Waiting on Wednesday – To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I check out the upcoming historical fiction release, To the Strongest, the first book in an intriguing new series by one of my favourite authors, Robert Fabbri.

To the Strongest Cover.jpg

Robert Fabbri is a talented historical fiction author who is best known for his Vespasian series. The Vespasian books were a wildly entertaining series that focused on the life of its titular character, the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Successfully mixing the known history of Vespasian with some fun fictional adventures, Fabbri told a fantastic story that explored decades of the most turbulent period of Rome’s history, including the reigns of some of its most infamous emperors. Featuring massive battles, a number of key historical events and some of the more extreme and outrageous (and in some cases historically inaccurate) tales of Roman excess and debauchery, the Vespasian series was pretty awesome, and I had a great time reading it. Make sure to check out my reviews for Rome’s Sacred Flame and Emperor of Rome.

After enjoying the Vespasian series over the last couple of years, I was very excited when I heard that Fabbri was writing a new historical fiction series. To the Strongest, which is set for release in early 2020, will be the first book in Fabbri’s Alexander’s Legacy series. From what I have seen about the plot, I think To the Strongest is going to be quite a fascinating and amusing read.

Goodreads Synopsis:

‘I foresee great struggles at my funeral games.’

Babylon, 323 BC: Alexander the Great is dead, leaving behind him the largest, and most fearsome, empire the world has ever seen. As his final breaths fade in a room of seven bodyguards, Alexander refuses to name a successor. But without a natural heir, who will take the reins?

As the news of the king’s sudden and unexpected death ripples across the land, leaving all in disbelief, the ruthless battle for the throne begins. What follows is a devious, tangled web of scheming and plotting, with alliances quickly made and easily broken, each rival with their own agenda.

But who will emerge victorious: the half-chosen; the one-eyed; the wildcat; the general; the bastard; the regent? In the end, only one man, or indeed woman, will be left standing…

I really like the idea of a battle royale of politics and war for Alexander the Great’s empire between a host of different contenders. This is sure to be an awesome basis for a book, and it is definitely something that I will be keen to read. This is not a period of history that I am massively familiar with, so I will be very interested to see where the story goes. I am really excited to see how this book plays out, and I am sure that Fabbri will be able to get a rather entertaining story out of it.

While I was always going to grab any new piece of historical fiction that Fabbri released, I have to say that I am keen for To the Strongest, which I think has a lot of potential. The aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death is a wonderful premise for a story, and I am sure that this setting, combined with Fabbri’s flair for exhilarating and compelling storytelling, is going to produce an amazing book. I am also looking forward to seeing how the Alexander’s Legacy series will play out, and hopefully it results in another long-running series that will prove to be just as much as a highlight in my reading year as the Vespasian series was.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee

Loki Where Mischief Lies

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (3 September 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 9 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Mackenzi Lee comes a fun and clever young adult tie-in novel to the Marvel comic book universe that follows the early life of one of the genre’s best villains, Loki, the Asgardian God of Mischief.

Loki has long been one of the most infamous and complicated villains in the Marvel Universe, whose manipulations and machinations are a constant threat to Asgard, his brother, Thor, and the Avengers. However, years before he started causing chaos in Midgard, he was a young prince of Asgard and the unfavoured son of Odin. Despised and mistrusted by the people of Asgard for his magical abilities, and feared by his father as a prophesied destroyer, Loki’s only confidant is Amora, a powerful sorceress in training.

When Loki and Amora accidently destroy an ancient and valuable magical artefact, Amora is banished to Midgard (Earth), where her magic will eventually fade, and Loki loses the one person who appreciates who he truly is. Determined to prove his father wrong, Loki dedicates himself to becoming a dutiful son, but he continues to find himself overshadowed by his brother’s bravery. When a failed mission once again disappoints Odin, Loki is sent to Midgard in order to investigate a series of murders that have been caused by Asgardian magic.

Arriving in 19th century London, Loki makes contact with a small group of humans who police interdimensional travel, the Sharp Society. Loki, despite his reluctance to help, soon finds himself trying to find the mysterious killer who is turning humans into living corpses. But when he discovers who is responsible for the deaths, he is once again torn between doing the right thing and acting the villain. As his adventure on Midgard continues, Loki soon realises that he needs to decide who he truly is: the good prince of Asgard his family always wanted, or the villain everyone expects him to be.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies is a rather intriguing read that caught my attention some time ago. I am a huge fan of Marvel comics and I will always be interested in checking out any tie-in novels connected to either the comics or the movies. As a result, I made sure to grab a copy of the audiobook version of this book as soon as I could. This turned out to be a fast-paced and enjoyable read that explores the life and times of a young Loki, placing him into a fascinating setting that helped enhance the story. Lee, who is best known for her young adult novels set in the 19th century, including This Monstrous Thing and the Montague Siblings books, created a great Loki story that does a spectacular job diving into the psyche of the character and shaping a fun adventure around it. This is actually the first book in a series of three historical novels that Lee has been contracted to write that will feature Marvel antiheros, and I am really interested in finding out which characters will be in these books.

Where Mischief Lies contains a compelling central storyline that follows the early days of Loki in Asgard and his first foray down to Midgard. Lee starts the story off by introducing a young Loki on Asgard, establishing his character, examining some of his early motivations, inserting a major life-changing event and inserting a magical premonition that will haunt the character throughout the rest of the book. I really enjoyed this introduction to the characters and the plot, and thought that it set up the rest of the story perfectly. The next few parts of the book, which are set after a time jump of a few years, do a good job showing how the character has evolved after the introductory events of the book, and then they manoeuvre him down to London where he has to discover the cause of a series of deaths done using Asgardian magic. The set up to get him down to London, the initial parts of Loki’s adventures on Midgard, his introduction to the Sharp Society and the first encounter with the mysterious bodies are all pretty interesting, and is a great follow-through from the book’s introductions.

I did however struggle with the middle parts of the book, as they felt a little flat and hard to get through. Those readers hoping for a complex mystery into who is leaving the bodies on the streets of London are going to be disappointed, as Loki solves the case quite quickly, and it is literally the most obvious suspect ever. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the following periods of Loki’s indecision and angst as he tries to deal with the fallout from this revelation. However, the ending of the book more than makes up for it, as Lee wraps it up with an epic conclusion that showcases the full extent of the character’s nature and his eventual future, while also utilising story elements set up earlier in the book. While there were periods in the middle of the book where I was starting to get a little restless, I think overall the story of Where Mischief Lies is really good and its strong ending made it all worthwhile.

Thanks to his appearances in the MCU, Loki is probably one of the most popular and well-known Marvel antiheroes and characters, so any portrayal of him needed to be spot on. Luckily, Lee did an outstanding job with her characterisation of Loki, and the examination of the younger version of this character is probably one of the best things about this book. Lee’s version of young Loki contains all the hints of the growing arrogance, swagger, fashion sense, penchant for mischief and casual disdain for mortals and Asgardians that make him such a fun character in the comics and movies. However, what really makes this an excellent portrayal is the fact that Lee also shows all of Loki’s inherent vulnerability, frustration and anger, which have resulted from a childhood of being seen not only as the lesser son but as something that is dangerous and untrustworthy. This examination of the character’s inner psyche is a fantastic central point of the book, and it is interesting to see the world from Loki’s point of view, especially as you really start to sympathise with him. The story also shows some key moments in Loki’s life, and you get a sense of his motivations and determination to torment those around him. I also think that Lee did a fantastic job of examining the relationship between Loki and Thor. While a lot of their relationship is antagonistic, Thor is shown at times to be the only character who trusts Loki, and it is interesting to see the relationship that might lead to Loki’s eventual redemption. If I were to complain about any aspect of Lee’s portrayal of Loki, it would be that his powers and abilities were a bit inconsistent at times. For example, it was a little weird to see him being physically inconvenienced by a human in one scene, and then a chapter or two later he has the strength to lift two people up at the same time. While this is a relatively minor issue and I imagine that you could explain this away as some form of deception by Loki, I personally found it to be a little jarring.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Lee’s portrayal of Loki is his gender and sexuality. In the build-up to the release of Where Mischief Lies there was a lot of discussion about how this book was going highlight certain LGTB+ elements from the comic books, especially as Lee’s previous books have all contained LGTB+ components. Throughout his comic book history, Loki has been portrayed as both genderfluid and pansexual, and both of these elements of the character are explored within this new book to various degrees. While an interesting part of the character, the genderfluid aspect of Loki is only really shown to a small degree in this book. While Loki does not actually change his gender within Where Mischief Lies (which has occurred in some Marvel comics), when asked “if he prefers men or women”, he does indicate that he has been both. There are also several examples of Loki using his powers of magic to appear as a female character (with various degrees of success), and there are also scenes where he dresses in women’s clothing, usually stolen from Amora, who is amusedly annoyed that they look better on him. While it was not as fully explored as it could have been (and to be fair, it would have been hard to add it in to a novel of this length), it is really cool to see a genderfluid character being introduced into a novel connected to the Marvel Universe.

In addition to this, the pansexual aspect of Loki’s character is on full display throughout the book, as Loki has romantic connections with both male and female characters. Not only does he fall in love with Amora (there is a reason they call her The Enchantress), but a romantic connection also begins to spark between him and a young Sharp Society member, Theo. I really liked the way that Lee handled both of these romances. While the relationship between Loki and Amora ends in flames (which should come as no surprise to Marvel fans), the slowly growing feelings he shares with Theo are quite sweet and contain some rather interesting social commentary. The relationship with Theo is underscored with feelings of identity; due to the social conventions of the 19th century, Theo is unable to be who he really is. This is mirrored by Loki, who has complete freedom of sexuality and gender, but who finds that he is looked down on because of his magic, which he sees as a being major part of his identity. All of this was intensely fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing this additional complexity explored within the character.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was the various tie-ins it contained to the Marvel’s comics universe. This was a pretty comprehensive origin story for Loki, and quite honestly it could be used as a prequel to both the comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, given that there is a lot more focus on magic, runes, elves and artefacts, it should probably be more associated with the comics. Lee does a fantastic job bringing Asgard to life, and there are a number of cool references to the various settings and characters of the Thor comics that will appeal to major comic book fans. In addition to this, the author also peppers the story with other Marvel references, especially when the story goes down to Midgard. For example, there are mentions of an industrialist called Stark, talk of a green-skinned female alien and discussion that the Sharpe Society should be renamed as either SHIELD or SWORD. While all these references are rather amusing, I would say that no real prior knowledge of the comics or the movies are really required to enjoy this book, although Marvel fans will probably get more out of it.

Where Mischief Lies is being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and I believe that this would be a great book for young teen readers, who will love this intriguing look at one of the best Marvel characters. Younger readers should be prepared for the typical amount of comic book level of violence and sex in this book, but there is really nothing that is too explicit for younger readers. I personally think that many teens will appreciate the various LGTB+ elements included in the story, and they will be interested to see this side of the character that has not been included in the movies. Like many young adult tie-in novels, Where Mischief Lies is very accessible to older readers, and I know that many will really like this take on Loki as well, making this a fantastic novel for all ages.

While I really enjoyed the awesome cover of Where Mischief Lies’ hardcover edition, I ended up listening to it on audiobook rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format of this book is narrated by Oliver Wyman and runs for just over nine hours in length. I think that was a pretty good way to enjoy Where Mischief Lies, as it proved to be a rather easy book to listen to, and I was able to complete it in only a couple of days. Wyman is an enjoyable narrator, and I really like his take on the book’s protagonist and point-of-view character, Loki. He did a fantastic job capturing various aspects of the character’s personality and speech patterns, from his sneering contempt to his frustrations at the way he is treated. This excellent narration really added a lot to my enjoyment of the novel and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format to anyone who is interested in checking this book out.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee was a fantastic young adult tie-in novel that does a wonderful job of bringing the character of Loki to life. I had a lot of fun listening to this novel, especially as Lee dives deep into the life and mind of Loki, exploring how he became the villain we all love. I was initially planning to give this book a rating of four out of 5 stars; however, considering how much I ended up writing about it, it must be worthy of 4.25 stars instead. I have to say that I was impressed with Lee’s talent for writing novelizations about Marvel antiheroes, and I look forward to her next book in this young adult series.

The Queen’s Tiger by Peter Watt

The Queen's Tiger Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)

Series: The Colonial series – Book 2

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best historical fiction writers, Peter Watt, returns with another exciting historical adventure in The Queen’s Tiger, the outstanding sequel to his 2018 release, The Queen’s Colonial.

Following on from the events of The Queen’s Colonial, in 1857, former Australian settler Ian Steele is still living under the guise of Samuel Forbes, a rich English noble who Ian bears an uncanny resemblance to. Ian switched places with Samuel in order to help him meet the required military service he needs to receive a vast inheritance. Serving as a captain in Queen Victoria’s army, Ian has proven himself to be a natural soldier, fighting against the odds dozens of times over against the most vicious enemies of the crown. However, despite the formidable enemies he has faced on the battlefield, Ian has encountered greater dangers far closer to home, as Samuel’s father and his murderous brother Charles are determined that Samuel will never receive his inheritance.

As Ian and his men, including his old friends Sergeant Conan Curry and Corporal Owen Williams, return from fighting the Persian army in Iran, a dangerous threat to the empire is brewing in India. Indian troops under the employ of the British East India Company have begun to mutiny, and the country, caught up in a swell of anti-British nationalism, is beginning to violently rebel against British rule. Among those caught up in the chaos are Samuel’s sister Alice and her husband the surgeon Peter Campbell, whose honeymoon turns into a brutal fight for survival.

Redeployed to India, Ian is once again leading the charge in some of the campaign’s most deadly battles against a determined foe. However, the biggest threat to his survival is happening half a world away back in England, as the real Samuel Forbes returns to London for a personal meeting under the name Ian Steele. When Samuel is spotted and his true identity is suspected, he finds himself hunted throughout England by Charles’s agents, determined to prove that Ian is an imposter. Can Ian and Samuel continue their ruse amidst the tragedy, tribulations and conflicts they encounter, or will the evil forces arrayed against them finally bring them down?

This was another fantastic book from Peter Watt, who has a true knack for producing compelling historical adventures filled with action, intrigue and family drama. The Queen’s Tiger is the second book in Watt’s Colonial series, which follows its protagonists through some of the most dangerous conflicts that the British army found itself involved with during the 19th century. I have to admit that I have been quite keen to check this book out for a little while, and not just because it quotes one of my Canberra Weekly reviews on the cover. The first book in this series, The Queen’s Colonial was an excellent read, and it did a good job following up Watt’s long-running Frontier series of which I was a big fan (make sure to check out my Canberra Weekly reviews for the last two books in this series, While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).

The Queen’s Tiger continues the intriguing story from the first book, which saw a simple Australian blacksmith pretend to be an English gentleman in order to serve as an officer in the Queen’s army. This was a compelling start the series, and I am glad that Watt has continued to follow through the fun blend of military action, intrigue and character interactions that have been a signature writing trend of his for some time. The Queen’s Tiger contains a wide-ranging story that covers several characters across a number of continents. This allows the author to showcase a number of different and enjoyable storylines within one book, and as such we can have one section of a book that focuses on the military action and adventure being undertaken by several of the characters in India, and the next section than looks at the sinister plotting of the book’s antagonists, or the desperate attempts of the real Samuel to keep his identity secret in England. In addition to their ongoing adventures, the author also explores the various relationships and romances that the various characters have, painting a rich tapestry of these point-of-view characters’ lives. This is a wonderful combination of storylines, all of which comes together into an excellent and highly enjoyable read.

Just like he did with the Crimean War in The Queen’s Colonial, Watt does a fantastic job bringing an intriguing historical conflict to life in this book, with his focus and examination of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The book actually follows the entire duration of the Indian Mutiny and showcases most of the key moments of the rebellion that turned into full-scale war for independence. As a result of the way that Watt positioned his characters from the first book, the reader gets to see two separate parts of the mutiny. Alice and Peter’s storyline, which also features the new major character of Scott Campbell, focuses on how the English people who were living in India when the mutiny started would have perceived what was going on, and the desperate battle that the English forces garrisoned in India faced against a mass rebellion of their Indian soldiers. Ian’s storyline, on the other hand, shows the battles that the English relief force faced as they tried to retake the country and rescue the English citizens trapped within. This was an extremely fascinating historical event, and I think that Watt’s portrayal of this conflict was extremely intriguing and compelling. Based on the comments in the historical notes section of this book, it looks like Watt is planning to take his characters through a number of England’s various 19th century military campaigns in the following books, and I look forward to seeing where they end up next.

Needless to say, a book that has such a strong focus on soldiers and the Indian Mutiny is going to be very heavy on the action, as the protagonists fight in several battles across Indian and Iran. There are a significant number of fast-paced sequences throughout this book, from the various battles and skirmishes that occur during the mutiny, to thrilling chase scenes in the backstreets of London. Watt’s grasp of 19th century military combat is quite impressive, and there is a very realistic feel to the huge number of fight sequences that occur throughout the book, as he focuses on the tactics and weaponry of the British infantry man. As a result, there is rarely a dull or quiet moment in this book, and action fans will really appreciate the cool fights occurring throughout the book.

Peter Watt has once again delivered an electrifying and enthralling piece of historical fiction with The Queen’s Tiger. Featuring some amazing depictions of a deadly part of history, as well as a bunch of great characters whose various adventures, deceptions and relationships are particularly intriguing, this is a fantastic piece of Australian fiction that is really worth checking out.

Waiting on Wednesday – Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I examine a forthcoming historical fiction novel from one of my favourite authors, Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow.

Traitors of Rome Cover.jpg

Traitors of Rome will be the 18th book in Scarrow’s action-packed historical fiction series, Eagles of the Empire. This series follows the adventures of Roman Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco, two veteran legionnaires who have served on every battlefield in the Roman Empire. I have long been a fan of this series, having read every previous book, including last year’s enjoyable entry, The Blood of Rome. Scarrow is probably one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment, having recently featured on my Top Ten Auto-buy Authors list. This latest book in the series sounds pretty darn interesting and it looks to kick off the war against Parthia that has been brewing in the last few books.

Hachette Australia Synopsis:

AD 56. Battle-hardened veterans of the Roman army Tribune Cato and Centurion Macro are garrisoned at the eastern border, aware that their movements are constantly monitored by spies from dangerous, mysterious Parthia. But the enemy within could be the deadliest threat to the Legion … and the Empire.

There’s a traitor in the ranks. Rome shows no mercy to those who betray their comrades, and the Empire. But first the guilty man must be discovered. Cato and Macro are in a race against time to expose the truth, while the powerful enemy over the border waits to exploit any weaknesses in the Legion. The traitor must die …

Traitors of Rome promises to be another fantastic addition to this awesome series. Not only do I get to check out the continuing adventures of this great duo of historical warriors but it looks like Scarrow has come up with an intriguing story hook for this novel. The hunt for a Parthian traitor in the Legion sounds rather cool, and I look forward to see how well Scarrow blends this sort of espionage storyline with his classic historical fiction setting. Because I love this series I was always going to grab this book no matter what. With its fascinating new plot, Traitors of Rome should be a pretty awesome book, and I am excited for mid-November when this comes out.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

The Bone Fire Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 25 July 2019)

Series: Somershill Manor Mystery – Book Four

Length: 310 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a clever and captivating historical murder mystery? Look no further than the latest book from the brilliant S. D. Sykes, The Bone Fire, which continues the adventures of her reluctant 14th century murder-solving protagonist, Oswald de Lacy, who this time finds himself stuck in a unique situation.

After several years of respite, the Plague returns to England in 1361. As a survivor of the original outbreak in 1350, Oswald de Lacy, lord of Somershill in Kent, knows the devastation the sickness can bring. Desperate to save his family, he accepts an invitation from one of his friends, Godfrey, to shelter for the winter in his remote castle in the Romney Marsh with a select company of friends and allies. The rules are simple: once the de Lacy family enters the castle, the gates will be closed and no-one will be allowed to leave until the Plague has passed.

Arriving just ahead of the Plague with his wife, son, mother and valet, de Lacy finds that Godfrey’s castle is a grim refuge filled with a disagreeable group of fellow guests and servants. Despite this, the castle appears to be the safest place for them, especially with the Plague already ravishing the outside countryside. That is until their host is found murdered in his own library.

As the residents deal with the shock of losing the lord of the castle, other bodies are discovered within the castle walls. With nowhere to run except onto the plague-infested island outside the castle walls, de Lacy must once again rely on his talent for solving mysteries to save the day. However, it soon becomes apparent that de Lacy is up against a ruthless killer who delights in violence and is seemingly able to move about the castle undetected. Can de Lacy solve this crime before it is too late, or will he and his family face a fate worse than the sickness keeping them trapped within the castle?

The Bone Fire is the fourth book in Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series, which started back in 2014 with Plague Land. The Somershill Manor Mystery books are an intriguing historical mystery series which follows the investigations of its protagonist in the land devastated by the Black Death. I had not previously read any of Sykes’s books, although her preceding release, City of Masks, is probably one of the books I most regret not reading in 2017.

I was initially drawn to The Bone Fire by the beautiful cover and the really cool-sounding plot, and I thought that this novel had some real potential. I am extremely glad I decided to get a copy of this book, as I was blown away by the fantastic and clever story. Sykes does an excellent job of combining a complex and compelling murder mystery with a unique and fascinating historical setting. The entire story is extremely fast paced, and I found myself racing through the book in no time at all, especially as it proved to be pretty darn hard to disengage from the fantastic story.

Those readers who have not had the opportunity to read any of Sykes’s books can easily enjoy The Bone Fire without any foreknowledge of the previous entries in the Somershill Manor Mystery series. Each of the books in the series can be read as a standalone novel, although existing readers will note the continuation of character arcs from the earlier entries in the series. Some information from the previous books does play a role in the story, including how the protagonist survived the first outbreak of the Plague, however Sykes always does a careful job of reintroducing these elements in The Bone Fire well before they become relevant to the plot.

At the heart of this book lies an excellent murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist is forced to investigate a series of killings in a remote English castle. Sykes has come up with a thrilling murder mystery storyline that follows a twisting and intriguing investigation. The protagonist has a huge bevy of potential suspects, each of whom has their secrets and schemes, which de Lacy has to unravel in order to get to the bottom of the murders, and there are a variety of motives for the killings occurring in the castle. The case goes in some very interesting directions, and the end result was very satisfying, with some well-plotted-out twists and some truly unique motivations for a murder. I had a great time trying to figure out who the killer was, and this was a terrific storyline to centre the book upon.

While the murder mystery storyline is an excellent part of this book, readers will also be entranced by Sykes’s use of a fascinating historical setting. Like the first two books in this series, the author has set the story in the midst of plague-ravished England. However, unlike the previous books, which dealt with the first bout of the Black Death between 1348-51, this story is set in 1361, when a second plague hit the country. This time the populace, including all the characters in this book, were much more aware of how deadly the Plague could be and took steps to try and avoid it. Sykes does an amazing job capturing the subsequent sense of despair, fear and paranoia that emulates from people who previously experienced the Plague, and it makes for a fantastic emotional background to the story. The various theories and ideas of the cause of the Plague are pretty fascinating, as are the methods with which the protagonists attempt to protect themselves from its influence. It also results in some heartbreaking, if not cruel, decisions from the protagonist, who is still traumatised from his experiences during the first sickness, and results in some dramatic character moments.

I really enjoyed the way that Sykes utilised the Plague and other intriguing historical aspects, such as religion, to enhance the murder mystery storyline of this book. The restrictions of the Plague keeping the residence within the castle helped make the story feel like a classic whodunnit in places with a small group of suspects trapped in an enclosed location and only one investigator trying to sort out the entire case. The historical setting also resulted in a number of intriguing potential motives for the story, such as religious differences, complex inheritances, arranged marriages and even clocks, all of which adds a compelling edge to the story.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes is an exciting and gripping historical murder mystery that is really worth checking out. The author did a fantastic job creating a clever mystery storyline that perfectly utilises its bleak and intriguing historical setting. The end result is a terrific fourth book from Sykes that was a lot of fun to read. It is safe to say that Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series is now firmly on my reading radar, and I will be keeping an eager eye out for the next book in the series.

Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

Usagi 166.jpg

The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

Usagi 167.jpg

This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

Usagi 168.jpg

While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

Usagi 169.jpg

The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

Usagi 170.jpg

One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

Usagi 171.jpg

Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

Usagi 172.jpg

Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.