How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Demon in White Cover 1

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2020)

Series: Sun Eater Sequence – Book Three

Length: 776 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive new science fiction authors on the block, Christopher Ruocchio, returns with the third incredible novel in his epic Sun Eater series, Demon in White.

Far in the future, most of humanity is part of the Sollan Empire, which controls vast systems of space and countless people within them.  The Sollan Empire has long reigned supreme and unopposed in the galaxy, but now it faces its greatest threat, a protracted war against the vicious alien race known as the Cielcin.  While the Cielcins typically engage in random raids and attacks at the leisure of their various chieftains, now a series of coordinated strikes are crippling the borders of the Empire.  The mastermind of these attacks is a powerful new Cielcin ruler, Syriani Dorayaica, who has managed to forge together a mighty alliance with one purpose, the complete destruction of the Empire and every human within it.

As the Empire struggles to combat this threat, all eyes turn to an unlikely hero, the rogue nobleman, adventurer and former gladiator, Hadrian Marlowe.  Following his infamous exploits across the galaxy, Hadrian has been made a knight in service of the Emperor and now finds himself stationed on the Empire’s capital, Forum.  Thanks to a series of successful campaigns against the Cielcin, Hadrian’s popularity and fame has spread across the Empire and many view him as the best hope to defeat the alien menace.  In addition, rumours of his unnatural survival of a lethal wound from a Cielcin prince and his prophetic visions of the future have created a cult-like following around him, heralding him as a divine saviour of humanity.

However, fame and popularity have a price, and Hadrian must now contend with threatened and jealous lords, politicians, and members of the royal family as they plot to undermine and disgrace him.  After several attempts on his life, Hadrian leaves to pursue his true agenda, research into the mysterious celestial being known as the Quiet, who has been manipulating Hadrian’s life while showing him terrifying glimpses of the future.  Hadrian’s mission will take him to some new and dangerous places throughout the universe, until finally he comes face to face with Syriani Dorayaica, who is determined to destroy Hadrian no matter the cost.  Hadrian’s road to the future seems set, but will he truly become the man who commits the greatest act of slaughter in the galaxy, or does a darker fate lie in store for him?

Now that was one heck of an awesome and expansive piece of science fiction.  Ruocchio has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years ever since he burst onto the scene in 2018 with his debut novel and the first book in his Sun Eater series, Empire of Silence.  I loved this incredible debut and I was especially impressed when he managed to follow it up with an amazing sequel, Howling Dark.  I have had a blast reading Ruocchio’s prior novels, and both of them have been amongst my favourite books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to Demon in White, and Ruocchio certainly did not disappoint as he has produced an outstanding and intensely captivating third entry in this series.

Demon in White is the third act in an expansive and compelling space opera that chronicles the life of Hadrian Marlowe, a man destined to destroy a sun, which will make him both humanity’s greatest hero and its most reviled monster.  The story is told in chronicle form from the perspective of an older Hadrian as he writes the account of his life after the events of this book.  Just like with Howling Dark, the story within Demon in White is set many years after the events of the previous book and details the next major stage of Hadrian’s life.  Ruocchio does an amazing job of reintroducing the readers to his universe and also examining the events that occurred during the gap between the two books (some of which occurred during the 2019 novella, Demons of Arae).  Despite the year-long gap between reading the second and third novels and the substantial amount of detail and information that they contained, I was able to pick up and continue the story without too many issues, quickly remembering who the characters where and what events they had experienced with the protagonist.  I do think that reading the prior two novels in the series first is a must, as I could easily see readers unfamiliar with the Sun Eater books having hard time following the expansive plot of Demon in White at this late stage of the overall story.  Still, this book’s ambitious and exciting narrative might prove enough to keep them going, especially if they make use of the substantial index and character list contained in the rear of the novel.

I really can not speak highly enough of the intense and clever story of Demon in White, as Ruocchio produced an epic and addictive narrative that drew me in and refused to let go.  The author does a fantastic job of bringing together a ton of great elements, including the tale of a doomed protagonist, a galaxy-spanning war, a deep dive into the history of the universe and so much more, into one impressive narrative that I had an absolute blast reading.  One of the things I liked the most about the book was the fact that the first half of the novel is primarily set on the capital planet of the Sollan Empire, essentially a science fiction version of Rome, which results in the protagonist getting involved in all manner of plots and political intrigue.  Due to the protagonist’s popularity with the people, and the rumours that he is unkillable, Hadrian is targeted by politicians, lords, members of the Royal Family, military administrators and the Empires powerful religious organisation, and he has to deal with a number of tricky situations.  I really liked this more intrigue and politics laden part of the story, and it was an interesting change from some of the previous novels.  Ruocchio also dives into some more cosmic and action based inclusions as well and there are some explorations of the universe, examinations of the unknown and a several major and enjoyable battle sequences.  All of this comes together extremely well, and I found myself powering through this 700+ page book to find out how it ended.

Another fantastic part of Demon in White’s story that I really enjoyed was the continued examination of the fascinating and compelling protagonist, Hadrian.  Hadrian is a fantastic and intriguing protagonist for the series, since the reader knows far in advance his story is going to end in fire and death.  The chronicling of his life story that is contained within these novels is always quite enjoyable, especially as the older Hadrian compiling these tales adds in his own spin to the story, ensuring that the novel is filled with his regrets and revelations made in hindsight.  The protagonist also goes through some interesting character development throughout the course of the book.  Not only is he introduced to a number of key figures who will have substantial impacts on his future life but he also starts to come to grips with his eventual destiny.  The younger Hadrian is given some tantalising and terrifying glimpses into the future and he struggles to comprehend his potential fate as a result.

The Hadrian in this book is also a very different character than in the prior novels.  Rather than the idealistic dreamer who hopes to one day make peace with the alien Cielcin, Hadrian is far more mature and battle hardened, especially after the traumatic events at the end of Howling Dark.  This version of Hadrian is convinced that there is no hope of peace with his foe, and he has become more ruthless and determined as a result.  However, despite these revelations, there are still fragments of the old Hadrian scattered throughout the novel, which contrasted well with his newer persona.  The sense of wonder he got at seeing a group of alien auxiliaries was very reminiscent of the Hadrian we saw in the first book, especially as this wonder ended up getting him in trouble.  I also liked the scenes that showed Hadrian trying to come to terms with his own legend, as his deeds and adventures have given rise to a cult-like following, with many people convinced that he is some form of divine champion or immortal being.  This proved to be a fantastic aspect of Hadrian’s character throughout Demon in White, as he does not want this attention or praise, not only because it will result in conflict with the various factions in the Empire but also because he does not want to be anyone’s worshipped hero.  However, many of the events that are focus of this cults worship, such as surviving being beheaded or his visions of the future, are actually true (in a sense), and he ends up having to rely on these abilities to survive the events of this novel, which is going to result in some interesting consequences.

There are also some major and fantastic emotional moments for the protagonist scattered throughout the book, such as when a long-running side character leaves him, or when he encounters a major figure from his past again.  I also enjoyed seeing more of his relationship with his main love interest, Valka, and their unconventional romance has flourished over the centuries that this series has been set.  Valka serves as a fantastic grounding force for Hadrian, and it is quite nice seeing them together, although the reader’s joy at seeing them together is somewhat tempered by the narrator’s hints that something tragic is bound to happen between them.  All of this makes for a very intriguing protagonist, and I have enjoyed seeing him flourish and grow over the course of the first three books, moving towards his eventual destiny.  I look forward to seeing how his story continues in the next novel, especially after the major events that occurred at the end of Demon in White.

I have always been impressed with the detailed and massive science fiction universe in which Ruochhio has set his series, and each of the Sun Eater books have added some new depth and unique features to this overarching setting.  Unlike the prior book, Howling Dark, which was set out in the wilds of space and alien planets, Demon in White returns to the confines of the Sollan Empire, a repressive, technophobic and tradition bound galactic kingdom that is stylistically based on ancient Rome.  I really enjoyed this creative science fiction setting, as it is a very dark and gothic location which clashes well with the mostly good-natured protagonist and narrator.  Demon in White adds a huge amount of detail to this universe, especially as the first two thirds are primarily set on new Imperial worlds, including the capital planet Forum.  As a result, there are a ton of intriguing new details and discussions about the politics, history and administration of the Sollan Empire, as well as the introduction of many significant characters, including the Emperor who Hadrian is destined to kill.  The later part of the book also contains some terrific new detail, and we get a really intriguing view about how this dark Empire was founded, including more details about the war against the machines created by the precursor empire, the Mericannii (Americans).  I really liked some of these dives into the past, especially as Ruocchio does a fantastic job of portraying a historical timeline that has been altered or hidden by war, destruction and political or religious censorship.  As a result, the protagonists believe in a very different version of history, and wildly incorrect discussions about historical events are often quite amusing, especially their ideas about American history.  Ruocchio also provides the clearest view of the origins and nature of the cosmic entity, the Quiet, who has been an overarching influence over the prior two books.  This was a rather intriguing, and at times metaphysical, examination of this being, and some of the revelations in this book, including about the connection the Quiet has with Hadrian, the Sollan Empire and the Cieclin, are rather major, and will have significant impacts in the next few books.  All of this proves to be exceedingly fascinating and I cannot wait to see how the author will expand on this setting in his future novels.

I also really have to highlight some of the incredible action sequences that occurred throughout Demon in White.  While a substantial amount of the plot is dedicated to the political intrigue that the protagonist finds himself involved with, there are some great action sequences in this book, including a major war sequence against the Cieclin in the last quarter of the book.  Ruocchio has done an amazing job building the Cieclin up as a major threat and the various bloody battle sequences against them help to reinforce this.  I particularly enjoyed the great scenes where the protagonist faces off against his foe in tight and confined spaces, such as on a ship or in the depths of a city, and the author ensures that the reader gets to enjoy them in all their claustrophobic glory.  Ruocchio adds to the horror by introducing a new form of antagonists in the form of giant Cieclin warriors who are cyborg hybrids enhanced with Extrasolarian (rogue human scientist) technology.  These terrifying hybrids act as very dangerous opponents for Hadrian and his allies, resulting in some dramatic and high-stakes battles.  Hadrian also gets some new combat abilities in this book, which add some intriguing new elements to the fight scenes and are generally quite fun to check out.  Overall, those readers who are interested in seeing some intense science fiction action will not be disappointed with this book as Demon in White delivers some impressive and memorable fight sequences that really help to get the heart pumping.

In this latest novel, Christopher Ruocchio has delivered another extraordinary and captivating science fiction epic that does a terrific job expanding on his fantastic Sun Eater series.  Demon in White contains an incredible and exciting story that sends its complex protagonist on a series of intriguing adventures throughout this rich and unique science fiction universe.  I had an awesome time reading Demon in White and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  This outstanding book gets a full five-star rating from me and if you are not already reading the Sun Eater series you need to start now!

Demon in White Cover 2

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

The Constant Rabbit Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the insanely creative mind of one of fiction’s cleverest authors, Jasper Fforde, comes The Constant Rabbit, an incredible comedic satire featuring human-sized anthropomorphic rabbits in an alternate version of modern-day England.

Jasper Fforde is an awesome and fantastically inventive author who has a very distinctive and enjoyable writing style.  I have been a fan of Fforde’s work for years, and his Thursday Next books were a favourite series of mine when I was growing up (I should really go back and reread those).  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of his 2018 standalone novel, Early Riser, which was certainly one of the more unique and entertaining books that I read that year.  While I do love Fforde’s writing, I have to admit that I was initially a little wary when I heard that his new book was going to be about rabbits as I assumed it was going to be a kids’ book.  However, once I realised that it was going to be another crazy adult standalone novel, I made sure to get a copy, especially once I found out it was a satire on UK politics.  I am extremely glad that I got a copy of this book as The Constant Rabbit turned out to be a truly remarkable novel with a complex and enjoyable story.

In the year 2020 there are over a million anthropomorphic rabbits living in the UK thanks to a mysterious event 55 years previously.  These rabbits can walk, talk, think and have developed their own unique culture and society.  While the rabbits on the whole are a polite and peaceful group, many in England, including the ruling United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party (UKARP), fear them and are planning to forcibly rehome them to a new Mega-Warren in Wales.  Before the planned rehoming occurs, one rabbit family moves into the quiet and cosy village of Much Hemlock, much to the concern of the villagers.  Convinced that this rabbit family will cost them their chance at the Best Kept Village award, the citizens of Much Hemlock attempt to force them out, but the family matriarch, Mrs Constance Rabbit, is having none of that and resolves to stay in the village.

Surprisingly, the rabbits soon find support from their neighbours, Peter Knox and his daughter, Pippa.  Peter, an employer at the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, the organisation tasked with policing and controlling the rabbit population, quickly becomes infatuated with Constance and begins to question everything that he thinks he knows about rabbits.  However, with plans for the upcoming rehoming accelerating, Peter soon finds himself in the midst of a complex battle for freedom and control, and his actions will have surprising impacts on the entire future of the country.

Wow!  Just wow!  Now this was one hell of a fun read.  Fforde has absolutely outdone himself with this latest book which proved to be an exceptional and amazingly clever piece of fiction.  The Constant Rabbit is a captivating and widely entertaining novel that drags the reader in with its creativity and humour until they become enthralled with the unique story that it contains.  I had an incredible time reading this book and I ended up laughing myself silly throughout it due to Fforde’s clever and distinctive style of humour.  This book gets a full five stars from me and it truly was a thumping good tale.

The Constant Rabbit is told from the first-person perspective of human Peter Knox as he recounts some of the historical events he witnessed.  This was a truly remarkable story that follows a mostly blameless and ordinary small-village inhabitant as he navigates a complex and controversial world of rabbits and rabbit-hating humans.  This turns into quite a compelling tale about a battle for freedom, recognition and human stupidity, as the protagonist witnesses both sides of the struggle.  There are some great moments of drama, excitement, action, and romance throughout the book, which come together extremely well in a compelling and entertaining manner.  Fforde features some unique story elements throughout this book and introduces the reader to a series of enjoyable characters who are caught up in these crazy events.  These memorable characters include Constance Rabbit, a resourceful and clever rabbit who serves as a major moving part of the plot and the protagonist’s main love interest.  There is also a Lugless, an outcast rabbit who, after having his ears cut off in a ceremonial fashion, has turned against his own kind and now works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, and Mr Ffoxe, an anthropomorphised fox, who serves as the book’s vicious main antagonist and the head of the taskforce.  However, most of the character development is reserved for main protagonist Peter Knox, who goes through some serious redemption throughout the course of the story following some troubling events in his past.  His association with his rabbit neighbours really changes him, especially once he starts to see how crooked and petty humans are in comparison, resulting in him making some surprising decisions.  This is a gripping narrative and I really enjoyed all the wonderful and weird directions that the author took it.

Another fantastic aspect of The Constant Rabbit is the distinctive and intelligent sense of humour that permeates every page of this book.  I personally found this novel to be deeply funny, and I ended up laughing myself silly at several awesome jokes.  Much of the humour revolves around the ridiculous situations, the outrageous personalities, and the clever parodies of life in modern day England, all of which are considered normal in this version by the characters.  Seeing these various events or people occur in the novel is itself entertaining, but when combined with the witty and dry observations of the protagonist, the rabbit characters or the narrator through his footnotes, it becomes an absolute riot of fun and comedy.  There are some amazingly funny jokes and sequences throughout this book, although the part I laughed the hardest at had to be a farcical murder trial in which a man’s innocence or guilt was determined by whether they had brought an owl with them to the murder scene.  Other great jokes included lines about the rabbits’ inability to tell humans apart (most rabbits apparently cannot tell the difference between Brian Blessed and a gorilla), fun observations about rabbits in popular culture (spoilers, the rabbits are unimpressed) and the inclusion of rabbit versions of films and books.  I also had to have a laugh at the author’s description of a potential anthropomorphic event occurring at the city of Goulbourn in Australia (which is quite near to me), and all I have to say about that is I very much doubt my government could organise a secret massacre of a group of drunken wombats, much less hunt down a whistleblowing sheep.  That being said, the Big Merino statue in Goulbourn does totally exist and it is the town’s defining feature (which tells you quite a lot about what life in Goulbourn must be like).

One of the things that I most like about Fforde’s books is the way that he comes up with a whole new alternate universe for each of his works.  All his works are set in alternate versions of England that is specific to that series, all with a number of noticeable differences between the fictional and real worlds.  The version of England that The Constant Rabbit is set in was altered by an unexplained event 55 years earlier that turned a group of rabbits (as well as some other animals) into human-sized sentient beings who have gone on to create a large society of over one million rabbits which has its own culture and ideals.  This in turn has led to a much different version of the UK, with significant social and political differences as humanity tries to come up with new ways to adapt to the rabbits.  This is such a fantastic and out-there concept, but it works surprisingly well as a setting for this amazing and clever story.  There are so many intricate details associated with this new, rabbit inhabited England, and Fforde does an outstanding job welding together this new universe and showcasing all of its features.  While several key elements of this new world were introduced right at the start of the book, many were not identified until later, when they became relevant to the plot of the story.  I felt that this was a great way of presenting all the major aspects of this world, as it ensured that the reader was not overwhelmed right off the bat.  Fforde also includes a number of footnotes and short, out of narrative paragraphs at the start of each chapter, to provide intriguing and often hilarious anecdotes and descriptions of parts of rabbit culture or other inclusions from this world.  All the clever inclusions and distinctive variations from the real world prove to be a fascinating and entertaining part of the book and I had a wonderful time seeing what wacky and inventive things Fforde would come up with next.

Another thing that I really appreciated about this book was the way that Fforde used his overly ridiculous story and setting to successfully satirise racist politics in modern day England.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with some of the political and cultural issues in the UK will really appreciate what Fforde is trying to achieve with his story, and there are some great parables throughout it.  The whole ‘us vs them’ mentality surrounding the issues of rabbit rights is a clear send-up of racism and anti-immigration policies and mentalities that have infected the country.  Having peaceful, hardworking and tolerant rabbits and their supporters be targeted by bigoted idiots is very relevant and you cannot help but think of real-world examples of such behaviour.  The ruling UK political party, UKARP, is an obvious parody of the right-wing party UKIP, equipped with its own version of Nigel Farage.  Fforde really does not pull any punches and portrays them as an incompetent, intolerant, and power-hungry political party who are determined to forcibly rehome and contain all the rabbits as their main political ideal.  This book contains some terrifying, if probably accurate, depictions about how a ruling party like UKARP would act when it came to people it did not like, such as putting the ultimate anti-rabbit group (in this case anthropomorphised foxes) in charge of control and monitoring the rabbits.  There are some other great elements of satire throughout this book, and English readers in particular will probably get the most out of The Constant Rabbit as a result.  Overall, I thought it was a great piece of satirical fiction and I had a blast seeing the author highlight all these social issues in his own special way.

The Constant Rabbit is an outstanding and incredible novel that proves to be boundlessly entertaining and deeply funny.  Jasper Fforde did an incredible job writing this novel and readers are in for an awesome and memorable read that will have them laughing for hours.  This is such an impressive and inventive novel, and I am highly recommending it to anyone who is after a boundlessly entertaining read that contains a real sense of comedic fun and some excellent satirical observations.

Throwback Thursday – Kill Switch by Jonathan Maberry

Kill Switch Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 26 April 2016)

Series: Joe Ledger – Book Eight

Length: 17 hours and 56 minutes

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.

I recently found myself in the mood for another intense and crazy thriller novel, and luckily I knew exactly the book to check out, as I ended up listening to the eighth entry in the fantastic Joe Ledger series by Jonathan Maberry, Kill Switch.

People familiar with my blog will know that I have been really getting into Maberry’s writing over the last couple of years.  In particular, I have been making my way through the Joe Ledger series, which follows the titular agent as he investigates all manner of weird science and world-ending plots.  This has swiftly become one of my favourite series of all time thanks to the incredible stories that Maberry has come up with, and my intention is to finish off all the Joe Ledger books before the end of the year.  As a result, I knew far in advance that I was going to enjoy Kill Switch and I ended having an amazing time reading it.

In this eighth novel, Joe Ledger, agent for the clandestine Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is investigating a strange anomaly down in the Antarctic.  A secret military research facility has gone offline, and Ledger and his team need to find out why.  However, what at first appears to be a routine mission quickly devolves into an unnatural horror show as the DMS agents uncover a mysterious facility deep beneath the ice.  The things that Ledger and his team see will haunt them for the rest of their lives, and by the time they escape all three are infected with a deadly disease that places them into a coma.

Awakening several days later, Ledger discovers that much has happened in his absence.  America has been targeted by a ruthless terrorist organisation that apparently has access to an advanced EMP weapon that can turn off all power and technology in a certain area with devastating effects.  Worse, thanks to the consequences of the mission down in Antarctica and other recent failures, the DMS no longer has the confidence of the President, who refuses to give them the case.

Frustrated at being left out in the cold, Ledger and the DMS investigate where they can and soon come across several strange and seemingly unconnected events.  Able to piece together a pattern that no one else can see, Ledger soon finds himself in the heart of a vast conspiracy that aims to launch a shocking attack on the American people.  However, before they can intervene, Ledger and his team find themselves under attack from the most unlikely of places.  Can even the legendary Joe Ledger defeat an opponent who can attack him in his own mind, or will America face a wave of death and destruction the like of which they have never seen before?

Kill Switch was another fantastic and amazing novel from Maberry that continues the amazing Joe Ledger series.  This eighth book contains a captivating story that combines several different genres together to create an exciting and fast-paced read with some rather enjoyable elements to it.  I had an awesome time listening to this book, and while it is not my absolute favourite entry in the Joe Ledger series (I would have to give that honour either to The Dragon Factory or Code Zero), it was still a very impressive book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

In this eighth Joe Ledger novel, Maberry once again uses his distinctive style to tell another impressive and intriguing story that draws the reader in and ensures that they cannot turn away until it is finished.  Kill Switch contains a rather clever thriller storyline that deals with the protagonist attempting to stop another terrible terrorist plot utilising advanced technology.  While some of the elements to Kill Switch’s story are familiar, Maberry really gives this book a distinctive dark horror tint, as the novel deals with a number of Lovecraftian horror elements.  While this genre is not something that I have ever really gone out of my way to check out, I did enjoy its use in Kill Switch, especially as it sent its already unstable protagonist through some particular vivid and trippy vision sequences.  The various horror, science fiction and thriller aspects of the book’s narrative work together extremely well and it is a testament to Maberry’s skill as an author that the plot did not get too convoluted or hard to follow.  Instead, Kill Switch has an extremely elegant and fast-paced story with some great flashes of humour, enhanced by the author’s trademark use of multiple perspectives and interludes set before the main plot.  Maberry rounds this out with the return of the series enjoyable and long-running cast of characters, including protagonist Joe Ledger, who provides a first-person narration for around half the story.  Ledger’s warped and eccentric view of all the events going on around him adds so much enjoyment to the plot, resulting in much of the book’s humour.  This all ensures that Kill Switch contains another top-notch story that was an absolute pleasure to read.

The key parts of any Joe Ledger novel are the complex and memorable antagonists and the elaborate and destructive plots that they weave.  Maberry does another great job of this in Kill Switch, introducing some compelling villains and associated side characters who have some fascinating motivations for initiating the events of this book.  Thanks to a series of interludes and short chapters that are told from the perspective of the antagonist and their puppets, you get a full sense of why these characters are doing what they are doing, especially when you get a glimpse into several key moments of their lives.  Seeing so much of the antagonist’s past and the formation of their plans adds quite a lot of depth and tension to the story, and I always really appreciate the way that Maberry tries to expand these character’s narratives.  I was also quite enraptured by the complex and detailed plan that the antagonist set in motion, especially as it required using some unique technology in some novel ways.  I especially enjoyed the cunning way in which the villains went after Ledger and the DMS, including by destroyed their image and their influence, and I appreciated the way in which it was easier for them to achieve this due to an inadvertent backlash at the organisations prior extreme successes and advanced technology.

Kill Switch ended up being a major part of the overall series with some big moments occurring and some interesting connections to the prior novels, ensuring that this is a must-read for established Joe Ledger fans.  This book ended up continuing a bunch of key storylines that were introduced in the fifth novel, The Extinction Machine, with several plot points from that story revisited, as well as some antagonists.  In addition, several of the story elements introduced in Kill Switch are heavily utilised in future novels, such as in the tenth book, Deep Silence, which also matches its Lovecraftian horror vibes and story.  In addition, readers might also really appreciate the cameo appearance of Maberry’s alternate zombie-filled universe that is used as a setting for several of his other series, such as the Dead of Night books and his iconic Rot & Ruin/Broken Lands young adult novels, all of which feature a different version of Joe Ledger as a character.  There were also a couple of references to the town of Pinedeep, which served as the setting for Maberry’s first series, and which Ledger visited in the short story Material Witness.

While Kill Switch does have some intriguing connections to some of Maberry’s other works, this novel is incredibly accessible for those readers unfamiliar with the Joe Ledger books.  Like all the novels in this series, Kill Switch’s narrative is mostly self-contained, and you can start reading this book without any issues.  While there are a number of references to the events of the prior books, Maberry also makes sure to cover the relevant backstory, expertly inserting anecdotes about prior books and description of key plot points into the story often in a great entertaining manner (mainly because the protagonists still cannot believe that these previous events actually occurred).  This ensures that readers have more than enough background information to follow the story and understand who all the various characters are and what their personalities are like.

While it is extremely possible to read Kill Switch out of order, I would strongly suggest that readers read this series from the first novel, Patient Zero, rather than starting at the eighth book.  Not only does this allow you to see the various characters develop and progress throughout the course of the series, but it also enhances the emotional attachment that readers will have to the events of this book, including a couple of key character deaths.  Reading the series in order also helps to cut down on spoilers for some of the prior books.  This was something that I particularly noticed while reading Kill Switch, due to the fact that I have already read the sequel novels Deep Silence and Rage.  Both of these books make several references to the events of Kill Switch, so I had an idea of some of the events that were going to occur, as well as the identity of who the main antagonist was going to be.  While this did not derail my enjoyment of Kill Switch by too much, it did slightly reduce the suspense, which was not ideal.

I cannot review a Joe Ledger novel without commenting on the impressive and graphic action sequences that occurred throughout the course of the plot.  Maberry always does such a fantastic job writing his action scenes and the various close combat fights and shoot outs that occur throughout these novels feel extremely realistic as the protagonist and the narrator provide detailed explanations of what is occurring and its destructive impacts.  Kill Switch contains some very impressive action sequences as Ledger and his comrades are placed in some unique fight situations.  While there are the usual swift and one-sided fights against nameless goons, the characters often find themselves facing off against unexpected opponents who visit surprising violence upon them.  This makes for some truly shocking scenes, especially as Maberry’s excellent writing ensures that the reader fully understands the various characters’ surprise and despair.  You also have a unique situation where Ledger, generally considered to be one of the deadliest killers on the planet, finds himself severely handicapped in several fights due to the machinations of the antagonists.  This adds a whole new element to the typical fight sequences from this series, and it is nice to see the protagonist have some new challenges.  All this action helps to pump the reader up as they enjoy the excellent story and it is an amazing part of the overall book.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read my prior Joe Ledger reviews that I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Kill Switch, which in my opinion is the best format for enjoying these fantastic novels.  The Kill Switch audiobook has a run time of just under 18 hours, which I was able to get through incredibly quickly, and it was once again narrated by Ray Porter, whose voice work is easily my favourite thing about this format.  I have extolled the virtues of Porter’s narration in several of my other reviews due to his impressive vocal skills and his ability to move the story along at a swift and exciting pace.  Very few narrators are as in touch with the characters that they voice than Porter especially when it comes to the series’ titular protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Porter always does such an outstanding job capturing Ledger’s intense emotions and sweeping personality, and this enhances the listener’s experience when it comes to these books.  Porter also does amazing and consistent personifications for all the other characters in these books and it was great to hear all the familiar voices of the series’ recurring characters again.  This first-rate narration from Porter makes the audiobook format of these novels, including Kill Switch, an absolute treat to listen to and the audiobook format remains my preferred format for enjoying this series.

Kill Switch by Jonathan Maberry is an excellent and impressive thriller novel that served as a great eighth entry in the incredible Joe Ledger series.  I had an absolute blast going back and reading this book, and I really enjoyed the clever and intriguing story that Maberry cooked up for Kill Switch, especially as it contained an outstanding blend of different genres.  This was a fantastic read and it comes very highly recommended.  At this point in time I only have one more Joe Ledger novel to check out, Dogs of War, which I am really hoping to read before the end of the year, and I am also looking forward to checking out Maberry’s new upcoming novel, Ink.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

The Gates of Athens Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Athenian – Book One

Length: 443 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.

In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions.  None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority.  Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens.  However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before.  Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.

As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home.  This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.

As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour.  However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae.  Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?

Well damn, now that was an epic book.  I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020.  Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading.  Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel.  I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.

The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens.  The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences.  This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae.  Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events.  While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development.  Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.

In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting.  As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life.  The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city.  This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens.  Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves).  All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented.  All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.

Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around.  All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles.  Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes.  I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold.  I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual.  Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.

I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist.  Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did.  Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him.  Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.

This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae.  These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out.  Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information.  I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader.  While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea.  As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae.  Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed.  The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other.  These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in.  Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences.  This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

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.

Another week, another Throwback Thursday review of an early volume of one of my all-time favourite comic book series, Usagi Yojimbo, by legendary author and artist Stan Sakai.  This week I will look at the epic 10th volume in the series, The Brink of Life and Death, which proved to be another amazing and exciting five-star read.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage 15

The Brink of Life and Death continues the adventures of the rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he travels throughout the lands encountering all manner people and dangers.  This 10th volume is a fantastic addition to the series, featuring a great mixture of stories, from the tragic to the supernatural, and utilising some iconic recurring characters.  This volume is the third that has been collected by Dark Horse Books, and it features a mixture of issues from two separate publishers.  This includes the final issues of the Mirage Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, with Issues #15 and 16, as well a story taken from Issue #13 (the rest of Issue #13 was used in the last volume, Daisho).  It also contains the first six issues of the Dark Horse Books publication run of Usagi Yojimbo and serves as the starting point to Dark Horse’s lengthy connection to the series.  As a result, the volume starts off with a quick recap of the series (titled Origin Tale), containing some very broad strokes and ensuring that new readers could start on this volume if they wanted (although Sakai does make most of his comics fairly accessible to unfamiliar readers).  This volume also contains Dark Horse’s trademark story notes at the end of the volume, which proved to be a particularly intriguing companion to the excellent stories contained within The Brink of Life and Death.

The first story contained within this volume is the intriguing and exciting Kaiso.  In Kaiso, Usagi encounters a local peasant, Kichiro, while wandering on the coast, and travels with him to his village.  There, Usagi becomes familiar with Kichiro’s family and begins to learn more about the village’s main trade, seaweed (kaiso) farming.  While Usagi enjoys the seemingly simple life of the villagers, he soon finds himself involved in a feud with a neighbouring village, who Kichiro believes are poaching their seaweed fields.  However, not everything is as it seems, and Usagi manages to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to destroy his new friends.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 16

Kaiso is a fantastic and compelling story that once again highlights a traditional Japanese industry, in this case, seaweed farming.  Sakai does a fantastic job exploring seaweed farming in this story, as he introduces and portrays a number of key tools, concepts and techniques involved with the production of edible seaweed, all the way from harvesting it from the ocean to turning it into its dried form, nori.  This examination of seaweed farming serves as a surprisingly good centre for this story, and it is a testament to Sakai’s skill as a writer that he was able to produce an exciting and intrigue filled narrative around this industry in just 20 pages.  There are some great action sequences throughout this story, and it was cool to see Usagi fighting off a bunch of attackers whilst on a small fishing boat, utilising traditional farming tools as weapons.  There are also several impressive drawings throughout this story, as Sakai seeks to capture the beauty of the Japanese coastline as well as the complexities of the seaweed trade.  Kaiso proved to be an awesome first entry in this volume, and its intriguing story content and premise really helps to draw the reader in right off the bat.

The next story within The Brink of Life and Death is a great entry titled A Meeting of Strangers.  While enjoying a quiet lunch at an inn, Usagi watches as a striking swordswoman, later revealed to be called Inazuma, enters the inn.  Wary of this mysterious woman, Usagi bears witness to her skill and ferocity in combat as she takes down a band of bounty hunters who attack her, before departing into the wilds.  However, Inazuma is not the only person being hunted, and soon Usagi finds himself under attack from a group of killers who have been hired to end him.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

This is a really good story that showcases Sakai’s ability to quickly introduce an intriguing new character.  Inazuma goes on to become a major figure in the Usagi Yojimbo series for the next 14 volumes, and she gets an amazing introduction in this story, instantly coming across as something new, due to her striking appearance and her tough mannerisms.  Sakai shows early in the story that she is pretty damn dangerous, as Usagi casually reaches for his sword the moment he sees her, a completely new action from the character, which clearly identifies Inazuma as a major threat.  She quickly backs this up with her impressive swordplay, including slicing up the clothes of a local creep, and then taking out a band of bounty hunters.  She has a brutal fighting style as shown in this comic, and I loved her trademark finishing manoeuvre of completely cleaning the blood off her blade with one deft swish through the air.  In addition to the introduction of this great character, other fun elements of the story include the return of the Snitch (who was introduced in the last volume), who facilitates the hit on Usagi.  The Snitch is such a fantastic minor antagonist, and it is really entertaining seeing him running around doing his thing: “money, money, money!”  There is also a particularly impressive fight sequence in the last half of the story between Usagi and the assassins in the woods.  This scene sees Usagi take on over 20 guys in quick succession and is a real showcase of his ability.  There is a particularly fun panel in this sequence which sees Usagi kill several people at the same time, with his defeated opponents arranged in a semi-circle, all of them dying in dramatic fashion while making a different death rattle (including one guy who goes: “Trout, Trout!” for some reason).  All of this was over-the-top and helped show off just how crazy and action-packed this series can be.

The third story in this volume is the short entry Black Soul, which continues to showcase the return of series antagonist, Jei.  During a stormy night, a young girl and her grandfather have their house invaded by three bandits who steal their food and kill the grandfather.  However, the bandits are far from the only predators out that night, as the mysterious and frightening Jei appears at the door.  This was a great story that added a lot of key elements to the character of Jei in only a few pages.  Jei’s sudden appearance is suitably dramatic, and it shows off how terrifying he can be.  I loved the way that Sakai portrayed Jei’s fight against the three bandits, as all you see is several drawings of the hut’s exterior while terrified screams run out.  The story then returns to the interior of the house, where the bandits’ corpses are strewn around the house, including one guy who is hanging upside-down from the rafters, dripping blood.  Not seeing what actually happened makes the reader imagine the very worst scenario, and it really amps up the dread that this antagonist emanates.  Sakai then continues to hint at Jei’s more supernatural abilities by having him ‘consecrate’ the spear of one of his fallen opponents, with the blade visibly turning black in his hands, matching the soul of the wielder.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the young peasant girl, Keiko.  At first it appears that Jei is going to kill her; however, he stops after not sensing any evil in her.  This is the first time we have seen Jei show mercy, and it is a defining moment for the character, especially as Keiko starts following him as his companion.  Having Jei care for a young girl really adds to the complexity around Jei’s character, and in many ways it makes him seem even more evil, as he is corrupting this innocent with his dark crusade.  Overall, Dark Soul is a great and scary story which leaves the reader wanting to see more of this fantastic antagonist.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #2

Now we move on to Noodles, the only multi-issue entry in the volume which contains a powerful and impressive narrative that I really enjoyed.  In Noodles, Usagi enters a new town, only to be immediately accosted by the police, who are searching for a thief behind a recent crime wave.  Proving his innocence, Usagi swiftly finds out the source of the recent crimes is his friend Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks.  Kitsune has a new companion, a soba noodle street vendor and mute giant known only as Noodles, who assists Kitsune to hide from the police.  However, Kitsune has underestimated the deviousness and corruption of the local police administrator who puts a deadly plan into place to save his own skin.

This was an incredible entry in this volume, and I have a lot of love for Noodles’s fantastic crime narrative.  Sakai crafts together a fantastic storyline that follows Usagi as he meets up once again with the entertaining side character Kitsune and intriguing new character Noodles.  Kitsune is her usual fun self, and the introduction of the mute gentle giant Noodle adds a lot of dimensions to her character.  Up to now, Kitsune has been shown to be a generally good person, although she is motivated by greed or a sense of mischief.  However, in this story, she is given someone to care for, and she is determined to protect him no matter what.  Unfortunately, this leads to some great tragedy for her, which I found to be extremely moving, and you cannot help but feel bad for her.  Luckily, this leads to a rather good revenge plot in the second part of the story, which gives Noodles a satisfying and enjoyable ending.  This entire story was extremely well written, combining together humour, intrigue, character interactions and some genuine tragedy to produce an epic and compelling read.  I also really enjoyed Sakai’s amazing depictions of life in a larger feudal Japanese town, and it is clear that he did a lot of research to show what day-to-day life would look like, as well as examining how the criminal justice system worked during this period.  There are some really impressive drawings throughout this story, from the multiple detailed street and crowd views filled with all manner of activities and people (there is a sneaky shot of Jei and Keiko walking through town at one point), to the amazing action sequences, including a great scene where the gigantic Noodles is attacked by the police.  However, I really must highlight a particularly gruesome execution sequence that was a key part of the story.  While this scene is sad and horrifying, it is extremely well drawn, very memorable and it does its job of producing a major emotional response from the reader.  Noodles is probably the best entry in this entire volume, and I cannot praise just how amazing its clever and captivating story is.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #3

The next story within this volume is the supernatural tale, Wrath of the Tangled Skein, which sees Usagi arrive at a local inn which is experiencing some trouble.  A rich merchant’s daughter has been taken mysteriously ill, and her entourage fear that it is the work of a demon or haunt, picked up from their travels through the dangerous forest known as The Tangled Skein.  Usagi, who has previously travelled through The Tangled Skein (back in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), offers his assistance and takes command of the merchant’s ronin while they wait for a priest to arrive.  It does not take long for events to come to a head, and Usagi finds himself facing off against dangerous and malicious terrors.

I really like it when Sakai does a supernatural tale in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and this one was particularly awesome as the author expertly utilises some fascinating creatures from Japanese mythology.  There are two separate monsters contained within this story.  First you have the nue, a terrifying chimeric creature with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger, the legs of a tiger and a snake for a tail.  Needless to say, this is a particularly weird creature, and Sakai does a fantastic job drawing it and then portraying a chaotic and dangerous fight around it as Usagi attempts to defeat it.  In addition to the nue there is also a tanuki, a shape-changing racoon dog, who manages to trick Usagi and almost costs him everything.  I really loved the designs of both these creatures within the comic, and it was extremely cool to see and learn more about these facets of Japanese culture and tradition.  This story is set up extremely well, and the author has a great blend of action, supernatural intrigue and fun character moments.  Wrath of the Tangled Skein also introduces the character of Sanshobo, a Bonze priest who goes onto become a key recurring character, helping to make this a significant and important entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series.

Up next we have another short character-driven tale, The Bonze’s Story.  In this entry, Usagi travels with the Bonze priest Sanshobo after the events of the previous story.  The two quickly find camaraderie with each other, especially when Usagi realises that his companion is a former samurai.  Sanshobo then relates the tragic tale of how he gave up his warrior ways, which occurred when the young son of his lord accidently died in his care.  This forced Sanshobo’s own son to take his own life to restore his family’s honour, an event that broke Sanshobo.  This was a rather fascinating tale that does a lot to cement interest in a new side character.  The origin tale for Sanshobo is really good, and the whole story of sacrificing a son to save honour is extremely captivating and memorable.  The entire background story is drawn amazingly, and the various expressions of horror, sorrow and pride on the face of participants as they attempt to survive in a storm are quite exceptional.  This was another amazing example of what sort of impressive story Sakai can tell in only a few short pages, and The Bonze’s Story definitely sticks in the mind.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #4

Following this shorter tale, we have the fun, action-packed Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit.  In this entry, Usagi seeks shelter in an old temple, but his quiet night is ruined when several Komori Ninja arrive, seeking a specific prey.  After they leave, Usagi discovers that the person they are hunting is an injured Chizu, the leader of the Neko Ninja.  Helping her, Usagi learns that she is carrying a valuable and dangerous scroll that the Komori Ninja are desperate to obtain.  Can Usagi and Chizu keep it out of their hands, or will a powerful new weapon be unleashed upon the lands?

Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit was an exciting and entertaining entry that sees Usagi reunited with one of his potential love interests Chizu, who we last saw back in Volume 8: Shades of Death.  This is a fast-paced story that focuses on the conflict between two rival ninja clans, Chizu’s Neko Ninja and the Komori Ninja.  The Komori Ninja, giant bats with blades on their wings who had an amazing introduction back in Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid, are fantastic antagonists for this story, and it is always cool to see them in action, especially when Sakai draws them slicing through trees to get their prey.  The highlight of this story is the impressive ninja-on-ninja combat, as the more traditional ninja techniques of Chizu and the Neko Ninja go up against these flying opponents, all with Usagi in the middle.  This results in some epic fight sequences which end up being a lot of fun to see come to life.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic conclusion to this story, which not only has a great twist but which also adds a bit of tragedy to the life of Chizu, as she reflects on what constitutes duty for ninja.  An overall awesome and enjoyable story, this was another fantastic entry in this volume.

The penultimate entry in The Brink of Life and Death is the gripping story, The Chrysanthemum Pass.  After humiliating a group of thugs in a town, Usagi obtains a new travelling companion, Icho, a wandering medicine peddler.  The two become friendly as they wander around the mountains, but Icho is not what he seems.  Instead, he is secretly a member of the Koroshi, a notorious assassins’ guild, and is planning to take out a rich lord who is travelling through the Chrysanthemum Pass, and Usagi is also on his kill list.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #5

This was another outstanding story.  I loved the entire cleverly written narrative, which sees Usagi dragged into the middle of another devious plot.  Having his companion, Icho, turn out to be secretly evil was a fantastic choice by Sakai, and he sets it up perfectly, with only minor hints of his true intentions being revealed to the reader until about halfway through the story.  The rest of the story deals with Icho trying to subtly kill Usagi before his assassination mission and failing, allowing Usagi to be in the midst of the events in the pass.  This story then features a number of fantastic twists, including the fact that Usagi suspected that Icho was an assassin the entire time, implying that his reasons for travelling with him was to keep an eye on him and intervene if he was proven correct.  It was great to see the return of the Mogura Ninja, ninja moles with some really cool character designs who were introduced in the very first volume, The Ronin, and they once again proved to be surprisingly effective adversaries.  This story also serves to introduce a new group of antagonists for Usagi, with the first mention of the Koroshi assassins’ guild, whose various members tangle with Usagi multiple times throughout the rest of the series.  The Chrysanthemum Pass is therefore a fantastic and notable entry within this volume, and it ended up having quite an impressive story.

The final story in this volume is Lightning Strikes Twice, a powerful and captivating entry which provides new background for new character Inazuma.  In this story, Usagi once again runs into the mysterious Inazuma after finding several dead bodies on the road.  Encountering her within a temple, surrounded by other travellers, Usagi sits and listens to her tragic tale of love, loss and revenge as she recounts how she became so skilled with the sword, and the reasons why she is constantly being hunted throughout the lands.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #6

This was another epic story that really helps to build up Inazuma as an impressive and unique character within the series.  Her entire backstory as a girl who followed her heart and then lost everything is really emotional and humanising, adding layers of complexity to her rough exterior.  It was rather jarring to see such a strong woman stay with an abusive and uncaring partner, and it serves as an intriguing starting point for her road to exceptional warrior.  I enjoyed seeing her learning the way of the sword, and Sakai really builds her up as a natural prodigy with the blade.  Despite the humanising aspects of this story, Inazuma again comes across as a major badass within this story, thanks to the bloody fight sequence at the beginning, where she swiftly takes down a band of assassins with some very fancy moves, as well as the sequence at the end of the origin story, where she shows just how dangerous and cruel she can be.  I also absolutely loved the shocking reveal at the end of Lightning Strikes Twice where Usagi discovers that the people who have been quietly sitting through Inazuma’s story with him are all dead bounty hunters, which adds a real edge to Inazuma and her actions.  Lighting Strikes Twice proves to be a truly compelling and exciting tale, and I really liked learning more about this intriguing new character.  I also really appreciated how it tied into the previous Inazuma story and it ended up being a fantastic way to end the entire volume.

This 10th volume of the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series, The Brink of Life and Death, is another outstanding and addictive creation from Stan Sakai that features several impressive stories.  I loved this amazing combination of tales, and it was great seeing both standalone stories and entries that have deeper ties with the rest of the series.  Filled with awesome character moments, stunning artwork, and detailed depictions of feudal Japan, The Brink of Life and Death is a must read for fans of this series, and Sakai should be very proud of what he accomplished with this volume.

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.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 8

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.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 9

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.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 10

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.

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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

The Girl and the Stars 2

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.

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