Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is that time of the year again when I absolutely gush about the latest volume of the epic and outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic series by the infinity talented Stan Sakai.  This time I look at the 35th volume in this incredible long-running series, Homecoming, which presents the reader with a rich and emotional tale of regret and loyalty as Usagi returns home.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading my blog will already know of my deep love for the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series.  Following the adventures of the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, this series is set in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, and features incredible stories about samurais and honour.  Homecoming, which contains issues #8-14 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, is the second volume printed completely in colour, and features the work of colourist Tom Luth in addition to Sakai’s writing and drawing.  This latest volume follows on shortly after the events of previous volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, and continues three intense and powerful unique stories.

The first story in this volume is the two-issue entry TatamiTatami sees Usagi return to the lands of his former master, the late Lord Mifune, now ruled over by nefarious series villain, Lord Hikiji.  Journeying through a now hostile countryside, Usagi finds himself following an armed procession who are transporting high-quality tatami mats to the castle of one of Lord Hikiji’s rivals.  Usagi finds the caravan under attack by the Neko Ninja, who are determined to destroy the tatami.  When Usagi’s long-time ally and former Neko Ninja head, Chizu, appears, it soon becomes apparent that Hikiji has dispatched the ninja to destroy the tatami in order to damage his rival’s reputation.  Determined to defy Hikiji, Usagi and Chizu travel with the caravan to help guard the tatami from attack.  However, Chizu soon comes into conflict with her rival, Kagemaru, as they fight for leadership of their clan.  Can Usagi and Chizu disrupt the plans of Hikiji and Kagemaru, or will the dark lord continue to reign supreme?

Anyone who thinks it impossible to write a compelling story with death, politics and ninja around tatami mats has clearly never had the joy of reading one of Sakai’s stories before.  Throughout the Usagi Yojimbo series, Sakai has written some thrilling and intense stories around unique elements of Japanese culture, including seaweed farming, pottery making, sake brewing, and giant kite making, just to name a few.  This latest example, Tatami, is no exception to this, as Sakai crafts together a fascinating story that not only highlights the importance and prestige of tatami mats but which also perfectly ties into the wider Usagi Yojimbo universe.  Tatami starts strong, with a fantastic and exquisitely drawn sequence that shows the crafting process behind the tatami, from harvesting the reeds, to the lengthy weaving process.  The story then introduces Usagi to the narrative, also providing some key background for the main storyline in the Homecoming volume.  The action swiftly follows with the tatami caravan under attack from cunning ninja, and Usagi is convinced to help guard the tatami with the help of Chizu.  This all leads up to an epic night fight as Usagi and his allies face off against a horde of ninja.  This fight scene is particularly well drawn and features some great examples of sword play, a beautiful scene of fire and intensity as Usagi appears to stand alone in front of a swarm of ninja, and several massive explosions as the ninjas detonate black powder bombs.  This all leads up to a rather poignant finale, as Usagi suffers from a rare and moving defeat and people he respects are called upon to sacrifice everything for their samurai sense of honour.

In addition to the main story surrounding the tatami, there is also a rather interesting side-plot surrounding Chizu and her battle with Kagemaru for control of the Neko Ninja.  This has been a long-running conflict going back all the way to 11th volume, Seasons, and it was great to see some more progress on it, especially as it ties Tatami into some of the wider Usagi Yojimbo storylines.  This subplot proves to be pretty damn cool, as Chizu works to manipulate Kagemaru and her former followers, using the catspaw of Usagi and the other tatami guards.  This ends up in a fun ninja duel, as Chizu faces off against Kagemaru and another ninja, Kimi, above the plain where Usagi is fighting.  This is a fast-paced and deadly fight which makes use of several different ninja tricks and weapons, and which proves to be an exciting and cool addition to the plot.  There are a couple of intriguing, if slightly predictable, developments within this narrative, although it does hint that we are getting closer to a conclusion of this long-running Neko Ninja plot line.

The real highlight of the Chizu subplot, and indeed the entire story, is the outstanding epilogue where Kagemaru meets with Lord Hikiji’s main advisor, the giant serpent Lord Hebi.  While Kagemaru is initially expecting praise for his actions, it becomes apparent that Hebi and Hikiji are displeased that Chizu continues to disrupt their plans when Kagemaru is offered unique sake, brewed using poisonous serpents.  There is an incredible amount of menace in this entire sequence, especially once Hebi pours out the dead serpent from the sake, and then proceeds to eat in front of Kagemaru (nothing is more intimidating that some light cannibalism).  Hebi’s simple warning: “Do not ever fail us, Kagemaru,” is an amazing way to end this scene, and the mighty ninja leader is left absolutely shaken as he leaves Hebi’s presence.  This epilogue was perfectly written and drawn, and it proves to be an outstanding way to end this story arc, while also hinting that the Chizu-Kagemaru rivalry is about to heat up.  I absolutely loved this great first story, and Tatami proves to be an exceptional start to the entire volume.

The next story in this volume is the moving and intriguing Mon, which also follows Usagi’s travels through the land of his former lord, Mifune.  However, Usagi soon encounters much fear and resentment from the people he encounters, many of whom try to avoid his attention.  He soon discovers that they are shunning him because he still wears the mon (crest) of his former lord on his clothes, reminding people of the costly war that Mifune fought and lost against Lord Hikiji.  The tense situation gets even worse for Usagi when several Hikiji soldiers notice him and attempt to take their anger and resentment out on him, which does not go well for them.  Further, when a desperate innkeeper and former Mifune soldier works out who Usagi truly was, various ambitious Hikiji soldiers gather to claim the substantial bounty of Usagi’s head.

This was another fantastic entry, and one that proves to be rather touching and dramatic.  Sakai does a wonderful job setting up the main story around the Mifune mon and why it is currently feared and hated throughout his former lands.  The impeccably loyal Usagi is forced to deal with unexpected hatred and concern from those he encounters, which once again makes him think about the past with great regret and concern, especially as he continues to battle with his own conflicted loyalties about whether he should continue to serve a dead master.  There are several fantastic references to Usagi’s role in the war’s final battle, as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was interesting that there is still fallout after all these years.  It was also great to learn more about mons and the importance that they can have to the people wearing them.  This is explored to a degree within the story itself, but Sakai also includes a detailed author note at the end of Mon which describes the history behind mons in general and their current role in Japanese society, while also discussing Usagi and the Sakai family mons.  I particularly liked the story surrounding the innkeeper, who, after years of desperation, finally loses his loyalty to the Mifune cause by informing on Usagi.  The final encounter between Usagi, the Hikiji troops and the bartender is also amazingly drawn, and the dramatic cliffhanger helps turn this into a pretty impressive story.

The final story in Homecoming is the powerful tale, The Return, which finds Usagi in the one place he has been trying to avoid the most, his old home village.  After the conclusion of Mon, Usagi washes up in his village and soon finds himself in the care of the love of his life, Mariko, and her husband, Kenichi.  As the usual feelings of regret, anger and resentment quickly grow between the childhood friends once more, Usagi finds himself forced into a far more serious conflict.  A cadre of former Mifune samurai have arrived in town and captured all the villagers.  Led by the fanatical Kato, these samurai seek vengeance for their lord and plan to destroy Hikiji’s influence and power by attacking an emissary of the Shogun as he travels through the village.  Torn between loyalty to his dead lord and the survival of his village, Usagi must work with Kenichi if there is any chance to save the people they love most in the world.

The Return is an exceptional and moving story which serves as the centrepiece and main entry of the Homecoming volume.  There is a lot going on in this final story, and Sakai manages to craft together an outstanding narrative that continues the dramatic and touching arc surrounding the failed love between Usagi and Mariko and the multiple complications accompanying it, and which also places Usagi and everyone he loves in great danger.  The Return continues immediately after the events of Mon, and Usagi is quickly engulfed in both the drama surrounding Mariko and Kenichi and the overall danger of the former Mifune samurai.  This soon results in a conflicted Usagi forced to bluff his way through the encounter in order to try and save his village from the samurai’s deadly revenge plot.  Working together with Mariko and Kenichi, Usagi’s plan eventually results in a bloody, extended battle against the invading samurai.  This proves to be a pretty epic and intense narrative, and Sakai really amped up the action and the stakes of the entire story by setting Usagi up against some of his former comrades.  There are so many great elements to this story, although you have to love the extended battle sequence at the end, especially once recurring characters Katsuichi and Jotaro make their appearance.  The final parts of this entire story are pretty touching, as the various characters say their goodbyes, and Sakai leaves this entire volume on an intriguing note, as for the first time it hints at another fencing master Usagi trained after, and which makes me eager for the next volume in this series.

The most intriguing elements of the entire story are the complex antagonists that are former comrades of Usagi who are willing to commit atrocities in the name of their dead lord.  For years, the former followers of the late Lord Mifune are seen in a bit of a tragic light, with most of them, especially Usagi, portrayed as extremely honourable men, much in the vein of their deceased lord.  As a result, it is extremely jarring to see former Mifune samurai engage in such vile actions, especially as they justify as part of their oaths to their lord: “A samurai cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord!”  There are some clear 47 Ronin inspirations here, with former samurai gathering after many years to achieve a final vengeance, even if this story is a little darker than the classic Japanese tale.  There are also some deep and compelling discussions about honour and loyalty throughout The Return, especially as Usagi is forced to balance his loyalty to his late lord against his own personal honour, feelings about his childhood village, and his own memories about Lord Mifune’s character.  The inevitable confrontation between Usagi and his former comrades is pretty harsh, and it was interesting to see a fight between two different groups of Mifune supporters who believe that their way is the right way.  I felt that the use of colour was particularly effective in The Return, as it made the final battle sequence really pop.  It was also very memorable to see Usagi face off against samurai dressed in the same Mifune clothes and colours that Usagi has worn in every comic.  Seeing a group of similarly coloured and clothed characters facing off against Usagi makes for a very different battle sequence, and it was really interesting to see.

Easily the thing I was most looking forward to in this volume was the emotional fireworks that would occur when Usagi eventually returned to his home village.  This has previously happened in two separate occasions, in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles, both of which proved to be utterly heartbreaking.  Much of this revolves around the complicated love triangle between Usagi, who is still deeply in love with Mariko, who is married to his old rival, Kenichi.  While Mariko still has great feelings for Usagi, she is bound to Kenichi by her honour, and will not leave them, especially as it will shatter her whole family.  At the same time, Kenichi, who has always resented Usagi for his talent and luck, knows that Usagi and Mariko have feelings for each other, which breaks his heart, as he has also always loved Mariko.  All this is further complicated by the fact that Mariko and Kenichi’s son, Jotaro, is really Usagi’s child, who Kenichi willingly raised as his own son.  This has resulted in much conflict and despair amongst the three in the past, and it honestly does not take long for the anger and resentment to build up once more in The Return, especially as Kenichi is angry that Usagi encouraged Jotaro to seek out his old fencing master rather than go to the school Kenichi learned from.  While there are several great sequences where Usagi and Mariko once again display their unspoken love, much of the focus of The Return revolves around the intense rivalry between Usagi and Kenichi.  The story starts with their usual resentment and anger towards each other, but the two eventually start to work on their differences, especially as they prepare to save their villages.  There are several fun flashbacks to some of their adventures as children, which showed their early rivalries, as well as the two of them achieving great things together.  This comes to the fore as the story progresses, and the two are once again able to set aside their differences for the greater good.  This was an amazing thing to see, especially as they have been mostly antagonistic to each other throughout the entire series, and I liked how Sakai worked to resolve their conflict.  There were also several touching scenes between Jotaro and both of his fathers, which really represented one of the most important things the two former rivals have in common, and I loved that Sakai included Jotaro in this story.

There were some amazing moments in The Return, and I was deeply impressed with the incredible story that Sakai used as the centrepiece of this volume.  I really liked how Sakai successfully blended together so much action and intrigue with a powerful character-driven narrative, and I loved the cool examinations of honour and loyalty as a formerly bitter rivalry started to come to an end.  This final entry really delivered on all the potential of Homecoming and Sakai has done an exceptional job here crafting this story together.  I also really appreciated the way in which the other stories within Homecoming served as prequels to The Return, with key plot elements introduced in the earlier entries in the volume.  This was some extremely clever storytelling, and it really helps Homecoming to stand out as an exceptional and fantastic volume in this epic series.

As usual, the art of this Usagi Yojimbo comic was absolutely exquisite, and Sakai has worked his typical visual magic, creating several striking and powerful sequences throughout the entire volume.  In addition to some of the impressive action sequences and scenes I have mentioned above, Sakai produces some outstanding shots of the iconic Japanese landscape, with some incredible drawings of forests, mountains, towns and plains.  Each of these is pretty breathtaking, especially now that they are in colour, as the recently introduced colour work of Tom Luth really adds some new depth to the already awesome drawings.  I absolutely love the way in which Sakai matches his simple yet beautiful drawings with the complex storylines contained within Homecoming, and readers are in for a fantastic visual treat when they check this volume out.

Even after 35 outstanding volumes of the Usagi Yojimbo series, the amazing Stan Sakai continues to show why he is one of the best comic creators in the business with the incredible Homecoming.  Featuring several touching and powerful stories, which are backed up with some exceptional character work and stunning artwork, Homecoming is another superb collection of Usagi Yojimbo tales.  Fans of this long-running series are going to have an absolute blast reading this latest volume and it is very much worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday – Heroes in Crisis by Tom King and Clay Mann

Heroes in Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2019)

Writer: Tom King

Artists: Clay Mann, Travis Moore, Lee Weeks, Mitch Gerads, Jorge Fornes

Colourists: Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto, Mitch Gerads

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Length: 234 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 article, I look at an interesting DC Comics crossover event from a couple of years ago, the deep and compelling Heroes in Crisis.

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Now I have to admit that I have been somewhat avoiding a lot of the recent DC crossover events, mainly because I think the universe is getting a bit too complicated, what with the multiple versions of characters and timelines.  However, I recently grabbed the Heroes in Crisis collected edition (containing all nine issues of the limited series), mostly because I had heard some conflicting reports about whether it was any good, and I thought that it would be worth seeing just what sort of comic it really was.  I was also drawn to this comic as I am major fan of Tom King and Clay Mann after the work they recently did on Batman, which featured some really cool and compelling storylines.  Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a rather fun and intriguing comic, especially as King came up with another fascinating narrative.

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After years of fighting and surviving against the very worst evils in the universe, even the greatest heroes will start to crack under the unreal pressures of their chosen lives.  Realising this and determined to help their fellow superheroes, the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed Sanctuary.  Sanctuary is a hidden facility containing a cutting-edge artificial intelligence programmed to provide advanced therapy, support and counselling to any hero that needs it after harsh battles and traumatic events.  However, no sanctuary lasts forever, and after losing contact with the facility, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman arrive to find Sanctuary in shambles and several patients brutally killed.  As the world’s superheroes reel from the deaths of friends and colleagues such as Roy Harper, Red Devil, Commander Steel, Poison Ivy and Wally West, their thoughts swiftly turn to justice.  But who is responsible for the killings, and could the culprit be one of their own?

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The answer may lie with the only two survivors of the Sanctuary massacre, the greatest hero you have never heard of, Booster Gold, and the mad clown princess, Harley Quinn.  However, Booster and Harley are both convinced that they saw the other commit the crime, and are now out to stop the other survivor by any means necessary.  As the heroes attempt to uncover the killer lurking amongst them, their world will be further turned upside down when the confessions and therapy sessions recorded at Sanctuary are leaked to the media, casting a new light on them.  Can the killer be caught before they strike again, or will this case irreparably damage the world’s greatest superheroes?  Whatever happens, the DC universe will never be the same again.

This was a very unique and fascinating crossover comic which contains some notable flaws, but is something that I quite enjoyed.  King, Mann, and their artistic team produced a clever comic that really dives into the minds of the collected heroes of the DC universe.  Featuring a great story, some powerful character moments and some impressive artwork, Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a fun and heartfelt comic that I had a wonderful time reading and which has really stuck in my mind.

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Heroes in Crisis has an intense and powerful character driven narrative that presents the reader with an interesting mystery, while also attempting to dive into the minds of some of the most iconic comic book characters out there.  I very much enjoyed the excellent premise that King came up with for this comic, especially as he starts the narrative off by showing several iconic heroes brutally killed around the Sanctuary within the first several pages.  At the same time, two of DC’s most unique and complex characters, Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, are fighting to the death, with both claiming that the other is responsible for the crimes.  This proves to be an excellent start to the comic which really drew me into the book, and which quickly leads into a compelling investigation angle with Booster, Harley and the DC Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) all working towards the same goal while also fighting amongst themselves.  At the same time, a mysterious opponent is manipulating events from the shadows, ensuring that the protagonists are distracted by the public revelations about their mental fragility.  All of this leads up to an interesting and heartfelt conclusion where the killer is finally revealed in an emotional confrontation.

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This was a rather intense and fast-paced narrative and it was clear that King was drawing a lot of inspiration from the iconic Identity Crisis crossover comic (another controversial comic that split the fan base, although I personally consider it a masterpiece).  However, unlike Identity Crisis, I think that Heroes in Crisis fell a little flat and I can see where a lot of the criticism surrounding it came from.  While this comic has a great start and the author sets up the whole mystery and characters perfectly, I felt that the ending had some major flaws to it.  The reveal of the killer, despite some hints throughout the story, is a bit of a letdown (admittedly, due to internet spoilers, I did know who it was in advance of reading this comic, but this didn’t massively impact my overall reaction).  While I could appreciate some of the motives surrounding the killer’s choices, especially as it ties into the psyche aspects of the comic, it was a bit of a weak choice that undermined an amazing and well-established character.  In addition, many aspects of the conclusion, such as the reveal, the killer’s motivations, and the eventual solution to some established problems, were unnecessarily complicated and required some major logic leaps.  I also did not quite get why King included a certain “bros before heroes” scene, as it proved to be a very odd inclusion for such a serious story.  While I did greatly enjoy the set-up, as well the impressive inclusion of flashbacks and character centric panels throughout the entire comic, this ending was a bit of a letdown that substantially affected how much I enjoyed Heroes in Crisis.

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While the flaws in the story were a little disappointing, I think that King’s excellent character work more than makes up for it.  As he has previously done with his recent run on Batman, King attempts to really dive into the heart of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis, highlighting their complex psyches and personalities to help to draw the reader in.  I also quite liked how this comic focuses on a very unique selection of characters, including several of my personal favourites.  While much of the story follows the Big Three, with some additional inclusions from the Barry Allen Flash, the major focus of the comic is on the fun duo of Booster Gold and Harley Quinn.

Booster Gold, unconventional time traveller and the greatest hero you have never heard of, is a character I have a lot of love for, especially as he is usually shown to be a bungling hero trying to do the right thing.  Booster ends up being an excellent character in Heroes in Crisis as he desperately tries to understand who is responsible for the deaths at Sanctuary, especially as he is a suspect himself.  While much of Booster’s appearance is comical, there is a deeper sadness to him, both before the killings and after them.  King does a masterful job showing off Booster’s inner thoughts in some of his therapy sessions while also presenting him as a damaged person potentially capable of committing the murders.  I loved seeing Booster used so prominently in the comic and I hope we see more of him in the future.  The appearance of Booster also ensures that we get to see some of his robot companion, Skeets, who has a fun relationship with Booster, often pointing out the stupidity of several of his plans, such as telling the Flash that he may be responsible for Wally West’s death and not realising it would get him punched in the face.

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Heroes in Crisis also strongly features Harley Quinn, who DC have been heavily promoting recently.  Harley is her usual fun, chaotic self throughout Heroes in Crisis, although like Booster, deep down she is hurting.  King makes sure to explore the various damages that she still bears from her abusive relationship with the Joker, while also focusing on her current, relatively healthier relationship with Poison Ivy (who has a very lethal idea about therapy).  However, when Ivy is killed, Harley snaps a little and is determined to hunt down the person she thinks is responsible.  King does a great job showing off Harley’s unpredictability, humour and inner turmoil, and I liked how he presents her as a real threat, even to the likes of Superman and Batman.  Harley has a number of great moments throughout this comic, including a dangerous standoff, some great character development and some fantastic lines.  Harley also serves as a great foil to Booster, and when they are not trying to kill each other their conversations highlight their similarities, as both consider themselves failures in one way or another.  I deeply appreciated the use of Booster and Harley as key characters, and they were an outstanding focus of this comic.

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Heroes in Crisis also features a fantastic array of supporting characters, and the creative team takes full advantage of their story to bring back some great underutilised heroes.  I loved how King spent time exploring all the various characters who were massacred at the start of the novel, especially as he examines why they were there seeking help.  While there is an obvious focus on the more prominent heroes like Wally West and Poison Ivy, I had a lot of fun seeing characters like Lagoon Boy, Commander Steel and Gnarrk the Last Cro-Magnon.  King did a lot with these very minor DC characters, using a few short sequences to build them up as sympathetic and likeable characters, ensuring that the impact of their death was a little more significant to the reader.  The inclusion of Wally West was also mostly well done and I appreciated the exploration of all the trauma and pain he has gone through in the last few years (being written out of existence for a few years is a painful experience).  Batgirl and Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) also show up as supporting characters for Harley and Booster respectfully, and I quite enjoyed the examination of the unique relationships between these friends.  All of these characters really add a lot to the story and I very glad that King took the opportunity to explore and highlight how complex some of these DC heroes can be.

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While Heroes in Crisis has many good and bad qualities, without a doubt the best thing about it is the examination of traumatised heroes.  A large part of this comic’s narrative revolves around the fact that all the superheros in the DC universe are deeply traumatised or emotionally damaged because of their heroic careers, requiring them to seek treatment at Sanctuary.  While I know that some readers really disliked this portrayal of superheroes being emotionally and psychologically damaged, I personally felt that it was a clever inclusion from King that added a lot of realism to the DC universe.  Of course these heroes are going to be traumatised!  Most of them have been fighting crime or dealing with crazy people for most of their lives, experiencing innumerable tragedies and losses along the way, including dying and coming back to life multiple times.  It is honestly rather refreshing to see this acknowledged within the comics, and I deeply appreciated that King decided to feature it so prominently in Heroes in Crisis.

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One of the reasons that this psychological plotline works so well is because Heroes in Crisis features a ton of panels and scenes highlighting the heroes as they discuss their trauma.  Not only do you get glimpses at several AI assisted therapy sessions, some of which are quite intense (Lagoon Boy’s one hurts to read at times), but there are a ton of “confession” panels, which show the various heroes sitting in a special room discussing their pain to a camera.  These confession scenes are cleverly scattered throughout the comic and are worked into the story extremely well, showing the raw psyche of some of the comic’s major characters or murder suspects and providing possible motivations for their actions.  At the same time, they work to show the reader just how damaged some of your favourite heroes can be.  While there is a focus on characters who were part of the Sanctuary massacre, nearly every DC superhero makes an appearance at some point in Heroes in Crisis, talking about their pain and their sorrow.  King ensures that each of these confessions, even the single-panel ones, are really emotionally rich and moving, and you get some amazing feelings out of all of them.  Highlights for me include a great sequence with Batman lamenting the death of his sidekicks, and another one with Commander Steel, who is pretty damn traumatised by his experiences of dying, being reborn as a zombie, having his corpse mutilated, and then coming back again.  Booster, Harley and Wally West also have some very intense, story driven confessions which both moved the story along and helped to get to the roots of their issues.  I found these scenes of trauma, healing and emotions to be particularly well written and very powerful, and they are one of the main reasons I enjoyed this comic as much as I did.

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Another major highlight of Heroes in Crisis is the exceptional artwork by a massive collection of artists who banded together to produce some iconic and powerful pieces of art.  All of the scenes within this comic are very well drawn, and there is a real sense of movement, purpose and intensity in every panel.  I loved all the cool action sequences, and the artists really did not pull any punches when it came to highlighting the tragic deaths of so many different heroes.  Some of the best artwork, however, lies around the amazing and wonderful background and landscape shots throughout the comic.  There are so many fantastic shots that superimpose the characters in front of some beautiful settings, whether they be fields, sunsets or other pieces of nature.  These shots are not only visually impressive but they really add to the dramatic feel of the entire comic, especially as they remind you of the hope that so many of the damaged characters want to feel, but cannot, either because of the events of this comic or some pre-existing trauma.  The artistic team also has a lot of fun bringing to life a host of heroes from various periods of DC’s history, including some obscure characters we have not seen for a very long time.  While some of them were brought back only to die a painful death, it was great to see them again and the artwork surrounding them turned out to be superb.  I also deeply appreciated the artists’ ability to portray emotion and sorrow on the faces of each of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis.  You get a real sense of the darkness and pain lying behind some of the characters’ eyes, especially in some unguarded moments, and it helps to enhance the emotion of the pages.  Overall, this was some impressive and memorable artwork that did a great job enhancing King’s intriguing tale.

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Heroes in Crisis was a very interesting and memorable comic which I had a great time reading.  While it does have some flaws, I think that the creative team behind it managed to create a very touching character driven narrative that succeeded in highlighting the vulnerabilities of several iconic DC superheroes.  I had an amazing time reading this comic and it is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are interested in exploring the damaged minds of some of your favourite heroes.

Star Wars (2020): Volume One: The Destiny Path by Charles Soule and Jesús Saiz

Star Wars (2020) - Volume 1 Cover

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Star Wars (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Jesús Saiz

Colour Artists: Arif Prianto, Jesús Saiz, Rachelle Rosenberg and Dan Brown

Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The next stage of the Star Wars comic universe continues as Charles Soule, Jesús Saiz and their team of talented artists present the first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, The Destiny Path.

Star Wars (2020) #1 Cover

Shortly after the Disney buyout of Star Wars and their subsequent creation of a whole new canon, Marvel Comics started to develop a new range of Star Wars comics.  While there were several great series, limited series and standalone comics set during various periods of Star War history, the main series were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  These key comics, which included the Star Wars (2015), Darth Vader (2015) and Doctor Aphra (2016) series, did a fantastic job of filling in the gaps between these two films and presenting readers with some clever and unique adventures.  All these series came to an end in late 2019, with their plots coinciding with the start of events from The Empire Strikes Back.  In the wake of their cessation, Marvel announced four new Star Wars comic series that would take their place (after suffering some pandemic-related delays), set in the aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back.  While I have already looked at some of these comics, including the first entry of the Darth Vader (2020) series, I think it is time that I explored the flagship series of this new run of comics, the Star Wars (2020) series.

The Star Wars (2020) series will explore what happens to the main cast of protagonists after the events of The Empire Strikes Back and is set in the year or so between that film and Return of the Jedi.  This looks set to be a long-running series that will not only tell its own tale but will tie in to the events of the other current comics, probably resulting in some crossovers.  This first volume, The Destiny Path, contains issues #1-6 of the Star Wars (2020) series and serves as an excellent and compelling introduction to the rest of the series.

Star Wars (2020) #2 Cover

Following the battle of Hoth, the Rebel Alliance is in disarray.  With their fleet scattered around the galaxy and the might of the Empire reigning supreme, these are the darkest days the Rebellion has ever faced, especially as the Empire appears to have found a way to locate their ships and hiding places.  The hope of the entire Rebel Alliance may lie in the hands of its greatest leaders and heroes, but, after the events on Bespin, even these shining beacons of rebellion have been damaged beyond recognition.

With Han Solo captured by the Empire and handed over to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, those on the Millennium Falcon are dispirited and lost.  However, finding a Rebel cell under attack prompts them into action.  Despite missing the man she loves, Princess Leia is determined to rescue him and revive the Rebel Alliance by any means necessary.  At the same time, reluctant Rebel recruit Lando Calrissian attempts to make himself useful, despite mistrust from everyone around him.  Finally, Luke Skywalker, after losing a hand and finding out the horrible truth of his parentage is in shock.  Worse, his meeting with Vader appears to have damaged his connection to the Force, and neither of his masters will appear to talk to him.

Star Wars (2020) #2 Cover2

As the Rebel Alliance seeks a way to survive, each of these players, with the help of Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, begin the next stage of their journey.  As Luke seeks a lightsaber, Leia looks to find a way to save Han and Alliance, while Lando looks for redemption in all the wrong places.  All their journeys lead the back to the scene of one of the worst moments of their past, Bespin.  But how far will Luke, Leia and Lando go to achieve their goes, and will they be able to survive the dangerous enemies chasing them?

This is an outstanding and intense Star Wars comic that does a wonderful job of setting up a brand-new series of exciting adventures.  Charles Soule, who has written some of the best Star War comics out there, creates an exceptional and captivating tale that highlights the tragic consequences of The Empire Strikes Back.  Featuring some incredible artwork, amazing big moments, and a perfect portrayal of some of the iconic original trilogy cast, this is an outstanding and awesome comic.

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover

For this cool first volume in the Star Wars (2020) series, the author has come up with an extremely compelling and clever multi-part narrative that I deeply enjoyed.  The Destiny Path has a strongly character-driven story, following Luke, Leia and Lando as they attempt to recover from the traumatic events of The Empire Strikes Back.  The narrative starts right after the heroes escape from the Cloud City at Bespin (technically before the closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back) and places the shell-shocked characters right in the middle of a firefight against an intriguing new foe.  The next stage of the story contains an intriguing couple of sequences aboard the Rebel medical frigate, showing off some new angles to the film’s final scenes, while also following Lando and Chewie as they head to Tatooine to scope out Jabba’s palace.  This part of the narrative is very clever and exciting, especially as it paints Lando as a bit of a wildcard, with unclear loyalties.  The next section of the comic takes Luke, Leia and Lando back to Bespin, each for a different reason.  There are some high octane and emotionally rich comic issues here, especially as all three of the characters are forced to face up to their recent mistakes and losses, while also taking on the Imperial garrison stationed there.  All of this leads up to the final part of the book, which is primarily focused on Luke, who journeys to several distant planets following a vision to find a new lightsaber.  There are some really cool sequences here as Luke continues to battle his own personal demons (and a real one, but we’ll get to that later), before eventually coming away with an unexpected prize.  All these disparate storylines work really well on their own, but their real strength lies in the way in which they tie together perfectly throughout The Destiny Path.  You end up getting a fantastic story as you follow one major event to the next, and I liked the unique tales contained within each section.  All of this serves as an awesome and powerful start to the Star Wars (2020) series, and there are plenty of hints of awesomeness to come as the Rebels bounce back while Luke continues to grow as a Jedi.  Epic Star Wars storytelling at its best!

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover2

There is no way that I can talk about The Destiny Path without geeking out about some of the cool and memorable Star Wars elements and references featured within.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed seeing the intriguing and dramatic aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back that Soule envisions here, especially as he took the time to explore the various traumas and consequences of the events at Bespin.  This was a fantastic heart of the entire volume which is going to appeal to all fans of the Star Wars franchise.  Other cool Star Wars moments that fans will love include the mysterious events occurring around the Skywalker lightsaber.  This lightsaber, which disappears at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and reappears in The Force Awakens, is a major item throughout the Star Wars canon and I liked seeing Luke trying to find it in the bowels of Cloud City, only for it to slip into another mysterious person’s grip.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that in the future, and foresee it being a fascinating narrative thread throughout this entire series.

In addition to these elements from the films, Soule also fits in a lot of other cool references and call-backs to previous Star Wars comics, especially ones that he has had a hand in.  The most obvious of these was the appearance of Verla, who Luke encounters while trying to find a new lightsaber.  Verla is a Force-sensitive woman who first appeared in The Burning Seas volume of Soule’s Dark Lord of the Sith comic series.  It was great to see that Verla survived, and Soule does a good job working her into this story, portraying her as the damaged and cynical former Jedi student who is just trying to survive.  Verla’s inclusion allows Luke to learn more about Vader, both as a Jedi hunter and a Jedi named Anakin, and it was interesting to finally see him learn about the Jedi purges, Order 66, and the Inquisitors.  I also noticed a lot of mentions about the High Republic in this volume.  I really should not be too surprised about this, especially as Soule is one of the leading creative minds behind the High Republic range, having written the first novel in the series, Light of the Jedi.  It looks like Star Wars (2020) is going to rely on several events from the High Republic books, and I am intrigued about how Soule will work them into his cool story.  All of these Star Wars elements are extremely cool, and I think that they will deeply appeal to every fan of this franchise.  While mega fans are obviously going to love some of the more obscure references that Soule fit into this comic, this series is also very easy to enjoy if you have a more basic knowledge of Star Wars.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover

I do have to quickly highlight that one of my favourite parts of this entire comic is one of the final sequences in the volume.  In this sequence, Luke visits an abandoned Jedi temple which is filled with a mound of untouched treasures, including a lightsaber which he desperately needs.  However, it turns out that this entire building is a trap (Luke was warned, to be fair), as he is quickly attacked by the ghost of the Grand Inquisitor.  The Grand Inquisitor is an awesome character who served as the main antagonist of the first season of the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  Soule has previously utilised him in his Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, especially the first two volumes, Imperial Machine and Legacy’s End, but this current comic is set after his death in Rebels.  There are so many cool elements to the Grand Inquisitor’s return in this comic, including a fantastically drawn fight between him and Luke, where Luke encounters a double-bladed lightsaber for the first time, and I loved the Grand Inquisitor’s fiery, spiritual appearance.  However, the best part of this whole unique inclusion was the characters final interaction with Darth Vader.  Here it is revealed that Vader is the one trapping the Inquisitor’s spirit in this world, using him as a tool and a trap.  When the Inquisitor begs Vader for his release, Vader refuses, as the Inquisitor still has use to him.  The forlorn spirit starts to fade, but not before sadly uttering “there are worst things than death”.  This is an outstanding call-back to the character’s final words in Rebels, and it was so cool to see his morbid prediction come to pass.  This whole sequence really pushed The Destiny Path up a level for me, and I love how the creative team worked this into this fantastic and awesome comic.

Easily one of the best parts of this entire comic is the creative team’s portrayal of the iconic Star Wars characters who serve as the main protagonists of this amazing first volume.  Soule has done an incredible job writing a character-driven narrative around these protagonists, and I love his in-depth examination of their psyches and actions following The Empire Strikes Back.  The author pulls together some great storylines around these characters, and I loved seeing what amazing adventures they went on between these two films.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover2

One of the main characters explored during this book is the original Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker.  Now, Luke is going through a lot at this point, having just had his hand chopped off and learned that his father is Darth Vader.  Luke spends most of the first part of the novel absolutely traumatised by these events and ends up doubting himself while also concealing this revelation from his friends.  To compound his issues, Luke finds his connection to the Force somehow damaged or fractured, as neither of his masters, Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, are reaching out to him.  This results in a more scattered Luke, and I loved the way that Soule dove into his damaged mindset.  There are some great and powerful moments throughout this comic that show off Luke’s trauma, as well some dramatic moments when he lashes out uncontrollably with the Force.  After receiving some visions and engaging in a hunt for a new lightsaber, Luke starts to come to terms with the events surrounding him, and it is great to see him recover somewhat, including by learning more about his father.  This slight reconciliation with his identity enables Luke to regain his control over the Force, and there are some very cool scenes where he uses his powerful and advanced abilities against the Empire.  Overall, this was a pretty spectacular look at Luke, and I really appreciated the cool story that Soule spun around him.  It will be interesting to see what is going to happen to Luke in the future entries of this comic, especially as he continues along his journey to become a full-fledged Jedi.  It will also be cool to see more of Luke’s new yellow lightsaber, which was an intriguing decision by Soule which I think is going to really pay off.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover

In addition to Luke, a lot of the story focuses on Leia.  Like the rest of the characters, Leia is pretty traumatised, as she discovered her love for Han only to lose him in seconds.  While at times she seems in control, especially as she works to salvage the Rebels fleet, she is clearly still impacted by this loss.  As a result, she desperately attempts to find a way to save him from Boba Fett, even if that means risking herself and her friends.  Her recklessness leads her back to Bespin with the others as she attempts to find more about the carbonite freezing process.  While Leia’s arc is possibly the least interesting (which isn’t a criticism; it’s just the other two main characters have some outstanding stories), she does have some great moments in this comic, and I especially loved the visual of her also trapped in carbonite.  It was also great to see more of badass Rebel leader Leia in this comic as she steps up and takes charge to protect those around her.  I imagine that the creative team have some great ideas for Leia in the future and I cannot wait to see what they are.

The other main character of this volume was the flashy and charismatic rogue, Lando Calrissian, who finds himself stuck with the other protagonists after helping them flee from Bespin.  Despite his attempts to do the right thing at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is still not trusted by anyone, as they blame him for his betrayal and the loss of Han.  As a result, Lando attempts to find some form of redemption with them, although he mostly comes across as a self-centred bastard.  Soule works a really intriguing storyline around Lando, and I loved seeing his meeting with Jabba the Hutt as he makes some initial inquiries into Han’s location.  Lando is able to talk his way out of a meeting with Jabba, although the reader is left wondering whether he plans to sell out the Rebels.  This nicely leads into his storyline on Bespin as he accompanies Luke and Leia back there.  It was great to see Lando returning to his city, especially as he manages to con his way through a range of different Imperial obstacles, and he was fully in his roguish element.  While Lando appears to return to Cloud City for selfish reasons, such as throwing a big middle-finger to the Empire, his jaunt does awaken his inner hero a little, and you get a glimpse of the person we eventually see in Return of the Jedi.  Lando is easily the most entertaining character in the entire comic and most of The Destiny Path’s humour is derived from his interactions with most of the other characters.  He is a very funny character, and it was great to see so much focus on him after barely featuring in the last stage of Star Wars comics.  I look forward to seeing what Soule and the creative team have for him in the future, and I think he is going to be the MVP character of the entire series.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover2

Aside from the three main characters above, The Destiny Path also includes a great range of other characters from various points in Star Wars history.  Like its precursor comic, Star Wars (2020) also follows Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, although I think these three great characters were a little overshadowed by Luke, Leia and Lando in this volume.  Chewie does have a bunch of fun moments throughout the comic, mostly in his interactions with Lando, and it is entertaining to see him be forced to deal with the cocky former friend.  R2-D2 does have a great sidekick time with Luke, and it was always fun to see him save the mighty Jedi’s life again and again.  There is also an interesting focus on a couple of new or lesser-known characters.  For example, it looks like Soule is going to spend a bit of time following Kes Dameron and Shara Bey, the parents of a certain Poe Dameron.  The Destiny Path also introduces an intriguing new antagonist in the form of Commander Zahra, a fanatical Imperial officer placed in charge of eliminating the remnants of the Rebel Alliance.  Zahra is tactical genius who I understand is going to have a major role in some upcoming comics.  This volume proves to be an excellent introduction to this cool new character, especially as it establishes her dangerous intelligence, murderous mentality and the insane grudge she bears against Leia, all while she commands the unique Star Destroyer, Tarkin’s Will, which still bears scars from being hit by wreckage of the original Death Star.  Zahra proves to be an outstanding antagonist, and I cannot wait to see what deviousness and insanity she brings to the rest of the series.

I definitely need to highlight the incredible and eye-catching artwork that was an outstanding and memorable feature of this awesome comic.  The artistic team behind this comic did an amazing job from start to finish, and every page was a visual treat for the eyes.  While all the art in this comic is great, there are a few things that really stood out to me, such as character design.  The artists do such an incredible job capturing the main characters throughout this comic, especially in the first issue where all their post-The Empire Strikes Back pain and emotion is on full display.  It was uncanny how similar these characters looked to their portrayal in the film, and it is a testament to the artists’ amazing ability.  There are also several awesome combat sequences scattered throughout the comic and I loved the way in which the art brought them to life.  A particularly good example of this was the opening space battle between the Empire and a small Rebel fleet.  The artists come up with an incredible background for this fight, which takes place between a sun and a concentrated barrage of green turbolaser bolts, which are being used to fence the Rebels in place.  This was so visually pretty, and it really enhanced the cool story and fighter combat that was taking place in front of it.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which the artists have recreated several key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back.  These scenes, which include Luke losing his hand, finding out that Vader is his father and Han giving his iconic “I know” to Leia, are scattered throughout key parts of The Destiny Path.  Not only are these cool visually, but they are also clever from a writing point of view, dragging the readers back to the emotional impact of these events and driving how much they are still sticking in the mind of the protagonists.  I cannot overstate how awesome this art is and I had an absolute blast seeing every explosion, Force burst and clever flashback that they were able to fit in.

Star Wars (2020) #6 Cover

Well, if the above multi-page rant above didn’t give it away, then I’ll say it clearly here: this comic is incredible!  Soule, Saiz and the other talented artists have done an amazing job with this first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, and The Destiny Path is an epic and awesome read.  I loved the in-depth examination of these key characters after The Empire Strikes Back and there are so many cool Star Wars elements worked into the story.  This is one of my favourite Star Wars comics and it gets a full five-star rating from me.  I cannot wait to see what extraordinary stories and powerful artform this fantastic creative team comes up with next and I need to order the next volume in now.

Turn a Blind Eye by Jeffrey Archer

Turn a Blind Eye Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 30 March 2021)

Series: William Warwick – Book Three

Length: 330 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

One of the world’s bestselling authors, Jeffery Archer, returns with the third exciting and enjoyable entry in his clever William Warwick series, Turn a Blind Eye.

London, 1987.  After successfully organising a high-profile raid of a notorious drug factory, William Warwick has been promoted to Detective Inspector.  However, with his promotion comes a very different assignment: exposing corruption at the heart of London’s Metropolitan Police Force.  Along with his team of detectives and officers, William begins to investigate an old friend of his from the police academy, Jerry Summers, whose affluent, high-flying lifestyle seems impossible to achieve on a police income.  Utilising several undercover operatives, William attempts to find out the truth behind Summers’s activities.

However, the investigation into Summers’s corruption is only one of William’s concerns, as the trial for drug baron Ahmed Rashidi, whose factory William’s team brought down, begins.  Rashidi’s conviction seems certain, especially with the formidable legal team of William’s father and sister arguing the prosecution’s case.  But Rashidi has hired the services of the slippery and corrupt lawyer, Booth Watson QC, whose contacts and ability to bend the rule of law puts the police’s case in serious jeopardy.  At the same time, William’s arch-nemesis, the criminal genius Miles Faulkner, has escaped from jail and is hiding out in Europe, plotting the next stage of his life of crime.  However, Miles’s sudden death proves to be a boon for his ex-wife, Christina, who uses her windfall to apparently reform and renew her friendship with William’s wife.

As William’s focus is torn between all these different cases, disaster strikes when a young female undercover officer under his command falls for Summers.  As William and his team attempt to discover just how compromised their investigation is, the young Detective Inspector finds himself under attack from all sides as enemies, both old and new, attempt to bring him down.  Can William continue his crusade to bring justice to London’s streets, or will he face the horrible realisation that more of his fellow officers are willing to turn a blind eye than he first suspected?

This was another fantastic novel from Jeffrey Archer, who has done an amazing job continuing the exciting and compelling adventures of William Warwick.  Archer is an intriguing figure who has written a number of amazing crime and historical fiction novels over the last few years, such as his iconic Clifton Chronicles.  I have been rather enjoying several of Archer’s recent novels, including the very clever Sliding Doors-esque novel, Heads You Win.  His latest series, the William Warwick books, follow the adventures of the titular protagonist, who was first introduced as a fictional detective created by one of the characters in the Clifton Chronicles.  The first two novels in this clever crime series, Nothing Ventured and Hidden and Plain Sight, were both awesome reads, and I was quite excited when I received Turn a Blind Eye a few weeks ago.  Turn a Blind Eye ended up being quite an impressive read, and I really enjoyed the compelling and fast-paced story.

Archer has come up with a great story for his latest novel which not only continues some of the amazing storylines from the previous novel but which sets the protagonist up against several new challenges and antagonists.  Archer blends a lot of great elements into Turn a Blind Eye from across the genres.  The most prominent of these is a compelling crime fiction storyline which sees the protagonist go up against several different villains, including corrupt police, art thieves and drug lords, and there are some impressive investigative angles and fun scenes featuring clever police work and investigations.  In addition, the author works in some clever legal thriller elements as the story features several courtroom sequences.  These court scenes are some of the best parts of the entire novel, especially as Archer loads them up with fun legal shenanigans as the antagonist lawyer employs some really evil tricks.  The author also makes great use of the 1980s setting as a backdrop to the main story, and I loved the exploration of this cool period during this fun historical novel.  The entire novel chugs along at a rapid pace, and readers will have a very hard time putting this book down, especially as it features some dramatic twists, clever undercover scenes and very entertaining moments.  Readers of the previous two William Warwick novels will appreciate the fantastic ways in which Archer continues the established storylines set up in the first novels, although the author does ensure that this third book is easily accessible to new readers.  I really enjoyed the fun and intriguing places where Archer took his latest novel and I cannot wait to see how he will continue his compelling story in the future William Warwick entries.

I really enjoyed the great range of characters that Archer fits into this novel, most of whom are recurring characters from the previous two entries in the series.  Archer features a rather large cast of excellent characters throughout Turn a Blind Eye, resulting in a mass of different character perspectives that makes for a compelling and vibrant blend of storylines and character arcs.  At the top of this list is William Warwick, who serves as the central figure for most of the book’s plot.  William is an exceedingly straight arrow, intently concerned with doing the right thing and bringing the villains to justice.  William has another interesting adventure in Turn a Blind Eye, where he is forced to investigate police corruption and finds himself in some strange new circumstances.  I really enjoy the linear storyline that Archer has set up for Warwick, especially as it appears that he will be investigating a whole new crime each novel, and he serves as a particularly good centre to this entire series.

In addition to the main protagonist, Turn a Blind Eye also features several other amazing characters who have some compelling arcs in this latest book.  As always, I have to start with series antagonist Miles Faulkner, the highly intelligent criminal mastermind and art fanatic with whom William has found himself in an intense feud.  Faulkner ended the last book on a high note after engaging in a bold prison escape, and this novel starts off with him fleeing to Europe before circumstances seem to take him right off the board.  This results in an interesting development for the character, although readers of the previous novels will not be surprised by the clever way in which that particular arc unfolds throughout the novel.  I also deeply enjoyed the character of Booth Watson QC, the go-to lawyer for the antagonists of this series.  Watson is a dastardly and conniving figure in this series, and readers will love all the sneaky and entertaining ways he finds to bend the laws and manipulate the legal system.  I particularly liked the way in which he serves as a counterpoint to William’s father, Sir Julian, the highly regarded and undeniably honourable legal prosecutor, and the two have an outstanding repartee with each other during the court sequences.  The other character who has a really good storyline is police officer Nicky Bailey.  Bailey, who is assigned undercover to watch the primary suspect of the corruption storyline, ends up falling in love with her target, resulting in the investigation becoming compromised.  Archer writes an impressive and dramatic arc around this character, and I was particularly moved by its intense conclusion.  All of these characters ended up adding a lot to Turn a Blind Eye’s story and I look forward to seeing some of them reappear in the next William Warwick novel.

Turn a Blind Eye was another awesome novel from Jeffrey Archer which proved to be a rather good and entertaining read.  I loved the way in which Archer has continued his fantastic William Warwick series, and the author has loaded this book with some clever and enjoyable sequences and characters.  A fun and intriguing novel that readers will power through in no time, Turn a Blind Eye is really worth checking out and comes highly recommended.

Turn a Blind Eye Cover 2

Quick Review – The Art of Death by David Fennell

The Art of Death Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 4 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 422 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

2021 is definitely proving to be a great year for debut novels and one of the most intriguing examples of this is the fantastic murder mystery, The Art of Death by David Fennell.

Synopsis:

Death is an art, and he is the master . . .

Three glass cabinets appear in London’s Trafalgar Square containing a gruesome art installation: the floating corpses of three homeless men. Shock turns to horror when it becomes clear that the bodies are real.

The cabinets are traced to @nonymous – an underground artist shrouded in mystery who makes a chilling promise: MORE WILL FOLLOW.

Eighteen years ago, Detective Inspector Grace Archer escaped a notorious serial killer. Now, she and her caustic DS, Harry Quinn, must hunt down another.

As more bodies appear at London landmarks and murders are livestreamed on social media, their search for @nonymous becomes a desperate race against time. But what Archer doesn’t know is that the killer is watching their every move – and he has his sights firmly set on her . . .

He is creating a masterpiece. And she will be the star of his show.

This first book from Fennell ended up being quite an enjoyable and intriguing read as this new author has come up with a compelling and dark murder mystery with some great surprises to it.  I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago and became quite intrigued by the plot synopsis and the extremely cool cover art by Nick Stearn.  I had a fun time getting through it, thanks to the captivating group of characters and clever mystery it contained, and this ended up being a fantastic novel to check out.

At the centre of this fantastic debut novel is a rather good mystery that revolves around a callous and inventively deranged serial killer who kidnaps and kills people in order to feature them in his art show.  The Art of Death’s story follows this case from the discovery of the first three bodies, contained in a gruesome art display in Trafalgar Square, to its epic conclusion after the police engage in a lengthy investigation.  This proved to be a complex and exciting investigation, as the police characters are constantly one step behind the brilliant and sadistic killer as he works to finish off his masterpiece.  This results in a thrilling storyline as the police are forced to rush around and try to save the potential victims once the killer starts broadcasting their upcoming deaths online.  Fennell makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to show off the various sides of this case, whether it be the police investigation or the killer’s sick plans as they kidnap several people from around London with the help of social media.  Fennell also adds an extra layer to the story when the killer starts to deliberately target and mess with the protagonist of the story in an attempt to draw them into his web.  All of this leads to a fantastic and intense conclusion, and I loved some of the twists that Fennell introduced into the story, including some misleading suspects and compelling circumstances.  I had an awesome time getting to the bottom of this dark and disturbing case and I thought that this was a great first mystery from this new author.

The best parts of this great novel were some of the distinctive and damaged characters featured throughout.  The most notable are probably the protagonist, Detective Inspector Grace Archer and the antagonist, the serial killer/artist known as @nonymous.  I thought that the character of Archer was an impressive cop protagonist, a no-nonsense, recently promoted female DI who takes the lead in the case over less capable colleagues.  Archer proves to be a great central character of this book, and I enjoyed seeing her attempt to balance this trying case with her own complex personal life and the distain of several of her colleagues who she has previously alienated with a police corruption case.  Fennell also works in a compelling angle which reveals that Archer was herself a survivor of a serial killer when she was younger, something which still haunts her to this day.  This proved to be an intriguing facet of Archer’s character and one that impacts her role in the main case, although I think that it could have been worked into the main story a little better.

I also very much enjoyed the main antagonist, @nonymous, and Fennell did a fantastic job coming up with a vile and irredeemable killer.  @nonymous is essentially an evil, murderous Banksy who stalks his prey through social media and live-streams his killings as a form of art.  I found myself really disliking this character due to his ego, his belief in his artistic “genius” and the way he ruthlessly preys on people with low esteem, especially as you see several terrible sequences from his point of view.  However, this worked well in the context of the book, as the reader cannot wait to see him fail, and it really amps up the anticipation in the story.  I also appreciated the way in which the killer becomes obsessed with the protagonist and it adds a great additional edge to their story.  I was able to predict who the killer was early in the novel, despite a couple of clever attempts from Fennell to throw the reader off the trail.  Still, the author sets the reveal up really well and final confrontation between @nonymous and the protagonists is thrilling and suspenseful.  Overall, this was an amazing use of characters, and I appreciate the complex protagonist and killer that the author created.

The Art of Death is an awesome debut murder mystery from new author David Fennell which I had a fantastic time reading.  Thanks to this book’s compelling mystery and clever characters readers will quickly become engrossed in the fantastic story and will have fun seeing how the case comes to an end.  I look forward to seeing what Fennell comes up with next, especially if he reuses the intriguing protagonist introduced in his amazing debut.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 September 2020)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with a brand-new series that explores the early days of his most iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, with the first book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Chaos Rising.

A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away…

Beyond the edges of the known galaxy, past the borders of the Republic, beyond even the backwater Outer Rim, lies the Unknown Regions.  The Unknown Regions are a chaotic and barely explored section of space, where hyperspace travel is difficult and dangers lurk around every corner.  Despite this, many species flourish in this region, fighting for their survival and forming civilisations hidden from the eyes of the Republic and the Separatists as they fight their bitter civil war.  However, out of all these races, none are more mysterious, secretive and dangerous than the Chiss Ascendancy.

The Chiss have long considered themselves to be one of the most powerful races within the Unknown Regions.  Boasting vast fleets of powerful vessels which can appear anywhere within the Unknown Regions thanks to their great secret weapon, the force-sensitive children who can navigate hyperspace in the Unknown Regions, known as Skywalkers, the Chiss believe themselves safe and secure.  However, a sudden ill-fated attack on their home planet by a mysterious fleet quickly shatters this allusion.  While many, including the Chiss ruling council, are convinced that the attacking ships are a precursor to an invasion and begin preparations to withdraw their outer fleets, Supreme General Ba’kif believes that there is more to this attack then what is apparent.  In order to explore his suspicions, Ba’kif calls upon one of his most talented officers to investigate, the young tactical genius Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn.

Many years before he became the Emperor’s most effective weapon as a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn, served his own people as a member of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Already renowned for his rare tactical ability, as well as his disregard for the politics and rules of the Ascendancy, Thrawn begins his investigation into the attack and swiftly determines that it was merely a feint, designed to draw the Ascendancy’s attention away from a much more dangerous threat.  A new malevolent alien empire is building strength in the Unknown Regions, and its eyes are firmly fixed on the Chiss.  With his hands tied by protocol and with his political enemies within the Ascendancy trying to take him down, Thrawn may be unable to stop the upcoming attack before it is too late.  However, Thrawn always has a plan, and the Unknown Regions are about to understand just how dangerous he truly is.

This was another fantastic outing from Timothy Zahn, who has produced a cool and intriguing prequel novel to his previous series.  Zahn is one of the most experienced and highly regarded authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction in the world today, having written several impressive novels for both the current Disney-owned canon, and the previous Star Wars Legends canon.  While he has written various Star Wars novels, such as the fun standalone novel Scoundrels, Zahn is probably best known for his 1991 release, Heir of the Jedi, which is generally considered to be the start of a whole new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  While there are a number of interesting aspects to Heir of the Jedi, one of the most important things about it was that it introduced Zahn’s most distinctive and popular creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a rare alien officer in the xenophobic Imperial Navy who was revered as their ultimate tactician.  Thrawn proved to be a very popular character whose backstory and characterisation was later expanded on in a number of Zahn’s other Star Wars Legends novels.

Due to the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the subsequent removal of everything except the movies and the animated series from canon, Thrawn was temporarily erased as a canon character until the third season of the Star Wars Rebels animated television series, where he was reintroduced with an altered backstory and history.  As part of this reintroduction, Zahn was contracted to write several new Star Wars novels examining this new history of the character, and thus he wrote the Thrawn trilogy, featuring the excellent novels Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which are among some of the best pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction I have so far read.  This trilogy ended in 2019, but Zahn is far from done, having started a new trilogy, the Thrawn Ascendancy series, last year.  The Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, of which Chaos Rising is the first entry, is an intriguing and detailed series that serves as a prequel to the novel Thrawn and which show a younger version of the character as he serves the Chiss during the same time period as the Clone Wars.  Chaos Rising is an excellent and enjoyable novel which I read a few months ago, but which I have only just had a chance to review.  It was fantastic to see this complex and compelling character in action again, as well as more of Zahn’s impressive world-building.

This new novel from Zahn contains an amazing story that looks at the earliest adventures of Thrawn.  This is a very clever and layered tale that explores the main character in more detail while also providing him a new opponent to face in this book as he attempts to engage in battle against a dangerous enemy threatening his people.  Zahn builds a great narrative around the fight against this new antagonist, with Thrawn forced to engage in a number of intricate campaigns in order to obtain information and determine which points of weakness to exploit, whilst also have to contend with the machinations of members of his own race who are concerned with the reckless Thrawn’s actions.  At the same time, the author builds up a number of intriguing side characters who help to tell the tale of Thrawn in greater detail and with some interesting personal arcs.  This main storyline proves to be an extremely enjoyable and captivating read which flows at a great pace for most of the book, broken up with a number of cool and impressive battle sequences.  The main story is also supported by a fantastic collection of flashback sequences that depict an even younger version of Thrawn, showing some of his earlier encounters with many of the characters featured in the novel and highlighting how different the character has always been.  These flashbacks are used to great effect throughout the novel, not only building up the various characters’ pasts and personalities but also creating a great pace for the novel, with several key events from the protagonist’s life introduced where necessary to the main plot.  All of this helps to turn Chaos Rising, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series, into an intriguing prequel to the Thrawn trilogy as it begins to set up the various reasons why Thrawn was sent away by his people and recruited by the Empire.  One part of Chaos Rising even directly ties into the events of one of the books from the previous trilogy, Alliances, with the reader seeing an alternate viewpoint to Thrawn meeting with Anakin Skywalker that gives an entertaining context to the events of that previous book.  All of this results in a fantastic and clever story that is easy enjoy and which sets up some more intriguing adventures in the later entries in this series.

One of the things I always try to address while reviewing a Star Wars novel is what level of franchise knowledge a reader needs to have in order to fully enjoy the story.  While most Star Wars novels are generally fairly accessible to new readers or casual fans, I would say that Chaos Rising is one of those books that should primarily be read by major fans of the franchise.  This is because Zahn loads this novel up with a ton of Star Wars references and details, including details of obscure parts of Star Wars lore and characters.  While the author does do a good job of explaining all the relevant aspects of this extended universe through the book, I would say that having some pre-knowledge about some of these elements is important.  At a minimum I would suggest that the readers read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy first, especially as Chaos Rising serves as a prequel to them, although fans with some basic knowledge of the character of Thrawn should be able to follow along without too much difficulty.  For new readers who do get through Chaos Rising, you are going to experience a huge amount of new information about the Star Wars universe as Zahn does a substantial amount of universe building throughout this book.  In particular, the author explores the legendary Chiss Ascendancy, a mysterious alien empire existing outside of the main Star Wars galaxy.  This is the first time that the Chiss planets and culture have been explored in any real detail in the current canon, and it proves to be a fascinating experience learning more about them and seeing the culture that produced such a unique character as Thrawn.  This novel contains a lot of detail about this alien race, as well as many other aspects of life outside the main galaxy setting of the Star Wars franchise, and while it is a tad overwhelming at times, I had a great time expanding my Star Wars knowledge and exploring this new, intriguing region.  It seems likely that Zahn will go into even more detail about this part of the Star Wars universe in future novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects he comes up with.

One of the best things about this book was seeing the return of the amazing and compelling character of Thrawn.  Thrawn is a very unique and enjoyable character, mainly because he has an unfathomable mind and is able to tactically outthink and outmatch any opponent that he comes across.  A highly analytical being who is able to discern fantastic insights about a person or species’ intentions, personalities and general mindsets from viewing some aspects of their creativity, mainly their artwork, Thrawn is easily able to predict actions and provide effective or crazy counters that shock and surprise everyone watching.  This makes him an incredibly fun character to see in action, especially as he makes some amazing and credible leaps of logic off the smallest details that Zahn features in his descriptions.  These analytical leaps then lead into a number of awesome and cool scenes where he outsmarts everyone around them, including in the book’s various battle sequences, which are awesome to read as there are some truly outrageous and clever tactical moves that no one can see coming.  Because of his way of thinking, Thrawn has a very closed off and odd personality that unnerves a lot of the people he deals with and makes many wary of his motivations and actions.

Just like he did in the previous novels, Zahn portrays Thrawn as a little less vicious and dangerous than he appears in Star Wars Rebels, with a little more humanity (or the Chiss version of it) added into his character.  Zahn also continues to explore the character’s lack of political awareness, a major flaw in his thinking that continues to cause him trouble as he constantly battles against the overarching hierarchy to take actions he knows will benefit or save his people.  I felt that Chaos Rising took a very interesting look at the character’s history, personality and backstory, and I quite liked the examination of his earliest trials and battles.  Thanks to the author’s use of flashback sequences, the reader gets a great view at different parts of his history, and you see the various steps that he takes rising up the military ladder and the various aliens and people he crossed or destroyed on the way.  All of this proved to be really cool to see, and Thrawn remains one of my favourite characters in the Star Wars canon, especially after this great outing from his past.

One of the most distinctive parts of any novel that follows Thrawn is the fact that none of the story is shown from his point of view; instead other characters tell his story.  This is mainly done to really highlight just how brilliant Thrawn is and to ensure that his eventual plans and insights come as a major surprise to the reader, much in the same way that a Sherlock Holmes novel is told from Watson’s perspective.  Chaos Rising features several different point-of-view characters, including one or two antagonists, who encounter Thrawn throughout the course of this novel and witness him utilise his tactical acumen.  I love seeing the various characters react to Thrawn’s impressive and clever schemes, and it is always fun when they realise that the impossible is happening right in front of them.  Several of these characters, particularly Thrawn’s allies, also provide a much deeper examination of the main character’s personality and mentality, and you see a different side to the character as a friend and mentor.

While these characters are primarily there to follow Thrawn, Zahn does take the time to explore each of these characters, with a particular focus on Thrawn’s impact on their life.  Many of these characters have some excellent and enjoyable backstories to them, and it was fascinating to see these great characters have their carefully planned out lives completely thrown around when they meet Thrawn.  While I failed to connect to some of these point-of-view side characters (for example, I just could not get invested in the arc surrounding the Skywalker Che-ri), others proved to be quite intriguing to follow.  Examples include Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s former classmate at the academy, who becomes a lifelong friend and constantly finds herself trying to protect the protagonist from himself, or Thalias (Mitth’ali’astov) a former Skywalker whose encounter with a young Thrawn inspired her to join his clan and gave her a new vision for the future.  I also rather enjoyed following Qilori, an Unknown Regions navigator-for-hire, who secretly serves the Nikardun Destiny while also taking jobs for other clients like Thrawn and the Chiss.  It was immensely entertaining seeing Qilori attempting to manipulate Thrawn on the orders of the main antagonist, especially as Thrawn sees through every single one of his tricks.  Each of these great side characters added their own edge to the story, and I really appreciated having so many varied and unique viewpoints of the fantastic main character.

While I did receive a physical copy, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of Chaos Rising, not only because it made my reading schedule easier but because Star Wars audiobooks are always so much fun to listen to.  I think that I made the right decision here, as the Chaos Rising audiobook was a very awesome experience and I had a great time listening to it.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, this is a somewhat longer Star Wars audiobook, although once you get wrapped up in the story you don’t really mind.  Everything about this audiobook is cool, from the classic Star Wars sound effects, which help to drag the listener into the story (it is so much easier to imagine a dangerous fight scene when you can hear the blaster shots), to the outstanding use of John Williams’ iconic musical score, which just makes everything epic.  This audiobook also features the superb narration of the amazing Marc Thompson, who does a wonderful job.  Thompson, who has a vast experience voicing Star Wars audiobooks (for example, all the previous Thrawn novels, Dark Disciple, and roles in the Count Dooku and Doctor Aphra audio dramas), has an exceptional range of different voices which he uses to full effect throughout Chaos Rising.  Each of the characters is given a distinctive and enjoyable voice which allows the listener to easily follow who they are, while also getting an impressive and comprehensive idea of the character’s emotions and passion.  However, his most impressive work is saved for the main character himself.  Thompson has an excellent Thrawn voice, which very closely matches the voice of Lars Mikkelsen, the actor playing Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show, which helps to bring the character to life in vivid and impressive detail.  Thompson’s take on the character captures the character perfectly, and you get an amazing sense of the character’s deep analytical nature and constantly calm façade.  This was an exceptional bit of voice work from Thompson, and it really added so much to my enjoyment of the story to have this character’s words read out to me.  An overall exceptional and outstanding audiobook, this is the perfect format to check out Chaos Rising.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is another outstanding novel from amazing Star Wars author Timothy Zahn that provides the reader with a captivating look at the early life of the incredible character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring a clever and intriguing tale set deep in an unexplored area of the Star Wars universe, this novel serves as a fantastic and addictive prequel to Zahn’s impressive Thrawn trilogy and adds new layers to the author’s most iconic creation.  The second entry in this series, Greater Good, is set for release in a few months and looks set to be one of the most intriguing Star Wars novels of 2021, especially with renewed interest in the character of Thrawn after the second season of The Mandalorian.  I am extremely keen to see how the next novel turns out, but if it as good as Chaos Rising, then we should be in for a treat.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

Usagi-Yojimbo-Book-11-Seasons-Print-

Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

Fool Me Twice by Jeff Lindsay

Fool Me Twice Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 8 December 2020)

Series: Riley Wolfe – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Superstar thriller writer Jeff Lindsay presents his second entry in the awesome Riley Wolfe series, Fool Me Twice, which sees a master thief attempt to pull off a truly impossible heist.

Riley Wolfe is the world’s greatest thief and heist artist, able to steal the most heavily guarded artefacts and treasures no matter their security or value.  However, he is about to face a task that may prove to be too difficult even for him to accomplish after he is kidnapped at the end of his latest heist and taken to a desolate remote island.  His kidnapper, the world’s most dangerous and powerful arms dealer, wants Riley to steal one of the world’s greatest artworks, The Liberation of St. Peter by Raphael.  Unfortunately for Riley, The Liberation of St. Peter is a fresco, a massive painting plastered onto a wall in the interior of the Vatican.

Despite how ridiculous the job appears to be, Riley has no choice but to accept it, especially as his refusal would result in a prolonged and painful death.  With his head still spinning over the impossibility of the task in front of him, Riley’s life becomes even more complicated when he is kidnapped a second time by another deadly arms dealer.  His new kidnapper offers Riley the chance to double-cross his first employer in exchange for the life of Monique, Riley’s close associate and love interest.

Caught between two deadly opponents, each of whom would not hesitate to kill everyone Riley knows and cares about, Riley finds himself in the ultimate no win scenario.  Determined to survive no matter the cost, Riley begins to come up with a new plan that could save his and Monique’s lives, even if it does mean attracting the attention of an old rival in the FBI.  But in order for his plan to succeed, Riley and Monique will need to achieve the impossible and steal the fresco from the Vatican.  Can the legendary Riley Wolfe pull of his greatest heist yet, or has he finally met a caper too insane for even him?

Fool Me Twice is an exciting and addictive thriller novel from Jeff Lindsay, the author best known for the murderous Dexter series.  Following the conclusion of his Dexter books, Lindsay has started writing a brand-new series which focuses on a whole new criminal protagonist, Riley Wolfe.  The Riley Wolfe series follows the titular character as he engages in a series of elaborate and high-stakes heists around the world.  The first entry in this series, Just Watch Me, was a fantastic and fun novel which saw the protagonist steal a major treasure that was under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  I absolutely loved Just Watch Me and I have been extremely eager to check out the second entry in this series for some time.  I am very glad that I received a copy of this book and I ended up really enjoying Fool Me Twice due to its entertaining and thrilling story.

Just like the first entry in the Riley Wolfe series, Fool Me Twice was an exciting and enjoyable romp that sees its complex protagonist attempt to pull off an incredible heist.  Lindsay has come up with a pretty epic scenario revolving around an impossible art heist within the Vatican, which by itself would be fun to read.  However, this time Riley also has to contend with the competing interests of two ruthless arms dealers who are using him as a pawn for their deadly game.  This proved to be a fantastic and compelling thriller story that is extremely easy to read and fall in love with.  The author does an excellent job setting up the entire plot, and the protagonist is forced into a high-stakes, no-win scenario pretty early on in the book.  The rest of the story then deals with Riley trying to extricate himself from this situation through a vast range of manipulations, tricks, third-person interference and the impossible heist with a twist.  This all comes together quite well into an enjoyable and intricate narrative, and I love the various places that the author took the story.  There are some great surprises and reveals throughout the novel, and the readers are constantly left on the edge of their seats as they try to figure out what is going to happen next.  I particularly loved the cool heist that formed the centre of this story, and Lindsay did a good job delivering on this amazing premise with a great plan and a clever conclusion.  While I was able to predict how part of the heist would go, I was a little surprised about the full plan, and it was really cool to see the entire thing unfold.  Overall, this proved to be an amazing and exciting narrative, and I really enjoyed seeing the various twists and turns that the author was able to weave into the story.

One of the most distinctive elements about this series is the protagonist, Riley Wolfe, the master thief whose exploits the novels follow.  Riley is an interesting figure who, on the exterior, appears to be a brilliant Robin-Hood-esque figure, stealing from the rich, who he has a pathological hatred of.  However, it does not take long for the reader to work out that Riley is pretty much a pure arsehole with psychopathic tendencies.  Nearly everything Riley did in this novel annoyed me to a certain degree as he manipulates, insults or flat out murders everyone he comes into contact with.  While the author utilises a number of different perspectives throughout Fool Me Twice, Lindsay makes sure to write all of Riley’s chapters from the first-person perspective, ensuring that the reader gets a look into his mind as he works.  While this does help to redeem the character in some ways, especially as you get a hint about how much he cares about his mother or Monique, the unfiltered thoughts running through his head mostly make you dislike the character even more.  Pure arrogance rains off the page every time Riley’s perspective is shown, and you get a real sense of how high an opinion the guy has of himself.  Worse, you also see how much of a psychopath that Riley truly is as he murders several people throughout the novel, often in quite brutal ways.  While perhaps one or two of his victims deserved their fates, most definitely did not, they were merely in Riley’s way, for which he makes no apologies.  Instead he merely offers up some half-arsed rationalisations, most of which are usually along the lines that the victim was rich, so they deserved to suffer.  All of this makes Riley Wolfe a very hard character to root for, and I think this is what the author intended.  The reader becomes addicted to the narrative, not because they want him to succeed (if only to save his friends), but because that are hoping that he fails in some way and gets his long-deserved comeuppance.  I personally think this is a great writing choice from Lindsay, which makes for an excellent read; it is always fun to see a book told from a villain’s perspective, even if said villain is a dick.  I look forward to seeing what the character gets up to in the next book, which will no doubt irritate me to some degree.

Fool Me Twice is filled with a great collection of supporting characters, pretty much all of whom become worse off after meeting the protagonist.  The most notable of these is returning character Monique, Riley’s costumer, art forger and strongly unrequited love interest.  Monique gets a lot more involved in the plot of Fool Me Twice than she did in the first novel, with circumstances forcing her to take an active role in the heist.  You really can’t help but feel sorry for Monique throughout this novel, as she gets into all manner of trouble thanks to Riley and has to constantly deal with his bad behaviour and condescending attitude.  Thanks to the author portraying her as an out-of-her-depth and terrified art genius, she is the main reason you hope that Riley succeeds, although she still ends up going through a lot of bad stuff in this book.  In addition to Monique, Fool Me Twice also sees the return of Special Agent Frank Delgado, the brilliant FBI agent who is obsessed with capturing Riley.  Despite his somewhat odd and dedicated personality, Delgado is another character you find yourself rooting for, mainly because you hope he finally catches up with his white whale and arrests him.  Delgado has another interesting arc in this novel, which sees his obsession with Riley become a useful tool for several other characters in the novel, and I imagine we will be seeing a lot more of him in future entries in the series (although I imagine Riley will eventually end up killing him).

There are several intriguing new characters featured throughout the novel.  These new characters are generally only featured for a few chapters and are mostly used as outside witnesses to Riley’s heist methods, which help to keep the readers guessing at how he is actually pulling it off.  The main antagonists of the novel are an interesting bunch.  I was not the biggest fans of the two competing arms dealers, although their rivalry and manipulation of Riley helped to create a very interesting plot scenario.  I personally quite liked the character of Bernadette, one of the arms dealer’s bodyguards, who was essentially a female Terminator.  Bernadette is a particularly intimidating woman, who manages to consistently put Riley in his place and ensure that he is nowhere near as cocky as he usually is, and she ends up being an extremely dangerous and relentless antagonist.  If I had to complain about any of the characters it would probably be the mysterious Betty/Evelyn, who becomes an ally of Riley.  I felt that this character was severely underdeveloped; despite seeing several scenes from her perspective as she plays a key role in the plot, you end up knowing very little about her or what she does.  While part of this is due to the character constantly changing identities, I do think that the author could have explored her more or explained her role in the heist better, although perhaps this lack of identity will come into play in a future Riley Wolfe novel.

Fool Me Twice by Jeff Lindsay was a fantastic and captivating read that sees the author’s new antihero, Riley Wolfe, engage in a more heist-based shenanigans.  This second Riley Wolfe novel had an excellent and fun story that was really easy to enjoy and which was enhanced by several great characters, including one unlikeable main protagonist.  I had an amazing time getting through this cool book and it is definitely recommended for anyone interested in an exciting and compelling thriller.  I look forward to seeing what unique heist situation Lindsay comes up with in his next book, but I am sure it will be something extremely memorable and really fun.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

Darth Vader - Dark Heart of the Sith

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

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During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

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Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

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However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

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This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

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I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

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Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.