Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9: Daisho by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 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.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

It has been another good week of reading and reviewing for me, so I thought I would reward myself by doing a Throwback Thursday review of Daisho, the ninth volume in the outstanding, long-running Usagi Yojimbo series from one of my favourite authors, Stan Sakai.

Daisho is an impressive and exciting entry in the series, which unsurprisingly gets a five star rating out of me (full disclosure, every volume of this series is going to get five stars from me, it is just that damn good). This volume contains Issues #7-14 of the second run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, which was originally published by Mirage Comics (Issues #7 and #8 are only partially represented in Daisho as some stories from these issues were used in the prior volume, while a story from Issue #13 appears in the tenth volume that I will review next), and which has been collected into this volume by Dark Horse Books. This ninth Usagi Yojimbo volume is filled with several fantastic and creative stories that follow Usagi as he journeys across the land, getting into all manner of trouble and misadventures in this version of feudal Japan populated solely by anthropomorphic animals. Daisho serves as a significant inclusion in the overarching series, due to its connections to previous stories, and its introduction or resurrection of several key characters.

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This volume starts off with an inspiring and tragic story, The Music of Heavens, which once again sees Usagi traversing the wilderness. His solitude is broken when he encounters the pack of Tokage lizards who he unwittingly befriended in a previous story, The Lizards’ Tale (which was featured in Volume 8: Shades of Death). While Usagi is less than thrilled to see the Tokages, they end up leading him towards another traveller who is making their camp in the woods. The traveller, Omori Kazan, is a mendicant Buddhist priest and skilled musician, who invites Usagi into his camp and talks to him about the various forms of music he studies. However, someone is stalking their camp, determined to get revenge and unafraid to kill an innocent bystander to get it.

I really liked The Music of Heavens and it proved to be a compelling first entry in this volume. The story is based on Usagi’s encounter with a new character, Omori Kazan. Kazan is an intriguing person due to his position as a komuso monk (the monks of emptiness) of a particular sect of Buddhism, which lends him a very distinctive look thanks to the woven basket hat (tengai) he wears on his head disguising his features. Kazan has an amazing arc that delivers a lot in a short while, as he introduces himself to Usagi and the reader, discusses music and religion, and then simultaneously meets his end while also experiencing the divine for the first time. This entire character arc is both beautiful and tragic at the same time, and it provides both Usagi and the reader with some significant emotional moments, especially when it comes to Usagi’s farewell to the Tokages. I also liked how Sakai utilises an antagonist from a previous story, and the fight between Usagi and this character was swift and well-drawn. This was an excellent introductory entry for this volume, and it is a story that I really enjoyed.

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The second story in Daisho is the entertaining and clever entry, The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin. This story reintroduces the gambler from the previous story, The Duel (featured in Volume 6: Circles), who is up to his old tricks of organising deadly sword duels and cashing in on the bets of the local townsfolk. After the death of his previous samurai accomplice, Shubo, during a duel with Usagi, the gambler has been forced to find a new partner, the brutish and less skilled swordsman, Kedamono. However, Kedamono’s greed has convinced the gambler that it is time to end their partnership, and he quickly finds the ideal solution when Usagi arrives in town. However, as the gambler plots, he fails to realise that he is being stalked by Shubo’s widow, who is determined to get her revenge for the role he played in her husband’s death.

This was another amazing story that serves as a fantastic follow-up to a great prior Usagi Yojimbo story. I always get a real western vibe out of The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin, due to its title and the premise around a duel, it proves to be an excellent entry in this volume. Usagi is once again drawn into the plots of the gambler, and thanks to his humility, honour and good manners, which are mistaken as a weakness, both Kedamono and the local villagers are convinced that Usagi is a poor swordsman. However, the gambler, who has seen Usagi in action before, manipulates the odds so that he wins all the money when Usagi defeats his opponent, in a fun reversal of the events of The Duel. This was an incredibly entertaining scene as Usagi is again forced to deal with a bloodthirsty crowd, while the gambler feigns being saddened by the loss of his companion, despite being secretly delighted. However, the gambler ends up getting his comeuppance, and the widow, whose sad final scene was so memorable in The Duel, finally gets a small measure of justice. This was a very clever and enjoyable story, and I really loved how Sakai dived back to a prior standalone story to provide some closure and a fun continuation.

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The next story is called Slavers, and it is a longer entry made up of two separate issues. In Slavers, Usagi encounters a young boy being pursued by bandits. Usagi defeats them and learns that the boy was attempting to get help for his village, which has been taken over by a gang of bandits who have enslaved the villagers as part of a destructive scam to steal their harvest and make a small fortune. Deciding to help the villagers, Usagi infiltrates the gang and attempts to rally the villagers to his cause. However, the gang’s leader, the villainous General Fujii, discovers the deception and captures Usagi, planning to kill all the villagers to make good his escape. Slavers is an amazing story that is not only intriguing in its own right but which also expertly sets up the series of follow-up stories that make up most of this volume. While the standalone narrative of Slavers gets a bit dark at times, due to an extended capture scene surrounding Usagi, it is a rather compelling story filled with action, deception and struggles against adversity.

Slavers is quickly followed up by three separate but distinct stories that can be combined together with Slavers into one large narrative that wraps up all the loose ends from the initial entry. The first one of these stories, Daisho Part One, sees Usagi in hot pursuit of General Fujii, who is in possession of Usagi’s precious swords. Due to the brutal actions of Fujii, Usagi loses his quarry and is forced into an extended hunt for him, eventually coming to a ransacked village. It turns out that the village had recently been raided by Fujii’s new gang, and Usagi must make a hard choice between recovering his soul or helping those in need.

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I have a lot of love for Daisho Part One; it is probably one of my favourite entries in this entire volume. The story starts out with a magnificent and beautifully drawn sequence that shows the various elaborate processes by which a samurai’s swords are created. This impressive opening sequence is one of my favourite pieces of Usagi Yojimbo art from the entire series, and its creation highlights not only Sakai’s skill as an artist but his ability to research and portray intriguing parts of Japan’s unique culture and heritage. This sequence also shows the important a samurai’s swords to their wielder, as they are reflections of that warrior’s soul. This key concept is then brought to life in the main story, as it sees a somewhat unhinged Usagi risking everything to reclaim his swords from Fujii. Sakai does an outstanding job showing off how frustrated and enraged Usagi is at having his swords stolen from him, and he comes across as being quite frightening several times through the story. Usagi’s anger comes to a head when he reaches the village and his initial decision is to abandon the villagers and immediately follow Fujii and his men. However, a local village girl is able to shame him into thinking of others, and the old Usagi returns, providing aid to the villagers. This was an extremely compelling story that does a wonderful job combining a powerful, character driven narrative, with some exquisite artwork and some intriguing aspects of history, into an exceptional entry in this volume.

The next story in this volume is Mongrels, a quick story about a recurring Usagi Yojimbo side character, the bounty hunter Gen, which occurs around the same time as Daisho Part One. In this story, Gen enters a village and starts asking questions about his current bounty, General Fujii. However, he is not the only bounty hunter in town, as he soon encounters the notorious hunter Stray Dog, who is also hunting for Fujii. After a tense conversation, the two-part ways; however, both are determined to capture Fujii and outsmart their competition. This was a fun story that not only brings Gen into this multi-issue narrative but also introduces a couple of great recurring characters. Stray Dog is a fantastic character in the Usagi Yojimbo universe, and he often appears as a compelling rival (and sometime partner) to Gen (such as in the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories). This story serves as a swift and clever introduction to the character, and it was fun to see the rivalry between Gen and Stray Dog form so quickly. Mongrels also introduces the extremely entertaining side character, the Snitch (also called Toady), a sneaky, greedy character who provides information to the highest bidder. While the Snitch has only a short appearance in this story, he is going to start appearing in a lot of follow up volumes, and it is always fun to see where a character starts out. Overall, this was a great story that fits a lot of significant introductions and events into a few short pages.

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The final story in this arc surrounding General Fujii is Daisho Part Two, in which Usagi and his guide meet up with Gen and Stray Dog right at the end of Mongrels. The three samurai decide to team up to raid General Fujii’s lair, and they engage in an all-out fight for money and honour. However, not everyone on the team is keen to work together, and betrayal is afoot. This was an excellent conclusion to the entire storyline, which I really enjoyed. This is a story chocked full of action, as the entire narrative sets up a massive fight between multiple combatants within an abandoned temple. There is some great character work within this story, not only from the protagonists, who bicker and fight amongst themselves, but also with the major antagonist, General Fujii. There some intriguing scenes that show Fujii’s efforts to lead and control a gang of bandits and cutthroats, and I also liked how Sakai shows him being haunted by thoughts of Usagi, whose swords he is holding onto. Usagi and Fujii finally get their showdown in this story, and it served as a fantastic end to this whole extended narrative. There are also some compelling moments surrounding Stray Dog, as he seeks to cheat the others out of the reward money for Fujii. While this initially paints him in a bad light, the source of his need for money is quickly shown, and it highlights just how complex and multifaceted this new side character is. I really liked how this entire story narrative ends, and Daisho Part Two is an excellent part of this volume.

The next story in this volume is the two-part entry, Runaways. In Runaways, Usagi journeys through a small town, when he finds himself in the path of a procession of the local noble lady. Hearing the lady’s name, Usagi is thrown back into the past as he remembers an adventure that occurred many years prior, when he was in the service of Lord Mifune. After finding out that the love of his life, Mariko, has married another man, Usagi is given a seemingly simple mission as a distraction. His task, to escort the young Princess Kinuko to the lands of her future husband, becomes infinitely more complicated, when their party is ambushed by a horde of Neko Ninja. Escaping with the princess, Usagi disguises Kinuko as a peasant in an attempt to hide her from their pursuers. However, the more time that Usagi and Kinuko spend together, the closer they become, until the lines of duty, honour and station become extremely blurred.

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This was another exceptional story within the volume, and I liked how it flashed back to an adventure during his pre-ronin life. Set during the period when Usagi served Lord Mifune (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai), Runaways contains a powerful and emotional narrative that is actually based on Roman Holiday (Sakai is a massive Audrey Hepburn fan), which sees a princess run away with a strong male protagonist and grow close to him, despite her responsibilities and their differences in station. This proves to be a fun, if extremely loose adaption of the movie, and Sakai builds up a complex relationship between Usagi and Kinuko, as the two characters, both tragic victims of circumstances when it comes to love, grow closer to each other. However, despite their feelings, this relationship is fated to never be, and it ends in heartbreak, with the memories of it haunting both Usagi and Kinuko years later. I really liked how this story played out, and it was interesting to see aspects of samurai honour folded into the narrative from Roman Holiday. Other fantastic highlights of this story include the multitude of impressive fight scenes between Usagi and the Neko Ninja, starting with a major battle between two large groups of samurai and ninja. I also liked the exploration of the traditional Tanabata Matsuri festival that the two characters find themselves attending, especially as Kinuko has fun experiencing local customs, foods and activities that someone of her station will never get to enjoy. It was also cool to see an early adventure from Usagi, especially as this entry foreshadows events that have occurred in other volumes, including the return of several now-dead characters, such as Shingen (future leader of the Neko Ninja, who was introduced in Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road, and died in Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy). An overall exciting and impressive story, Runaways is an amazing highlight of this volume.

The final entry is the short story, The Nature of the Viper. In this tale, a local fisherman finds the badly injured body of Usagi’s recurring foe, Jei, after he was thrown from a cliff during the climatic events of Circles. Bringing him back to his hut, the fisherman tends to Jei and manages to save his life. When Jei awakens, he shows his gratitude to the farmer be recounting a tale of viper and a peasant (a version of the classic fable, The Farmer and the Viper), before killing him and resuming his hunt for Usagi. This is a good, short entry that shows the fate of Jei after his last appearance. Jei comes across just as villainous and creepy as ever, and it was fun seeing the fisherman slowly realise just how much trouble he is in as the story progresses. While having a villain recount The Farmer and the Viper as justification for why they are killing a person is somewhat cliched at this point (although to be fair, this story was written back in the 90s), it was still a fantastic sequence. I think that this was an excellent way to end the volume, especially as the reader is left knowing that Jei has returned and that Usagi will be encountering him once again in the future.

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Sakai has once again knocked it out of the park with the ninth volume in his series. Daisho contains several outstanding and memorable stories that are all wildly entertaining and contain some clever links to past and future entries in this series. I had an absolute blast reading this volume, and it is an extremely strong addition to the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series that comes highly recommend.

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.

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

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Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 20 April 2020)

Series: Book of the Ice – Book One

Length: 473 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of fantasy and science fiction superstar Mark Lawrence comes The Girl and the Stars, a superb and endlessly fascinating novel which takes the reader on an epic adventure in a unique new setting.

Mark Lawrence is a science fiction and fantasy fiction author who burst onto the scene in 2011 with his debut novel, Prince of Thorns. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, having written several additional books across four intriguing series, all of which have received a lot of attention and praise. Indeed, when some of his latest novels were released (Grey Sister and Holy Sister in particular), you couldn’t escape reviews of his books even if you tried, as every single review site I followed seem to have some commentary about how much they enjoyed them. Despite seeing all this online praise about his work, I have not actually read any of Lawrence’s previous novels. This is not because his books do not interest me; quite the opposite! I actually consider this inadvertent exclusion of his work to be a major hole in my fantasy/science fiction knowledge. However, I just never seem to be able to fit his books into my reading schedule, even after I featured The Broken Empire series on my Top Ten Series I Want to Get Into list. So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Lawrence’s new book, The Girl and the Stars, I thought that I would take the opportunity to finally read something from this author, and I ended up getting really sucked into this cool and clever novel.

This book is set on the planet Abeth, a dying world that is slowly being frozen over by vast sheets of ice. Despite the cruel and harsh conditions, several human tribes exist out on the ice, scraping a living and managing to survive. However, there is no tolerance of variation or differences out on the ice, and only those people who are whole and normal are considered capable of living their lives out in the cold. For the rest, there is the Pit of the Missing, a vast and gaping black chasm that burrows deep into the ice and the earth from which no one has ever returned.

Every several years, the various tribes living on the ice gather around the Pit, and their children are inspected by the regulators. If a child is normal, they are returned to their parents and allowed to live their lives, but if a child is shown to be different, either because they are weak or they are in the process of developing unique abilities that may cause them to burn out faster on the ice, they are thrown into the Pit in what is considered a mercy killing.

Yaz has always known that she is weaker and not as resilient as the fellow members of her tribe, but she is able to survive thanks to a source of power only she can access. Prepared to be pushed into the Pit, Yaz is instead chosen by the regulators to be taken to their fortress and trained. However, when the regulator pushes her little brother down into the pit, Yaz does not hesitate before diving in after him.

Against all the odds, Yaz survives and finds herself in a strange and wonderful new world under the ice, illuminated the powerful gems, or stars, that provide heat and light deep beneath the surface. As Yaz explores the vast underground labyrinth, she discovers that the other children thrown into the pit over the years have survived and formed their own society. But as Yas searches for her brother, she soon discovers that life underground is not as the utopia it seems. Many dark and terrible things lurk under the ice, determined to claim the bodies and souls of those people it encounters. But Yaz is different; her power seems to affect the star-like gems surrounding her and may prove to be the tool needed to free those people trapped in the darkness. But Yaz’s potential has been noticed, and soon everyone is fighting to get their hands on her power, which can flip the war being fought beneath the surface. Can Yaz save her brother and escape the darkness of the Pit, or is she doomed to be consumed by the conflict?

The Girl and the Stars is a clever and addictive novel from Lawrence that serves as the first entry in his brand new Book of the Ice series. This latest book is set in the same world as the author’s bestselling Book of the Ancestor series and focuses on a new group of protagonists in a unique and compelling setting. Featuring a unique blend of fantasy and science fiction elements, The Girl and the Stars contains an elaborate and epic narrative. Lawrence once again excels at drawing the reader into his novel with the compelling story of a young woman discovering her powers in a strange world. Told with a deeply detailed writing style which forces the reader to absorb and enjoy every word of this epic book, The Girl and the Stars was an incredible novel, and I had an outstanding time reading it.

At the heart of this intriguing book is a compelling and sophisticated adventure story that sees the protagonist encounter all the dangers that live underneath the ice, whilst finding her own inner strength and resolve. This story, which at times reads a bit like a young adult narrative, turns intense rather quickly, as within the first 25 pages the protagonist has already jumped into the unknown to save her brother. What follows is a non-stop thrill ride which sees Yaz encounter a huge raft of crazy characters and strange horrors underneath the ice. The story continues a brisk and exciting pace, as the protagonist jumps from one situation to the next with intriguing plot developments every couple of pages. There are some big set pieces, plenty of daunting opponents, cunning intrigues and manipulations, fun side characters and a fast-paced storyline, all of which come together to produce a really captivating and exciting read, topped off with a shocking cliffhanger of a conclusion. Lawrence sets up a number of intriguing plot points for the future entries in this series, and I am rather curious to see what happens in the next book, and what adventures the protagonist will find herself on next.

The major highlight of this book has to be the incredibly inventive and intricate settings that Lawrence produced. The Girl and the Stars actually has two really cool settings in which the characters find themselves. The first is the wild ice fields of Abeth, a harsh and unforgiving landscape populated by hardy and practical tribes of humans, who are controlled by a wise and manipulative priesthood. Lawrence does an incredible job of introducing the reader to this setting in the first chapter, making it sound like a fun and intriguing location for the book. However, the second chapter sees the protagonist go into the Pit of the Missing, which takes her to a different world under the ice. This new landscape underneath the pit is far more complex and imaginative than the great ice setting at the start of the novel, filled with a huge collection of different landscapes, from icy caverns, fields of fungi, labyrinthine structures, ancient alien cities and areas of darkness. Into these clever locations, Lawrence installs a number of different groups, factions and monsters, which the protagonist needs to understand or avoid if she is going to survive. The sheer number of features and settings proves to be extremely beneficial to the story, as the reader is left wondering what new obstacle or ally the protagonist is going to meet next. I also rather enjoyed how Lawrence blended together fantasy and science fiction elements throughout the course of the book, with the characters tapping into seemingly magical abilities to survive, and with their major opponents appearing to be demons. However, there is a more scientific explanation to these abilities and antagonists that ties into the origins of the planet and its previous inhabitants. There are also a variety of pure science fiction elements, including mechanical monstrosities, sentient cities and ancient technology. All of these elements, whether they appear more fantasy or science fiction based, prove to be really fascinating, and I quite enjoyed seeing how they played into the book. Overall, this was a really unique and memorable setting, and I loved how the author cleverly wove his compelling story throughout it, allowing it to enhance the narrative with its inventive and distinctive elements.

I have to admit that I was initially a little hesitant when it came to reading The Girl and the Stars, mainly because it was connected to Lawrence’s previous series, which I have not read. From what I have heard, the Book of the Ancestor series contains quite an elaborate narrative and setting, and I was worried that my lack of knowledge about the previous books would impact my understanding of the plot of The Girl and the Stars. However, once I dived into this book’s compelling story my fears proved to be rather unfounded, as I had no trouble following the plot or understanding the unique elements. No prior knowledge of any of Lawrence’s previous books is needed, especially as the story follows a brand new protagonist who has no idea of the events of the Book of the Ancestor’s novels, and who herself needs a crash course in the planet’s history, the varied physiology of the humans who inhibit it and other integral plot elements. As a result, this is an extremely accessible book for readers unfamiliar with Lawrence’s work, and, based on my experiences, I would say that it is a good introduction the author’s writing style and wild imagination

That said, I could tell that The Girl and the Stars is also going to be extremely appealing to fans of the Book of the Ancestor’s series, who will no doubt appreciate the similarities this novel has to Lawrence’s previous work, following a young female protagonist who is new to her power through this unique world. While I did not personally understand the significance of them, this book was obviously chock full of references and world-building knowledge that people who are familiar with the previous books are going to really appreciate and find intriguing. I do have to admit that I was bit uncertain about when The Girl and the Stars occurred in relation to the Book of the Ancestors series, and I really have no idea about whether this book is a prequel, sequel or is running concurrently to the previous books. While this did not impact my enjoyment of The Girl and the Stars in any way whatsoever, I did feel that this is something that Lawrence could have made a little clearer for new readers, especially if there are some connections between this series and the previous books is revealed later in the trilogy. Overall, I would definitely recommend this new entry from Lawrence to any science fiction and fantasy fans, whether they are established readers of the author or new readers looking for something interesting to check out.

I also have to spend a little bit of time highlighting the amazing and eye-catching cover my copy of The Girl and the Stars had (see above). While the alternative cover (see below) was also cool, I really loved the cover that my edition had, which was done by artist Jason Chan. Chan, who has done work for several Lawrence’s previous novels, did a fantastic job with this artwork, producing a cover that is striking and which perfectly reflects the unique setting that the book’s protagonist finds herself in. I absolutely loved it the first time I saw it, and this appreciation only grew once I started reading The Girl and the Stars and fully understood what Chan is portraying. This is an excellent bit of artwork, and it is one of my favourite pieces of cover art I have seen so far this year.

The Girl and the Stars is an exceedingly inventive and exceptionally exciting novel that expertly blends together fantasy and science fiction elements to create a widely entertaining and compelling read. I absolutely loved the unique and imaginative setting that Lawrence came up with for this book, and it proved to be a fantastic background to the novel’s enjoyable story. This was easily one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020, and it has become clear to me that I must read more of Lawrence’s books in the future. Highly recommended.

The Girl and the Stars Cover 2

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst

Race the Sands Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 21 April 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 15 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Sarah Beth Durst returns with a pulse pounding and compelling new novel, Race the Sands, an excellent fantasy novel that has a really great story to it.

In the kingdom of Becar, the most important thing to a person is the state of their soul. Guided by the augurs, priests who can read people’s aura, the inhabitants of Becar do all they can to better themselves, as who you are in this life determines your future lives. The purest souls come back as humans or a great animal, while those more corrupt individuals come back as something lower, such as insects or vermin, a state that can only be redeemed after several lifetimes. However, for those truly evil beings, their punishment is to come back as a monster, as a kehok. Kehoks are chimera-like beasts who spawn out in the wilds and who live existences of pure anguish and pain. These monsters have no hope of redemption or salvation and each time they die they will come back as a different type of kehok. The only way that a kehok can break this hellish cycle of resurrection is to become grand champion of the Races, the favoured pastime of the Becaran people. The Races pit several kehoks and their riders against each other to find out not only who has the fastest kehok but which rider has the greatest mental control over their charge.

Tamra used to be an elite kehok rider, but now she scrapes a living as a professional trainer. After several setbacks, including a tragic accident at the previous year’s Races, Tamra is in need of a win, not only to get back on top but to get the prize money that will allow her to pay for her daughter’s expensive augur training. As none of the professional riders will trust her, Tamra is forced to take on and train an unknown street girl, Raia. Raia recently ran away from home to escape her terrible family and a potentially deadly arranged marriage, and she is desperate to find a way to make a living.

Together, Tamra and Raia make an unlikely pair, but with Tamra’s experience and Raia’s natural talent, they might stand a chance, especially as Tamra has managed to obtain a swift and unusual kehok. As Tamra, Raia and their new kehok all attempt to change their destinies, events from around Becar start to impact them. Chaos is engulfing the kingdom, as the former emperor’s reincarnated vessel has yet to be found. Without the vessel no new emperor can be crowned, and the kingdom is on the brink of collapse and invasion. Can this team succeed in the chaos, or will their success have unexpected consequences?

This was an extremely compelling and deeply enjoyable book from a very talented author, Sarah Beth Durst. Durst is a veteran author who has produced a number of young adult and adult fantasy fiction novels since her 2007 debut, Into the Wild. Durst is probably best known at the moment for her Queens of Renthia series, which started in 2016 with her highly acclaimed novel, The Queen of Blood. Durst is actually a new author to me, and I have not had the pleasure of reading any of her previous novels. I have to admit that checking out Race the Sands was a bit of an impulse choice for me; while I was aware that this interesting sounding book was coming out, it was not one that I was initially planning on reading. However, I heard some rather good things about it from a bunch of other reviewers and their glowing praise convinced me that it would be worth reading. I am extremely glad that I did read it, as it turned out to be an excellent read that I deeply enjoyed.

Race the Sands is a standalone fantasy novel that tells a complex and intriguing story completely separate from Durst’s previous works of fiction. Durst does an outstanding job coming up with a deeply compelling and exciting novel that combines a clever fantasy story about racing monsters with an inventive setting and a cast of great characters to create an overall fantastic read. Despite being a book primarily for the adult fantasy fiction crowd, Race the Sands reads a lot like a young adult fiction novel at times, and it has immense appeal for a huge group of different readers, no matter where your interest in fantasy fiction lies.

At the centre of Race the Sands lies an amazing story of action, intrigue and character growth, all based around the really cool concept of people racing monsters out in the desert for glory, money and redemption. This story starts off extremely strong, introducing the high-stakes world of kehok racing and the intriguing main characters, and I would have happily read a whole book based around the races. However, while all the race sequences are extremely exciting, the book ultimately morphs into a much larger narrative, that revolves around the fate of the entire kingdom of Becar. I really liked how the entire story unfolded, especially as all the political intrigue and overarching threats resulted in an epic and impressive conclusion, that was well presented and which showed the book’s protagonists in the most awesome light possible. This was a truly compelling and memorable story, and Durst does a fantastic job packing so much plot and action into a single, standalone novel.

In addition to the excellent story, I was also really impressed with the clever setting and background that Durst came up with for Race the Sands. Becar is an intriguing nation with ancient Egyptian overtones to it, and its two most distinctive features are its obsession with racing monsters and its complex system of reincarnation. I have already mentioned the kehok races above, and they are a really great highlight of Race the Sands. Durst expertly introduces the races and the key concepts behind them early on in the novel, and every single aspect about them is an extremely cool part of the story. However, I really want to emphasise the story element of the Becaran reincarnation system and soul reading that dictates how the populace acts and behaves during their lifetime. This whole system of good and bad souls, which are read by the benevolent augurs, is an important part of the narrative, and is routinely examined by all of the major character throughout the course of the book. In essence the reincarnation system sounds simple: lead a pure life and you come back in a better form in your next reincarnation; be a bad person and come back as something worse. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something rotten at the heart of the whole system, and quite a lot of the story is dedicated to exploring what is wrong and who is behind it. It leads to some real metaphysical discussions about choices, ethics and corruption, which proves to be an excellent and clever part of the book. All of this makes for a great backdrop to this story, and it was a truly fascinating to see how the author explores and utilises these elements throughout the book.

Durst also spends a good amount of time setting up several great characters, who are the heart and soul of the novel, and who each add their own unique elements to the story. There are around five main characters, each of whom serves as a point-of-view character for much of the book, as well as several significant side characters, with one or two of these also serving as lesser point-of-view characters, and each of them add their own unique perspective to the story. At the top of this list is Tamra, the tough as nails, no-nonsense kehok trainer who is haunted by her mistakes and who is eager to redeem herself by training a new racer, which will also allow her to hold onto her daughter. Despite her rough and powerful exterior, Tamra is really a caring and motherly character, who is willing to compromise her own soul and beliefs if it ensures that the people she cares about are safe and happy. Tamra is a fantastic central character, and I loved her raw determination and notable cynicism about the world she lives in. I also have to mention the awesome part she plays in the outstanding conclusion, where she comes across as an amazing badass, completely changing everything in one of my favourite parts of the entire book.

In addition to Tamra, the next major character is the racer Raia, whom Tamra takes under her wing. Raia is introduced as a flighty and scared creature, a failed augur student who is fleeing from her terrible parents and her murderous future fiancé. Despite having no experience, Raia’s only option to survive and make a living is to get involved in kehok racing, and her natural connection to the lion kehok that Tamra buys, ensures that she is taken on as a student. Due to plot circumstances, Raia is given a crash course in kehok racing, and it is through her eyes that we see a lot of details about the Races and what it takes to become a successful rider, which is an exciting part of the book. Raia is also the character who goes through the most growth throughout the course of the book, as she attempts to leave the shadow cast over her by her terrible parents, and quickly gains confidence thanks to her success as a racer, her mentorship under Tamra, some new friendships and the connection she has with her kehok. I really liked seeing Raia’s growth, and she is one of the more inspiration characters within the book.

Another great character is augur Yorbel, the friend and confidant to the heir to the throne, who sets out to find the late king’s reincarnated host in the most unlikely of places. Yorbel, who starts off as a rather naive and sheltered character due to his upbringing in the temple as an augur, finds himself involved in secrecy and intrigue as he attempts to undertake his mission. However, throughout the course of the book, Yorbel finds himself learning more and more about the dark side of humanity, and the difficulties involved with keeping a pure soul. Despite being one of the nicest and most innocent characters, Yorbel has quite a few ethical dilemmas during this book, and the conclusion of his arc was somewhat shocking and intense. I also have to mention Lady Evara, the rich, noble sponsor of Tamra and Raia. I went into Race the Sands knowing to look out for Lady Evara, as several other reviewers identified her as their favourite character. I can definitely see why, as she was easily the most entertaining character in the entire book. Coming across as a snobbish, self-serving master manipulator, it was a lot of fun to see her interact with characters like the serious Tamra or the passive Yorbel. However, Evara also has a lot of depth to her character as well as some interesting backstory, and the parts of the book that featured her were a real treat. I really enjoyed all the main characters in this book, and this great cast of protagonists helped to turn Race the Sands into a first-class read.

I chose to listen to Race the Sands’ audiobook format, and I found it to be a fantastic way to enjoy this excellent book. The audiobook has a run time of 15 hours and 45 minutes and it is narrated by the talented Emily Ellet. I absolutely blew through this audiobook in only a few days, and it became harder and harder to turn it off the more I got engrossed in the story. I thought that the audiobook format really brought all the intense race scenes to life in all their glory, and I especially loved hearing some of the epic moments from the book’s conclusion. I really liked the various voices that Ellet came up with for the books various characters, and I felt that her portrayals of characters like Tamra, Raia and Yorbel were pretty perfect and really reflected how they were written. I also enjoyed the voice that the narrator provides to all of the book’s highborn women, including Lady Evara and the female augurs, put me a bit in mind of Inara from Firefly, i.e. very posh, confident and in complete control of every situation. That being said, all the highborn women do sound very similar to each other, although I didn’t find that to be too distracting. Overall, I had an outstanding time listening to Race the Sands, and it is an amazing format for any potential readers to utilise.

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst is a deeply impressive and highly enjoyable fantasy read which comes highly recommended. This book contains an exciting and addictive narrative that makes great use of its complex characters and intriguing plot elements to tell a story full of action, adventure and brilliant character development. I had an awesome time reading this book, and it gets a full five stars from me. I am really glad that I decided to check this book out, and I will be definitely be checking out some of Durst’s other novels in the future.

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

9781529374278

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 2 April 2020)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Eight

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for an outstanding historical murder mystery as one of my favourite authors, Lindsey Davis, returns with another book in her amazing Flavia Albia series, The Grove of the Caesars.

“Don’t go to the Grove.”

Rome, 89 AD. Flavia Albia, professional informer and all-around busy body, is still adjusting to domestic life with her new husband. When he is called away for a family emergency, Flavia takes up the reins of his construction business and begins to supervise several of their projects, especially a demolition and construction job within the sprawling gardens outside the city that Caesar long ago gifted to the people of Rome.

Ignoring the subtle warnings of those men familiar with the gardens to stay away from them and their accompanying sacred grove, Flavia visits the worksite, where she finds a series of mysterious scrolls buried in a cave. Why has someone buried a mass of scrolls from obscure Greek philosophers, and what dark secrets do the scrolls hold? Before Flavia can investigate any further, a woman is brutally murdered at a party held at the grove, and two of Flavia’s slaves go missing.

It turns out that there is a killer lurking in the sacred grove; one who targets women and who has successfully avoided detection for years. With the local vigiles failing to properly investigate the crime, Flavia decides to take on the case. However, can Flavia catch a murderer clever enough to escape justice for two decades, especially once the Emperor’s sinister secret agent Karus takes over the investigation? Forced to work with Karus once again, can Flavia find justice for all the murdered women, or will she end up as the next victim of one of Rome’s most dangerous killers?

The Grove of the Caesars is a deeply compelling and highly entertaining novel that once again follows the clever and likeable protagonist, Flavia Albia, as she investigates a gruesome murder in the heart of ancient Rome. This is the eighth book in the excellent Flavia Albia series, which acts as a sequel to the 20-book long Marcus Didius Falco series of historical murder mystery novels. I have been a major fan of the Flavia Albia books for years, having read and reviewed all the previous novels in the series as soon as they came out (make sure to check out my reviews for the previous three books, The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy and A Capitol Death). All of Davis’s previous novels have been extremely enjoyable, and I have been looking forward to reading The Grove of the Caesars for some time now, and once again Davis did not disappoint. The Grove of the Caesars is another outstanding read that successfully combines together a great murder mystery storyline with a detailed historical setting and engaging central protagonist to produce a captivating narrative that I ended up reading in very short order.

At the centre of this amazing novel is a captivating and dark mystery storyline that sets the protagonist against a cunning and vicious serial killer. The Grove of the Caesars actually has two mysteries contained within it, one involving buried scrolls that the protagonist finds hidden within a cave, and the more pressing case of the murderer within the gardens. Flavia ends up working on both cases simultaneously, and the two mysteries wrap together quite well to produce a great storyline, especially when also combined with some of the other plot elements that Davis throws into it. Both of these mysteries are really clever, and the author makes sure to fill the book with all manner of alternative suspects, intriguing swerves and false leads to keep the reader guessing right up to the end. There were a number of fantastic elements to these mysteries, from the impressive way that they were investigated to the stunning developments and the great conclusions both of them had, including some surprising revelations that came out at the end of the case of the buried scrolls. Davis once again makes sure to portray the investigation in a very modern manner, so that this case felt more like a contemporary mystery novel at times, which I thought worked really well with her enjoyable protagonist and which fit in with the very modern way that the author portrays her historical setting. I was a bit surprised about how dark this book got at times, as Davis, usually has a bit of a lighter tone with her writing, even though they follow murder mysteries. However, the central case of the serial killings was pretty gruesome at times as the antagonist, who displayed a number of characteristics associated with more modern serial killers, did some rather horrible things to his various victims. While it did give this book a bit of a stronger tone at times, I felt that having such an evil antagonist really helped to drag me into the story, as I looked forward to seeing him get caught, and this was overall a really excellent mystery storyline.

Another key aspect of the story is the detailed and compelling historical setting of ancient Rome. Historical Rome always has such potential as a setting, and Davis always does a fantastic job of bringing the city to life in all its chaotic glory, while also making all the inhabitants seem a lot more modern in their actions and attitudes. The Grove of the Caesars was no different, and I really enjoyed seeing the fun way that Davis melds her captivating mystery with this cool setting to create a great story. However, Davis also makes sure to set this story apart by her exploration of one of ancient Rome’s most fascinating features, Caesar’s gardens. The gardens are a sprawling set of sacred groves, forested areas, winding paths, statues and other intriguing features that were originally commissioned for Caesar himself and then gifted to the city after his death. Davis does an amazing job exploring this historically impressive garden, including its location, features and history, and I had a fantastic time learning more about it. It also serves as a really distinctive and compelling setting for The Grove of the Caesars’s story, and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist explore it trying to find hints and clues to the various crimes. I also enjoyed the more sinister air Davis gave the gardens once the reader knows that there is a killer stalking them, especially at night, and which helps to add a bit of tension to the story in the scenes where the protagonists is walking in the gardens alone.

One of the best parts of this book has to be the fun central protagonist, Flavia Albia, who is one of my favourite main characters in fiction at the moment. Flavia serves as The Grove of the Caesars’s sole narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see most of the story unfold. For the most part, Flavia is a very confident and collected individual with bundles of sass and sarcasm and an unbelievable amount of life experience and cynicism after years spent working as an informant and investigator in Rome. It is thanks to this entertaining world view that most of the book’s humour is derived, as Flavia is full of all manner of funny comments and amusing observations about the world around her. This provides a much lighter tone for most of the novel, as Flavia can be rather sarcastic and witty, even during the darkest of moments. However, in The Grove of the Caesars she does get rather angry in places, especially after witnessing so much violence against women and other helpless characters, and her rage towards the book’s primary antagonist is quite palpable at times, making for some rather dramatic scenes. I also enjoyed the way that Davis works in a large amount of the protagonist’s home and family life into the story, and it is always entertaining to see Flavia interact with her outrageous and eccentric extended family, who offer help and hindrances to her life and investigations in equal measures. I also liked how the author has continued the storyline that sees Flavia and her husband take in and adopt a variety of interesting stray characters they encounter in their cases and add them to their growing household. It was rather fun to see characters who were first introduced in prior books make an impact on this novel’s mystery, and it makes for a fun continuity. I look forward to seeing more of Flavia Albia in the future, and I cannot wait to see what crazy adventures she gets up to next time.

I also have to highlight the wildly entertaining big story moment that occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. In her last few books, Davis has taken to include a major sequence that features Flavia finding herself in the midst of an over-the-top situation. This includes the very funny sequence in Pandora’s Boy which saw an all-out brawl between a huge group of mixed participants in a collapsing temple, or the rather outlandish chase sequence that occurred in The Third Nero, that featured legionnaires, heavy Persian cavalry, chariots and an elephant in the heart of Rome. In The Grove of the Caesars, Davis makes sure to include another of these outrageous moments, this time featuring a desperate boat chase taking place in the middle of a park, thanks to a disused maritime gladiatorial arena. This chase sequence is filled with all manner of mishap and chaotic moment, as Flavia and several other key characters take to several dilapidated boats to try and resolve the situation, which has a rather extreme ending. Needless to say, this was my favourite part of the entire book, and I found myself laughing several times as events unfolded.

Lindsey Davis has once again shown why she is one of the best authors of historical murder mysteries, as The Grove of the Caesars is a wildly entertaining and addictive read. Davis has pulled together and exceptional story, filled with two compelling mysteries, great characters and an intriguing and distinctive historical setting. I had an amazing time reading this book, and it gets a full five-star review from me. I am eagerly awaiting Davis’s next novel (apparently titled A Comedy of Terrors), and I cannot wait to get my next Flavia Albia fix, this time next year. In the meantime, make sure to check out The Grove of the Caesars if you are in the mood for an exciting and clever read.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.

Song of the Risen God by R. A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God Cover

Publisher: Audible Studios (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Coven trilogy – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore brings his Coven trilogy to an explosive and enthralling end with the third and final novel, Song of the Risen God.

The Coven trilogy is an exciting series that Salvatore has been writing over the last three years, which is set in the world of Corona, the setting of his previous series, The DemonWars Saga. This new trilogy follows the adventures of an interesting group of characters in the lands surrounding Loch Beag, including the imposing mountain, Fireach Speuer. The first two novels in this series, Child of a Mad God and Reckoning of Fallen Gods, have both been extremely good, and I have been enjoying reading some of Salvatore’s non-Forgotten Realms fantasy work. I am a massive fan of Salvatore’s writing and I have been looking forward to finishing this series off for some time now. Salvatore certainly did not disappoint with the final entry in this trilogy, as this final novel is potentially my favourite book in the entire series.

War has once again come to the world of Corona, as a new evil leads its forces on a mission of conquest and destruction. The wild lands surrounding Loch Beag and Fireach Speuer have never been peaceful, but now a massive army of invaders is marching across them, determined to conquer and kill all before them. These mysterious invaders are the Xoconai, a lost race of humanoids from the other side of Fireach Speaur. Now, with their reborn god leading the charge on his mighty dragon, the Xoconai are commanded to expand their empire to the opposing coast.

With no hope of defeating the vast host that has suddenly appeared above them, the few surviving inhabitants of the villages surrounding Loch Beag flee through the wilds to find sanctuary. Led by the powerful witch Aoelyn, the frontiersman Talmadge and the ranger Aydrian Wyndon, the villagers move towards the apparent safety of Honce-the-Bear, the most powerful human kingdom in Corona. There they hope to warn the people of Honce-the-Bear of the approaching danger and gather a force that can push back the Xoconai.

However, the dark ambition of the Xoconai god, Scathmizzane, knows no limit, and his magical powers are as vast as they are terrifying in their origin. Using these powers, Scathmizzane is able to accelerate the Xoconai invasion at a tremendous pace, striking right at the heart of Honce-the-Bear, and managing to overpower both their armies and the magic of the Abellican monks. As the Xoconai horde advances, it falls to Aoelyn, Aydrian and their companions to stop them by any means necessary. But can even the most powerful magic user on the continent and a fallen king be able to throw back the invading armies, or will Scathmizzane’s dark power fall across all the lands?

Song of the Risen God is a really impressive and captivating read that provides the reader with an entertaining adventure in one of Salvatore’s detailed and expansive fantasy universe. This final book in the Coven trilogy is a cool addition to the trilogy that not only acts as a satisfactory conclusion to this new series but which also ties it even more firmly into the wider world of Corona.

This book contains an epic and wide-ranging narrative that showcases the dramatic aftermath of the second novel in the series, Reckoning of the Fallen Gods, which saw a massive army and a dragon-riding god descend on the isolated setting of the first two novels. In this third novel, the protagonists are chased all the way to one of this world’s key settings, the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, where they must fight to save the world from the invading horde. This turned out to be a rather interesting departure from the previous novels in the Coven trilogy, which were much smaller in their scope, tending to focus on a handful of closely related villages in a single location. I actually liked this change of pace, as it made for a much more impressive conclusion, and I quite enjoyed seeing the characters interact with the wider world. This turned out to be an extremely exciting and fast-paced novel that contained a lot of entertaining action and large-scale battle sequences, although the author does not skimp on the intriguing dialogue, creative world building or compelling character development. Salvatore utilises a host of point-of-view characters to tell this story from a variety of different angles, which leads to a rich and comprehensive overall narrative. I am also glad that the author continues to feature in-world texts at the beginning of each part of the novel, which provides some fascinating insights into some characters, and contains some clues about a big twist towards the end of Song of the Risen God. Overall, this was an extremely captivating story with a great blend of elements, and I had a fantastic time reading it.

One of the more distinctive parts of Song of the Risen God is how it connects with some of the previous books set in the world of Corona. Corona is a unique fantasy world created by Salvatore, which has previously served as the setting for 13 novels, including the previous two Coven books. The first seven of these books are all part of the same series, known as The DemonWars Saga, which established many elements of this world, including the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, the Abellican order of monks and the world’s gem based magical system. The Coven series has always been set in Corona, but the first novel in this trilogy, Child of a Mad God, had very little to do with these prior books. More of a connection was established in Reckoning of Fallen Gods, especially with the appearance of Aydrian, who was a major figure in the later DemonWars books. However, in Song of the Risen God, Salvatore fully combines this trilogy with his prior series, by bringing the protagonists and antagonists of the previous Coven books into the main location of The DemonWars Saga and having them interact with these established characters and settings.

Immersing this series more fully into the wider fantasy world was an interesting choice from Salvatore, and it one of the major things that distinguishes Song of the Risen God from the previous books in the trilogy. This was not a sudden or random decision from Salvatore, as there have been hints that this was going to happen in the previous two books, especially once Aydrian was introduced as a major character. I rather enjoyed the way that Salvatore so dramatically expanded the setting and started using elements from The DemonWars Saga in this novel, as it made for a much more expansive and fascinating story. I never actually read any of the books in The DemonWars Saga (a regrettable gap in my Salvatore knowledge), and before reading Song of the Risen God, I had no real idea what happened in this series, aside from what was discussed in the second Coven novel. However, I found that you really didn’t need any pre-existing knowledge of these earlier books, as Salvatore spends a good amount of time explaining some of the major story events that occurred during these novels and how they impact the current plot. As a result, at no point while reading Song of the Risen God was I in anyway confused by what was going on, and I always had a good idea how the plot was tied into the wider universe. I really appreciated being able to enjoy the entirety of the plot without having to read The DemonWar Saga first (which admittedly sounds pretty awesome, and I might have to check them out at some point), and I think that Salvatore did a fantastic job recapping the events of this prior series in text. Fans of The DemonWars Saga will no doubt like the fact that Salvatore is once again exploring this world, and many will be interested in seeing how much the universe has changed in the intervening years, as well as the major developments that occur as part of Song of the Risen God.

As I mentioned above, Song of the Risen God is the third and final book in the Coven trilogy, which does mean that this book might be a bit harder to follow for those readers who try to jump into the series at the very end (although that would be true for any trilogy). Salvatore does do a good job of recapping and exploring some of the key events of the first two novels, so most readers should be able to follow it well enough. I think that Song of the Risen God proved to be a great conclusion to the entire trilogy, as all of the major storylines were wrapped up rather well. The ending of the book also suggests that Salvatore is planning an additional Corona based series in the future, and if so, it is likely to focus on some of the major characters from the Coven trilogy. I personally would be extremely interested in a follow up series to these books, especially after all the major events that occurred in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what Salvatore cooks up next.

One of the major highlights of Song of the Risen God was the incredible raft of characters. This book had a massive and diverse group of characters featured within it, including the protagonists of the previous two books, characters from The DemonWars Saga and original characters who appeared for the first time within this book. Salvatore did a fantastic job diving down into several of these protagonists, and there was some rather intriguing character development that occurred throughout Song of the Risen God, most of which has some interesting roots in some of Salvatore’s previous novels.

A good portion of the book focuses on Aoelyn, who has served as the main protagonist for the first two Coven novels. Aoelyn is a witch who has spent the previous books trying to escape the clutches of her vicious tribe, the Usgar. In this novel, Aoelyn finally has her freedom, and finds herself in a brand new world, although she still seems to be dealing with some of the same prejudices and problems that occurred amongst the Usgar. Aoelyn spends a good portion of this book continuing to come to terms with her magical powers, which both define her and frighten her, as she has seen how magic can corrupt individuals, and she also attempts to take responsibility for the Xoconai invasion, which she inadvertently caused by killing a demon in the first Coven novel. I felt that Salvatore covered her character arc rather well, and there were quite a few intriguing moments, including Aoelyn making new friends and finding closure with some of the antagonists from the first two novels. I also liked some of the interesting developments that occurred towards the end of the novel with Aoelyn, which not only impact her outlook on life, but which may have some major impacts on any future Corona novels that feature her.

In addition to Aoelyn, quite a few other characters have some fantastic moments within Song of the Risen God. Bahdlahn, the former Usgar slave and Aoelyn’s childhood friend, probably had the most dramatic character development of all within this novel, as he grew and grew with every new encounter and experience within the plot. You cannot help but get attached to Bahdlahn, especially as he goes from wide-eyed former slave who had barely seen anything of the world, all the way up to an elite knight and resistance fighter in Honce-the-Bear. Bahdlahn is another character who has some interesting developments towards the end of this novel, and it looks like Salvatore has some big plans for him in the future. The former Usgar witch Connebragh also has a rather fascinating, if shorter, storyline within this book, as she befriends two former inhabitants of the lakeside villages, despite the long hostility between her tribe and theirs, and helps them survive the Xoconai invasion. The frontier explorers Talmadge and Khotai are also well utilised towards the front of the book, and there are some great moments with them, especially as Khotai regains her mobility in a rather unique way, although both disappear for the last third of the book. Salvatore also invests time in showing the viewpoint of a couple of key Xoconai characters, which I think really adds a lot to the story. Rather than having the Xoconai solely being mindless followers of Scathmizzane, these character perspectives help show them as being rather similar to humans, and two characters in particular have some very interesting viewpoints that lead them to question the word of their god as they attempt to fight his holy war.

All of these character arcs are great, but my personal favourite has to be the one surrounding Aydrian Wyndon. Aydrian is a major character within The DemonWars Saga, as the son of the original protagonists, who eventually became the main antagonist of the series after being possessed by a demon. Freed from his corruption at the end of the series and banished from Honce-the-Bear, which he ruled for a brief time, Aydrian has taken up the role of a ranger, which led to him meeting and helping the protagonists of the Coven series in the previous novel. In this book, he finds the threat of the Xoconai so great that he is forced to return to Honce-the-Bear, despite his banishment, to warn his former people. This leads to several outstanding scenes where he revisits the hurt and despair that he previously caused as a despotic and murderous king, and it serves as a fantastic defining characteristic as he searches for redemption. Aydrian has an absolutely incredible storyline throughout this novel, and his inclusion really added a whole lot to the overall narrative.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, I also have to once again highlight some of the enjoyable fantasy elements that Salvatore includes in this novel. At the fore of this is the cool gem-based magic that is one of the defining features of the stories set in Corona. This gem magic is an excellent concept, and it proved to be particularly fascinating in this novel as Aoelyn, a self-taught magical gem user, encounters members of the Abellican Church, who also use this form of magic, although in an apparently lesser way. Salvatore makes full use of all this cool magic throughout Song of the Risen God, and there are some rather impressive and destructive examples of the universe’s various magics, which were a lot of fun to see. I really enjoyed some of the cool and unique fantasy elements contained within this book, and it was a rather exciting addition to the story.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Song of the Risen God rather than grabbing a physical copy. This audiobook runs for just over 17 hours and is narrated by Tim Gerald Reynolds, who has provided narration for several of Salvatore’s previous books, including the other Coven books. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and it proved to be a fantastic way to absorb and experience the cool story and the intriguing settings and characters. This is a bit of a longer audiobook and it took me over a week to fully listen to it, although my audiobook listening schedule has been a bit messed up lately. I felt that Reynolds did a really good job narrating this audiobook, and his fantastic voice really helped me get sucked into this fun story. Reynolds had a great handle on all the characters featured within Song of the Risen God, and I liked all the voices that he came up with for them. I ended up having an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and this is a truly excellent format to enjoy this novel in.

Song of the Risen God is a very impressive and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel that comes highly recommended. R. A. Salvatore once again shows why he is one of my favourite authors as he produces a slick and captivating read which is not only fantastic in its own right but which concludes an epic trilogy and ties it into a wider fantasy universe. This proved to be an absolutely amazing read, and I think I have to award it a full five-star rating based on how much fun I had listening to it. Salvatore has done it once again, and I look forward to checking out his next book in a few months.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7: Gen’s Story by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Gen's Story

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1996)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Seven

Length: 187 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.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I once again dive into the wonderful world of Usagi Yojimbo and review the seventh volume of this incredible ongoing comic series, Gen’s Story. I have been really enjoying going back and reviewing the older volumes of this fantastic comic by legendary writer and artist Stan Sakai, and this seventh volume is another excellent addition to the series that I always have a terrific time reading.

Usagi 32

Gen’s Story is an amazing example of a Usagi Yojimbo volume, which contains several short stories, each of which shows a unique tale set within the series’ clever version of feudal Japan populated with anthropomorphised animals. Each of the individual stories in this volume is rather good, and together they form a fantastic volume that not only introduces a recurring side-character but which also explores the backstory of another key character and serves as a perfect end note for one of the series’ best character arcs. This volume is made up of issues #32-38 of the Fantagraphics Books run on Usagi Yojimbo, as well as a story from Critters #38, which makes Gen’s Story a tad longer than a typical volume. All of these issues make for an awesome read, and Gen’s Story is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series.

The first story contained within this volume is the fun and enjoyable tale, Kitsune. In this story Usagi encounters a talented street performer, Kitsune, who entertains the crowd with the tricks she can perform with her koma (spinning tops). However, Kitsune is much more than a simple entertainer; she is also an extremely skilled thief and pickpocket who manages to take Usagi’s purse without him realising it. This forces Usagi to stay late at an inn, washing dishes to pay for his meal, which results in him witnessing and intervening in an altercation between a notorious gambler and some local gangsters. Deciding to help the gambler under the mistaken belief that he is an innocent merchant, Usagi attempts to escort him out of town, where the two encounter Kitsune again just before the gangsters attack, leading to a fight in the streets.

Usagi 33

Kitsune is an entertaining story that works well as a suitably light-hearted start to the entire volume (get a fun story in before the feels start). The whole of this story is really amusing from the very start, and it contains some great comedy elements, from Usagi getting taken advantage of by Kitsune and the way he doesn’t initially realise that the person he is helping out is the same gambler who previously led a mob against him in A Kite Story, which was part of the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This leads to a great scenario where the gambler is forced to rely on Usagi for protection, while silently hoping that he will not remember who he is or what he previously did. Of course, Usagi eventually figures out who he is, thanks to the gambler’s boasting, and this results in a great end to the whole farcical tale. This issue also serves as an excellent introduction to the character of Kitsune, who goes on to become a major recurring figure within the Usagi Yojimbo stories. Sakai does a fantastic job showing off Kitsune’s personality and skills as a thief throughout this story, and I also love all the cool drawings he does of Kitsune’s various tricks with the spinning tops. Kitsune’s entire arc throughout this story is great, and I love how Usagi was able to get even with her at the very end, which is a fun prequel to all their future encounters. The combination of an entertaining plot, a great character introduction and an enjoyable call-back to a previous story helps to make Kitsune an excellent first entry in this volume, and I had an amazing time reading it.

The second story in this volume is the short entry Gaki. Gaki is quick and amusing story that follows a young Usagi back when he was a student under the tutelage of his sword master Katsuichi. After one of Katsuichi’s typical lessons, which sees Usagi receive a smack to the head, Usagi attempts to retaliate, striking a blow that seemingly kills his master and causes his ghost to start haunting Usagi. Of course, it ends up being a whole big misdirection, but it results in a fun sequence in which young Usagi is chased by a vengeful spirit, which all leads to a humorous conclusion. The highlight of this quick tale has to be the amazing drawings of the vengeful spirit and the pure terror that appears on the face of the young Usagi, all of which are way out of proportion to Gaki’s rather innocent story. All of this makes for an entertaining second inclusion in Gen’s Story, and it, together with the first story, provides readers with a fun start to this volume.

Critters 38

The third story is where we start getting to the heavier narratives of this volume, as the reader is treated to the supernatural tale, Broken Ritual. This story sees Usagi walking late at night through a small village filled with an unnatural amount of fear, especially after a loud and terrifying wail breaks the silence. Talking to the townsfolk, Usagi learns that the village, which is located close to the site of the battle of Adachi Plain, is haunted by one of Usagi’s old comrades, General Tadaoka, who died following the battle in the midst of an incomplete seppuku ritual. Now, due to the shame of having a dishonourable death at the hands of an unworthy and unnamed enemy, Tadaoka’s spectre appears in the spot where he died each full moon, letting out a wail of anguish. Upon hearing this tale, Usagi decided to try and help end the suffering of his former comrade and manages to help the spirt pass peacefully by successfully performing the seppuku ritual on the ghost.

Broken Ritual is an impressive and gripping story of honour and duty which is easily one of the best inclusions in this volume. This is one of those stories that really sticks in the reader’s mind, and the whole concept of samurai honour, even from beyond the grave, is a really fascinating central plot aspect. I loved the exploration of the seppuku ritual, and the supernatural elements of this story play into this really well, as it highlights just how important an honourable death is to a samurai like Tadaoka, so much so that he came back from the grave to ensure it was done properly. Sakai’s art is in top form for this volume, and his outstanding depiction of a wartime seppuku ritual is absolutely incredible. The intense facial expressions of Tadaoka during the seppuku scenes are particularly enthralling, and Sakai does a fantastic job of showing the pain and concentration that would have been on such a person’s face. All of this leads to a deeply captivating story, and it is amazing the sort of gripping tale Sakai can spin together in single issue.

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The fourth story in this volume is the shorter story, The Tangled Skein, which is the story that was originally featured in Critters #38. This is a creepy, quick story that follows Usagi in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Adachi Plain. Fleeing from the victorious troops of Lord Hikiji, Usagi attempts to hide in a dark forest known as The Tangled Skein, which is rumoured to be filled with all manner of haunts. Naturally, Usagi runs into one of these haunts, a demon disguised as a helpful old lady, and he must try to escape her clutches with help from the most unlikely of sources. This was an awesome supernatural storyline that I quite enjoyed, especially as the story once again highlights some of the philosophies surrounding samurai honour and what duties a samurai has to his lord, and vice versa. Fast-paced, exciting and with a surprisingly poignant moral to its story, The Tangled Skein is great entry to the volume, and I am glad that Sakai included it.

The next story in this volume is simply call Gen, and it is the major storyline contained within Gen’s Story. Made up of three Usagi Yojimbo issues, this is an excellent story of revenge and obsession that also continues the theme of the last few stories by looking at samurai honour and obligation. This story also reveals the full backstory of the always amusing and enjoyable recurring side character Gen and shows how he came to be a bounty hunter. The story is broken into three separate parts by issue, with the first part called Lady Asano’s Story, the second part called Sins of the Father and the third and final part titled Lady Asano’s Revenge.

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Naturally, Gen revolves around the character Gen, who Usagi once again meets out in the wilds, and helps him claim his latest bounty. Recovering from this fight in a nearby town, Usagi shares a meal with a destitute noblewoman and her retainer. The noblewomen, Lady Asano, is on the hunt for her husband’s murderer, a former advisor who betrayed him for great reward, and her exhaustive 20-year long quest has left her poor and on her own. The story is interrupted by the arrival of Gen, who is revealed to be the son of the great General Murakami, the most revered retainer of the Asano clan, and whose family owes allegiance to Lady Asano. Gen, bitter at the years his hard and disciplined father spent dragging him and his mother around the countryside hunting the murderer, an event that led to the death of Gen’s mother and Gen becoming a bounty hunter, refuses to help Lady Asano. However, once Lady Asano and Usagi are captured by the murderous advisor, revealed to be the town’s magistrate, Gen attempts to help, leading to an emotional and violent confrontation.

This was another excellent story that had a number of fantastic elements to it. It was great to finally get Gen’s backstory revealed, as Gen promised to tell his story all the way back in the second volume, Samurai. This was actually a rather tragic backstory for Gen, and I really liked seeing it, especially as it fits in really well with Gen’s character, not only explaining why he is so eager to fight for money but also why he is so dismissive and distrustful of honourable samurai, who must remind him of his father. Sakai makes sure to wrap up Gen’s personal history rather well within this story, as Gen gets some closure with his father towards the end of the story in one of the few instances that we see a really serious and emotionally wrought Gen. I also liked how Sakai continued to explore the concept of samurai honour within this story, especially the obsession and hurt that it can cause. We got to see the negative impacts that having an extremely loyal and honourable samurai as a father had on Gen, and Sakai also focused on the obsession for revenge and redemption that existed within Lady Asano, which not only drove her into poverty but also gave her the strength to finally get her revenge. The sequence where the dying Lady Asano slowly advanced towards the target of her wrath was pretty intense, and she almost appeared demonic as she slowly moved to get her revenge. Other cool highlights of the story include the huge pitched battle that occurred between the protagonists and their opponents’ retainers in the magistrate’s compound, and the continued fun banter between Usagi and Gen, which adds some much needed humour into this heavier story. Overall, this is an impressive and addictive expanded story, that achieves a lot of fantastic character development and which serves as an excellent focus of this entire volume.

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The next story contained within this volume is another lighter story, The Return of Kitsune. In this story, Usagi, who is accompanied by Gen, once again encounters Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks of street performances and pickpocketing. This time, however, she accidently steals a valuable letter meant for a corrupt local merchant, and she is subsequently hunted through the streets until she runs into Usagi and Gen. Usagi and Gen was work together to save Kitsune from the merchant, even if they cannot agree on what the best course of action is.

The Return of Kitsune is probably one of the funniest inclusions in this volume. The highlight of this entry has to be the first meeting between the two fun side characters, Kitsune and Gen. These two characters play off each other extremely well, and you cannot help but chuckle at the exasperated expression on Usagi’s face as the Gen and Kitsune begin to flirt with each other. I also enjoyed seeing the opposing philosophies of Usagi and Gen clash throughout this story, as Usagi wants to intervene to save lives, while Gen wants to stay out of the whole thing and claims that Usagi is too nosey. This whole argument proves to be a rather entertaining part of the story, and it results in some excellent scenes towards the end of the story, especially when Usagi takes Gen’s advice about minding his own business and fails to tell his friend that Kitsune stole his purse.

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The final entry in this volume is the outstanding narrative, The Last Ino Story, which serves as the last appearance of one of the best recurring characters to appear in the earlier volumes of this series. In The Last Ino Story, Usagi and Gen are taking one of Gen’s infamous shortcuts late at night and find themselves ambushed by bandits while traversing a narrow path along the side of a cliff. Managing to outsmart their attackers, Usagi and Gen seek shelter in a nearby abandoned hut, where they find themselves confronted by a young woman who is attempting to defend her wounded husband. Able to make their way inside, they find that the woman’s husband is none other than the Zato Ino, who has settled down and abandoned his violent ways after his last encounter with Usagi and Gen. Gravely wounded by the same bandits Usagi and Gen encountered, Ino appears close to death and the two samurai must work quickly if they are to save him and ensure he gets to live the life he rightly deserves.

The Last Ino Story is an outstanding and emotionally rich story which is an amazing way to finish this entire volume off. This last entry in this volume contains a great story in its own right, especially as it serves as a fantastic conclusion to one of the best character arcs in the series, that of Zato Ino. Ino was introduced all the way back in the first volume, The Ronin, as a blind outlaw who was trying to find a quiet place to settle down and rid himself of his life of violence, but whose efforts were constantly disrupted by his large bounty and the hunters chasing him. However, as the series progressed and Usagi kept meeting him, he grew as a character, from him gaining his first true friend in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, to him finally finding a home and family after the events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. This final appearance from him (and it is indeed the last time that you see him), serves as a perfect send off to him, as Usagi and Gen, the only two people who knew his past and gave him a chance, find out that he ended up having a the peaceful life he always wanted and has even more happiness on the way. As a result, this is a perfect story for those readers who got attached to the character of Ino through the first volumes of the series, and it was great to see his story come to a satisfying end.

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I also liked Gen’s character arc throughout this story, especially once he finds out that Ino was the injured man in the barn. Gen and Ino have a complicated past, as Gen was initially trying to hunt Ino down for his bounty during their first encounter, and Ino ended up saving his life. In order to repay him, Gen dragged the injured Ino out of the castle before it exploded and told everyone, including Usagi, that Ino had died, in order to ensure that the blind pig would no longer be hunted and could settle down. In this story, Gen, upon seeing the man he saved once again dying, loses his cool and begins to take his rage out on an owl that has been stalking him throughout the course of the book, which he sees as an omen of death. Watching Gen constantly run out into the rain to chase away an owl is amusing on the surface, but it also reveals his deeper feelings that he usually keeps hidden: “The one decent thing I did was give him his peace, and you won’t take it away!” His determination to keep Ino alive because of this is a real change from his usual behaviour, and it helps underline that deep down Gen is a good character, even if he reverts to his usual gruff self the moment he knows Ino is fine. I also liked how the whole saga with the owl ended up, and it was a fun little turn around on the bird being an omen of death. Other highlights of this story include the cool battle sequence towards the front when Usagi and Gen manage to climb up the cliff and face the bandits trying to kill them. The five panels which show this fight are really cool, from the way that the grim faced Usagi and Gen are framed in the moonlight, the close-up of the bandits faces as they charge, the shot of Usagi’s bloody sword, and the way the fight is only alluded to by the sound effects that have been written in, makes for a great sequence that I really liked. All in all, The Last Ino Story is a first-rate inclusion, and it leaves the reader with a memorable and emotionally substantial ending to this volume.

The seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, is another incredible addition to this awesome and deeply enjoyable series. Each of the entries within this excellent volume are outstanding reads, containing complex characters, fantastic narrative arcs and Sakai’s impressive artwork. Gen’s Story gets another five-star review from me, and Stan Sakai has once again shown why he is one of my favourite creative minds.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Vader Down

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 19 April 2016)

Series: Crossover – Featuring Issues from Star Wars (2015) and Darth Vader (2015)

Writers: Jason Aaron (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Kieron Gillen (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Artists: Mike Deodato (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Salvador Larroca (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Colourists: Frank Martin Jr (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Edgar Delgado (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Letterers: VC’s Joe Caramagna (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Darth Vader #13 – 15) and Chris Eliopoulos (Star Wars #13-14)

Length: 152 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.

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For this latest Throwback Thursday I go back and look at the epic and deeply enjoyable Star Wars comic book crossover extravaganza, Star Wars: Vader Down.

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Vader Down was a crossover, published in late 2015 and early 2016, of two of the best Star Wars comic series at the time, Star Wars (2015) and Darth Vader (2015). These two series ran side by side during this period and were set between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and expanded the new Disney Star Wars canon. Both of these series were extremely good in their own right, with some very impressive comics during their early run (check out my reviews for some of these earlier volumes, Skywalker Strikes, Vader and Shadows and Secrets, all three of which got five-star reviews from me). These two comics ended up converging during the events of this crossover, with both series’ creative teams pooling their efforts to tell an exciting and action-packed tale. Vader Down is made up of a single introductory issue (Star Wars: Vader Down #1), two issues of Star Wars (2015) (issues #13-14) and three issues of Darth Vader (issues #13-15)

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Darth Vader is a man on a mission. Ever since he discovered that the Rebel Alliance pilot who destroyed the Death Star was Luke Skywalker, the son he never knew he had, Vader has been scouring the galaxy for him, determined to claim Luke and use him to take control of the Empire. It finally appears that his patience has been rewarded, as his sources have revealed that Luke is visiting an abandoned Jedi temple on the planet of Vrogas Vas. However, Vader is unaware that he is falling into a trap set by one of his rivals, the Mon Calamari cyborg Commander Karbin. Instead of finding Luke by himself, he discovers an entire Rebel fleet orbiting a planet housing a secret Rebel facility. Despite being outnumbered, Vader is able to fight off the Rebel pilots trying to kill him, until Luke, in a desperate move, smashes his fighter into Vader’s ship, sending them both crashing down to the planet’s surface.

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Now on foot, Vader sets out across the desolate planet to find his wayward son and turn him to the Dark Side of the force. However, the Rebels send a significant force to Vrogas Vas to capture or kill Vader. But even surrounded and outnumbered, Vader is more than a match for anything the Rebels can throw at him, and it seems only a matter of time before he finds his son. Luke’s only hope to survive lies in his friends, as Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 all set out to save him. However, Luke is not the only one with friends on the way, as Vader’s reluctant agent, Doctor Aphra, also sets course to Vrogas Vas in order to save herself from being murdered by her employer for this debacle. By her side are three of the most dangerous beings in the galaxy, the murderous droids Triple-Zero and BT-1, and the vicious Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan.

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As the two sides engage in all-out war across the planet’s surface, neither is aware of the danger coming for both of them. Imperial forces under the command of Commander Karbin have come to Vrogas Vas in the aftermath of the conflict not only to capture Luke but to also kill Vader so that Karbin can take his place by the Emperor’s side. Can Vader and the Rebels survive the onslaught of Karbin and achieve their desires, or is this the end of all of them?

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Wow, wow and wow!! This crossover is just plain incredible as the two talented creative teams of the Star Wars and Darth Vader comic book series come together to create an action-soaked masterpiece. I absolutely loved this fantastic and inventive story, which not only contains a substantial standalone adventure but which advances both series in some rather interesting ways, especially when it comes to separating the character of Dr Aphra and moving her briefly into the Star Wars comic series. The story contained within this volume is really amazing, as it sets a rampaging Darth Vader against a swath of enemies while the great characters from both series face off in a rather entertaining battle of their own. All of this is set to some incredible artwork from the two series’ respective artistic teams, which brings the phenomenal action to life in all its destructive glory. Unsurprisingly, this comic gets a full five-star rating from me, and it is easily one of the best crossover comics that I have ever read.

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Vader Down features six separate comic book issues, including an introductory issue, three issues from the Darth Vader series and two issues from the Star Wars series. Each of these comics has been written and drawn by the creative team of their respective series, with the Star Wars issues written by Jason Aaron and featuring the art of Mike Deodato, Frank Martin Jr and Chris Eliopoulos, while the entries from the Darth Vader comics are written by Kieron Gillen and contain the art of Salvador Larroca, Edgar Delgado and Joe Caramagna. The introductory issue, Star Wars: Vader Down #1, was also written by Aaron and drawn by the Star Wars artistic team (although with Caramagna doing the lettering rather than Eliopoulos), and this allows both creative teams to contribute three separate issues to this crossover. The story is set out in an alternate fashion, with the narrative beginning in Star Wars: Vader Down #1 and then continuing in Darth Vader #13, than going to Star Wars #13 and so on and so forth all the way till the volume’s end at Darth Vader #15. This proved to be quite an interesting way to set out the volume, and I think that it really speaks to the coordination and discussions that must have occurred between the two separate creative teams.

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Like most pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction, Vader Down is naturally geared more towards those established fans of the franchise, especially those who have some history and knowledge of the extended universe. However, I would say that this is definitely a comic that can be enjoyed by casual fans of the Star Wars franchise, especially as the story is very easy to enjoy and appreciate. Readers do not need a massive amount of knowledge about the comic series that are crossing over in order to enjoy Vader Down. I myself had not read any of the Star Wars (2015) comics when I first enjoyed this volume, and I experienced no problems whatsoever following the plot. That being said, it might prove useful to read the first two volumes of the Darth Vader series first, as that serves to introduce several supporting characters in the volume, as well as the main antagonist.

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I felt that one of the biggest strengths of this comic is the way that it utilised and portrayed several iconic Star Wars characters, and I particularly loved how Darth Vader is featured in this crossover. I am a massive fan of the character of Darth Vader, and I am really enjoying how all the current pieces of Star Wars extended fiction portray him as a destructive powerhouse, perhaps as a way to rehabilitate him after the prequel films. However, Vader Down really takes this into overdrive as Vader finds himself alone on a planet surrounded by a vast army of enemies who are hunting him. While on paper it would seem that Vader is at a disadvantage, this really does not prove to be the case, as Vader tears through everyone who stands between him and Luke, often in some particularly devastating manners. Vader comes across as a massive badass in this comic, and I loved every second of it. From the way that he nearly takes out an entire fleet of Rebel fighters right at the beginning (only being stopped by a Kamikaze attack from Luke), to the continuous and effortless destruction of every Rebel he comes across (note to self: never wear grenades anywhere near a Force user), nothing seems to stop Vader, and it is pretty darn impressive.

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I also love how Vader has some of the best lines in this volume as well, from his response to a request from Aphra to run: “I am a lord of the Sith. They are the ones who should be running”, to his fun response to a Rebel leader who tells him that he is surrounded (shown in the midst of a great full double page spread, just to show how surrounded he is): “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.” However, his best line occurs later in the volume when he engages Commander Karbin in a particularly cool looking lightsaber duel. Karbin, whose enhancements make him resemble General Grievous, is gloating about how much better he is than Vader as he can wield four lightsabers to Vader’s one. However Vader, after throwing a massive statue at him simply responds with: “When you wield the power of the Dark Side one lightsaber is all you need”, which I thought was a pretty badass line, which also reveals why you never see Vader bothering with something more fancy like his Inquisitors do. Needless to say, I thought this portrayal of Vader was very epic and awesome, and it definitely is one of my favourite appearances of this character.

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In addition to the amazing use of Darth Vader in this comic, I thought that the creative teams did a great job including the supporting characters from the Darth Vader series, namely Dr Aphra, Triple-Zero, BT-1, and Black Krrsantan. These four characters are, in manner different ways, all rather fun and evil doppelgangers of some of the key characters from the original trilogy. Black Krrsantan is an ultra-violent Wookie bounty hunter, more concerned with killing and money than saving lives like Chewbacca. Triple-Zero is pretty much a snarkier version of C-3PO who delights in torture and mutilation and has the inbuilt tools to back it up. BT-1 is an astromech like R2-D2, except he is loaded up with all manner of firepower and he has a nasty habit of melting anyone he dislikes, and BT-1 dislikes pretty much everything and everyone. Finally, you have Dr Aphra, who is a notorious rogue and thief like Han Solo, except rather more successful. She is also a fully trained archaeologist who uses that ability to rob tombs for valuable artefacts, essentially making her a cross between Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Vader Down is the first time that the supporting characters from the Darth Vader series actually meet their more iconic counterparts, and the results are extremely entertaining.

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There are quite a few great moments throughout this volume where these two groups of characters come together, and they are all pretty fun. Some of my favourites include an extended brawl between the two Wookies, Chewbacca and Black Krrsantan, as they fight to achieve their opposing goals. This turned into quite a brutal matchup and it definitely does not end in the way that most people would expect. There is another cool scene where BT-1 faces off against R2-D2, who is trying to defend Luke from the evil droids. The two get into a vicious argument of beeps (apparently) and R2-D2 pulls out his built-in taser to fight off his opponents. However, BT-1 is rather better armed, and the sudden appearance of a mass of blasters, missiles, a flamethrower and other assorted weapons from BT-1’s chassis is enough to make R2 run off rather quickly, although he gets a measure of revenge later in the volume. Triple-Zero has a fun time imitating C-3PO at one point in the comic (all it takes is a coat of gold paint) and the subsequent meeting between the two protocol droids does not go well for Threepio (let us just say he gets disarmed).

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My favourite out of all these interactions between the classic Star Wars characters and the new ones established in the Darth Vader series has to be the fun meeting between Han Solo and Aphra. Aphra is probably one of my favourite new characters in the current Star Wars canon (make sure to check out my recent review for A Rogue’s End, the seventh volume of her spinoff series), and her fun sense of humour really shines through in this encounter. There is a pretty funny scene towards the front of the book, when Aphra, researching the members of the main Star Wars cast, sees Han Solo and responds with an uber sarcastic: “Han Solo. The Han Solo. Oh me, oh my. What are we going to do facing Han Solo?” When they subsequently meet, Aphra continues to be unimpressed by Solo, deflating his ego over his apparently insubstantial reputation and managing to scare him with her own name. They two share some rather good verbal barbs before the shooting starts, and I think that the writers came up with the best resolution to this fight, which can only be described as an unintentional and funny draw. Overall, I really loved seeing all these fantastic characters coming together in this volume, and it is an impressive and entertaining highlight.

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While most of the character arcs in this book lean more toward either humour or pure destruction, the writers also did a rather good emotional storyline around Princess Leia. Leia arrives on Vrogas Vas to lead the hunt for Vader, and eventually ends up coming face to face with him. As this is the first time Leia has seen Vader since he stood by and watched the destruction of Alderaan, this proves to be a rather hostile meeting, and Leia is overcome with a desire for revenge and is willing to sacrifice herself and her friends to see Vader taken out. There are some great moments throughout Leia’s scenes in the book as she presents her righteous indignation towards Vader, whose response is less than repentant: “This is not a war, Princess. Wars are for lesser men than the Emperor and myself. This is a series of executions. And yours is long overdue.” All of this gets pretty intense, and Leia actually tries to commit suicide at one point in an attempt to take Vader with her. She is eventually broken out of her mission for revenge thanks to an urgent plea for help from C-3PO, who is watching the rest of their group getting attacked and captured. All of this proved to be a rather powerful and emotional storyline within this volume, and I think its inclusion helped to enhance and elevate the entirely of the comic’s plot.

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I also must highlight how impressive the two separate artistic teams were, as both groups of artists come up with some fantastic sequences in Vader Down. As I mentioned above, the issues alternate throughout the volume, and as a result the artistic style of the comic changes with each new issue. There is a rather distinctive difference in the designs and illustrations of the two separate teams, and it proved interesting to jump between these styles each issue. I liked both unique art designs and colourations (with perhaps a slight preference towards the Darth Vader comics style), and I think that they all did an excellent job of portraying the epic story. It actually proved to be rather intriguing to see the separate teams have a go at drawing some of the characters who usually appeared in their counterparts’ comics, and it was also cool to see sequences that lasted more than one issue (such as the lightsaber duel between Vader and Karbin) go through some stylistic changes with each changing issue. There are a huge number of amazingly drawn scenes throughout this comic, although I think the best highlights had to include the extremely impressive starfighter battle in the first issue, with all the blaster bolts and explosions occurring out in space. Other cool scenes included a sudden spaceship crash in the final issue and a series of explosions and lightsaber work in the front of the volume’s second issue. I also liked how both teams of artists utilised the desert landscape of Vrogas Vas in their drawings; the constantly swirly dust really helped to enhance some of the battle scenes in this book and bring a sense of movement and a planet disturbed by violence and death. As a result, I think that both teams of artists did an outstanding job throughout the comics that made up Vader Down, and it certainly helped to enhance the epic experience I had reading this crossover volume.

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Vader Down is an immensely cool and exhilarating Star Wars comic that serves as an impressive crossover between two excellent comic book series. This combination of the Star Wars (2015) and the Darth Vader comics proved to be deeply entertaining and it is a clear example of how awesome the Star Wars extended universe can truly be. An absolute blast from start to finish, with non-stop action, eye-catching artwork and some clever character work, Star Wars: Vader Down is a must-read comic for all Star Wars fans and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Volume 7: A Rogue’s End

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume 7

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Artists: Caspar Wijngaard (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Star Wars: Empire Ascendant), Elsa Charretier (Doctor Aphra Annual #3)

Colour Artists: Lee Loughridge (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Star Wars: Empire Ascendant), Edgard Delgado and Jim Campbell (Doctor Aphra Annual #3)

Letters: VC’s Joe Caramagna (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Doctor Aphra Annual #3), Clayton Cowles (Star Wars: Empire Ascendant)

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

So I just got through with watching the latest episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and it’s put me in a Star Wars mood (well, more of a Star Wars mood than usual), so I thought I would get a review together for the seventh and final volume of the excellent 2016 Doctor Aphra series, A Rogue’s End.

The Doctor Aphra series is an outstanding comic book series that I have been really getting into over the last couple of years. Spinning off from the 2015 Darth Vader comics, this series features a witty and unique protagonist in its titular space archaeologist, Doctor Aphra, who blasts around the universe bringing chaos and disorder in her wake. This has probably been one of my favourite comic book series of the last couple of years, and it is easily my top Star Wars comic at the moment. Unfortunately, this current run of Doctor Aphra has just come to an end, although a new Doctor Aphra series is just starting up with a different creative team. Writer Simon Spurrier and his artistic team produced an incredible and satisfying conclusion to their Doctor Aphra run with A Rogue’s End, the sensation final volume that follows on from the events of the excellent sixth volume, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, and is set just before the events of The Empire Strikes Back.

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After saving the Emperor’s life from an assassination plot, archaeologist, scam artist and all-around disaster zone Doctor Chelli Aphra thought that she would finally be safe. Instead she finds herself trapped in the one place she has been running from for years, in the clutches of the most dangerous person in the galaxy, Darth Vader. Vader desperately wants Aphra dead, as she knows his darkest secret, his obsession with Rebel pilot Luke Skywalker, and it is only a matter of time before he finds an excuse to kill her.

Trapped aboard Vader’s Star Destroyer with her young companion, Vulaada, Aphra’s only chance to survive is prove her usefulness and help Vader find the location of the new Rebel base. However, Aphra is nothing if not resourceful, constantly looking for a way to game the system and extend her life. An encounter with a mysterious figure in an ancient temple seems to offer her the best chance of survival, until she finds out that it is her Jedi-obsessed father, Korin Aphra, once again causing trouble.

With the fate of everyone she loves in the balance, Aphra begins to devise another elaborate plan. With the help and hindrance of her ex-girlfriend, Captain Magna Tolvan, and the murderous droids BT-1 and Triple Zero, Aphra sets out not only to fool the entire Empire but to finally bring her affiliation with Darth Vader to an end. Can Aphra pull off the greatest con of her career, or will all her lies and deceit finally bring her the grisly end she has been running from for years?

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Well that was another damn impressive and deeply enjoyable Doctor Aphra comic. Spurrier, who has been working on this series since late 2017 (when he cowrote issue #14 with Kieron Gillen, one of the original creators of the character), brings this series to an epic and satisfying conclusion with another incredible group of stories. This seventh volume of the series contains issues #37-40 of the Doctor Aphra series, as well as the Doctor Aphra Annual #3 and material from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1. This whole volume was deeply captivating and I loved every second that I was reading through it, especially as it combines and excellent story with some fantastic artwork.

At the centre of this book is an exciting and clever story of survival, deceit and redemption. The four issues of the Doctor Aphra series (#37-40) contain an amazing storyline that follows the series protagonist as she attempts to get out of the most dangerous situation she has ever found herself in. Spurrier tackles these final four issues with the same style that he has employed for most his run, blending together a tale of deceit, double-crossing and survival in the Star Wars universe with humour, fantastic action and a deep analysis of the troubled and complex character that is Doctor Chelli Aphra. This results in an addictive overarching narrative that is not only incredibly entertaining, but which also gets quite moving and emotional at times, especially when Aphra encounters all the important people in her life, many of whom have been damaged in one way or another by her selfish actions. I have to say that I was particularly impressed with Aphra’s master plan in this comic, especially as it not only showed off her skills for deceit and manipulation but it was motivated by a genuine desire to help those she loved, which represents some significant series-wide character development for her. I also appreciated how the whole storyline has some major connections to the events of The Empire Strikes Back, and I liked how it was tied in more to the main plot of the movies.

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One of the other things that I really loved about this comic was the way that Spurrier wrapped up a ton of the storylines around some of the great supporting characters that have made this series such a treat. In particular, she manages to have some touching final meetings with her father, her ex-girlfriend, Tolvan, and her young sidekick, Vulaada, and this volume serves as a rather good conclusion to their various storylines (although I hope that they do appear in the future series). Her final meeting with Tolvan was pretty great, as the two have had a particularly chaotic and damaging love affair due to the actions of Aphra, and it was nice to see her finally prove Tolvan wrong and do the right thing for her. I also loved some of the scenes between Aphra and her father, and there is one incredible sequence where Aphra concisely recounts some of the adventures she has had throughout the series, and her father finally provides her with the advice and guidance that she has always sought from him. I really appreciated that Aphra finally gets some closure with these supporting characters, and in the three cases above she goes out of her way to protect them and bring them together to ensure that they have better lives. This is a major change in direction for Aphra, whose entire series has seen her repeatedly screw up and destroy the lives of everyone she meets, including those people close to her, something she is keenly self-aware of and deeply ashamed of. As a result, it was rather nice to see her finally step up and take responsibility for several people close to her, and to finally make what she sees as the right decision and leave them behind: “Love is letting go.” I also enjoyed the return of the two murder droids, BT-1 and Triple Zero, who have been highlights of both this series and the preceding Darth Vader series. I felt that both of them are rather well utilised in this story, and quite frankly you could not have wrapped this series up without them. It looks like both of them are going to be major features (in some form or another) of the next Doctor Aphra series, which should be fun.

Another character who Aphra gets a bit of closure within this volume is her oppressive employer, Darth Vader. Aphra and Vader have a complex and lengthy history together, dating back to the 2015 Darth Vader series where Vader forcibly recruited Aphra, and which ended with Vader believing that he had killed her, only for Aphra to trick him. Aphra has spent the subsequent run of her series constantly trying to stay off Vader’s radar, and continuously tricking him into believing that she is dead. However, after the events of Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, she is firmly in his clutches and waiting to die. I really loved the whole interaction between Aphra and Vader in this volume, as for most of it Aphra is trying to trick or convince Vader to keep her alive, while Vader is looking for an excuse to kill her. This pretty much makes Aphra the most desperate we have ever seen her, as she is still rather traumatised from the events of Vader’s first attempt to kill her, and still gets an interesting array of nightmares about them. Despite this, Aphra is eventually able to turn the tables of Vader, thanks to her cunning, knowledge about the force, pieces she has gleaned from Vader’s past and technical ability. The way she is able to take him down is pretty impressive: “Don’t pick a fight with an archaeologist in a spooky old ruin. And don’t wage war against a tech criminal if you’re half a machine.” It makes for a great sequence, especially when she uses Vader’s own scary reputation against him. This scene also allows Aphra to have a memorable heart-to-heart with Vader, and she discusses the similarities the two of them share, mostly about how they are both living with a massive amount of regret. In the end, Aphra decides against killing Vader, saying, “I’m your biggest fan,” even though she knows that Vader will come after her in the future, even more determined to kill her. She actually has a rather poignant farewell with Vader, saying, “In a funny sort of way, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” which says a whole lot about Aphra’s messed up character, but is a fun and fitting reversal of how Vader ended their partnership in his series.

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This volume features some tremendous illustrations from a truly talented team of artists. I really enjoyed the artwork that was featured within this story, and I think that it did a fantastic job of conveying and enhancing the complex and enjoyable storylines that the writer came up with. There are a number of well-drawn and well-portrayed sequences throughout this volume, although I particularly liked the one that made up the majority of issue #40, which featured Aphra facing off against Vader in a ruin filled with traps. There was also a rather good extended conflict between Aphra and Tolvan throughout a Rebel Alliance a spaceship that the drawings helped make particularly fun and chaotic, and which also did a good job of showing off the anger and complex emotions that filled their relationship. Overall, there was some fantastic artwork in this volume, and I think that the artists did an excellent job bringing the great characters and excellent story to life.

Most of what I mentioned above takes place in issues #37-40 of the Doctor Aphra series, but this volume also contains two extra stories, the Doctor Aphra Annual #3 and the parts taken from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1. Both of these inclusions were also written by Spurrier and are really tied into the narrative contained within the main plot of the volume, and I felt that these two inclusions did a lot to enhance my overall enjoyment of A Rogue’s End.

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I did quite enjoy the fun story contained with the Doctor Aphra Annual #3, which focuses on some of the great supporting characters from the Doctor Aphra series. The self-contained story in this annual issue sees Aphra try to repay her debt to the monster hunters Winloss and Nokk, who previously saved her life, by providing them with information she is privy to while aboard Vader’s star destroyer. This information leads these two hunters to the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, where another former associate of Aphra, the Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan, is in residence. This leads into a rather fun story which sees these characters and a rather slimy bartender go through all manner of trouble just for a measure of revenge. This was an excellent and compact story that contains a clever revenge plot, and it’s pretty damn hilarious. I liked how this annual followed the lead of the other stories in this volume by focusing on Aphra bringing together some of the side characters from the series, presenting the reader with a good conclusion to their association and storyline with Aphra. This story featured a different artistic team to the rest of the volume, resulting in a different and distinctive drawing style for the entire issue. I actually rather liked the style that this separate artistic team came up with, and I think that it fit the more humour-based storyline that that Spurrier came up with. Overall, this latest issue of the Doctor Aphra Annual made for an amazing entry in this volume, and I think that it worked extremely well with the other issues featured within it.

This volume also contained material from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1, which makes up a small story at the end of the book. This material focuses on the three people that Aphra saved throughout A Rogue’s End, Tolvan, her father and Vulaada. They are all on Hoth when the message that Aphra was composing in the final Doctor Aphra issue is received by the Rebel Alliance. This leads to a rather heartfelt and emotional scene in which the three of them discuss whether their lives where made better or worse by knowing Aphra, and whether she ever did anyone any good. Their musings are interrupted by one of the few other people in the Rebel Alliance who had any dealings with her, Luke Skywalker, who provides some information about a good deed she performed after the last time they saw her. I liked how Spurrier once again examine the chaotic and destructive personality of Aphra through the eyes of the people who knew her best, and it really matches the overall theme of the volume. I also liked the inclusion of Skywalker in this story, and it was a fun call back to the earlier volumes of the Star Wars (2015) series, which featured Aphra working with the main protagonists of the original trilogy. It was interesting to see Luke’s take on Aphra, and it is a bit of a crossover between the idealism of the main cast and the darker reality of the Star Wars universe that the cast of Doctor Aphra find themselves in. I had a good laugh at Tovan’s assessment of Luke as the farmboy who got bumped up to commander after one lucky shot, and I also loved their response to Luke’s glowing assessment of Aphra actually being a good person: “Should we tell him she also saved the Emperor’s life? Better not, nothing crueller than reality to a dreamer.” This short piece of material actually serves as a pretty good conclusion not only to the volume but to the Doctor Aphra series as a whole, and I think that its moving, character-driven storyline helped provide an emotional end to the entire series.

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The seventh volume of the amazing Doctor Aphra series, A Rogue’s End, is another extremely entertaining and complex Star Wars story which I deeply enjoyed. Writer Simon Spurrier and his talented artistic team once again take the reader on another exciting and powerful adventure that not only serves as a great story in its own right but which also provides fans of Doctor Aphra with a meaningful and rewarding conclusion to the entire series. This volume gets a full five stars from me, and I would strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the entire series it concludes, to anyone looking for an outstanding and fresh Star Wars adventure.