list a bit of variety. So let us get to my selections and find out which upcoming novels are my most anticipated releases for the second half of 2020.

Honourable Mentions:


Total Power
by Kyle Mills – 15 September 2020

Total Power Cover


The Devil and the Dark Water
by Stuart Turton – 1 October 2020

The Devil and the Dark Water Cover


Hollow Empire
by Sam Hawke – 26 November 2020

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Hollow Empire was a book that I was really hoping to read last year, but it has faced some delays. Luckily it looks set for release in a few months time and I am rather excited to check it out, especially after how much I enjoyed Hawke’s first novel, City of Lies.


Colonyside
by Michael Mammay – 29 December 2020

This is the third book in the incredible Planetside series of science fiction thriller novels that I have been having an outstanding time reading the last couple of years. The first book in this series, Planetside, is one of my favourite debuts of all time, and last year’s follow-up book, Spaceside was also really impressive. Colonyside is set to be another amazing addition to this series, and I cannot wait to see what sort of complex and clever space mystery Mammay cooks up this time.

Top Ten Tuesday (By Release Date):


Demon in White
by Christopher Ruocchio – 28 July 2020

Demon in White Cover 1


The Gates of Athens
by Conn Iggulden – 4 August 2020

The Gates of Athens Cover

I actually got a copy of this book last week and I am planning on reading it soon. Gates of Athens is set to be one of the top historical fiction releases of the year, and it should prove to be an epic and detailed read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker – 18 August 2020

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It


Thrawn Ascendancy
: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn – 1 September 2020

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

The Evening and the Morning
by Ken Follett – 15 September 2020

The Evening and the Morning Cover


The Trouble with Peace
by Joe Abercrombie – 15 September 2020

The Trouble with Peace Cover 2

I used The Trouble with Peace’s more recent cover for this article because it looks extremely cool and is a nice contrast to the cover I used in the linked Waiting on Wednesday article.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini – 15 September 2020

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars Cover


Assault by Fire
by Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV – 29 September 2020

Assault by Fire Cover

I just want to point out that Assault by Fire is the only debut novel that I have featured in this article. Not only does it have an awesome and exciting story concept behind it, but I really loved the book that Rawlings cowrote with Mark Greaney last year, Red Metal. If Rawlings’ first solo book is anything as good as Red Metal, then this should prove to be a fantastic read that I know I am going to enjoy.

 

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly – 10 November 2020

I have been really enjoying Michael Connelly’s books over the last couple of years, including Dark Sacred Night and The Night Fire, both of which were exceptional pieces of crime fiction. I am also in the middle of reading his latest book, Fair Warning, which is so far pretty amazing. Because of this, I was rather excited when I heard that Connelly had another book coming out later this year. The Law of Innocence sounds extremely interesting as it sees the return of the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, as he faces the trial of his life. Also set to feature his most iconic protagonist, Harry Bosch, The Law of Innocence should be a particular impressive read and I am very much looking forward to it.


Call of the Bone Ships
by R. J. Barker – 24 November 2020

The final book on this list is a book that I know that I am absolutely going to love, and which is pretty much guaranteed to get a full five stars from me. Call of the Bone Ships is the upcoming sequel to one of the best books of 2019, The Bone Ships, by the always amazing R. J. Barker. This new book will continue the epic nautical fantasy adventures started in The Bone Ships, and I for one am extremely eager to see what outstanding and inventive new narrative that Barker comes up with this time.

 

That’s the end of this list. I am extremely happy with how my latest Top Ten Tuesday article turned out, and my Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2020 list contains an intriguing list of upcoming books that should prove to be incredible reads. I think that every one of the books I mentioned above has the potential to get a full five-star rating from me and I cannot wait to see what amazing and exciting stories they contain. While I am waiting to get my hands on these books, why not let me know if any of the above interest you, and let me know what your most anticipated releases for the next six months are in the comments below.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Film Review – Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Justice League Dark - Apokolips War

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 38, DC Animated Movie Universe – Film 15

Director: Matt Peters and Christina Sotta

Producer: James Tucker

Screenplay: Mairghread Scott

Writers: Christina Sotta and Ernie Altbacker

Length: 90 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this review I am going to go a little outside my wheelhouse by reviewing the latest animated comic book adaption from DC comics, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Fair warning: this is going to be a rather in-depth analysis, so those people who have not seen this film yet might be better served watching it first and then coming back. I will also have a spoiler alert for a key part of the movie towards the end of the review, so keep an eye out for that.

Over the last 13 years, DC Comics have been leading the way over Marvel Comics in the distinctive field of animated movie adaptations of their comic books. While Marvel have produced a couple of decent animated films, such as Planet Hulk and Hulk Vs., the DC adaptations have been leaps and bounds ahead of them. Most of these epic DC animated films have been part of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies project, which has produced 38 distinctive animated films since 2007. There have been some rather impressive and enjoyable releases as part of this project, and I have watched each one of them as soon as they have come out.

While a lot of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies stand alone, 15 films were set within a shared universe, with the same group of voice actors reprising their roles multiple times. This shared universe, known as the DC Animated Movie Universe, started in 2013 with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, and examines an alternate universe inadvertently created by the Flash. This new universe is very heavily influenced by The New 52 continuity of comics (but don’t hold that against it), and features an interesting collection of films featuring a range of different DC characters, although there is a noticeable and understandable focus on Batman and the Justice League. Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is the 15th entry in the DC Animated Movie Universe and serves as the conclusion to most of the storylines that were featured within the preceding 14 movies. This film was directed by Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, and features a story written by Christina Sotta and Ernie Altbacker, with the screenplay written by Mairghread Scott.

Following two previous attempts to conquer Earth by intergalactic tyrant and New God Darkseid, the Justice League is determined to safeguard the planet no matter what. Led by a vengeful Superman, the League launches a pre-emptive attack against Darkseid’s fortress planet of Apokolips, when it becomes clear that he intends to invade Earth again. However, the League’s attack fails miserably as they fly into a trap set by Darkseid, who uses his new troops, the Paradooms, to swiftly defeating the entire Justice League, killing or capturing most of its members.

Now, two years later, Earth has been brutally conquered by Darkseid, who has devastated the planet, and intends to drain it of its magma in order to fuel his future designs of conquest. With nearly all of Earth’s heroes killed during Darkseid’s assault, only a scattered few remain to oppose his plans. At the fore is Clark Kent, the former Superman, who has been stripped of his powers by Darkseid, and who now leads a resistance movement with his wife, Lois Lane. Determined to save the Earth no matter the cost, Clark recruits the surviving members of the League and the Teen Titans: Raven, Damian Wayne and John Constantine for one final mission.

With the help of an odd and violent group of villains, including Lex Luthor, Etrigan the Demon and Harley Quinn’s Suicide Squad, Superman and small team attempt the impossible, a second assault on Apokolips. However, even if they succeed in reaching Apokolips, they will face terrible opposition. Former members of the Justice League, including Batman and Wonder Women, have been converted into loyal soldiers for Darkseid, and they will do everything in their power to defend him. Can Superman and his team defeat Darkseid once and for all, or are these Earth’s final days?

Well damn, now that was one hell of an animated film. As I mentioned above, I have watched a ton of animated comic book adaptations but Justice League Dark: Apokolips War might just be one of the finest and most impressive animated adaptations that DC comics has ever created. This outstanding, five-star film is just plain amazing, and I had an incredible time watching it (multiple times). Apokolips War contains an intense story, pulse-pounding action, an amazing voice cast and a superb connection to prior films and comics, which helps create an epic and powerful animated movie experience. The creative team behind this movie did an exceptional job on this film, turning it into an intense and addictive viewing treat that I absolutely loved. Viewers should be warned, this is not a film for kids, as it has a well-deserved R-rating (MA15+ in Australia), which it earns very quickly and very explicitly.

At the heart of the excellent movie is an exciting and clever story that pits the broken remainder of Earth’s heroes against the ultimate villain in the DC canon. Apokolips War has such a cool concept, starting off with the entire Justice League getting taken out in the first few minutes and then abruptly jumping two years into the future, showing a world devastated by an evil alien invasion. This perfectly sets the scene for a character-driven narrative that follows the last desperate attempt of a handful of mixed protagonists, as they attempt an all-or-nothing mission with extremely high stakes. This results in all manner of character development, tragedy, intense action, and a fantastic smattering of witty humour, which all comes together into a compelling and utterly memorable overall narrative. I was deeply impressed with where the writers took this fantastic story, and I really appreciated all the existing storylines and the substantial character arcs that they were able to explore, expand on and finalise within the movie’s hour and a half run time. This was such a great story, and it worked exceedingly well with the enjoyable characters, eye-catching animation and the awesome team of voice actors to create an amazing overall film.

One of the things that I think I should address first is about whether or not you need to see the other entries in the DC Animated Movie Universe before watching Apokolips War. Due to its cool action and well-written plot, this is a film that is rather easy for viewers unfamiliar with the franchise to follow and enjoy, although a lot of the story elements will make a lot more sense if you are familiar with the DC Comics universe and characters. While you can probably get away without watching any of the previous movies, this is the 15th and final entry in an interconnected universe, so there are obviously going to be some advantages to watching these other films first. For example, you get a much better understanding of the characters, their relationships and their personalities in this universe, and having this knowledge about the characters beforehand can really increase the dramatic punch that a bunch of their actions have. I also personally enjoyed the continued storylines of this film universe, and I liked seeing how this movie wraps up a lot of character arcs and answers some interesting questions. As a result, I would strongly recommend watching some of the other movies first: The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League: War, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Justice League Dark, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen as a bare minimum (yes, I know that calling seven movies a minimum is a bit much, but that just goes to show how intricate this animated universe was).

The creators of this movie utilise an intriguing and unique cast of characters, continuing many of the character arcs established in the prior animated movies. Fair warning: quite a few major comic book characters, including some characters who have been key additions to this animated universe, die in the opening moments of the movie, while some others only get a few scenes, often without any dialogue, before they are also killed. While this movie has quite a huge death toll, I think most of the killings do serve a purpose by motivating the surviving characters, highlighting the brutal nature of the film and its antagonist, or providing a real emotional punch to the viewer. While a large number of characters from the DC universe only get small roles, Apokolips War does contain a rather intriguing and diverse group of central characters who are extremely interesting to follow.

The main character of Apokolips War is John Constantine, the rogue magician last seen in Justice League Dark. Ever since his live action television series a few years ago, Constantine has been popping up in all manner of DC Comic adaptions. Constantine is a fantastic central protagonist, constantly moving the plot along and providing entertaining commentary and witty remarks about the events occurring around him. He also has a rather tragic storyline, which sees him full of regret and shame after he let down his love interest, Zatanna. Not only does this result in a conflict with Superman, but it also serves as a driving force throughout the movie as he tries to redeem himself. Constantine also serves as the heart of the entire movie, acting as a confidant to several characters and providing inspiration during key moments, including one impressive speech at the very end. While he is an amazing character, he was a bit overused when it came to solving problems, as he seemed to have a magical solution for nearly every obstacle that the protagonists came up against. While it does show off his resourcefulness, and his jack-of-all-trades approach to magic, I thought that it was a bit of a crutch for the story at times. Still, I loved Constantine as a protagonist, and I cannot think of anyone better to be the main character for this film.

Another character that I really appreciated throughout this movie was Superman/Clark Kent. If the recent live-action DC movies have shown us one thing, it is that Superman is a very hard character to write or portray at times, due to his powerset, his iconic nature and his somewhat dated ideals. However, the DC Animated Movie Universe is one of the few projects which has covered the character perfectly and allowed the viewer to care about him. His use in The Death of Superman and its sequel Reign of the Supermen was particularly impressive, and the creative team have followed that up extremely well with Apokolips War. In the opening scenes, he is an angry and vengeful character, recklessly determined to take the fight to Darkseid and finish him off for good. However, following his defeat, he is cast back down to Earth without his powers and with a painful liquid Kryptonite tattoo to remind him of his failure and to demoralise those people he encounters. Despite this, Superman shows his usual spirit and determination, rallying the remaining heroes to Apokolips, and is a generally fun and inspirational character. The best thing about his character, however, is his relationship with Lois Lane throughout the film. Lois is a major badass in Apokolips War, reverting to the resistance leader persona that she had in The Flashpoint Paradox and leading the various heroes and villains (whom she brings to her side after a boxing match with Harley Quinn in a very fun scene). The relationship between Lois and Clark is one of the major emotional centres of Apokolips War, and it serves as a great continuation of their entire joint character arc from their previous movies. It also leads to the most powerful and emotionally charged scene of the entire movie, which was an extremely touching and memorable moment.

The other major protagonists are the two surviving Teen Titans, Robin and Raven, who both add a lot to the plot. The Robin in this movie is the Damian Wayne version of the character, who has been a focal protagonist of several films in the DC Animated Movie Universe. While Damian Wayne is not my favourite Robin (Tim Drake for the win), he has been a solid part of this shared universe, especially in the two Teen Titans movies. In Apokolips War, Damian is his usual arrogant self, although he has grown and matured since his introduction. However, the events at the start of the film turn him to a darker path, and he ends up leading the League of Shadows like his grandfather before him. While at first reluctant, he is convinced to help their mission by Raven, to whom he had grown close in Justice League vs. Teen Titans and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. Damian’s major scene is the eventual encounter he has with a Darkseid controlled Batman, and their emotionally charged fight sequence is a great part of the movie. Raven is also a fantastic character as she spends most of the film fighting her literal inner demon, her father, Trigon, whom she has imprisoned in the gem in her forehead. The emotional turmoil of the film and the constant conflict against her father has drained Raven, and she is a shell of herself throughout Apokolips War. Raven has some rather dark moments in this film, and her continued inner conflict is an excellent part of the plot. I really liked that the writers chose to focus on Raven, and it turned out to be an exceedingly interesting continuation of her storyline from the excellent Justice League vs. Teen Titans film. I also really enjoyed seeing the extension of the relationship between Robin and Raven. There had been some hints of a connection between the two in their previous entries in the universe, but the writing team took the time to explore it in more detail in this film. There are some rather nice moments as a result, as well as some heartbreaking sequences (this is a pretty traumatic film after all), and overall, both of them proved to be a great addition to the movie.

While the above main characters are great, I really need to highlight the inclusion of the entertaining side characters, who add an incredible amount of fun and excitement to the movie. At the top of this list is Etrigan the Demon, last seen in Justice League Dark. Etrigan was easily the most amusing character in the entire film, mainly because he is comically depressed following the death of the human he was bonded to, Jason Blood, in his previous appearance. Because of this, he spends most of the film following Constantine, looking for something to break him out of his stupor, and being too apathetic to take anything seriously or even to rhyme (which is a big problem for a rhyming demon). His antics are very entertaining, and every appearance he has is designed to make you laugh, right up to the end. I also loved the fantastic use of the Suicide Squad characters in this film. Harley Quinn is her usual, exceedingly violent and over-the-top self in this film, and it was fun to see her lead the Suicide Squad: “Best boss ever”. Next up you have the always dependable Captain Boomerang, who is at his sleaziest right of the bat. Boomerang is another fun addition to the team, due to his funny jabs towards the other members of the Squad, and he has some great moments, including starting an Australian/British rivalry with Constantine. However, the best member of the Suicide Squad has to be King Shark, who stands out right from his start when Constantine hilariously identifies him as one of his exes (which is a great nod to Constantine’s bisexual orientation in the comics). Unlike the pacifist King Shark we see in the Harley Quinn animated show, this version of the character is a bloodthirsty killing machine who gleefully eats several people. He also appears to only be able to only able to say one phrase: “King Shark is a shark!” which I thought was a nice homage to Groot. Pretty much every scene with King Shark is just great, and you will surprised how much fun his constant declarations of “King Shark is a shark!” becomes, especially as it leads up to an amazing joke with Captain Boomerang. I loved all four of these characters, and their inclusion was a masterstroke from the creators, due to how much heart and humour they add to the film.

No superhero movie would be complete without a great antagonist, and Apokolips War features the biggest bad in the entire DC universe, Darkseid. Darkseid has been the major villain for the entire DC Animated Movie Universe, from his destructive introduction in the Justice League: War, to his manipulations in The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen. As a result, Darkseid is an amazing antagonist for this movie, as you get to wrap up his storyline and see how he has been building up to this battle for the entire length of the DC Animated Movie Universe. Darkseid is exceedingly ruthless and destructive in this movie, more than living up to his reputation by brutally taking out the Justice League and killing so many protagonists and heroes. I loved his portrayal as a cold uber-tyrant, and he has some awesome scenes, such as taking out the entire Green Lantern Corp by himself, or facing off against a raft of powerful opponents (including one massive brawl against another major DC antagonist). Of course, his most evil acts revolve around his treatment of the heroes that he captures in the opening acts of the film. I have already mentioned his depowering of Superman, but that is nothing compared to what he does to other members of the League, as he turns them into twisted cybernetic monstrosities, slaved to his will. I was particularly impressed with how he managed to twist Batman’s mind, turning him into his chief enforcer and strategist. Having the ultimate hero become as ruthless as the Batman in this film is a little jarring, and I felt that it was a rather intriguing character arc to explore. I also have to mention Darkseid’s new foot soldiers, the Paradooms. Paradooms are the traditional Apokolipian soldier’s, the Parademons, who have been enhanced with the DNA of Doomsday, making them more than a match for most of the heroes in the Justice League. While the name ‘Paradooms’ is a little uninspired, they do add an exciting new element to the story, especially after the thrashing that the Justice League gave the Parademons in Justice League: War. I did think that their power levels were a little inconsistent at times, as one minute they are killing the entire Justice League, the next they are getting taken out rather easily by the Suicide Squad, but overall they were a destructive addition to the universe. I really liked this collection of antagonists, and I think that having such impressive baddies, really amped up the stakes and my enjoyment of the film.

Apokolips War has a truly impressive voice cast, with most voice actors returning after prior appearances in the DC Animated Movie Universe. At the forefront is Matt Ryan, who once again voices Constantine to perfection in this film. Anyone who has seen any live action or animated feature where Ryan portrays Constantine will know how awesome his work is, and in Apokolips War he once again shines, bringing his brand of charm and roguish appeal to the character. I also must highlight Jerry O’Connell voicing Superman in this movie. O’Connell has been killing it as Superman throughout this shared universe, and Apokolips War is some of his best work. He brings a great deal of passion to the role, and I think that his voice expertly captures all of Superman’s attributes, from his inherent positivity, to his anger at Darkseid and everything that he has done. O’Connell’s Superman also has an amazing amount of chemistry with the film’s Lois Lane, although this is not surprising, considering that Lois is voiced by O’Connell’s real-life wife, Rebecca Romijn. Romijn also does a fantastic job with Lois, and I really like her take on the character, showing of Lois’s boundless confidence and deep love for Clark. Romijn also touches on Lois’s vulnerabilities and doubts in this film, and this helps her produce one of the best and most heartfelt sequences in the entire movie.

I am also a major fan of young voice actor Stuart Allan and his take on Damian Wayne. Allan has been voicing Damian since 2014, and he has always perfectly captured the character’s arrogance and reckless personality. I like how Allan has grown up in step with the character, and his portrayal of Damian in this film adds some more restraint, uncertainty and vulnerability to the character after the opening events. Another impressive young voice actor in this movie is Taissa Farmiga, who returns to voice Raven for the third time. Farmiga has a much younger and more vulnerable take on the character of Raven than Teen Titans fans would be used to, and I think it works extremely well, showing off how scared Raven is of herself and her inherent darkness.

There is also a fantastic group of voice actors voicing the many side characters and antagonists in this movie. Candyman himself, Tony Todd, voices Darkseid, and his deep and callous take on the character, really helps to make the antagonist seem even more menacing and evil. Jason O’Mara does another amazing job as Batman in this film, and I like his more calculating take on the character, especially when he is under Darkseid’s control. Rainn Wilson is also entertaining as Lex Luthor, and he brings a real cowardly, slimy air to his parts of the film. Rosario Dawson is once again cast perfectly as Wonder Woman, and I loved her strong and confident voice for this character. John DiMaggio, Hyden Walch and Liam McIntyre all return to voice members of the Suicide Squad they have portrayed before, and they are all rather entertaining. I have already mentioned how much I loved DiMaggio’s King Shark, and it was fun to see him provide a new voice to the character after portraying him in Assault of Arkham. Walch provides another excellent turn as Harley Quinn, bringing some great energy to the character, and I think I prefer her portrayal to that of her Teen Titans co-star Tara Strong. McIntyre also does an excellent Captain Boomerang, and I personally liked it when they cast an Australian in the role, even if the character is a bit of a silly Australian caricature. While there are a couple of actors who I haven’t discussed, I think I have done enough to show how this movie has an exceedingly strong voice cast, and there was not a single miscast in the entire film.

I also have to praise the amazing animation quality featured within this movie. The animators behind Apokolips War have helped produce an incredibly slick movie with some impressive backgrounds and some fantastic and eye-popping action sequences, some of which were quite brutal and over-the-top at times. Apokolips War also features some cool and unique character designs, as many of the character had new and distinctive looks as a result of the harsh plot of the movie. This includes the depowered Superman with the Kryptonite S on his chest, half-dead cybernetic Justice League members and a whole new evil costume motif for Batman. I also have a lot of love for how the musical elements of this movie fit in with the visuals, and some of the instrumental scores that were featured really helped some key events pop out and stick in the mind, especially when combined with some of the impressive animation. For example, there is a great scene about two-thirds in where the music helps really enhances a major moment around one of the key characters, there is also a bit right at the end of the movie where the score plays extremely well with a really visually impressive moment, creating a fantastic ending for the entire movie. This helps turn Apokolips War in a visual and audible treat, and I thought that the fantastic combination of these elements helped to create an excellent movie.

 

The next paragraph gets extremely plot heavy in its discussion, so I am issuing a SPOILER ALERT.

I need to discuss how the entire movie concludes, mainly because I am in two minds about it. The film essentially ends with the entire DC Animated Movie Universe being erased out of existence, when Constantine talks the Flash into creating another Flashpoint once it becomes clear that the Earth is doomed. While it was an amazing scene, especially with the monologue that Constantine gives to convince Flash to do it and the fade to white that heralded the end of the movie, I thought it was a controversial way to end the film. Not only was it a rather predictable move thanks to several discussions about the alternative Flashpoint universe made earlier in the film (and the fact that time travel was the only obvious way to fix everything), but it also seems to do the rest of the amazing film a disservice by instantly erasing it, and it reminded me of those television episodes where major events turned out to be dream sequences or simulations. That being said, I did think it was a great way to conclude the entire DC Animated Movie Universe, which was created as a result of a Flashpoint in the very first movie, and it keeps the entire plot of this shared universe rather contained. It will be interesting to see what happens next in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, and whether they create a new animated shared universe in the future. I also would love if they maybe set another movie in this universe post-Apokolips War, because seeing what happened in the crumbling ruins of Earth with a depleted Justice League has a lot of story potential

SPOILERS END

 

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is an incredible and highly recommended animated comic book adaptation, which serves as an epic and memorable conclusion to the DC Animated Movie Universe. I had an exceptional time watching this movie, especially as it blended a dark and clever story with amazing characters, impressive animation and a top-notch team of voice actors. This was an overall great film, and it might be one of the best new movies of 2020 so far (which to be fair, might be due to most films getting pushed back this year). I had a great time reviewing this animated film, and I might spend a bit of time reviewing more animated comic book movies in the future. As most of them are adaptions of existing comic books, I think this is close enough to my current focus as a reviewer to fit on this blog, and I look forward to examining some of my favourite animated comic book movies in the future.

WWW Wednesday – 24 June 2020

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?


Last Survivor
by Tony Park (Trade Paperback)

Last Survivor Cover

Tony Park is a talented Australian thriller author whose books I have been getting into the last couple of years.  I enjoyed his previous two releases, Scent of Fear and Ghosts of the Past, and Last Survivor is already proving to be a fun read.  I haven’t made too much progress with Last Survivor yet, but I am planning to power through it this weekend.

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Devolution by Max Brooks (Trade Paperback)

Devolution Cover

Wow, now this turned out to be quite an exciting and clever book and I had an outstanding time reading it.  I’m hoping to get a review for this one up soon as it was a really interesting and compelling novel.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle (Audiobook)

We are the Dead Cover

I just finished this audiobook off today and it was an amazing and impressive read that is really worth checking out.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly (Trade Paperback)

Fair Warning Cover

I have been really getting into Michael Connelly’s novels lately (check out my reviews for Dark Sacred Night and The Night Fire) and I am looking forward to checking out his latest book next.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston (Audiobook)

Queen's Peril Cover

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Waiting on Wednesday – How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday post, I am going to have a look at a fun upcoming fantasy book that is brimming with so much potential it could just burst: How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

K. J. Parker is an exceedingly talented and clever fantasy author who has written a huge number of exciting and entertaining fantasy novels throughout his career. Parker, a pseudonym used by fantasy author Tom Holt, first came to my attention last year when I happened to get a copy of his impressive and hilarious fantasy/comedy hybrid novel, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an excellent novel that followed a cowardly and duplicitous engineer as he managed to lead the successful defence of a besieged city against an overwhelming force through trickery, ingenuity and manipulating the psychology of both the invaders and citizens of the city. I had an incredible time reading Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City last year, and not only did it receive a full five-star review from me but it also topped several of my end-of-year lists, including my Top New To Me Authors list as well as easily making its may onto My Top Books of 2019 list.

Due to how much I loved this 2019 release, I have been keeping an eye out for any new books from Parker, and I was delighted when I heard about How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It. This book, which is currently set for release in mid-August 2020, sounds like another fun and awesome read, and I not only discussed it in my recent Top Winter TBR list but I also predicted that it was an upcoming release that will get a five-star review from me. I am really intrigued by the plot synopsis of this book, especially as it looks to have some curious connections with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

Goodreads Synopsis:

This is the story of how the City was saved, by Notker the professional liar, written down because eventually the truth always seeps through.

The City may be under siege, but everyone still has to make a living. Take Notker, the acclaimed playwright, actor and impresario. Nobody works harder, even when he’s not working. Thankfully, the good citizens of Classis appreciate an evening at the theatre even when there are large rocks falling out of the sky.

But Notker is a man of many talents, and all the world is, apparently, a stage. It seems that the Empire needs him – or someone who looks a lot like him – for a role that will call for the performance of a lifetime. At least it will guarantee fame, fortune and immortality. If it doesn’t kill him first.

This is the story of Notker, an occasionally good man and a terrible liar. With razor-sharp wit, K.J. Parker has created one of fantasy’s greatest heroes, and he might even get away with it.

I really like the sound of this synopsis, especially as it looks to be another clever and curious story about an unusual hero who is thrust into circumstances well above his head and suddenly has and entire city relying on him. I am expecting a really compelling read that will combine action, intrigue, politics and comedy to create a fun and exciting narrative. Parker did such an amazing job writing a story like this in Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, so I have extremely high hopes that he will produce another incredible book around this sort of story.

Another reason that I am extremely excited for this book is because it sounds like it is going to have a connection to the previous Parker book that I loved. Both Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It are being grouped together in a series titled The Siege. Not only do both books have a similar cover design and a fun title, but they also both set within a capital city under siege by an outside force while those inside the city battle for power and influence. At this point and time, it is a little unclear whether they books are set in the same city or are describing the same siege, but I imagine that there will be some interesting twists to the story that tie the two novels together in some way or form. Whatever it is, I am sure that it will be extremely clever, and I am really looking forward to seeing if there are any references to the previous book.

Based on how much I enjoyed Parker’s work, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was always going to be a book that I was going to get and probably enjoy. However, because it has an intriguing story and because it might have some connections to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, I am extremely excited to get my copy of this book, and I have a really strong feeling that this upcoming release is going to be one of the best books that I read in 2020.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Debut Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this week’s instalment of Top Ten Tuesday, it is actually something of a special occasion as we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Top Ten Tuesday, as this fun, weekly adventure was first started back in June 2010. As a result of this celebration, the topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a little different, as readers have two options: either redo a Top Ten Tuesday topic they have previously done, or pick a past topic that they wish they had done. In order to meet this challenge, I decided to try and do a topic that was featured well back in the day. For this Top Ten Tuesday, I will be doing the 33rd topic, which ran in February 2011 on Top Ten Tuesday’s original blog, The Broke and the Bookish, listing my favourite debut books.

Over the years I have had the great pleasure of reading a number of impressive and captivating debut novels, many of which formed the start of an amazing series or which helped launch the writing career of some of the best authors of a variety of different genres. Some of these debuts have been so good that they have stuck with me for life, and I look forward to listing my absolute favourites. I am taking a rather broad stroke approach with this list, and I am going to make any debut that I have read eligible to be included. It does not matter if I read this book out of order, whether I enjoyed later entries from the author first, or whether I have gone back and read this book years after it came out; as long as it is the first full-length novel from an author, it can appear on this list.

This proved to be a rather intriguing list to pull together, as I actually had a rather large collection of debut novels to sort through, and I ended up discarding several really good books that I was sure were going to make the cut. I think that my eventual Top Ten list (with a generous Honourable Mentions section), features a rather interesting and diverse collection of debut books, and I quite like how it turned out. Unsurprisingly, as many of these books are written by my favourite authors, I have mentioned some of these entries and their authors before in prior lists, such as my Top Ten Auto-Buy Author list, and for many of these authors, I am still reading a number of their current novels. So let us see what I was able to come up with.

Honourable Mentions:


The Crystal Shard
by R. A. Salvatore (1988)

The Crystal Shard Cover

The Crystal Shard is the very first book from one of my favourite authors, R. A. Salvatore, and it was the first book in The Icewind Dale trilogy. I really loved this book, and it served as a fantastic start to a massive fantasy series that is still going to this day. The characters introduced in The Crystal Shard have all recently appeared in a brand-new trilogy, made up of Timeless, Boundless and the upcoming Relentless, which I have had an amazing time reading and reviewing.

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso (2017)

The Tethered Mage Cover

This was a fantastic debut from a couple of years ago that I instantly fell in love with, especially as it led to two awesome sequels, The Defiant Heir and The Unbound Empire.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke (2018)

City of Lies Cover


Empire of Silence
by Christopher Ruocchio (2018)

Empire of Silence Cover

An outstanding science fiction debut with a lot of impressive elements. This was one of my favourite books of 2018, and it led to an amazing sequel last year, Howling Dark, as well as the intriguing upcoming novel, Demon in White.

Top Ten Tuesday (By Release Date):


Magician
by Raymond E. Feist (1982)

Magician Cover

Right off the bat we have Magician by Raymond E. Feist, which may be one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time. I first read this book years ago, and its clever story and substantial universe building has helped make me a lifelong fan of both the author and the fantasy genre. This was the first book in the epic and long-running Riftwar Cycle, which included the fantastic spinoff series, The Empire trilogy. I am still enjoying Feist’s books to this day, as his latest novel, King of Ashes, was a lot of fun, while his upcoming book, Queen of Storms, is one of my most anticipated releases for the next couple of months.

Legend by David Gemmell (1984)

Legend


Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
by J. K. Rowling (1997)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Cover

No list about top debuts can be complete without the first book in the world-changing Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This was an impressive novel, filled with immense amount of world building, that I absolutely loved while growing up. While you kind of have to ignore anything that the author says outside of the books, this is still an outstanding novel, that holds a special place in my heart.

Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow (2000)

Under the Eagle Cover

Under the Eagle was one of the very first historical fiction novels that I ever read, and it really helped me get into the genre (something that would eventually lead to me reviewing books professionally). Under the Eagle is an impressive and compelling Roman history novel that follows two Roman soldiers during the invasion of Britain. Filled with a lot of great action and historical detail, this was the first book in the Eagles of the Empire series, which is still running to this day (make sure to check out my reviews for the last couple of books in the series, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of Rome).

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2006)

The Lies of Locke Lamora Cover

This was an exceedingly entertaining and wildly impressive fantasy novel which followed a group of conmen in a dangerous, magical city. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a really good book, and I think it would be impossible for someone to read it and not instantly fall in love with it. This book also served as the first entry in the outstanding Gentleman Bastards series, which currently contains three amazing books, with the fourth novel, The Thorn of Emberlain, hopefully coming out at some point in the future.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2006)

The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself is an intriguing and inventive dark fantasy novel that follows a complex and damaged group of protagonists in a world full of blood, betrayal and war. This book was the first entry in The First Law series of novels, all of which have been a real treat to read. It has also led to an awesome sequel series The Age of Madness trilogy, the first book of which, A Little Hatred, was one of my favourite releases of 2019.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

The Name of the Wind Cover

This was an extremely epic and captivating read, which may be one of the absolute best fantasy debuts of all time. The Name of the Wind contains an amazing, character driven story that follows the early days of a man destined to become an infamous hero. I cannot emphasise how much I loved this book, and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, was just as good, if not better. I cannot wait for the third novel in the series, currently titled The Doors of Stone, to come out, and it is probably my most anticipated upcoming release (my kingdom for an early copy of this book).

Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom (2008)

Fire in the East Cover

Fire in the East is an excellent historical fiction novel that I had an amazing time reading some years ago. The very first novel from Harry Sidebottom, who would go on to write some amazing books like The Last Hour and The Lost Ten, Fire in the East had a very impressive Roman siege storyline, that few other historical fiction authors have come close to matching.

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (2013)

promise of blood cover


Planetside
by Michael Mammay (2018)

Planetside Cover 2

The final book in my list is Planetside, the addictive and exciting science fiction/thriller hybrid whose sudden and destructive conclusion absolutely blew me away. Mammay did an outstanding job with his first book, and last year’s sequel, Spaceside, is also really worth checking out.

Well that’s my Top Ten List for this week. I rather like the list that I came up with, and there is a good collection of novels there, although it is slightly more fantasy-heavy than I intended. For some of these books I really need to go back and reread them at some point so that I can do a Throwback Thursday review of them. This is probably a list that I will come back to in the future as well, as there are always impressive new debuts coming out. For example, this year I have already read a fantastic debut, The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold, and I am also looking forward to several great sounding upcoming debuts like Assault by Fire by Hunter Ripley Rawlins and The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell. In the meantime, be sure to me know which of the books above are your favourites, as well as which debut novels you would add to your Top Ten list.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 8: Shades of Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Shades of Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1997)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 8

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a Throwback Thursday article so I thought I would go back to the old faithful that is the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series and review the eighth volume, Shades of Death.

Usagi Vol 2 Issue 1

Shades of Death follows on right after the events of the seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, and continues to follow the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, in this alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. This eighth volume of the series is particularly significant as it is the first volume to be published by Dark Horse Comics, who printed the series for over 22 years, and who were only recently replaced by IDW for the latest volume, Bunraku and Other Stories.  However, the issues within this volume were originally printed by Mirage Comics, who did the entire second run of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  The Dark Horse Comics/Mirage Comics printing style is similar to the style used by the previous publisher, Fantagraphics Books. The only major difference is that the Dark Horse Comics volumes come with a story notes section at the back, as well as copies of all the covers for the various issues. I’m actually a big fan of the story notes that they started including in these volumes, as they contain some fascinating background information about some of the stories, including details about the various legends or elements of Japanese culture that Sakai focuses on in his story. Shades of Death contains issues #1-6 of the second run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as containing stories from #7-8, and is made up of two major storylines and several shorter entries.

The first story is Shades of Green, and it is probably the most distinctive entry in this entire volume. The story starts with Usagi and his frequent travelling companion, Gen, being ambushed out on the road by a horde of Neko Ninja, forcing them to dive into a river to avoid being killed. Usagi and Gen eventually wash up near a remote village and encounter the mysterious rat mystic, Kakera, who asks Usagi and Gen for his help. Kakera reveals that the Neko Ninja are after him, as they hope to use his abilities to help rebuild their clan’s power after the events of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (volume 4). To that end, they have surrounded the village and intend to kill everyone in order to get Kakera, and even the skilled Usagi and Gen will be unable to stand up to their numbers. With no other help on the way, Kakera is forced to use his magic to summon four very special warriors to stand by their sides, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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Shades of Green is a fantastic and clever story that also serves as an excellent crossover between two iconic comic book series. Pretty much the big thing about this story is the way that is introduces all four members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the Usagi Yojimbo universe. Fans of either Usagi Yojimbo or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise will be aware that these two comics have had numerous crossovers throughout the years, with Usagi appearing in three of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated television shows. The Turtles who appear in Shades of Green are the original Mirage Comics versions of these characters, who were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and who had their own long-running series during the time this volume was published. Usagi has actually encountered Leonardo from this version of the Turtles several times before, including back in the third volume of Usagi Yojimbo, The Wanderer’s Road, so the two groups of characters were able to team up rather quickly. I thought that this was an incredible crossover, and I especially loved the dynamic between the Turtles and Usagi and Gen. Not only do you get the mutual respect that Usagi and Leonardo have for each-other but there is a rather fun dynamic between Gen and the other Turtles. I particularly liked one scene where Michelangelo questions the logic of the Usagi Yojimbo universe, including why the horses aren’t sentient but rabbits and rhinos are (something I have always wondered), and even asking Gen if he has a tail, which it turns out is a rather personal question. There are also some really fun battle sequences throughout this book, and it was great to see the two samurai team up with the Turtles to fight a whole bunch of ninjas. I really liked this crossover between them, and I also think that Sakai did an amazing job drawing and portraying these characters.

In addition to the crossover elements, Shades of Green also contains a rather intriguing overall narrative, especially the parts of it that examine the leadership of the Neko Ninja clan. The Neko Ninja clan has been in a bit of decline since the fourth volume, when a large number of their ninjas, including their leader, Shingen, died. Much of the plot of this storyline revolves around two high-ranking members of the Neko Ninja, the ambitious Gunji and Shingen’s sister Chizu, fighting for control of the clan, with their battle centred on the hunt for Kakera. This proved to be really exciting, and it was cool to see the internal ninja feud, while the clan is facing off against the protagonists. This book also contained the first meeting between Usagi and Chizu, who goes on to become a major recurring character in the series as well as a potential love interest for Usagi. I quite enjoyed Shades of Green, and it definitely serves as a memorable entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series that showcases how cool a crossover with this series can be.

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The next entry is a short story called Jizo, which only runs for a few pages. Despite its shorter length, this is a rather inventive and surprisingly powerful story that I have a lot of love for. Jizo is set on the side of a road, and features a mother placing a dosojin, a roadside icon, of Jizo-sama, in order to help the soul of her deceased young son who was recently killed by bandits. According to Buddhist beliefs, her son’s soul is attempting to make its way into paradise by piling rocks to cross a river. By leaving the statue to Jizo, the patron and protector of children, by the side of the road, the mother is hoping that passing travellers will place a stone near it, which will help her dead son’s soul in his eternal task. The story than continues without dialogue, as the statue of Jizo watches the road, noting the various travellers who walk across it. This includes Usagi, who runs into the same bandits who killed the child, and his actions seem to provide the statue with a measure of peace. This was a clever and beautifully rendered story, and I loved that Sakai redrew the same stretch of road for every single panel. This was such a fantastic concept, and I loved how he told such a powerful story with a minimum of dialogue, only utilising some exposition from the mother at the start and end of the story. The shots of the same stretch or road were done extremely well, and it was fun to see the various people who walked past the statue during the course of the day. Not only were there some familiar faces but there were several intriguing and distinctive-looking people going about all manner of different activities. It was also cool to learn a little bit about the statues to Jizo-sama, something I saw several times when I went to Japan, and the story notes I mentioned above proved to be really useful and interesting in regards to this. I was really impressed with this entry, and I loved the compelling story that Sakai told with his fantastic drawings.

The third story in this volume is Shi, an action-packed and exciting tale that I really enjoyed. Shi sees a wandering Usagi come to a crossroad, where he lets fate and the gods choose his route (a homage to the start of the film Yojimbo). His chosen path takes him to a market town where he witnesses a peasant being bullied by a group of thugs. Intervening, Usagi chases the thugs off and is invited to the peasant’s village for dinner. However, it soon becomes clear that something strange is happening at the village, as the thugs arrive soon after and appear determined to scare all the villagers away. Investigating, Usagi soon finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy involving the local magistrate and his brother, who are determined to kill Usagi and his new friends. To that end they hire a group of four assassins, who call themselves Shi (a reworking of the Japanese character for Shi turns it into a character for death).

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Shi proved to be an compelling entry that serves as one of the main two stories for this volume (indeed, if you combine the names of the first story, Shades of Green, with the title of this story, Shi, which in this case means death, you get the volume’s overall title, Shades of Death). There are some great elements to this action-packed story: the intriguing conspiracy, Usagi’s mixed encounters with the villagers that he is trying to save, and some funny moments as Usagi effortlessly deals with the initial group of thugs. However, the best part of the book has to be the extended fight sequence at the end as Usagi takes on the four members of Shi, each of whom is master of a different type of weapon (sword, spear, bow and the sickle-and-chain). This was a brutal and exhausting fight for Usagi, and it serves as an impressive main set piece for the entire story. It also results in a rather confronting and memorable sequence where, in the aftermath of the fight, Usagi is challenged by a local peasant who is jealous of the attention Usagi is receiving from his betrothed. The peasant gamely steps up to fight Usagi, claiming not to be afraid, only to be faced by an enraged samurai who is worked up into a blood rage after his battle. The look of anger and hate on Usagi’s face is surprisingly terrifying, and I love how demonic Sakai made him look, showing off a darker side to his complex protagonist. I also really enjoyed the entry’s two shady antagonists in the magistrate and his brother. These two duplicitous siblings make for a murderous team, especially when each of them attempts to betray the other in a fantastic conclusion that showcases the consequences of greed. Overall, Shi was an exceptional story that I had an awesome time reading.

The next story in Shades of Death is a fun entry titled The Lizards’ Tale, which focuses on a group of Tokages, the dinosaur-like lizard critters that infest the Usagi Yojimbo universe. In this story, a group of chilly Tokages attempt to warm themselves up one snowy night by snuggling together in the warmest place they can find, around the sleeping body of Usagi. Awakening the next morning, Usagi finds himself surrounded by the potentially vicious creatures, and only manages to flee by throwing them a bag of food and running for it. However, the Tokages are not that easily escaped, and they continue to follow Usagi hoping to get more food out of him. Despite his comical efforts to get rid of them, Usagi soon grows attached the Tokage pack, especially after they help him out of a sticky situation with some bandits. The Lizards’ Tale is a very fun and humorous story that provides some light-hearted moments in this volume after some of the preceding darker stories. I really liked how Sakai told the story without any dialogue whatsoever, relying on only the exaggerated movements and facial expressions of the various characters and the Tokage to tell the story. This was an incredibly entertaining entry, and I had a great laugh as I went through it.

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The final three stories are a bunch of shorter entries that focus on a younger Usagi as he trains with his sword master, Katsuichi. These three stories include Usagi’s Garden, Autumn and Battlefield, and feature some character-building moments for the protagonist. Each of these three stories is rather good, and it is always interesting to see a younger Usagi when he is a rash trainee, rather than the wiser, battle-hardened warrior that he is in the rest of the series. These three short stories contain a fun mix of narratives, including one about Usagi learning patience and honesty by attempting to grow plants, another where he frees the spirit of Autumn, Aki-Onna (Autumn Women) from a monster, and a final story where he sees his first battlefield and learns that there is rarely glory or honour in the midst of war. These were a great collection of stories, and I liked the moral based narratives that each of them contained. Reading these three shorter stories proved to be a good way to end the volume and it was nice to have some low-stakes entries to wrap everything up with.

As usual, Sakai’s artwork for this volume was deeply impressive for every story, and I loved every aspect of his drawings throughout Shades of Death. While I have already mentioned his fantastic fight sequences, the cool character designs and amazing use of facial expressions while talking about some of the stories above, I also have to highlight the detailed background sequences and depictions of the beautiful, multi-seasonal Japanese landscapes. Every panel of this book is loaded with incredible detail, and I loved examining all the different backgrounds, especially as I see something new and different in this volume every time I read it. Sakai did some outstanding artwork in this volume, and it was a real treat to see his drawings and characters come to life.

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Shades of Death is another incredible volume in the exception Usagi Yojimbo comic book series from the legendary Stan Sakai. Featuring some top-notch narratives, impressive character inclusions and some eye-popping artwork, Shades of Death was an exciting and captivating read. I loved every second that I spend reading this volume, and this eighth volume gets another five-star rating from me.

WWW Wednesday – 17 June 2020

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

Devolution, We are the Dead Cover

Devolution by Max Brooks (Trade Paperback)

Devolution is the latest book from Max Brook, author of the acclaimed horror novel World War Z.  This book follows a small community that is attacked by sasquatches, which is such an amazing premise. I only just started this one last night, but so far I am loving it and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle (Audiobook)

I am still going with the We are the Dead audiobook and I have not made as much progress as I would have liked.  Still, it is a really interesting book and I am enjoying the time I am spending on it.  I am hoping to get it finished off by next week (there are new Star Wars and Star Trek audiobooks out that I need to listen to), but we will see how I go.

What did you recently finish reading?

Stormblood
by Jeremy Szal (Trade Paperback)

Stormblood Cover

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

Last Survivor
by Tony Park (Trade Paperback)

Last Survivor Cover

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For my latest Waiting on Wednesday article I am going to look at an ambitious and massive upcoming novel that is probably going to be the best historical fiction books of 2020, The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett.

The Evening and the Morning Cover

Ken Follett is an absolute legend of an author who has been writing since the 1970s. While he has written several acclaimed thriller novels, he is probably best known for his epic works of historical fiction that follows the lives of several compelling fictional characters as they traverse some major historical events. My first experience with Follett’s work was with the impressive Century trilogy, which chronicled some of the biggest events of the 20th century, including World War I, World War II and the Cold War. While each of the books in the Century trilogy were massive volumes, I gamely read through them and quickly found myself getting drawn into these incredible pieces of historical fiction. Since the Century trilogy has finished, Follett has only released one other book, A Column of Fire, but that was enough to make him one of my absolute favourite authors, and I have been eagerly waiting to read his next book.

Well it looks like my wait is finally over, as the next novel from Follett, The Evening and the Morning, is set to be released later this year in mid-September. The Evening and the Morning is actually part of the same series as A Column of Fire, which is known as the Kingsbridge series, as all the books are set around the fictional town of Kingsbridge. This is probably Follett’s most popular and well-known historical fiction series, with all three books getting very positive reviews, and the first two novels in the series, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, have both been adapted into television miniseries, with The Pillars of the Earth miniseries having a particularly impressive cast to it. The Evening and the Morning will serve as a prequel to the entire Kingsbridge series, and it will be set over 100 years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth.

Synopsis:

A TIME OF CONFLICT
It is 997 CE, the end of the Dark Ages, and England faces attacks from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east. Life is hard, and those with power wield it harshly, bending justice according to their will – often in conflict with the king. With his grip on the country fragile and with no clear rule of law, chaos and bloodshed reign.

THREE LIVES INTERTWINED
Into this uncertain world three people come to the fore: a young boatbuilder, who dreams of a better future when a devastating Viking raid shatters the life that he and the woman he loves hoped for; a Norman noblewoman, who follows her beloved husband across the sea to a new land only to find her life there shockingly different; and a capable monk at Shiring Abbey, who dreams of transforming his humble abbey into a centre of learning admired throughout Europe.

THE DAWN OF A NEW AGE
Now, with England at the dawn of the Middle Ages, these three people will each come into dangerous conflict with a ruthless bishop, who will do anything to increase his wealth and power, in an epic tale of ambition and rivalry, death and birth, and love and hate.

Thirty years ago we were introduced to Kingsbridge in The Pillars of the Earth, and now in this masterful prequel international bestseller Ken Follett will take us on a journey into a rich past, which will end where his masterpiece begins.

It looks like this latest book will once again tell an elaborate and multilayered tale that will follow these new protagonists through the early 11th century. Based on how Follett usually writes his novels, this story will be set over a period of many years, and will see the protagonists encounter all manner of hardships, opportunities, betrayals and other life experiences as their separate narratives become more and more connected through the course of the book. This will inevitably result in an ultra-captivating tale as the reader becomes attached to the characters and watches them engage in action, intrigue and drama. This book will also serve as a prequel of sorts to the other books in the series, as the characters featured within The Evening and the Morning will be some form of ancestors to the characters of The Pillar of the Earth, and it will be interesting to see how they are all connected.

While I am looking forward to seeing what stories and characters Follett comes up with for this book, I am especially keen for his portrayal of the historical period that the book is set in. Follett is a master of depicting and exploring history, and I have loved his takes on some of the periods featured within his previous novels. The early 11th century setting for The Evening and the Morning should prove to be particularly intriguing, as you will have Viking raids, troubles with the Welsh, Norman settlers and all manner of other fantastic historical elements that should prove fascinating to explore. I am extremely excited to see Follett’s take on this historical era, and I know that I am going to love it.

Based on how much I have enjoyed Follett’s previous books, I know that The Evening and the Morning is going to be an outstanding historical epic which I will have an amazing time reading. Making it a prequel to his previous impressive novels and setting it at the start of the medieval period should help to make this book even more enjoyable, and I am looking forward to the author’s trademark deep dive into history. This is going to be a pretty lengthy book that will no doubt take me a while to get through (trust me, all of Follett’s previous books made my Longest Novels I Ever Read list). However, I have no doubt that it will be worth it, as this upcoming book has immense potential. I am already certain that The Evening and the Morning is going to get a full five-star rating from me, and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.