One Minute Out by Mark Greaney

One Minute Out Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 18 February 2020)

Series: Gray Man – Book Nine

Length: 16 hours

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling thriller author Mark Greaney returns with another fast-paced and incredibly exciting novel that this time explores the dark and shocking world of human trafficking, with One Minute Out, the ninth book in his impressive Gray Man series.

Greaney is a talented thriller author who has written a number of fantastic books since his 2009 debut, including his Gray Man series and seven books in the iconic Jack Ryan series, three of which he cowrote with the legendary Tom Clancy. I started getting into Greaney’s work last year, when I grabbed a copy of his 2019 release, Mission Critical, due to its fun-sounding plot, and I ended up really liking it. Due to how much I enjoyed Mission Critical, I also decided to check out his other release for 2019, Red Metal, which he cowrote with Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. This proved to be a very smart decision as Red Metal was an incredible read that was one of my top books (and audiobooks) of the year. As a result, I was rather keen to check out the next release from Greaney when it came out, and I have been looking forward to this book for some time.

Court Gentry is the Gray Man, a rogue CIA operative turned legendary assassin with a conscience, who is known and feared across the globe for his ability to overcome the odds and kill the most well-protected target. While still secretly working for the CIA as part of an off-the-books operation, Gentry still occasionally engages in freelance assassin work, only accepting contracts on some of the world’s most evil and corrupt individuals. His latest job takes him to a remote property in Croatia, where he is hired to kill a former Serbian general and notorious war criminal who has escaped justice for years. While Gentry is able to eliminate his target, he makes a shocking discovery in the building’s cellar: a dark room full of kidnapped women.

Gentry has inadvertently stumbled upon a human trafficking ring that transports kidnapped or coerced women across the world into a life of sexual slavery and untold horrors. Despite his best attempts to rescue the women, Gentry is forced to leave them behind, due to the fear that the women have of their captors. Haunted by what he has seen and the realisation that his actions may have led to terrible repercussions for the captives he encountered, Gentry makes it his objective to relocate and free the women, no matter the cost, while also causing as much pain to the people responsible.

However, this is no ordinary mission for Gentry. The human trafficking ring he is tracking, known as the Consortium, is made up of many different criminal organisations across the world which are highly invested in keeping the operation intact. Forced to work outside his usual intelligence networks, and with no CIA backup on the horizon, Gentry teams up with rookie EUROPOL analyst Talyssa Corbu, who has a personal stake in bringing the Consortium down. Together Gentry and Corbu are able to trace the human trafficking pipeline across Eastern Europe to Italy and America. However, the Consortium is far larger than Gentry and Corbu realised, with an elite and deadly fighting force at their back. Can Gentry once again overcome the odds to bring down his opponent, or will the Consortium and their influential allies be his undoing?

Now this was an impressive and fantastic thriller novel from Greaney, who did an outstanding job with this dark and captivating read. One Minute Out is a substantial and clever book that pits the author’s capable protagonist against a host of the most despicable villains in the world today, human traffickers. Like the rest of the books in this series, One Minute Out can be enjoyed as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of the other Gray Man books is required to enjoy this latest entry in the series. While this book is very grim and uncomfortable at times due to its darker subject matter, this proved to be a compelling and enjoyable thriller, which is probably my favourite Gray Man novel so far.

This is a really well-written thriller novel, and Greaney came up with some amazing scenes and sequences throughout the course of this book. One Minute Out is told from a variety of different perspectives, including the protagonist, Court Gentry, several supporting characters and a number of antagonists. This helps produce a large-scale and comprehensive read that dives into several new characters while simultaneously showing off the scale of the opponents that Gentry is going up against. While a large part of the book is told from the third person, Greaney utilises a first-person perspective for the scenes that Gentry is narrating. Not only does this help Gentry’s chapters really stand out but it allows the reader to get some fantastic insights into the mind of the complex protagonists, and why he is so determined to engage in an apparent fool’s errand and help out a bunch of people he has never even met before. I have to say that I was really impressed with the multitude of amazing action sequences that filled this book, as Greaney has his protagonist engage in a number of thrilling, high-octane scenes, which I had a blast reading. While I really enjoyed all the various shootouts, infiltrations of secure targets, examples of tradecraft throughout various European cities and explosive car chases, a couple of scenes really stood out to me. These highlights included a particularly well-written sequence set underwater, as Gentry attempts to escape from several boatloads of killers with only a damaged set of scuba equipment, and a massive assault of a heavily fortified and well-guarded complex out in the dessert, with only a few seasoned ex-soldiers and an insane relic of a helicopter pilot backing him up. All of this helped make for an excellent read, and I really enjoyed where Greaney took the story at times.

One of the most compelling things about this novel is the way that Greaney has anchored his excellent thriller story around a sinister real-life trade that is currently plaguing the world, human trafficking for sexual slavery. As terrible as it is to consider in this modern day and age, human slavery is still a thing, and for many it is a profitable and stable business. Throughout the course of the novel Greaney shines a light on this foul trade, as his protagonist encounters this evil in Europe and deals with a number of characters affected by it. As the book progresses, the reader gains a huge amount of knowledge about this malevolent criminal industry from a bunch of different perspectives. As a result, there is a quite a lot of information about how trafficking rings operate, including the way that the girls are taken, manipulated and broken, as well as the ways that they are transported and sold across the world. Greaney does an outstanding job diving into this subject, presenting the reader with a grim and uncompromising view of all the horrors associated with this trade, and ensuring that no one is left uncertain about how evil the individuals behind it are. I really appreciate the way that Greaney featured it in this book, although those people who are uncomfortable with sexual violence will probably have a hard time reading this book.

I felt that the dark subject of human trafficking served as a rather intriguing plot point for this novel, and it definitely worked well with the spy thriller genre of the series. The main benefit is that it presents the reader with a truly despicable and completely unlikeable group of antagonists for Gentry to go up against. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple viewpoints, you get to see inside the heads of several of the Consortium’s leaders, and you swiftly learn that they are an extremely vile and irredeemable bunch of characters who the reader instantly roots against. I liked the way in which the story followed Gentry progressively working his way up the trafficking ladder, from the low-level way station that he accidently discovered, through the corrupt police in several Eastern European towns, to the organisation’s middle management, their larger auctions, right up the bases of the Consortium’s leader in America. This results in a variety of different opponents and obstacles that he must overcome, ranging from low level street thugs to elite South African mercenaries trained in similar methods as Gentry. I really enjoyed seeing Gentry use his espionage tradecraft to tear through the less competent criminal elements at the lower end of the group, before going up against the better trained, elite enforcers of the organisation. Thanks to the author’s depictions of them, it was quite fun to see the upper leadership of the Consortium slowly get more and more scared and desperate after each of Gentry’s operations against them, and their eventual fates turned out to be extremely satisfying.

I also quite liked the way that for the majority of the book Gentry is working outside of the system, without his usual CIA backup or resources. This forces him to engage in a less sophisticated battle against his opponents, relying more on his skills than having any backup or intelligence, which I thought made for a much more credible narrative with higher stakes. Thanks to author’s use of the first-person perspective for Gentry’s character, you get a much more in-depth explanation for his tactics and methods, which I enjoyed and found to be rather fascinating. I also enjoyed the author’s inclusion of several female side-characters, who Gentry works with to bring down the Consortium. The main one of these is Talyssa Corbu, who utilises her financial expertise to help move the plot along and point Gentry to his next target. While Corbu is a bit of a pain at the start of the book, due to her incompetence, she grew on me over time, especially as she became more determined and capable, especially when more of her backstory was revealed. I was also quite impressed with the depictions of several female characters who were taken prisoners by the traffickers, and who eventually helped Gentry take them down. Having the women work to free themselves was a nice touch by Greaney, and I particularly loved one scene where several of the women defied typical convention and helped save Gentry, with realistic explanations for how they obtained their relevant skills (thank goodness for equal opportunity Eastern European military training). All of this led to an extremely exciting and highly compelling story, and I really enjoyed the full extent of One Minute Out’s story.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of One Minute Out, which was narrated by Jay Snyder, who has narrated several of Greaney’s books in the past. The One Minute Out audiobook ran for around 16 hours, and I was able to clear through it in a few days. I found the audiobook format to be an excellent way to enjoy the novel, and I strongly felt that listening to this book helped me connect a lot more with the story and characters. Snyder did an amazing job narrating this book, and I was especially impressed with the way that he brought all of One Minute Out’s characters to life. Not only did Snyder provide an excellent and fitting voice for Gentry, but he also produced some great voices for the other characters in the book, coming up with a range of realistic accents to show off the diversity of the cast. This turned out to be a fantastic and entertaining way to enjoy One Minute Out and I think that I will be checking out more of Greaney’s books this way in the future.

One Minute Out by Mark Greaney is an outstanding and exceptional new thriller which takes the reader on a dark and action-packed adventure around the world. This proved to be a deeply exciting and truly compelling entry from Greaney, who once again shows why he is one of the top thriller authors in the world today. This was an impressive new entry in the fantastic Gray Man series, and I cannot wait to see where Greaney takes this epic series in the future.

Throwback Thursday – Predator One by Jonathan Maberry

Predator One Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 7 April 2015)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book Seven

Length: 16 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this latest Throwback Thursday, I decided to I wanted something fast-paced and action-packed, so I went and checked out another book in Jonathan Maberry’s dark and thrilling Joe Ledger series with the seventh book, Predator One.

Those familiar with my blog will be aware of my recent love affair with the Joe Ledger series. I first encountered this series back in late 2018, and after massively enjoying the tenth book, Deep Silence, I have been slowly reading and reviewing my way through the entire series from start to finish. There are so many different things that I enjoy about these novels, including the outstanding action, gripping stories, fantastic characters and the crazy scenarios each book is set around. When combined, these elements help produce some truly incredible books, and I had an amazing time reading several Joe Ledger novels last year. I also read the first book in Maberry’s Rogue Team International series, Rage, which was one of my top books (and audiobooks) of 2019. I am hoping to finish off all the remaining books in the Joe Ledger series this year, and Predator One is the first one that I have so far checked out in 2020. I have to say that I was once again blown away with Maberry’s writing ability, as Predator One is another epic and remarkable read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

It is the opening day of the new baseball season, and Joe Ledger, point-agent for the high-tech counter terrorist organisation, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is enjoying a well-earned day off. Everything seems to be going well, the sun is shining, the beers are flowing, and a decorated military pilot is about to throw out the first ball. Then a model airplane flies out onto the field, a replica of the one flown by the war hero. Everyone assumes it’s a harmless prank, everyone except Ledger, who can only watch in horror as the toy plane explodes. Within seconds, a swarm of bomb-laden drones appears, devastating the crowd and leaving Ledger injured in the wreckage of the stadium.

As Ledger attempts to process what has happened, a series of coordinated attacks are taking place across America. While some of the attacks appear random, several are deliberately targeting the friends and family of key members of the DMS, attempting to distract the agency and take them off the board. It soon becomes clear that an old enemy has risen from the flames, determined to get revenge on those that they believe have wronged them in the past, including Ledger and everyone he loves. Worse, they have teamed up with a force of pure evil whose deepest wish is to torment and destroy the head of the DMS, the mysterious Mr Church.

Diving back into the action, Ledger and his team attempt to find and neutralise the source of this new threat. But at every turn, they find themselves outmatched, outmanoeuvred and severely outgunned, as the enemy has access to advanced technology that allows them to take control of America’s military vehicles, aircraft, ships and drones. As the attacks against America worsen, their opponents even gain control of Air Force One, with the President aboard, and start to fly it towards New York City. Can Ledger save the day one more time or have the DMS finally come up against an enemy even they can’t outsmart?

Wow, just wow. Predator One is another impressive and extremely captivating thriller novel that I had an outstanding time listening to. Maberry has come up with another incredible, action-packed story which utilises his trademark writing style to present a first-rate novel. Readers are treated to a multi-layered story, which cleverly features multiple character viewpoints, flashbacks and deep examinations of a several major characters’ pasts and motives. All of this allows Maberry to tell a complex and intriguing thriller story that never lets up on the excitement. The various storylines flow together perfectly thanks to the short chapters and constant dancing between different character perspectives, and all the storylines lead up to an epic and memorable conclusion. Maberry really knows how to ramp up the tension and the excitement throughout the book, and the final couple of hours are exceedingly thrilling, as several exhilarating scenarios come into effect at the same time. All of this results in a deeply exciting read, which I really loved and is another perfect Joe Ledger story.

Just like so many books in this series, amongst the best things about Predator One are the fantastic antagonists and their over-the-top plot against America, Joe Ledger and the DMS. For the main antagonist, Maberry goes back to some of the earlier books in the series, and brings back the Seven Kings organisation, which is being led by an old, established opponent of the DMS. While a new, complex villain for this book could have been fun, I really loved the author’s use of the historical antagonist, especially as they have been substantially transformed since the last book, and they are now aiming for a destructive end. This older antagonist is paired with the mysterious, evil character, Nicodemus, and together they form quite a partnership. Nicodemus is a character that has been hinted at and featured in the shadows of several previous books, so it was really cool to see him in a more substantial role. The key to Nicodemus is his extremely enigmatic persona and history, as no one quite knows who or, more importantly, what he is. He seems to have some sort of mystical abilities, and it is hinted in this book that he is some form of demon or devil, although it is never fully revealed. This mystery and mystique make for a quite an intriguing addition to the series, and the two main antagonists work together quite well as an evil, villainous pairing. On top of them, Maberry also throws in a good secondary antagonist who acts as a crooked assistant to the leader of the Seven Kings and who serves as a useful narrator, as well as the standard sexually depraved henchmen. Combined, these excellent antagonists make for a fun and exciting opposition for the main characters and they help produce some extremely interesting storylines.

I was also a major fan of the fantastic and complex master plan that Maberry envisioned for the antagonists of this book, which served as a fantastic basis of much of the story. Maberry crafted a sinister and exceedingly destructive campaign of terror and destruction that culminated in the takeover of Air Force One with the President and other key characters on board, sending it on a kamikaze mission. This proved to be a rather fun villainous storyline to follow, and I enjoyed seeing it unfold from both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ points of view, as these different perspectives led to some very intriguing scenes. I also liked the way that that the origins of the plot were explored in a series of interludes, allowing the reader to become familiar with the key players of the scheme, and get hints of the full extent of the planned destruction. It was also rather cool to see these antagonists land some real blows against the DMS. Maberry has never been shy about killing off key side characters (for example, he killed off the main secondary character and primary love interest in the second book, The Dragon Factory), and he ensures that some real damage is done to some DMS characters in Predator One. This helps add a real emotional edge to the story, and I liked the way that it upped the stakes, as well as the obvious emotional and psychological impacts that it had on some of the series’s well established, long-running protagonists.

Maberry makes sure to bring back the full and unique bevy of good-guy characters for this seventh book, most of whom have appeared in multiple books before. At the fore is the series’s titular protagonist, Joe Ledger, who is the sole first-person narrator in the book, with around a third of the story told from his point of view. Ledger is his usual witty and damaged self in this book, infecting his parts of the story with his wicked humour and sarcasm, while also unleashing his barely hidden rage and special brand of hyper-violence. Ledger goes to some dark places in Predator One, especially after his friends and allies are attacked, and the way he ends the villain is particularly gruesome and memorable. In addition to the usual examination of Ledger’s complex psyche, I really liked the way that a number of other side characters got some substantial sequences in this book. Joe Ledger series stand-out character Mr Church gets quite a lot to do in this book, and it was excellent to not only see him calmly lead his people in a severe crisis, but also react to some substantially personal attacks from the shadowy Nicodemus, who he has some obvious history with. The DMS’s psychiatrist, Rudy Sanchez, also gets quite a few scenes in this book, as he and his family come under substantial attack from the antagonists. It was really intriguing to see Rudy, whose usual role is to calm and centre the rest of the protagonists, come apart a bit in this novel, and it was quite stirring to see him pull himself together in a major way. I have to say that I also really enjoyed the inclusion of Toys as well, especially as Maberry has written a rather good redemption arc for him in this book. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple viewpoints, each of these characters, and more, get multiple moments to shine in this novel, and this helped create a full and captivating thriller tale, especially as the reader inevitably becomes invested in these characters’ survival.

I can’t go past a Joe Ledger novel without commenting on the exquisite and ultra-violent action sequences that are heavily featured throughout the book. Maberry is an expert at writing detailed and explosive action scenes, and Predator One is filled with a substantial amount of battles and fights, with all manner of armed and unarmed combat. These scenes are an absolute delight to behold, and it is always cool to see these well-crafted fights come to life. There are a number of large-scale battle sequences throughout this book, and Maberry did an amazing job switching between several fights that were happening simultaneously towards the end of the book, resulting in some extremely action-packed and exciting sections of Predator One. I really enjoy the way that the author breaks down the fight, and it is interesting to hear about the tactical reasons or destructive capabilities for certain moves or weaponry. All of this makes for a really cool book, although readers should be warned that there is a lot of extreme violence in this book that might not be for everyone, especially the graphic torture scenes.

Just like the previous Joe Ledger novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, I chose to check out Predator One’s audiobook format, which was narrated by the exceedingly talented Ray Porter. Running at 16 hours and 55 minutes, this is one of the longer Joe Ledger audiobooks (not by much), but I found myself able to power through it in only a few days, and the audiobook format remains my favourite way to enjoy a Joe Ledger book. Porter’s outstanding narration is the highlight of this format, and I will never get tired of praising his vocal work in this format. The voices that Porter comes up with for these productions are pretty damn awesome, and he has perfected some amazing voices for the characters featured in this series. I once again have to highlight Porter’s take on Mr Church, as his version of the character has some real presences, authority and gravitas. I also liked some of the voices that he did for the villainous Nicodemus, especially as the script called for a change of accent and voice mid-sentence, something which Porter pulled off perfectly, and which made the character sound pretty sinister in this format. However, nothing can top the amazing work that Porter puts into the series’s titular protagonist, Joe Ledger, as the narrator is scarily in sync with this character, and expertly portrays all his emotion, personality and raw sarcasm. I cannot emphasise enough how impressive the Joe Ledger audiobooks are, and if you are keen to check them out, this is the format to do it in.

Predator One by Jonathan Maberry is an outstanding and captivating tale of revenge, destruction, action and war, as the author’s team of elite warriors go face to face with an army of pure evil. This was an intense and thrilling read, which I once again completely failed to put down multiple times. Filled with amazing characters, including some very well-crafted evil antagonists, a fun story, violent action sequences and some outrageous story elements, this book is relentlessly entertaining and it proved to be an impressive addition to the Joe Ledger series. Predator One comes highly recommended, especially in audiobook format, and I look forward to finishing off the final two books in the series later this year.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this slightly belated Throwback Thursday, I continue my trend of the last couple of weeks by checking out another volume of Stan Sakai’s ground-breaking and utterly addictive Usagi Yojimbo series with the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. Reviewing all these Usagi Yojimbo books has proven to be a lot of fun, and I am really glad that I have been able to show off my love for this series (make sure to check out my reviews for volumes One, Two and Three). The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is another excellent early volume in this long-running series, which features a fantastic full-volume-length story.

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A storm is brewing throughout feudal Japan, as war and revolution against the Shogun lie just beyond the horizon. In his fortress, the ambitious and dastardly Lord Tamakuro has been plotting. Despite appearing to be a loyal supporter of the powerful Lord Hikiji, Tamakuro has his own plans to take control of the country and rule as Shogun, utilising an army of ronin armed with teppo, black powder guns imported from the barbarian lands outside of Japan.

However, despite his best attempts at discretion, Lord Tamakuro’s actions have not gone unnoticed. His neighbour, Lord Noriyuki, has sent his trusted advisor and bodyguard, Tomoe, to investigate Tamakuro’s castle, where she discovers the hidden armaments he is planning to use in his upcoming revolution. At the same time, Lord Hikiji, suspicious of Tamakuro’s true loyalties, has sent the notorious Neko Ninja clan to infiltrate his castle. When both Tomoe and the Neko Ninja are discovered, Tamakuro makes ready for war against all his opponents.

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Into this vast conspiracy walks the wandering ronin Miyamoto Usagi. A friend to Lord Noriyuki and Tomoe, Usagi witnesses Tomoe being captured and rushes to Tamakuro’s castle to save her. Despite his best efforts, Usagi finds himself outmatched by the powerful forces Tamakuro has pulled together. His only chance at saving his friend and averting a civil war is to team up with the Neko Ninja, a group he his fought many times in the past. Can Usagi and his new allies succeed, or will Tamakuro’s greed engulf the entire country? And what role will blind swordspig Zato-Ino and the bounty hunter Gennosuke play in the final battle?

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an outstanding and highly enjoyable comic that I have a huge amount of love for. Containing issues #13-18 of the Fantagraphics Books run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, this fourth volume is broken down into seven separate chapters. It is a major early edition in the series, as it contains a massive and wide-reaching story. This is the first storyline that takes up an entire volume (several notable stories do this later, such as the two Grasscutter volumes and the 33rd volume, The Hidden), and it presents the reader with an epic tale of war, friendship, honour, loyalty and uneasy alliances, while featuring a number of the best Usagi Yojimbo characters.

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The entire story contained within this fourth volume is quite spectacular and comes with minimal build-up from the Usagi Yojimbo issues that preceded this volume. Sakai does an amazing job introducing the relevant plot and new key players surrounding this storyline, and then telling a complex and detailed narrative within the confines of this one volume. In addition to the main conspiracy storyline, the story follows several different character-based storylines, all of which come together for one big epic confrontation. I really enjoyed where Sakai took the plot of this volume, and I liked how the story was broken up into several distinctive chunks defined by the respective chapter (the chapter names, which refer to parts of a storm, identify the intensity and importance of each chapter). The entire story is rather self-contained, and I think that the author did a great job wrapping it up and giving it several satisfying conclusions.

Like many of the Usagi Yojimbo issues out there, the true heart of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy’s story is the outstanding characters, many of whom have appeared in prior issues in the series. Usagi once again accidently finds himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy and must risk everything to save his friend and stop a war. If I am going to be honest, Usagi has one of the weaker arcs in this volume, with several of the side characters getting much more interesting storylines and more development. That being said, parts of Usagi’s story are fairly intriguing, such as when he manages to infiltrate Lord Tamakuro’s castle as a new retainer in order to rescue Tomoe, or his guilt-ridden dream sequence where his regret over his perceived failure manifests itself as a series of ghosts and monsters. Usagi also has the fun job of recruiting reluctant and unusual allies to his cause, such as the Neko Ninja or his old foe Zato-Ino. Indeed, his whole storyline is similar to classic Japanese films such as The Seven Samurai (the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven) or The Hidden Fortress (which served as an inspiration for the first Star Wars movie), as he recruits or forms alliances with various people in order to take down an evil opponent (in a castle, no less, for The Hidden Fortress fans). He also has some rather fantastic interactions with several different characters throughout the volume, and it results in some major developments in his relationships with them.

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While Usagi’s storyline is quite enjoyable, several returning supporting characters also have some substantial and impressive arcs throughout this book, and I really loved the way in which Sakai brings back a number of key characters from earlier issues in the series. The best character in this entire volume is the blind swordspig, Zato-Ino. Both of Ino’s previous storylines have been extremely impressive, so it was great to see him return again for another volume. Ino, who had already found some measure of peace thanks to his new companion, the tokage lizard Spot, finds some major redemption in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and he easily has the most character development. An entire chapter of this volume is dedicated to the eventual fate of Ino, and it was fantastic to see him finally find what he has been desperately searching for, even if he has to lose his only friend along the way. The rhino bounty hunter, Gennosuke, once again proves himself to be a fun and endearing character throughout this volume. Initially involved in a rather humorous hunt for Ino’s bounty, he finds himself working with him to fight Lord Tamakuro’s forces, although he always intends to betray him. However, Ino’s heroic actions end up changing his mind, and he once again reveals his hidden good nature by secretly assisting Ino and selflessly helping him. This is also the volume where Gen loses his horn, with all future versions of him appearing with just a small stump on his nose. His cut-off horn is quite an iconic look for the character, and after seeing him without out for all these years in later volumes, his earlier horned appearance just looks odd.

Recurring female samurai, Tomoe, also has an extremely strong appearance in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, as she finds herself captured within Lord Tamakuro’s castle quite early in the volume and is forced to resist his abuses. Tomoe has some great dialogue with Usagi about how her mission and her loyalty to Lord Noriyuki are more important than her own life, and she has to talk Usagi into abandoning her for the greater good. She also has a rather fantastic sequence where she manages to remain hidden in the fortress, right after she rides through various parts of the interior on a horse. I also really liked Shingen, the Neko Ninja chief who Usagi teams up within this volume. Shingen previously appeared in the Volume 3 story, The Shogun’s Gift, where he formed a great rivalry with Usagi. While the two clash in this volume, they eventually reach a level of mutual respect and work together for the greater good. Shingen gains multiple dimensions as a character in this volume, and it was interesting to see his discussion with Usagi about honour, and how even ninja have a code of duty. His story comes to a fantastic close towards the end of the volume, but Sakai really made him one of the standout characters of the volume: “A ninja’s duty in life is death!”

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In addition to the excellent inclusion of several amazing returning characters, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy also featured a couple of terrific new characters, who really helped bring this story together. The evil Lord Tamakuro was a really good villain for this volume, and Sakai did a fantastic job of showing of his greed, brutality and utter disregard for anything except his own power. Needless to say, he was a rather vile character who the reader cannot help but dislike, making his eventual comeuppance all the sweeter. The best new character in this volume has to be the leader of Tamakuro’s samurai army, Captain Torame. Torame is a loyal and capable warrior, who is forced to serve an evil lord who takes him for granted. He forms a bond with Usagi when the protagonist infiltrates the fortress under the guise of a mercenary ronin, and they have several discussions about bushido, loyalty and the ways in which a samurai must serve his lord. Usagi’s subsequent betrayal in order to rescue Tomoe enrages Torame, who takes it as a personal afront. This leads to a fantastic duel later in the volume, although not before Usagi and Torame have one final discussion, in which Usagi attempts to talk Torame into abandoning Tamakuro. Torame however refuses, as his strict adherence to the samurai code forbids him betraying his lord, even if it is clear he disagrees with Tamakuro’s plans:

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

The result of the quick and brutal duel that follows visibly saddens Usagi, who was once again forced to fight a man he respected. This volume also sees the brief introduction of the Neko Ninja Chizu, a major recurring character in later volumes of the series, whose one scene in this book was rather fun.

The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an extremely action-packed volume that actually features some of the best action scenes in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series. I absolutely loved all the action sequences in this book, as Sakai did an incredible job illustrating them and bringing the fights to life. The main action set piece of this volume has to be the assault on Lord Tamakuro’s fortress by Usagi, Ino, Gen, Shingen and a force of Neko Ninja armed with explosives, as they attempt to rescue Tomoe and put an end to Tamakuro’s ambitions. This entire extended action sequence is exceedingly impressive, and it was really cool to see all the characters engage in a massive battle throughout a castle complex. I also have to say how incredibly awesome it was to see a force of ninja face off against an army of samurai, predominately armed with European muskets. This made for some incredible fight scenes, all of which I really and truly loved. I also have to highlight a couple of duel sequences that occurred earlier in the volume. The first of this was a great fight between Usagi and Shingen, as the two face off against each other in a quick fight to the death. This duel focuses on the extreme clash of styles between the two, as Usagi had to contend with all manner of traps and ambushes before he got anywhere near this foe. However, this duel pales in comparison to the awesome fight between Ino and Gen that occurred towards the middle of the volume. This two engage in an incredible and beautifully drawn fight that lasted several pages. This fight did a fantastic job showing of their respective skills with the sword, and this fight helps feed into Sakai’s love for classic Japanese films, as this duel was essentially Zatoichi vs Yojimbo. This volume featured some first-rate action, which is really worth checking out.

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In addition to the extremely well-drawn action sequences, Sakai has filled this volume with some truly incredibly examples of his artistic style. This volume features so many impressive and iconic Japanese buildings, landscapes, traditional outfits and other aspects of the country, that the reader can’t help but feel they have been transported back to feudal Japan. I particularly loved the way he included a number of stormy backgrounds throughout this volume. The continued artistic rendering of rain, clouds, mud, wind and storms throughout the entirety of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy really helped to set the mood of the entire volume, and I loved how the intensity of the storm seemed to match the volume’s story. I really enjoyed how a number of pages were streaked with massive bolts of lightning across cloudy or darkened skies, and several scenes, particularly the duel between Ino and Gen, were majorly enhanced by this artistic inclusion. As usual, this art does an amazing job backing up the volume’s fantastic stories, and I was once again left stunned by Sakai’s obvious and incredible artistic talent.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is another exceptional and captivating comic which I am awarding a full five-star rating. Sakai is a truly incredible writer and artist, and this fourth volume did a fantastic job highlighting his talents for both. Not only does this volume feature some amazing and distinctive drawings, but it also contains an outstanding and enjoyable story backed up by some awesome characters. Sakai did an awesome job bringing together several key recurring characters into a compelling and well-written narrative, which I once again fell in love with. The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is really worth checking out, and is a must read for fans of the masterpiece that is the Usagi Yojimbo series.

UY_Book_4_HC_cover

Star Wars: Dooku: Jedi Lost

Dooku - Jedi Lost Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audio Production – 30 April 2019)

Script: Cavan Scott

Cast: Orlagh Cassidy, Euan Morton, Pete Bradbury, Jonathan Davis, Neil Hellegers, Sean Kenin, January LaVoy, Saskia Maarleveld, Carol Monda, Robert Petkoff, Rebecca Soler and Marc Thompson.

Length: 6 hours and 21 Minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for another deep dive into the Star Wars canon with an audio drama that explores the past of one the biggest villains from the prequel movies, Count Dooku, with Dooku: Jedi Lost.

Dooku: Jedi Lost was one of the more interesting pieces of Star Wars fiction that was released last year. Based on a script written by Cavan Scott, an author who has written a multitude of comics, novels and radio drama tie-ins for several different franchises, Jedi Lost was originally released as an audio production featuring several different actors, with the script also released in novel format a few months later. I have been meaning to check out this unique story for some time, as it was one of the few pieces of Star Wars fiction that I did not read in 2019. This is actually one of the first entries I am ticking off my Books I Wish I Read in 2019 list (barring The Russian by Ben Coes, which was an honourable mention), and I am really glad I decided to check this piece of fiction out.

For many in the galaxy, Count Dooku of Serenno is one of the most dangerous and evil villains that ever lived. The leader of the ruthless Separatists during the Clone Wars, apprentice to Darth Sidious and master of several ruthless assassins, Dooku is rightfully feared and hated by many. However, he once was one of the most respected and powerful members of the Jedi Council. A former apprentice to Yoda himself, and the mentor to two exceptional Padawans, Rael Averross and Qui-Gon Jinn, Dooku dedicated decades of his life to the Jedi, before suddenly leaving and taking a different path. But how did such a revered Jedi turn to the dark side of the Force? That is a question that Dooku’s new apprentice, Asajj Ventress, is trying to understand when she is given a mission to find Dooku’s missing sister. Searching for leads through Dooku’s journals and messages, Ventress is given unprecedented access into Dooku’s past.

The son of the ruthless Count of Serenno, Dooku was abandoned as baby by his father the moment his abilities with the Force were identified, only to be rescued by Yoda. Upon learning the truth about his birth years later, Dooku struggles with balancing his duties as a Jedi with his connections to his family and home planet. Conflicted, Dooku finds comfort in his friendship with the troubled young Jedi Sifo-Dyas and the mysterious Jedi Master Lene Kostana, whose mission of locating and studying Sith artefacts fascinates Dooku and leads him to his first experiences with the dark side of the Force. As Dooku rises through the ranks of the Jedi Order, he finds himself stymied by the bureaucracy and corruption of the Republic and the hypocrisy of the Jedi Council. As the first waves of darkness fall across the galaxy, how will the younger Dooku react, and what will Ventress do when she realises what sort of person her new master is?

Dooku: Jedi Lost is an incredible and deeply captivating piece of Star Wars fiction that cleverly dives into the past of one of the franchise’s most iconic villains to present a compelling and intriguing story. I ended up listening to the full cast audio production of Jedi Lost, and I really enjoyed this fantastic and intriguing book. The plot of Jedi Lost is uniquely set across several different time periods, with the details of Dooku’s life being relayed to a younger Ventress at the start of her Sith apprenticeship through journal entries, detailed messages, oral histories and even some visions of the past. Scott did an excellent job of setting his story across multiple time periods, which allowed Jedi Lost to showcase the life of the titular character while also presenting an exciting, fast-paced and at times dramatic narrative that includes several plot threads that jump from timeline to timeline. All of this results in an excellent Star Wars story which features some fascinating inclusions to the franchise’s lore and which is enhanced by the incredible audio production.

At the centre of this book lies an intriguing and captivating exploration of one of the most significant antagonists in the Star Wars canon, Count Dooku. Jedi Lost contains quite a detailed and compelling backstory for this character, and you get to see a number of key events from his life. This includes his complicated childhood, the forbidden communication he had with his sister, the connection he maintained with his home planet, parts of his apprenticeship under Yoda, the tutelage of his own two apprentices, his time on the Jedi council, his first brushes with the dark side of the Force and finally the chaotic events that led him to leave the Jedi order and take up his position as Count of Serenno. Every part of this background proved to be extremely fascinating and it paints Dooku as a much more complex character, with understandable motivations and frustrations. He actually comes across as a much more sympathetic person thanks to this production, and readers are going to have an amazing time finding out what events and betrayals drove him away from the Jedi and towards his new master. The storytelling device of having Ventress read and analyse Dooku’s old messages and journal entries ensures that the story quickly jumps through the events of his life, and no key events really seem to be missing. I personally would have like to see some more detail about Dooku’s training under Yoda or his teaching of his apprentices, although I appreciate that this was already an expansive production and there was a limit on what could be included in the script. I also wonder what sort of story this could have turned into if this was told exclusively from Dooku’s point of view, however, this first-person narration probably wouldn’t be as feasible as a full cast audio production. Overall, those fans who check out Jedi Lost are in for quite an in-depth and fascinating look at the great character that is Count Dooku, and I am sure many will enjoy this exciting examination of his backstory.

In addition to exploring the character of Count Dooku, Jedi Lost also presents those dedicated Star Wars fans with a new canon look at the Star Wars universe before the events of The Phantom Menace. You get an intriguing look at the Republic and the Jedi Order in the years leading up to events of the Skywalker Saga, and it was fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the various eras in the Star Wars lore. In particular, I found in interesting to see that the groundwork for the Clone Wars and the fall of the Jedi order had already begun, with ineffectual leadership, corruption in the Senate and complacency in the Jedi Council all eventually leading the dark events of the future. Jedi Lost also shows the earlier days of several Jedi who were supporting characters in either the movies or the animated shows. In particular, this entry focuses on Sifo-Dyas, the Jedi who foresaw the Clone Wars and was manipulated into creating the Republic’s clone army. The story explores how Dooku and Sifo-Dyas were close friends growing up, while also showing the origin of his prescient powers, and he proved to be a rather compelling side character. Jedi Lost also saw the introduction of Jedi Master Lene Kostana to the canon. Lene Kostana was a rebellious Jedi who scoured the galaxy for Sith artefacts in the belief that the Sith were going to rise again. She proved to be an interesting mentor character for Dooku, and her recklessness and unique way of thinking had some major impacts in Dooku’s character development.

I also liked how this piece of Star Wars fiction focused on the early career of Asajj Ventress, one of the best Star Wars characters introduced outside of the movies. Much of the story is set immediately after Dooku claims Ventress as his apprentice and personal assassin, which allows the reader a compelling view of Ventress’s early brushes with the dark side of the Force and the initial corruption and manipulation she experienced under Dooku. This proved to be quite an interesting part of the novel, especially as the reader got to see Ventress’s thoughts and reactions to several revelations about Dooku’s past. Thanks to the way that the audio production is set out, Scott also included a rather cool element to Ventress’s character in the way that she is hearing the voice of her dead former Jedi Master and mentor, Ky Narec. While Ky Narec’s voice was mainly included to allow Ventress to share her thoughts in this audio production without becoming a full-fledged narrator, this ethereal character gives the reader a deeper insight into Ventress’s character. I also enjoyed the discussion about Ventress’s past with Narec, and it helped produce a much more in-depth look at this fascinating character from the expanded universe.

Like most pieces of expanded universe fiction, Jedi Lost is best enjoyed by fans of the Star Wars franchise, who are most likely to appreciate some of the new pieces of lore and interesting revelations. This production also bears some strong connections with another piece of Star Wars tie-in fiction that was released last year, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray. Master & Apprentice was one of the most impressive Star Wars novels released last year, and it featured a story that focussed on Dooku’s apprentices, Rael Averross and Qui-Gon Jinn. Jedi Lost heavily references some of the events that occurred or are represented in Master & Apprentice, and it was interesting to see the intersections between the two separate pieces of fiction. I particularly enjoyed seeing more of the unconventional Jedi, Rael Averross, and it was great to see some additional interactions between the proper and noble Dooku, and this rough former apprentice. Despite all of this, I believe that Jedi Lost can easily be enjoyed by more casual Star Wars fans, although some knowledge about the prequel films is probably necessary.

People familiar with this blog are going to be unsurprised to learn that I chose to listen to the audio production of Jedi Lost rather than read the book that was produced from the script. I have a well-earned appreciation for Star Wars audiobooks, which are in a league of their own when it comes to production value; however, Jedi Lost is on another level to your typical Star Wars audiobook. As I mentioned above, Jedi Lost was released as a full cast audio production, which is essentially an audio recording of a play. This was the first piece of Star Wars fiction I had experienced in this medium, and I really loved how it turned out. The cast did an amazing job with the script, and they acted out a wonderful and highly enjoyable production which I thought was just incredible. The production runs for just over 6 hours and 20 minutes, and they manage to fit a lot of plot into this shorter run-time (in comparison to normal Star Wars audiobooks), as the use of dialogue results in a lot less narration. Due to the way Jedi Lost is structured, with Ventress reading out journal entries or having Dooku’s tale told to her, there is a little more narration of events then a production like this would usually have. I think this was necessary to ensure the reader was clear on what was going on at all times, and it didn’t ruin the overall flow of Jedi Lost in any way.

Jedi Lost features a very impressive and talented group of actors who go above and beyond to make this an awesome audio production. As you can see from the cast list above, this production made use of 12 separate narrators, each of whom voice a major character (with some of the actors also voicing some minor characters as well). Many of these narrators have expansive experience with voicing Star Wars audiobooks, and I have actually had the pleasure of listening to several of these actors before, including Euan Morton (Tarkin by James Luceno), Jonathan Davies (Master & Apprentice), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber), Robert Petkoff (multiple Star Trek novels, most recently Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack) and Marc Thompson (Dark Disciple by Christie Golden, Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee and Scoundrels and Thrawn by Timothy Zahn).

There is some truly outstanding audio work done in this production, with several actors producing near-perfect replication of several iconic characters from the Star Wars franchise. I particularly have to praise Orlagh Cassidy for her exceptional portrayal of Asajji Ventress; her take on the character sounded exactly like the Ventress that appeared in The Clone Wars animated show. I was also deeply impressed by Jonathan Davis’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Marc Thompson’s Yoda, both of which were incredible replications of the characters from the movies. Davis also did a great job once again portraying Rael Averross, a fun character who he first brought to life in Master & Apprentice, and I loved the somewhat laidback voice he provides for Rael, especially as it reminds me of an older cowboy character from a western (I personally always picture Sam Elliott when I hear it). Other standout stars in this production include Euan Morton, who came up with a great take on the titular character Count Dooku. Morton was able to produce an impressive and commanding presence for this character, and he did a great job modulating the character’s voice to represent the various jumps in age that the character experienced. The same can be said for Saskia Maarleveld’s Jenza and Sean Kenin’s Sifo-Dyas, whose characters also aged extremely well throughout the course of the production. I also really loved the voice that Carol Monda provided for new character Lene Kostana, and I felt that it fit the character described in Jedi Lost extremely well. I honestly loved all the rest of the voices that were provided throughout this production, and each of them brought some real magic to Jedi Lost.

Just like with a normal Star Wars audiobook, one of the standout features of the Jedi Lost production was the incredible use of the franchise’s iconic music and sound effects. I really cannot emphasise enough how amazing it is to have one of John Williams’s epic scores playing in the background of a scene. Not only does it really get you into the Star Wars zone, but this music markedly enhances the mood of any part of the book it is playing in. Hearing some of the more dramatic scores during a touching or tragic scene really helps the reader appreciate how impactful the sequence truly is, and nothing gets the blood pumping faster during an action sequence than Duel of the Fates or some other fast-paced piece of Star Wars music. The sound effects utilised throughout this production are not only really cool but they also have added significance for an audio production like Jedi Lost which relies on dialogue rather than narration to establish the scene. Having the various classic Star Wars sound effects reflect what is going on can be really helpful, and often the clash of lightsabers and the pew-pew of blaster bolts give life to a battle sequence. I always appreciate the way that certain sound effects can help paint a picture of what is happening in the room that the dialogue is taking place. Having the susurration of a crowd or the light hum of a starship engine in the background always makes a book seem more impressive, and it makes for a fun overall listen.

Dooku: Jedi Lost was an incredible and wonderful production which I had an extremely hard time turning off. Cavan Scott’s clever and intricate script, combined with the outstanding audio production, is a truly awesome experience which I deeply enjoyed. I loved learning more about the character of Count Dooku, and I think that Scott came up with a fantastic and intriguing background for the character. Jedi Lost is an excellent piece of Star Wars fiction, and I am extremely happy that I listened to it. Highly recommended to all Star Wars fans, and if you decide to check out Jedi Lost, you have to listen to the spectacular audio production, which is just amazing.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Wanderer's Road Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 17 January 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Three

Length: 146 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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the third volume of the outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic book series, The Wanderer’s Road. I was originally planning to save this one until next week, but I just watched some episodes of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated show today that featured Usagi, and so inspiration struck once again.

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The third volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series follows on from the events of the second volume, Samurai, and features several standalone adventures as the series’ titular protagonist, Miyamoto Usagi, continues to wander around this alternate version of Feudal Japan. The Wanderer’s Road features six first-rate and deeply enjoyable stories which were originally contained within issues #7 – 12 of the Fantagraphics Books’ Usagi Yojimbo series. It also contains a short bonus story from the Turtle Soup comic project which features a very special guest star.

The first of the stories featured within The Wanderer’s Road is The Tower. This story revolves around a hungry tokage lizard (the dinosaur-like lizards that infest Usagi’s world), who finds himself in a spot of bother and is chased up a tower by an angry shopkeeper, who refuses to let it down. Usagi, arriving upon the scene, decides to intervene, and attempts to rescue the tokage; however, thanks to the vindictive shopkeeper, he finds himself also trapped atop the tower. Attempting to bond with the tokage, who he names Spot, Usagi endures the conditions on the tower, while enraging the shopkeeper even more, until the story comes to a crashing end. The Tower was a fantastic start to this third volume, and it features a rather enjoyable and fun story. While it is perhaps the weakest story in this volume, only by dint of how incredible the other issues featured in The Wanderer’s Road are, it was still an excellent entry in this series, and served as a great introduction to a fun recurring character in Spot. The Tower contains some funny moments, from the way Usagi inadvertently keeps messing with the bullying shopkeeper on the ground, to the tiny turtle with a ninja mask that Sakai hides away in one of the crowd shots. All of this results in a fantastic story which I rather enjoyed.

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For the second story in this volume, A Mother’s Love, we go from a comedy to a tragedy. In this story, Usagi and his new companion Spot befriend an old woman on the road and accompany her back to town. Once in town, it is revealed the that old woman is the mother of a ruthless moneylender whose thugs have been terrorising the populace. After a tense night at the moneylender’s house, the old lady begs Usagi to kill her son, as she cannot bear to see the evil creature that he has turned into. While Usagi refuses her request, he is soon forced into a fight with the moneylender’s men. However, it is revealed that the old woman has manipulated the guards into attacking Usagi so that she can use the distraction to kill her son herself. When Usagi and Spot discover this, the old woman beseeches a stunned Usagi to kill her and finally put her out of her misery. A Mother’s Love is an incredible and heartbreaking story, which puts Usagi in a no-win situation. The last three pages of the books have to be one of the most heartbreaking and tragic sequence in the entire series. The teary old woman sing a lullaby as she cradles her dead son in her arms while a heartbroken and defeated Usagi watches on is extremely sad. The way that the old woman’s lullaby suddenly ends heavily implies that Usagi fulfilled the old woman’s wish and killed her. His final statement, “I do pray the Gods will be merciful…. Mother” as his despondently leaves the moneylender’s house, accompanied by Spot’s mournful cry are a sad way to end this story, but it makes for one heck of a captivating sequence. Other highlights of this book include Usagi’s large-scale fight against an army of bodyguards, the fun inclusion of Spot in several of this fights (little dude is lethal with his tail), and a stare-down scene between Usagi and the moneylender, which highlighted how intimidating Usagi can be when he wants to. All in all, a perfect and compelling story which shows just how amazing Usagi Yojimbo can be.

The next story in this volume, Return of the Blind Swordspig, is another masterpiece from Sakai, which features another outing from one of the best characters from Usagi Yojimbo, Zato-Ino, who was first introduced in The Ronin. This story sees the blind outlaw Zato-Ino travelling the road, still pursued by assassins and bounty hunters. Ambushed in the woods once again, Ino is able to fight off his attackers thanks to a timely warning from Spot, who had briefly walked away from Usagi. While Spot and Ino part ways, Ino soon catches up with Usagi, who cut off Ino’s nose the last time they met (he’s got a wooden nose in this book, it’s a transplant!). Ino follows Usagi to a nearby temple, where he is able to gain an advantage over Usagi in the dark as the two engage in an epic duel. Usagi’s life is spared only by the intervention of Spot, who stands between them, forcing Ino to back down, envious of the friendship Usagi is blessed with. Realising that the two souls have much in common, Usagi sends Spot to accompany Ino on his journey to find peace, and the two wonder off as friends.

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Return of the Blind Swordspig is another fantastic story that shows some complex and powerful character work. Sakai’s portrayal of Ino as a tortured and hate-filled loner is once again tragic and very moving, and it was fantastic to see him finally find a true friend and companion, something he has always desired. The way that Ino changes his travel songs from ballads about walking the roads alone to a melody about how he is grateful to have a companion is telling, and Usagi’s parting utterance of “Have a good life… both of you” matches the audience’s thoughts for these two great supporting characters. While the best thing about Return of Blind Swordspig is the continued examination of Ino’s complex personality and the progression of his character arc, I also really need to highlight the incredible swordfight in the dark between Ino and Usagi. Not only is this amazingly drawn, but the start of the duel where Ino slices the candle in half once again shows off Sakai’s love for classic Japanese movies. Slicing a candle to make a room dark is the trademark move of Zatoichi, the movie character that Ino in based upon, and Sakai backs this up by having Ino say “Now we’re both blind, Usagi” which is very similar to what Zatoichi says in these circumstances. All in all, this is an outstanding entry that really shows of Sakai’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around some exceptional characters.

 

The fourth story in this volume is Blade of the Gods, which introduces readers to the incredible antagonist Jei. Jei is a skilled and murderous spear-wielding samurai who wanders the land killing those he deems evil in the name of the Gods (spoiler: pretty much everyone is evil in Jei’s eyes). Encountering Usagi one night in a peasant’s hut (it is heavily implied that Jei killed the peasant before Usagi showed up), Jei suddenly declares Usagi to be evil and they engage in a brutal fight to the death both inside and outside the hut. Usagi is only saved by a blast of lighting and is left wondering if Jei was a madman or a true emissary of the gods. This was a compelling and fantastic story, which features one of the best fight sequences in the entire volume. The true highlight of this story is the introduction of Jei, who is easily one of the best characters in the entire Usagi Yojimbo universe. Jei is probably the most dangerous antagonist so far encountered in the Usagi Yojimbo series (Lord Hijiki really hasn’t revealed himself too much yet), and he serves as a wonderful recurring character. Sakai did an excellent job introducing Jei in this story, showing off his motivations, his style and the fact that he is a killer without peer and a fighter on par with Usagi. The character design for this villain is really striking, from his black-bladed spear to his pure white eyes and deranged wolf smile. I also liked the way that the reader is left wondering whether he is actually supernatural in origin or just a crazy person. While this is revealed in later volumes, the mystery of him is an exciting feature for the early Usagi Yojimbo stories that he appears in. I really love the character of Jei, who is actually based on Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (fun fact: when you use the Japanese honorific his name, Jei-san, becomes a pun on Jason), and I think that this was an excellent first appearance for him.

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The next story in The Wanderer’s Road is the fun entry, The Tea Cup. The Tea Cup sees the return of the bounty hunter Gen, who Usagi encounters on the road in the midst of a fight. Gen is escorting a precious tea cup to a tea master and must defend it from assassins who are trying to steal it. Accompanying Gen, Usagi helps him defend the cup with the samurai encountering a number of complications, including a band of killers, two orphaned children and the bad luck that follows Usagi and Gen when they team up. This was easily the funniest story in the entire book, thanks to the inclusion of Gen. Usagi and Gen have a hilarious relationship which is always fun to see, and they play off each other really well. This includes a number of running jokes from the previous Gen stories, the final entry in their game of sticking the other person with the lunch bill (which doesn’t go the way they planned this time) and several other hilarious scenes, including one joke that takes the entire story to come to fruition (he really was slow of mind). In this story, you get to see a bit of Gen’s softer side and the fact that, despite his rough exterior, deep down he is a good and caring person. Sakai also fills this story with a number of fantastic references to the cartoon, Groo the Wanderer, which Sakai previously did the lettering on, including a unique stylised poem at the start of the story, a fun imitation of Groo “Gen does what Gen does best”, and even cameo appearances from Sakai, Sergio Aragonés and the rest of the creative team behind Groo the Wanderer. All of this makes for a hilarious and entertaining tale, which is going to produce quite a few laughs for readers.

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The final full story in this volume is The Shogun’s Gift, which sees Usagi facing off against a Neko Ninja who has stolen a valuable sword from his friends Noriyuki and Tomeo of the Geishu Clan. This turned into quite an action packed and clever game of cat and rabbit (I mean cat and mouse), as Usagi puts on a great dumb samurai act to fool the ninja, Shingen. It was entertaining to watch Usagi continually encountering Shingen, especially as the ninja got more and more enraged each time Usagi appeared and casually poked holes in his story. The Shogun’s Gift ends with a great fight sequence and a rather clever bit of trickery from Usagi, which serves to turn this into a cool and enjoyable tale. I liked the introduction of Shingen, who has a big role in a future volume, and the scene where he is able to conceal the fact that he is hidden in the ceiling even after being stabbed is pretty badass. I also think that this volume did need a story that looked at the larger political picture of this world, including the nefarious plans of Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja, and it was good to see some more of that. Overall, this proved to be another phenomenal entry in this volume, and it served as a great concluding main story.

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In addition to all the big stories mentioned above, The Wanderer’s Road also contained the short bonus story, Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew. This short story originally appeared in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic project, Turtle Soup, and features the first encounter between Usagi and one of the turtles, in this case Leonardo. In this comical tale, Leonardo suddenly lands in Usagi’s realm and is immediately attacked by a band of ronin, while at the same time just down the road, Usagi is attacked by a group of Neko Ninja, the two fights join into one brawl, where Usagi and Leo are the only survivors. Upon seeing each other, the two assume that the other is part of the band that initially attacked them, and they run at each other to engage in battle, only for Leo to be dragged back to his Earth. This of course doesn’t stop the momentum they built up charging at each other, and it results in chaos and injury on both worlds. This was an exceedingly funny first meeting between these iconic comic characters, and this entire story is boundlessly amusing, even with its shorter size.

As you can see from my passionate descriptions above, each of the stories featured in this volume is an outstanding entry in its own right, and I deeply enjoyed each of them. I honestly cannot tell you which story in this volume was my favourite, as three in particular were quite exceptional. Sakai did a masterful job with each of these stories, and I really enjoyed how they are presented in this volume. I think that The Wanderer’s Road contains an excellent blend of stories, which range from the tragic, the dramatic and the comedic, and each of them contains some amazing examples of Sakai’s trademark artistic skill. I also think that having a volume made up entirely of shorter standalone stories also works really well, especially as Volume 3 falls between two other volumes made up of larger, multi-issue stories. The Wanderer’s Road gets another five-star rating from me, and I look forward to reviewing more Usagi Yojimbo volumes in the near future.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Volume 6 – Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

Doctor Aphra Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume Six

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Pencilers: Wilton Santos, Caspar Wijngaard, Andrea Broccardo and Cris Bolson

Inkers: Marc Deering, Walden Wong and Scott Hanna

Colour Artists: Chris O’Halloran and Stephane Paitreau

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 112 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The most devious woman in the galaxy, Doctor Aphra, is back, and she’s got both side of the Galactic Civil War gunning for her in the sixth volume of one of the best Star Wars series out there. I have been meaning to review this volume since it first came out in December. However, I just picked up the seventh and final volume of the current run of Doctor Aphra, so I thought I would quickly review this volume first before I get around to that.

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Doctor Aphra is one of the few ongoing Star Wars comic book series that has been released in the last couple of years, and in my opinion it is one of the strongest Star Wars series out there. The Doctor Aphra comics are set in the period of time between the fourth and fifth Star Wars films (A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back), and follow the adventures of Doctor Chelli Aphra, renowned archaeologist, adventurer and master criminal. Aphra is an original character who was introduced in the first volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Vader, where she served as Darth Vader’s secret agent. Following the conclusion of the Darth Vader series, Aphra, who proved to be a very popular character, received her own spin-off series, which followed on after the events of Darth Vader and feature Aphra as she attempts to make money while trying to ensure Vader doesn’t find out that she is still alive. This series was initially written by one of the original creators of the Doctor Aphra character, Kieron Gillen, however, the second half of the series has been written by Simon Spurrier. Spurrier is the sole writer of this sixth volume of Doctor Aphra, which also features the artistic talent of a several talented artists.

In Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, Aphra is up to her old tricks again. Despite only recently recovering from a life-threatening injury, Aphra has taken on a dangerous job robbing an alien robot death cult shrine with the help of her new sidekick and ward, Vulaada. However, while aboard the shrine, Aphra notices an ancient Jedi weapon, a sniper rifle that utilises lightsaber technology to kill opponents from vast distances. Unable to help herself, Aphra steals the rifle, starting a chaotic chain of events across the galaxy.

Already extremely unpopular with the Empire, this theft pops Aphra to the top of their most wanted list with a hefty bounty placed on her head. Captured by the Rebel Alliance first, Aphra learns that her stolen rifle is the key to a secret rebel superweapon that they plan to use to assassinate the Emperor. Sensing an opportunity to make some money and permanently get the Empire of her back, Aphra recruits her old associate, the Wookiee Black Krrsantan, in order to steal the rifle back from the Rebels. However, this puts her into conflict with her ex-girlfriend, Captain Tolvan, who is now working for Rebel Intelligence.

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As Aphra recovers the rifle and flees to the Empire, she finds herself face to face with the mysterious Imperial Minister for Propaganda and Misinformation, Pitina Voor, the woman behind the latest Imperial manhunt for Aphra. Voor has plans for her, and Aphra is right in the middle of a vast scheme involving both the Rebels and the Empire. However, no plan has ever survived contact with the good doctor, especially when Aphra has revenge on her mind.

Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon was a superb and outstanding addition to the excellent Doctor Aphra comics, and this might actually be one of the strongest volumes in the entire series. Author Simon Spurrier tells a tight and compelling story within this volume which not only dives back into the past of the series’ titular character but which also showcases new elements of both sides of the Galactic Civil War. You also see the welcome return of several of the best characters from the series, such as Black Krrsantan and Aphra’s love interest, Captain Tolvan, as well as the introduction of an intriguing new antagonist. Featuring issues #32 – 36 of the Doctor Aphra series, this volume is a riot from start to finish (hell, the last two pages are the best in the entire volume), and I really loved the captivating tale that Spurrier wove together in these issues, especially as it features the series trademark dark humour and the focus on its self-destructive and conniving main character.

At the centre of Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon lies an amazing narrative of schemes, plots and lies as Aphra is hunted and manipulated by elements of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Thanks to a recent archaeological theft, Aphra is thrust into the midst of a Rebel conspiracy to kill the Emperor and must decide what to do. Of course, Aphra being Aphra, she goes with the course of action that benefits herself the most and ends up backstabbing and manipulating both the Rebels and the Empire. This leads to some great scenes, including a heist aboard a Rebel spaceship and a sequence where Aphra hacks the entire Imperial communications system in order to sing her praises as an Imperial hero in order to avoid a summary execution. However, not everything is as it seems as the various sides are all trying to manipulate Aphra to their own ends, which results in a surprising number of different twists and turns (or as one character puts it “that is the most convoluted plan I’ve ever heard”). It was fascinating to see Aphra, the ultimate manipulator, being played by so many different sides, each of whom thinks they know how she is going to react. Aphra manages to end up on top, but it was cool to see the various ways she managed to get to the bottom of the plans surrounding her and use it to her own ends. Her motivations for doing so were really compelling, and it was amazing how the creative team had been building up to them throughout the course of the book. Of course, it doesn’t all end up Aphra’s way, and the end result of her schemes sees her come full circle to the last place she wants to be. This all makes for one hell of thrilling main storyline of intrigue and deception, and I really loved where all the twists and turns went.

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Just as with the rest of the entries in this series, one of the best things about the Doctor Aphra series is the titular character herself. Aphra is a complex and haunted character who seemingly lacks a moral code and will only do what is in her own best interest. The character has a rather flippant and disrespectful attitude, and most of this volume’s amazing humour is down to her clever quips and humorous observations amongst the more serious Star Wars characters. One of the things that I have really enjoyed about the Doctor Aphra series has been the examination of Aphra’s self-destructive tendencies and the way that she makes the lives of everyone she comes into contact with worse. This is continued once again in Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, as she runs from one bad situation to the next, with her every action making her life and the lives of those around her infinity more miserable and more complicated, which makes for some very dramatic and emotional sequences. This is such an expected trait that many of the characters who Aphra has dealt with in the past or who have studied her actually expect her to make these bad or selfish decisions, and I really liked the way that this was a central plot point in the intrigue and espionage storyline. I also loved Aphra’s interactions with her love interest, Captain Tolvan, especially because, during their last meeting, Aphra purposely altered her memories to make her believe she had killed Aphra in a jealous rage. While Aphra did this with the best of intentions (it was the only way to save both Aphra and Tolvan from Vader), this has obviously had a major negative impact on their relationship, and Tolvan now actively loves and hates Aphra in equal measure and apparently has zero trust in her. This is one of the many things haunting Aphra in this volume, as she clearly knows the damage she has done to woman she loves: “I broke her heart. She’s too smart to ever help me again.” Of course, this fraught relationship is another part of the intrigue surrounding Aphra, and it was rather clever the ways in which both sides tried to manipulate Aphra through it.

In addition to the all the awesome character work happening with Aphra in the present, the readers of this volume are also treated to a look back at the characters past. In particular, you finally get to see Aphra’s mother for the first time and learn the tragic circumstances around her death. This has been hinted at for some time, all the way back to the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. As a result, it was great to finally see the full extent of this character background, and it was fascinating to see what happened and how this has impacted on the personality of Aphra. I enjoyed the way in which the scenes from the past were mirrored in the scenes from the present, and I really liked the similarities in the way that Aphra was raised with the harsh way she is treating her new ward, Vulaada. I was also impressed by the way in which seemingly innocuous details from Aphra’s past suddenly had a big impact on her current story, and the creative team did a great job hinting about these impacts throughout the entire volume. All of this helps build up a much more complex story around the character that is Aphra, and I found this dive into her past to be extremely compelling.

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I also need to say how much I loved the parts of this book that featured Darth Vader, whose villainy and hatred for Aphra shine through in the few short scenes that he has. Aphra and Vader have a complicated history together, and Vader is desperate to kill Aphra once and for all (she’s faked her death on him a few times already), as she is the only living person in the galaxy who knows about his obsession with Luke Skywalker and his plans to overthrow the Emperor. Vader has two sequences in this book, both of which revolve around his determination to kill Aphra, no matter the perceived costs. While the first is really good, mainly due to Vader answering an Imperial officer’s request to state his rank with “Lord”, nothing quite beats the second appearance on the last two pages of the volume. After apparently beating all of her opponents, Aphra is sure of her safety due to her status as an Imperial hero, right up until Vader appears, lopping off heads with his lightsaber. The moment Aphra sees him, she knows she and Vulaada are dead, and she immediately hugs Vulaada and gets her to close her eyes. I really loved this scene, especially the resigned way in which she responds to Vulaada’s frantic belief that them being heroes is going to save them with “he doesn’t care”. This was a pretty outstanding end to the entire volume, and it was amazing to see the next chapter of the turbulent relationship between Aphra and Vader.

The Doctor Aphra series has always done a great job showing off several different sides of the Star Wars universe, including giving a closer look at parts of its criminal underbelly and its archaeological sector. However, in this book, we get to see new sides of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. In particular, we get to see the Empire’s Coalition for Progress, a sinister organisation led by new antagonist Pitina Voor that is dedicated to expanding and maintaining the Empire through manipulation, trickery and propaganda, rather than brute force. This is rather fascinating inclusion into the canon, and it was rather interesting to see a whole new side to the way that the Empire controlled the galaxy. Voor is also a rather intriguing character, with a unique vision for how the Empire should be run and maintained, and it was kind of fun to see her gripe about the PR problems that occur when you are being ruled by Sith Lords (I had to agree, the Emperor really isn’t adequately loveable). They also have a rather nifty little museum dedicated to some of the Empire’s greatest victories and propaganda coups, which the artistic team filled with several Easter eggs. I was also rather impressed by the way that the creative team explored the darker side of the Rebel Alliance by examining the covert and morally ambiguous actions of their intelligence agency. This is something that has been explored before in some other Star Wars entries, such as in Rogue One, but this volume of Doctor Aphra takes it to a new extreme with Rebel Intelligence apparently plotting to build a miniature Death Star in order to take out the Emperor and win the war. I rather liked this darker side of the Rebels, and it was interesting to see more of a Rebel organisation that uses less moral tactics to achieve their goals.

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Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon features the work of several different artists, each of whom worked on a couple of different issues within the volume, which results in an interesting combination of styles. This means that this volume of Doctor Aphra contains a range of different art styles and techniques across the various issues. I actually liked the myriad changes that occurred issue to issue, and it was fantastic to see the different styles and artistic ideas that this large team produced. This volume contains some rather impressive and beautifully drawn scenes and sequences, which fit perfectly around Spurrier’s compelling story and which work really well together. The end result is a fantastically drawn and executed comic, which is a delight to look at.

This sixth volume of the always entertaining and incredible Doctor Aphra series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, is an outstanding addition to the series, and it is one that I had an amazing time reading. This volume contains a complex plot of intrigue and doublecrosses, which sets the loveably dysfunctional protagonist down another road of self-destruction and manipulation in order to survive. Filled with some excellent and memorable story moments, and an incredible conclusion to this volume’s key storyline, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon is relentlessly entertaining and endlessly captivating, and I had an absolute ball unwrapping it. A highly recommended read; if you have not read any Doctor Aphra yet, then you are missing out!

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies

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Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 25 February 2020)

English Edition Translated by Lucy Van Cleef

Length: 331 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out 5 stars

Get ready for an exciting fantasy adventure from acclaimed German author, Bernd Perplies, with Black Leviathan, an extremely fun and inventive novel that is essentially Moby Dick with dragons.

Bernd Perplies is a best-selling German fantasy and science fiction writer who debuted in 2008 with his first book, Son of the Curse Bringer. He has since authored several different series, including the Star Trek Prometheus trilogy, which he co-wrote with Christian Humberg and which were the first Star Trek books licensed to be written outside of the United States. Black Leviathan was initially released back in 2017 in Germany under the title The Dragon Hunter, and it is the first book in his Sea of Clouds series. This is the first one of Perplies’s solo books to be released in English (his Star Trek books got an English releases), and it was translated by Lucy Van Cleef.

Welcome to the Cloudmere, a floating expanse of thick cloud, mists, floating islands and mountain tops high above the ground. Thanks to the magical kyrillian crystals, which allow anything holding them to float in the air, airships now also fly through the Cloudmere attempting to harvest the useful resources available in this harsh landscape. The most valuable of resources come from the dragons, the ferocious beasts that soar amongst the clouds and mountains. Various species of dragons exist, each with their own special talents and defences, and each of which are valuable in their own way. However, hunting dragons is a dangerous occupation, and only the bravest, the most skilled or the extremely desperate set out into the Cloudmere as a drachenjäger, a dragon hunter.

Lian is a young man living in the floating city of Skargakar. The city’s entire economy revolves around the hunting and processing of dragons, and Lian himself makes a small earning carving kyrillian crystals. Lian also looks after his father, Lonjar Draksmasher, a famed drachenjäger of yesteryear whose injuries have driven him to drink. But when Lonjar is murdered in front of him, Lian instinctively gets revenge on the criminal who killed him, and now needs to get out of town quickly or face the wrath of his victim’s father, the most dangerous crime lord in the city. Taking up his father’s magical hunting spear and accompanied by his best friend, Canzo, Lian seeks work aboard one of the many drachenjäger ships leaving the city. The only one willing to take them on is the infamous Carryola.

Boarding the Carryola they find themselves working with an eclectic and effective crew of drachenjägers, and Lian believes that he has reached relative safety. However, the captain of the Carryola, Adaron, has an obsession that may prove to be the doom of Lian and the rest of the crew. Adaron is determined to hunt down and kill the Firstborn Gargantuan, a rare Black Leviathan dragon, a creature out of legends and one of the most destructive beings lurking in the Cloudmere. Now caught between a powerful dragon and a crazed captain, Lian must find a way to survive, but he quickly learns that death is always lying just around the corner in the Cloudmere.

This turned out to be a fantastic and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure novel which I had an absolute blast reading. Black Leviathan features a fast-paced and action-packed story of a group of dragon hunters flying around in the sky chasing after a mythical and gigantic dragon, and what’s not to love about that? Perplies introduces a ship full of distinctive and compelling characters (most of whom you shouldn’t get too attached to), including an obsessive and ruthless captain, and sets them up against a powerful foe. This results in quite a fun and exciting novel, and I enjoyed some of the intriguing directions that Perplies took the story. While some elements of the story are a little bit typical of action adventure novels, such as characters whose death is a foregone conclusion the moment you meet them, this was an excellent story that is extremely easy to enjoy, and very hard to put down.

One of the best parts of Black Leviathan is the clever and inventive new world that Perplies has created as a backdrop for his fun story. The author did an outstanding job producing a unique fantasy world up in the clouds, filled with all manner of sentient races, exotic locations and intriguing magical technologies, all of which prove to be really fascinating to explore throughout the course of the story. The Cloudmere is an amazing location for a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed seeing an entire book spent up in the clouds, either in floating cities or aboard magically powered airships. However, the highlight of this new world has to be the various species of dragons that roam the Cloudmere and dragon hunters that chase after them. Black Leviathan features a world where dragon hunting is a vast and profitable industry, and it is really quite interesting to see the various aspects of dragon hunting and its subsequent applications within this novel. There are some obvious similarities between this fictional dragon hunting industry and the real-life historical whale hunting industry and was really cool to see Perplies reinvent this iconic historical trade with fantasy creatures, floating ships and a sea of clouds.

The dragon hunting aspect of the book also results in some pretty incredible action sequences. There are some really exciting and fun dragon hunting scenes featured throughout Black Leviathan and watching the crew of an airship attempt to take down a dragon in mid-air was easily some of my favourite parts of the entire book. Perplies came up with some very clever hunting techniques for his drachenjäger, and it was very cool to see all of them unfold, especially as many require the protagonist to jump onto the back of the targeted dragon and kill them while riding on their back. This fantasy world also has many different types of dragon with a variety of different abilities (some breath fire, some have sword-like tails), each of which results a different sort of hunt with its own range of difficulties. Of course, the biggest hunt of all is when they catch up with Gargantuan, the titular Black Leviathan, the largest and most powerful dragon in the Cloudmere. That hunt goes about as well as expected, and it was extremely exciting to see the crew attempt to use their tried-and-tested techniques against this beast.

I mentioned at the start of this review that Black Leviathan was a bit like Moby Dick. That is because it features a captain who is obsessed with killing a specific rare beast who wronged him years ago, in this case a black dragon rather than a white whale. The entirety of this feud is actually shown in this book, as the first two chapters deal with Adaron’s first ship getting destroyed by Gargantuan, with nearly all his friends dying, including his fiancé, whose hand he was holding when she was eaten (with Adaron left holding her severed arm). As a result, the Adaron we see in the present is a much harder man who bears a great hatred for all dragons and is determined to find and kill Gargantuan no matter the cost. This results in a great story of obsession and hatred as Adaron scours the Cloudmere for his prey, while also attempting to kill any other dragon he comes across. The author has done a great job showing Adaron as an eccentric and damaged character from the first time the protagonist meets him. Not only does he order his own whipping every time a member of his crew gets killed by a dragon but he also keeps the skeletal hand of his fiancé in his cabin as a constant reminder of his mission to kill his prey. However, as the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that his obsession with finding Gargantuan has driven him insane. Not only does Adaron sacrifice his crew’s safety to locate the dragon but he ignores the concerns of the people serving under them and he even utilises dark practices to find his prey. This all results in a great final showdown with Gargantuan at the end of the book, and I think that the author did an amazing job concluding this captivating story arc.

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies is an excellent and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure that combines a great central story with an extremely creative fantasy world to create a compelling and fun read. This book is filled to the brim with action and adventure and is guaranteed to get any fantasy lover’s pulse racing. I really loved this book, and I look forward to any future English releases of Perplies work. I do note that Perplies released a second book in this series in 2018, The World Finder, and hopefully we’ll get to see that in English in the next year or so.

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