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

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Shades of Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1997)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 8

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi Vol 2 Issue 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

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

Series: Book of the Ice – Book One

Length: 473 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lionheart by Ben Kane

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Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 14 May 2020)

Series: Lionheart – Book One

Length: 381 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honour, glory, loyalty and war! Bestselling historical fiction author Ben Kane takes the reader on a medieval adventure alongside a young King Richard the Lionheart, with his latest epic novel, Lionheart.

I have been on a real roll with some great historical fiction novels in the last couple of weeks, having absolutely loved The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis and The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat, so when I got a copy of Lionheart by Ben Kane I jumped at the chance to read it. Ben Kane is one of the top historical fiction authors at the moment, having produced a number of fantastic books set in ancient Rome, including The Forgotten Legion trilogy, the Hannibal series and the Eagles of Rome series. I have read several of Kane’s previous novels, and I have always found them to be exciting and compelling books with loads of historical detail. This latest release, Lionheart, is Kane’s first novel that does not involve Rome in any way whatsoever, and it acts as the start of a brand new series that will follow the life of one of England’s most iconic kings.

England, 1179. Henry II rules a vast empire, made up of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine, controlling all with an iron fist, with his only blind spot being his four rebellious sons. Ferdia is minor Irish nobleman, taken as a hostage by the English to ensure his rebellious family’s cooperation and loyalty. Given the name Rufus by his captors, he spends years languishing in an English castle, before a chance encounter with Henry’s second oldest son, Richard, will change everything.

Managing to save Richard’s life, Rufus is taken in as his squire. Drawn to the prince’s natural charisma, bravery and dedication to his men, Rufus gladly swears his loyalty to Richard, and boldly follows him to war as he attempts to subdue the rebellious lords of Aquitaine. The battles and sieges that follow will make Richard’s reputation as a warrior and leader, and Rufus is able to prove his worth beside him, despite the actions of his bitter rival Robert FitzAldelm.

However, while Richard seeks honour and glory in Aquitaine, his ambitious brothers grow jealous of his success and begin to plot against him. Lending their support to the rebels, their actions lead to a crisis that could split the kingdom in two and deliver it to the King of France. As Richard finds himself surrounded by traitors and plotters, he makes his own bid for the throne. It is time for the Lionheart to rise?

Lionheart turned out to be an amazing and exhilarating book that combines intriguing moments from history with a compelling and action-packed tale of honour, loyalty and desire for power. Kane crafts together an impressive and exciting narrative that follows the early life of King Richard the Lionheart as he fights in some of his earliest battles and deals with the various members of his family. The story is primarily told from the point of view of the fictional character Rufus, as he follows Richard through his various adventures. Not only does this allow the reader to see some of the key events of Richard’s life, but it also provides an intriguing central narrative around Rufus, as he attempts to find his place in the world after being taken from his family, while also battling his ruthless opponent, Robert FitzAldelm, another fictional character, who serves as a wonderful foil to the protagonist. Lionheart’s story contained an excellent blend of action, intrigue, compelling historical elements and fantastic interactions between the various characters, which makes it extremely easy to get lost in this book.

The absolute highlight of this novel has to be the enjoyable historical backdrop of Richard’s life that the entire story is set to. Lionheart takes place between 1179 and 1189, which is a really intriguing period of history. The book does not examine Richard and his brothers’ joint rebellion against their father (although it is mentioned several times), but it does focus on the turbulent familiar battles between Richard and his family. During this period, Richard had to put down an extended rebellion in Aquitaine, fighting first against the plots of his brothers and later against the whims of his reluctant father as he attempts to win the throne. Kane does an outstanding job exploring all these chaotic historical events in great detail, and it was extremely fascinating to learn about all the battles and politics that occurred. It also ensures that the book’s plot, which was set all around these events, proved to be rather exciting, as the protagonist watches Richard weave through all the battles and political intrigue. I also have to say that I was impressed with the shear amount of historical detail that Kane installed into every aspect of the plot. Not only has the author made use of a vast cast of historical figures throughout the story (helpfully recorded in a character list at the front of the book), but every line of this book is filled with details about period culture, dress, day-to-day life, battle and the life of a squire and knight. Kane has clearly done an incredible amount of research for this book, and I really loved the authenticity that this added to the story, making for a story that is both captivating and enlightening, just like all great historical fiction novels should be.

Another great aspect of the story is the way that Kane also spent time exploring the life of William Marshal. Marshal, a real-life historical figure of some significance, serves as the book’s secondary point-of-view character, and a number of chapters are told from his perspective (in the third person, rather than the first-person perspective used for all of Rufus’s chapters). This proves to be a clever move on Kane’s part for a number of reasons; primarily because William Marshal is such an absolutely fascinating person. Marshal was a successful and well-known knight, famous for his loyalty, honour and martial prowess, and he was widely considered the pinnacle of knightly virtue in Europe at the time. Kane spends a lot of time exploring the character of Marshal and portrays him in a more ruthless and opportunistic light, which worked rather well for this realistic and compelling story. Marshal is also an incredible useful point-of-view character, as for the entirety of this book he was either in the service of one of Richard’s brothers or his father the king. This provided the reader with a viewpoint into the camp of Richard’s political opponents, which added to the tension of the story, as the reader became privy to information that the protagonists did not know. In addition, it also allowed for an intriguing contrast between Richard and the other members of his family, as Marshal considered the deficits of his lords against those of Richard, who he held a great respect for. Marshal also finds his loyalty tested several times, as his master’s plots threaten to weaken the kingdom, and he must decide whether it is more dishonourable to disobey his liege or to allow them to act unopposed in their own worst interests. I am extremely glad that Kane decided to use Marshal as a secondary protagonist, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future books.

I also have to mention all the awesome action sequences that Kane fits in throughout Lionheart. Due to the historical circumstances in which this book is set, there are a large number of battles, fights and sieges, which our protagonist often finds himself in the middle of. I really enjoyed seeing all the cool fight sequences that occurred throughout the plot and Kane has a real flair for historical action scenes, bringing them to live in exciting detail. Definitely a great book for those lovers of medieval battles and fights, this book is guaranteed to slake anyone’s desire for action and adventure.

Lionheart is an excellent new novel from Ben Kane, who thrives in a non-Roman history setting by bring together an impressive story about a young Richard the Lionheart. I had an amazing time reading this book, and I loved the exciting narrative and the fascinating historical elements. Lionheart serves as an awesome first book in a new series from Kane, and the second novel, tentatively titled Lionheart: Crusade, should prove to be a brilliant read for next year. Until then, Lionheart comes highly recommended, and is really worth checking out.

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

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Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo #3

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo #4

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo #5

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo #6

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo #7

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

Song of the Risen God by R. A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God Cover

Publisher: Audible Studios (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Coven trilogy – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit-Girl, Vol 4: In Hollywood by Kevin Smith and Pernille Ørum

Hit-Girl in Hollywood Volume 4

Publisher: Image Comics (Paperback – 19 June 2019)

Series: Hit-Girl – Volume 4

Writer: Kevin Smith

Artist: Pernille Ørum

Colourist: Sunny Gho

Letterer: Clem Robins

Lenght: 112 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Lights, camera, bloodshed and mayhem! The world’s most dangerous pre-teen assassin, Hit-Girl, travels to Hollywood in the fourth instalment of the brilliant and exciting Hit-Girl series.

Hit Girl S2 #1

This current Hit-Girl series has been a lot of fun, as it follows Hit-Girl on her world tour of destruction and vigilante justice, with a new creative team at the helm of each volume (which are each made up of four issues). I have been really getting into this series, and I loved the first three volumes, having previously reviewed the first and third volumes, Hit-Girl in Columbia and Hit-Girl in Rome. This fourth volume, Hit-Girl in Hollywood, is another interesting addition to the series, featuring the intriguing creative team of Hollywood screenwriter Kevin Smith and artist Pernille Ørum, and contains Season 2, Issues #1-4 of the Hit-Girl series.

I have to say that I was rather looking forward to this fourth volume. Not only does it have a cool-sounding premise but it also features the writing talents of Kevin Smith, who has written and directed some rather entertaining and distinctive comedy movies (my favourite is Dogma). Smith has also written several comics over the years, which have ranged from the good to the controversial. I am a massive fan of several of his comics, including the incredible Daredevil: Guardian Devil, and his run on Green Arrow back in the early 2000s, which brought back the titular character and set up one of my favourite comic book series of all time. Some of his other work has been a little less well received, such as Batman: The Widening Gyre (which featured the infamous “bladder” spasm incident), but Smith has always been able to create an entertaining story. As a result, I was rather intrigued to see his take on the character of Hit-Girl, and the result was a rather unique and memorable tale.

Hit Girl S2 #2

Mindy McCready, the pre-teen vigilante known as Hit-Girl, is living her best life, killing bad guys and distributing her lethal brand of justice across the world. However, during her most recent mission she becomes aware of something truly terrible: someone is making a big Hollywood movie of her life and it is going to feature a dramatic re-enactment of her father’s death. Determined to stop the movie from being made, Mindy travels to Hollywood to crack some heads and put the fear of Hit-Girl into the movie makers. Deciding to strike at the very top, Mindy breaks into the set to have a “talk” with the studio boss, however, she instead comes across a rather disturbing scene that she was not expecting.

It turns out that there is another vigilante running around Hollywood, and she has in her sights the most evil and vicious predators there are: Hollywood executives who prey on young women. Her latest vicious attack on the studio boss behind the Hit-Girl movie has garnered a large amount of attention, and Hit-Girl is now the main suspect. Hit-Girl needs to find this new vigilante and get out of town fast. But with both the FBI and the remnants of the Genovese mob family gunning for her, can Hit-Girl survive, and what happens when she meets up with a vigilante who has even more issues than she does?

Hit GIrl S2 #2b

Wow, now that was something! I have to admit that I did have a suspicion that Hit-Girl in Hollywood was going to be a rather weird entry in the series, but I was not expecting just how crazy Smith and the artistic team ended up making it. I honestly think the best way to describe this comic is with the phrase “over-the-top”, as this comic features some rather extreme examples of violence and vengeance that a lot of people are going to find rather uncomfortable. I personally found the comic to be quite entertaining, and I liked seeing the crazy character of Hit-Girl in a whole new setting, especially one that makes fun of the Hollywood elite and dramatic method actors who fall deep for their beloved craft. However, even I had to admit that this comic had some issues which made it just a little too insane to completely enjoy.

Hit GIrl S2 #3

The comic actually starts by displaying a graphic and somewhat unexplained school shooting, which is probably going to turn away a bunch of potential readers right off the bat. Hit-Girl brutally intervenes to stop the shooting (graphically killing the two teen killers), but becomes more concerned when she discovers she has an unauthorised biography which is being adapted into a movie, and she travels to Hollywood to put an end to it. Once there she discovers that another teen girl is running around town in a Hit-Girl inspired costume, castrating predatorial Hollywood executives as “Dick-Taker”, whose introduction made me crack up and stop taking this comic seriously. While I could maybe overlook the portrayal of a school shooting at the start of the comic, Dick-Taker officially made this story way too over-the-top for me, especially as Dick-Taker wears a very disturbing and artistic cape that appears to made up of the stitched together skins of the male extremities she has removed (I kid you not!).

Hit Girl S2 #3b

All of this is way too crazy, and it does not help that Hit-Girl in Hollywood’s story is a bit weak in places. The big shoot-out in the fourth issue is cool, but it all happens rather suddenly, and all the key players are in the same place at the same time, prompting Hit-Girl and Dick-Taker to team up, which happened just a little too easily for my taste. I wasn’t a big fan of seeing Hit-Girl fighting the FBI either, as she has a “no killing cops” mindset which was a big part of the end of Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall. I also thought that it was a bit of a waste to use the remnants of the Genovese mob in this story, and the manner in which the final member of the family that has been the main antagonists of Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass was taken down is a tad odd.

Hit Girl S2 #4

Now, despite the flaws and over-the-top extreme nature of much of the comic, I did like parts of Hit-Girl in Hollywood, which made it a mostly fun read. This comic is chock full of gratuitous violence, expertly brought to life by the artistic team, which, let us be honest, is one of the main reasons that you would buy a Hit-Girl comic. I also really liked how the entire first issue was told completely without any dialogue, except for in the final scene. This first issue turns out to be rather cool, as watching Hit-Girl’s outrage grow as she finds out that not only did someone write a book about her but it’s being turned into a movie is pretty entertaining, and showing her sitting on the Hollywood sign saying “I see dead people” in the very last panel is a great way to foreshadow the death and destruction that is bound to follow. I also liked Smith’s take on the crazy, fake town of Hollywood, and it definitely made for an interesting setting, filled with several entertaining characters, quotes from popular movies and a relevant storyline about sexual predators in Hollywood getting what’s coming to them. The whole storyline around the origin story of Dick-Taker is also a rather intriguing version of extreme method actors, and I thought it was interesting to see how inspiring someone like Hit-Girl could potentially be to other disenfranchised young women. My favourite part of this comic had to be the emotional scenes where Hit-Girl visits the set of the Hit-Girl movie and sees them recreate the moment her father died. The combination of anger, fear, regret and sadness that is shown on Hit-Girl’s face and in her thoughts is pretty intense, and it makes for a rather great scene.

Hit Girl S2 #4b

Overall, I’d say that Hit-Girl in Hollywood is an interesting addition to the series that dials up the action and excitement but which is probably not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I personally liked most of it, but I have to admit that parts of it were off-putting and the whole comic is a bit too crazy for its own good. Still, people looking for an extreme and explosive comic with some memorable moments to it could do a lot worse than Hit-Girl in Hollywood, and you are guaranteed to have a few laughs with this one. I am giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars, although I can imagine that a lot of other people will not be as generous with their ratings as I am. I am looking forward to seeing where the next volumes of this series go, and I cannot wait to get my next Hit-Girl fix.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Vader Down

Vader Down Cover

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 19 April 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Length: 152 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: Stars Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp

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Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 April 2015)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 10 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

For my second Throwback Thursday article of this week (what can I say, I was in the zone for reviewing older content) I check out a fast-paced and addictive Star Wars novel that was released a couple of years ago, with Star Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp.

It is the early days of the Galactic Empire. Under the reign of Emperor Palpatine, few openly oppose imperial rule, and those that do are swiftly dealt with by Palpatine’s ruthless apprentice, Darth Vader. But as the power and influence of the Emperor and Vader grow, so does their desire to rule and oppress every planet in the galaxy, and with that comes the first sparks of rebellion.

The planet Ryloth knows all about oppression and invasion. Following a brutal occupation during the Clone Wars, Ryloth now finds itself under the control of the Empire, which strips the planet of its natural resources while using the people for slave labour. In opposition to this occupation, an aggressive resistance moment has arisen, led by idealistic leader Cham Syndulla and his comrade Isval, a vengeful former slave. Thanks to their excellently placed sources, Syndulla’s resistance has been able to launch some substantial attacks against the Empire, but their actions have gained the attention of the Emperor and Vader. In a bid to assert his dominance on Ryloth, the Emperor sets out on a rare mission to the planet, accompanied by Vader. However, this is the opportunity that Syndulla has been waiting for.

Upon the Imperial’s arrival above Ryloth, the resistance fighters are able to do the impossible and blow up their Star Destroyer. Forced to abandon ship, the two Sith lords find themselves trapped on the dangerous surface of Ryloth with no means to communicate with Imperial command and no reinforcements on the horizon. In a bid to liberate the galaxy from their dark rule, Syndulla and Isval gather all their forces and resources to hunt the Emperor and Vader down. Surrounded by enemies, inhospitable terrain and terrible native fauna, the two Sith Lords appear to be at their most vulnerable. However, what Syndulla and his team fail to realise is that their prey are two of most dangerous beings in the galaxy, and together they are a force of unnatural destruction. Can the resistance fighters take on Emperor and Vader, and what happens when the two Sith lords work out that their biggest threat is each other?

Now this is a rather fantastic and captivating Star Wars novel that I have been wanting to check out for a while now due to the book’s cool concept. This is the first book that I have read by Paul S. Kemp, a fantasy author who has been writing since the early 2000s. His first novel, Twilight Falling debuted in 2003, after the author released several pieces of short fiction. Kemp then went on to write several fantasy series and standalone novels, including The Erevis Cale trilogy, The Twilight War trilogy and the Egil and Nix books, most of which fell within the Forgotten Realms shared fantasy fiction universe. Kemp has also written a few Star Wars novels, including Crosscurrent, The Old Republic: Deceived and Riptide, which were part of the old Star Wars Legends canon. Lords of the Sith is Kemp’s first novel in the new Star Wars canon, and he presents the reader with a fun and fast-paced novel that has some intriguing elements to it.

Kemp pulls together an excellent Star Wars novel that has a great story, is full of breathtaking action scenes and features compelling dives into some iconic Star Wars characters and elements of the universe. While I came for all the fun action that was bound to feature in a story surrounding the Emperor and Vader fighting against overwhelming odds, I stayed for the intriguing story that is full of betrayal and manipulations. The author does a fantastic job of utilising multiple character perspectives to tell a fuller story, which showed the perspectives of not only Vader and Syndulla’s resistance but also two Imperial officers stationed on Ryloth: one who is loyal to the Emperor and one who has been working for the resistance. This helped produce a really clever narrative, and it was interesting to see where Kemp took the story throughout Lords of the Sith.

The story is set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith and focuses on the Emperor and Vader encountering some of the earliest forms of rebellion against the Empire. There are some strong elements from the extended Star Wars universe in this book, most notably with the inclusion of Cham Syndulla, a character who appeared in two Star Wars animated series, The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and is the father of Hera Syndulla, one of the main characters from Rebels (who is featuring in a lot of other pieces of Star Wars fiction at the moment). However, this is definitely a novel that can be enjoyed by the more casual Star Wars fan, and no real knowledge of the extended universe is needed to follow the plot. As always, though, those readers who are fans of some of the extended universe fiction are probably going to enjoy this book a little more. I myself enjoyed seeing the exploration of the early days of the Empire, an examination of Cham Syndulla’s history between the two animated shows and some exploration of the planet of Ryloth.

Without a doubt, the highlight of this book has to be the amazing action sequences featuring Darth Vader and the Emperor. Kemp went out of his way to show off just how badass these two characters can be, and he did not hold back any punches. Vader and the Emperor get into some major scrapes throughout the book, as they hunt or are hunted by members of the Ryloth resistance or some of the deadly creatures that reside on the planet’s surface. Needless to say, these two characters use all of their deadly Force abilities to take down swathes of opponents, and they come across as pretty impressive characters, especially in the eyes of some of the other point-of-view characters. I loved the reactions from characters like Syndulla or Isval, especially as it becomes more and more apparent to them that their opponents are something too much for them. I have always loved comics and books that showed off how badass Vader and the Emperor can be, and this is one of the better examples of this. Kemp started this book off strong by having Vader crash his fighter onto a ship to board it, before systematically taking down the crew one by one, while Syndulla and Isval are forced to listen from another ship (accompanied by Vader breathing heavily into a comms unit to freak everyone out). This is then followed by a plethora of other cool sequences, which includes Vader and the Emperor decimating a massive swarm of Ryloth’s apex predators and a particularly cool sequence where Vader started force choking several characters aboard a separate spaceship while he was flying upside down above them. All of this was exceedingly cool, and I loved Kemp’s amazing imagination when it comes to these two characters.

I also quite liked the intriguing examination of the unique relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor that became an interesting central focus of the plot. While the story doesn’t show the Emperor’s point of view, you get Vader’s take on the situation, and through his eyes you see his perceptions of the Emperor, his thoughts on the partnership they have formed, and the knowledge that it will eventually end with Vader attempting to kill Palpatine to take his place. Palpatine, for his part, spends most of the story devising tests and challenges to get into Vader’s head and to ensure that his apprentice is loyal and has no thoughts of overthrowing him at the moment. I liked the compelling and clever examination of these two characters’ mindsets that Kemp pulled together, and I felt that he had a great handle on the personalities of these iconic Star Wars characters. I also rather enjoyed Kemp’s portrayal of the Emperor’s manipulative and purely evil nature, as it is revealed that everything that happens throughout the book is due to his design, and he threw away thousands of Imperial lives to achieve his goals. The revelation of this to some of key characters in this book makes for a great scene and I think that it really encapsulated just how evil the Emperor could be, which was pretty awesome.

Like with most Star Wars books that I read, I ended up checking out the audiobook format of Lords of the Sith, which was narrated by Jonathan Davis. This audiobook runs for just under 11 hours, and can be powered through quite quickly, especially once the listener hears the opening action sequence read out to them. I have to once again highlight that use of the cool music and sound effects that are included in all Star Wars audiobooks in order to enhance the story. Lords of the Sith had some great sound inclusions throughout its run time, and I felt that these definitely had a major impact on my enjoyment of this book. This audiobook features the audio talents of skilled narrator Jonathan Davis, whose work I have previously enjoyed in Star Wars books such as Master & Apprentice and Dooku: Jedi Lost. Davis does an incredible job narrating this book and he comes up with some impressive voices for the various characters featured throughout it. I particularly liked the great voices he came up for key characters like the Emperor and Darth Vader (with the help of some appropriate sound effects) and Cham Syndulla, and they sounded a lot like their appearances in the movies and animated shows. As a result, I really powered through this excellent audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Lords of the Sith.

Lords of the Sith is a fun and exceedingly entertainingly Star Wars novel that I had an outstanding time listening to. Kemp comes up with an exciting and action-packed story that not only explores some intriguing aspects of the expanded Star Wars universe, but which also contains some over-the-top action sequences that shows just how awesome a Star Wars novel can be. Lords of the Sith comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a fantastic and enjoyable read, and I hope that Kemp writes some more Star Wars novels in the future.