Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas

Cyber Shogun Revolution

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: United States of Japan – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

If you like the sound of a gritty spy thriller set in an alternate version of America filled with destructive mechas, then you really need to check out Cyber Shogun Revolution, the third novel in Peter Tieryas’s outstanding United States of Japan series.

The United States of Japan novels are a fun and inventive series that is routinely described as a combination between The Man in the High Castle and Pacific Rim.  This series is set in an alternate history in which the United States lost World War II after Japan invented mechas to defeat the Allies.  Following the end of the war, the United States was split between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis, who subsequently engaged in an extended and brutal Cold War against each other.  This latest novel is set in 2020 and features an intense and thrilling new tale that is separate from the stories told in the previous two entries in the series.

Following the end of the latest war against the Nazis, the United States of Japan is facing a crisis as their corrupt governor appears to be a Nazi sympathiser, secretly doing their enemy’s bidding.  Seeking justice after a brutal Nazi attack in Kansas, mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa joins a secret organisation of high-ranking soldiers, mecha pilots and politicians, known as The Sons of War, who plot to assassinate the governor and replace him with one of their own.  While their initial plan to kill the governor goes awry, their target is still killed thanks to the intervention of the mysterious assassin and feared Nazi slayer, Bloody Mary.

However, Bloody Mary has a whole different agenda and swiftly turns against The Sons of War, assassinating key members of the organisation in a brutal strike that leaves Reiko as the only survivor.  Determined to find out why Bloody Mary betrayed them, Reiko teams up with Bishop Wakan, an agent of Japan’s secret police, the Tokko, to hunt her down and stop her plot.  Tracing a shipment of black market mecha parts to Nazi America, Reiko and Bishop travel into enemy territory to find answers and soon find themselves in the midst of a massive conspiracy.  Bloody Mary has plans to change the entire United States of Japan forever, and she does not care who dies to achieve her goal.  Can Reiko and Bishop stop her before it is too late, or will the entire world feel Bloody Mary’s wrath?

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an exciting and compelling new novel from Tieryas, which serves as the third entry in the United States of Japan series.  I have a lot of love for this series after powering through the second novel, Mecha Samurai Empire, when it came out a couple of years ago.  I have been meaning to check out this latest entry for some time now, and I was glad I was able to get around to it before the end of 2020.  This latest book was really cool, and I loved the bold new story that Tieryas was able to come up with, especially as he once again makes excellent use of his unique and captivating alternate world.

This latest entry in the United States of Japan series proved to be a fun and fast-paced novel, which sees two intense protagonists forced to investigate a lethal conspiracy in an inventive and clever setting.  Told from the alternating perspectives of its two main characters, Reiko and Bishop, this story gets off the ground quick and does not slow down one bit throughout the entire book as the protagonists quickly find themselves in the midst of all manner of intrigue and suspense.  This was a deeply exciting novel, and I liked how the author changes focus from the previous novel, writing Cyber Shogun Revolution as more of a spy thriller with alternate history and science fiction elements.  I really liked the impressive pace of this novel and I was quickly drawn in by the compelling and complex thriller that Tieryas weaves for the reader, especially as it makes great use of its setting and unique world elements to tell the entire story.  The author throws in a few good twists and turns throughout the narrative, and I quite enjoyed seeing the story unfold in all its action-packed glory.  Readers do not need to have any pre-knowledge of the United States of Japan series to enjoy this book as the narrative is mostly unrelated to the events of the previous novels, although fans of the series will no doubt enjoy seeing the various changes to the universe.  Overall, Cyber Shogun Revolution had a fantastic and exhilarating story that is guaranteed to keep the reader wildly entertained throughout the entire run of the book.

A major highlight of Cyber Shogun Revolution, and indeed the entire United States of Japan series, is the inventive and unique alternate version of the world that the author has created.  The Japanese-controlled America featured within this series is an intriguing blend of Western and Japanese culture, mixed with advanced technology and an entirely new history.  I really enjoyed seeing all the clever combinations of culture that the author featured throughout his story, and there are quite a few amusing references and ideas featured throughout.  There is a particular focus on cuisine, and Tieryas once again enthrals the reader with descriptions of intense and interesting-sounding fusion foods, many of which I would love to try out.  These descriptions of the United States of Japan are really cool, and it proves to be a rich setting for the narrative to run through, especially as it is not the shiny utopia that it appears on the surface.  The country is instead a dangerous and oppressive regime ruled over by fanatical thought police, where even a momentary slipup is enough to condemn you to a horrible fate.  Tieryas spends time really highlighting this darker side of his universe in Cyber Shogun Revolution and it ends up become a major part of the plot.  The author also takes the reader on a brief tour of Nazi-occupied America, which proves to be a particularly horrible experience (strangely enough, the Nazis are just as bad, if not worse, in this reality), mainly due to the Nazis’ reliance on bioengineering rather than machines, which results in a number of disturbing and disgusting creatures, such as their bimorphs (giant organic mechas).  The comparisons between the Japanese and Nazi controlled parts of America are really fascinating, and I am really glad the author based a bit of the story there.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved the setting for Cyber Shogun Revolution, especially as it helped create a clever and complex narrative, and I cannot wait to revisit it in some of Tieryas’s future novels.

Now there is no way that I can talk about Cyber Shogun Revolution without mentioning the mechas, the giant and powerful human-controlled battle machines which won the war for the Japanese.  Mechas are a distinctive and exciting pop culture creation, especially in anime, and Tieryas uses them to great effect throughout the entire book.  While this latest entry in the series has a definite focus on conspiracies and espionage, Tieryas still slips in several mecha fights and combat scenes.  Indeed, the entire last third of the novel sees the protagonists go up against a series of different and powerful mechas in some intense and epic sequences.  The author has clearly had some creative fun in this book as Cyber Shogun Revolution features a raft of new mechas, each with some unique or advanced piece of technology that gives them an edge over their opponents, including mechas with magnet guns, a mammoth-shaped mecha with a chainsaw trunk, and a mecha that has super speed.  This naturally leads to some fantastic and distinctive sequences, as the protagonists need to find a way to defeat the varied opponents around them.  I particularly enjoyed one sequence that saw one of the characters fighting against a rival mecha, while the other protagonist assists from the outside while riding a jetpack.  Needless to say, if you love mecha combat and fantastic battle scenes (who doesn’t?) then you are going to have a lot of fun with Cyber Shogun Revolution.

In order to tell this fantastic novel, Tieryas utilises two excellent, if damaged, point-of-view protagonists in the duo of mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa and secret agent Bishop Wakan.  After both have separate run-ins with Bloody Mary in which they are the only survivor, the two team up in order to get to the bottom of why she betrayed their nation and what her end goal really is.  Both characters are extremely interesting, mainly because they both have complex and tragic pasts which drive them towards their goals.  Tieryas does an amazing job diving down into these characters’ inner psyches, creating some truly complex characters with major flaws who the reader are inexorably drawn to.  In addition, both characters also have some intense history with Bloody Mary and some of her co-conspirators, resulting in some emotionally charged moments throughout the novel.  These two characters are also a little anti-authoritarian, having seen the dark side of their nation firsthand, which alters the way that they deal with events, and also ensures that they are a little more susceptible to their enemy’s manipulation.  I really enjoyed these amazing characters and I thought that they made for a great duo of central protagonists.

While I had initially planned to grab a paperback version of this book, I ended up splashing out and getting Cyber Shogun Revolution’s audiobook format.  This audiobook has a relatively quick runtime of just under 11 hours and was narrated by the talented Emily Woo Zeller.  Zeller, who I recently enjoyed in the Star Wars: Doctor Aphra audio drama, did an exceptional job narrating Cyber Shogun Revolution and I had an outstanding time listening to it.  Zeller came up with some fantastic and distinctive voices for the various characters featured within this novel, and the entire audiobook quickly flew by thanks to her fast-paced narration.  I also loved having the cool mecha fights being narrated to me, as hearing the action being described made it pop a lot more for me than simply reading it on a page.  Because of this, Cyber Shogun Revolution comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I really enjoyed hearing all the awesome action and excitement contained within this amazing novel.

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an epic and captivating novel from the amazing Peter Tieryas that serves as the third entry in his fantastic United States of Japan series.  Containing an intense story laden with action, intrigue, and treachery, all set with a clever alternate version of America, Cyber Shogun Revolution is a ball of excitement that readers will have an incredible time reading.  An excellent and fun read to check out, I look forward to exploring more of Tieryas’s outrageous universe in the future.

Quick Review – King of Assassins by R. J. Barker

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I recently received a copy of R. J. Barker’s latest epic fantasy novel, Call of the Bone Ships, but before I dive into that I figured I would finally review for the third and final novel in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, King of Assassins.

Barker is a talented fantasy author who has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years, creating several outstanding fantasy novels since his 2017 debut, Age of Assassins.  I was lucky enough to receive Age of Assassins, which is also the first book in The Wounded Kingdom series, when it first came out and had a fantastic time reading it.  I also really enjoyed the sequel, Blood of Assassins, which continued the excellent storylines from the first book in epic fashion.  I was quite keen to read the third book, King of Assassins, when it first came out, but I did not get a chance to read it back in 2018, which I had deep regrets about.  I did  manage to read it late last year, but I then completely failed to review it, even after I enjoyed Barker’s new novel, The Bone Ships.  So it is high time I got off my ass and pulled something together for it, especially as King of Assassins was a particularly amazing novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc, years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vthyr eyes the vacant High-King’s throne and will take his court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and murder, where every enemy he has ever made will gather and the endgame of 20 years of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Barker is the way in which he significantly improves as an author with every single book that he writes.  King of Assassins is a particularly great example of this, as the author does an impressive job expanding and enhancing his already amazing series in this novel, presenting the reader with an incredible story that makes excellent use of its dark setting and exceptional characters.  The result is an awesome and deeply captivating read that was easily my favourite book in the entire trilogy, which is saying a bit considering how good the first two entries were.

At the centre of this novel is an outstanding dark fantasy narrative which sees the assassin, Girton Club-Foot, accompany his lord, Rufra ap Vthyr, into the dangerous capital of the broken and war-ravished kingdom this series is set in.  This results in Girton and his companions stuck in the middle of a dark and crumbling citadel, surrounded by nearly every enemy and manipulator that they have encountered throughout the course of the series, as well as several new ones who pop up in this book.  As Rufra attempts to politic his way into becoming High-King, Girton navigates his way through the many dangers of the citadel, attempting to uncover the hidden motives and plans of his enemies.  Unsurprisingly, nearly every other player gathered in the citadel has plans to either kill Girton and Rufra or manipulate them for their own advantage.  As a result, King of Assassins quickly turns into an intense and exciting narrative, as the characters must unravel every plot and conspiracy in the fortress to find out everyone working against them and what their ultimate goals are.  These leads to several amazing storylines and impressive reveals throughout the course of the book, as Girton desperately attempts to save his friends while also protecting his darkest secret.  All of this comes together in an amazing conclusion which will not only satisfy fans of the series but which also delivers some clever and surprising twists that will leave the reader breathless.

There is a bit of a significant time skip between the events of this book and the preceding Blood of Assassins, which Barker works into the story very well, allowing for some subsequent changes in relationships and the simmering of old grudges.  The author also spends a substantial amount of time wrapping up some of the storylines and character arcs from the previous novels in the series, which really helped to give the novel a sense of completeness while also resulting in some big moments for the various characters.  I also really must highlight the dark, foreboding setting in which the characters find themselves in.  Not only has Barker created a great location for treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed, but he installed an extremely dark and oppressive atmosphere into it that the reader can taste as they read/listen to the book.  The sense of dread and despair that washes over the reader as they have the castle and its people described to them really enhances the story and ensures that they are eagerly waiting for the protagonists to prevail and rid the world of darkness.  All in all, this was an extremely well-written and utterly compelling narrative, and readers will quickly find themselves enthralled within it.

Among the main things I liked about King of Assassins were the impressive characters, most of whom have appeared in some of the previous novels in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  Barker has done an awesome job of developing each of these characters throughout the course of the series, and in this final book they all reach the conclusion of their individual or joint arcs.  While this does result in a bit of heartbreak and betrayal for some characters, one or two are quite nice, and I think those readers who have read the earlier entries in the series will be quite satisfied by where each character ends up.  The focus of the book is naturally on the point-of-view character Girton, who has gone through a lot throughout the course of the series.  Girton continues to battle his demons in this book, including his hidden and dangerous magical ability, and he must come to terms with several betrayals and old wounds from the previous books.  A major focus of the series has been the friendship between Girton and Rufra, as their lives have become inexorably bound together.  While their friendship had some ups in downs in the past, by the start of this book relationship has become a lot more strained due to differences in opinions about certain events.  Despite this the two constantly attempt to reconcile throughout the course of the novel, often unsuccessfully, but the power and complexity of their friendship is a key cornerstone of the book’s plot.  However, their joint character arc has a major twist into it near the end of the book, and the devastated feelings that result make for quite an epic and heartfelt conclusion to their narrative.  I also quite liked how the character of Aydor was featured in this book.  Aydor was one of the main antagonists of the first novel who eventually morphed into a reluctant ally in the second book.  However, in King of Assassins, after the time-skip he has become one of Girton’s closest friends and confidants.  I loved this gradual and excellent change in personality for Aydor, especially as he becomes one the nicest and warmest people in the entire novel and it was fantastic to see his relationship with Girton change throughout the series.  I ended up really loving all the amazing character arcs that concluded in King of Assassins and each of them added a strong, emotionally rich pillar to the overall narrative.

I ended up listening to King of Assassins on audiobook, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out this excellent fantasy novel.  The King of Assassins audiobook is narrated by the talented Joe Jameson and has a run time of 17 hours and 17 minutes.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, not only because the format helped me dive into the narrative but because of Jameson’s impressive narration.  Jameson did a fantastic job bringing the various characters to life in this book and his voice works extremely well for the first-person narration that Barker uses for his novels.  I personally found that Jameson’s narration helped to enhance the dark atmosphere that the author created with his writing and this made for an outstanding listen.  At just over 17 hours in length, this is a somewhat more substantial audiobook listen, but I found myself getting through it in an extremely short amount of time as it proved very hard to turn off.  This is an overall awesome audiobook and an excellent way to enjoy this great novel.

King of Assassins by R. J. Barker is an exceptional and captivating novel which takes the reader on an exciting and addictive ride.  This is an extremely well-written and impressive book that serves as an excellent conclusion to the fantastic The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  This was honestly one of the better fantasy novels of 2018 and this review is a long-time coming.  King of Assassins is an outstanding book, and I am looking forward to checking out Barker’s latest novel, Call of the Bone Ships, in the next week or so.

Total Power by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Total Power Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 15 September 2020)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 19

Length: 9 hours and 27 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed thriller writer Kyle Mills returns with his latest entry in the long-running Mitch Rapp series, Total Power, a haunting and compelling new book that portrays a devastating and country-altering attack on America.

America’s top spy and assassin Mitch Rapp is back in action, and this time he’s racing to keep America from falling into the Dark Ages.  After eliminating his nemesis, Sayid Halabi, the head of ISIS, Mitch and his team have been working to clean up the remnants of Halabi’s operation before they can reorganise for another attack.  When the CIA manages to locate ISIS’s top technology expert, Mitch leads a team to intercept him and makes a disturbing discovery: the expert was on the way to meet someone who claims that they can turn out all the lights in the United States.

A rogue genius has discovered a way completely incapacitate America’s power grid and is now seeking help to make his dark dream a reality.  An attack of this magnitude has the capacity to severely incapacitate the entire country, bringing about anarchy, destruction and an unimaginable loss of life.  Desperately trying to find out who is behind this attack before it is too late, Mitch can only watch helpless as the plan is implemented and the country he loves falls dark.

As panic and confusion reigns across the country and the whole world reels from the sudden shift in power, the government desperately attempts to get the electricity flowing again.  However, due to the sheer scope of the attack and the chaotic nature of America’s power grid, repairs could take months or even years.  The only way to avoid the complete destruction of the United States is for Mitch to find the person responsible for the attack and convince him to reveal how to undo the damage and reroute power to the country.  However, this will be a search unlike anything he has done before, as he is stuck in the middle of a failing nation with no communications, no internet, no gas and with every single system he knows failing around him.  Can Mitch get the power back before it is too late and America collapses completely, or have the terrorists Mitch has spent his whole career fighting finally won?

This was another fun and addictive thriller from Kyle Mills, who continues to keep the Mitch Rapp books going strong after the passing of the series’ original writer, Vince Flynn.  Total Power is the sixth Mitch Rapp novel written by Mills and the 19th overall novel in the series, and it features the latest adventure from the titular character and his associates.  I have been really enjoying the Mitch Rapp novels over the last couple of years and I have had an amazing time reading the last two entries in the series, Red War and Lethal Agent.  This latest Mitch Rapp novel is another exciting and compelling book which makes use of an excellent concept and once again sets the series’ extremely dangerous protagonist on a destructive warpath.

Total Power is an excellent modern thriller novel that presents the reader with another exciting and action-packed narrative as American agent Mitch Rapp engages in another desperate manhunt for a new dangerous madman targeting America.  This was a really fun and compelling narrative, set around the fantastic story concept of all the power going out in the United States.  Total Power was a very fast-paced book, and the reader gets an excitement overload as they watch the protagonists attempt to stop the disaster and the subsequent frantic efforts to get the power back on.  The author makes good use of multiple point-of-view characters to tell his story, with most of the novel told from the perspective of Mitch Rapp and the main antagonist.  These two characters allow for a very interesting opposing view of the events occurring throughout America, and it is also fun to see the various moves and countermoves the two made in a bid to outsmart the other.  Other point-of-view characters were used a little more sparingly and presented a larger picture of the events occurring around the main narrative.  These disparate perspectives come together extremely well and help to create an overall captivating novel with a really fun story attached.  Mills makes sure to include all the typical Mitch Rapp hyper violence (with a few gnarly torture scenes that some readers will find a bit uncomfortable) and commentary on American politicians and foreign policy, and readers are in for an entertaining over-the-top novel as a result.

When I first heard that this book was coming out, the thing that really drew me to it was the awesome-sounding plot concept of all the power going out in America, which I thought would be a really cool basis for a thriller story.  Mills delivered in spades, and I was really happy to find out just how amazing a story concept it really was.  The author spends a substantial amount of time exploring how such a catastrophic blackout event could occur in America.  It was deeply fascinating, if a little troubling, to learn more about America’s power grid, as well as how potentially easy it could be for something like this to occur.  Indeed, Mills makes a note at the start of the audiobook that he actually had to invent very little of this concept and that a lot of the novel is based off historical events and public reports (although he does alter or fictionalise some details and locations).  Mills also makes sure to explore just how severe and deadly a sustained, nationwide power outage could be.  Spoiler alert: it would apparently get pretty damn bad.  There are some riveting and disturbing depictions of America completely devoid of power, with all manner of lawlessness, looting, and anarchy as the country quickly falls apart and people have no ability to keep themselves alive.  Mills does not pull punches in these depictions and I personally found them to be realistic, especially after seeing what happened in America in 2020, and a little terrifying.  Naturally, this fictionally powerless America proves to be an amazing setting for this thriller novel, and it was fantastic to see Mitch Rapp and the other characters attempt to navigate around the broken country.  All the subsequent barriers and issues that pop up add a lot of tension and excitement to an already action-packed narrative, especially as it’s entirely possible that Mitch could be taken out by citizens of the country he has long tried to protect.  All of this is an outstanding story concept and I am extremely glad that Mills ended up using it in one of his novels even if it did leave me a little paranoid (here’s hoping that our power grid is a little more stable down here in Australia).

If I had to level any real criticisms towards Total Power, it would probably be around the characters.  While I did enjoy seeing the various characters attempt to navigate their way through this latest crisis and the wasteland of a United States without power, most of the characters were really over-the-top and a bit unrealistic.  For example, Mitch Rapp is his usual ultra-violent, sociopathic self, hardly ever hesitating to kill someone, even a bunch of American citizens who are in his way.  While he is a fun action star to follow after, it was hard to root for him when he is constantly being a cold-hearted murderer the entire time.  I also was not the biggest fan of the main antagonist, the genius who shuts down the power.  Mills portrays him as a supremely arrogant man, completely high on himself and obsessed with becoming a major historical figure like Caesar or Genghis Khan (you know, history’s greatest role models).  While I can appreciate Mills wanting to make him an unlikeable villain for the sake of the reader he might have gone a tad overboard with this as pretty much every sentence or thought that the antagonist makes is either something extremely egotistical about himself or insulting towards the people he is seeing, often with sexist or racist overtones.  That being said, it was extremely satisfying to see this villain’s plans going up in smoke around him as Mitch closes in on him, especially since you do want to kill him yourself after listening to him for a few hours.  I did like the fun side character, Jed Jones, a survivalist who gains celebrity status in the post-blackout America thanks to his informative radio shows.  Jed was a rather entertaining figure and I liked the idea of a backwater doomsday prepper becoming the most famous person in the country thanks to his knowhow.  The book ended up featuring an interesting array of side characters who added some interesting diversity to the cast and showed some of the different experiences facing the American people.  Indeed, one of the few things that they had in common were similar opinions about America’s politicians and political elite, in that all of them are pretty much all useless parasites, something that gets mentioned multiple times.  Overall, the characters for this novel weren’t too bad and while some of these characterisations are a little distracting it did not really disrupt my enjoyment of Total Power, and I had a fantastic time seeing how they dealt with the problems in this setting.

Rather than grab a physical copy of this latest Mitch Rapp novel, I ended up enjoying the audiobook version of Total Power.  The Total Power audiobook has a run time of around nine and a half hours and is narrated by veteran audiobook narrator George Guidall, who is one of the most prolific audiobook narrators in the world.  This proved to be a rather easy audiobook to get through and I was able to finish it off in a short period of time.  It was fun to listen to listen to Total Power’s story and I felt myself getting drawn into the narrative as a result.  I do have to admit that Guidall is really not one of my favourite vocal talents.  Do not get me wrong, Guidall does a great job with this book, especially as his deep voice has a lot of gravitas to it which works well with thriller novels.  However, Guidall does sound a bit tired at times (to be fair, he is in his 80s), and his range of voices is a tad limited.  Despite this I still really enjoyed the Total Power audiobook and it is definitely an excellent way to check out this latest Mitch Rapp novel.

Total Power by Kyle Mills is a great new entry in Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series that I ended up really enjoying.  Featuring an excellent thriller story set around an impressive and compelling plot concept, Mills presents the reader with an exciting and bloody adventure across an America without any power.  Total Power proved to be quite an exciting and awesome read, and I am really glad that I listened to it.

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

Hit-Girl in Hollywood Volume 4

Publisher: Image Comics (Paperback – 19 June 2019)

Series: Hit-Girl – Volume 4

Writer: Kevin Smith

Artist: Pernille Ørum

Colourist: Sunny Gho

Letterer: Clem Robins

Length: 112 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit GIrl S2 #3

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

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

Hit Girl S2 #4

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

Hit Girl S2 #4b

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

Star Wars: Target Vader

Star Wars - Target Vader

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Standalone

Writer: Robbie Thompson.

Artists: Marc Laming (#1), Cris Bolson (#1, #5), Stefano Landini (#2-4, #6), Marco Failla (#5), Roberto Di Salvo (#5-6) and Georges Duarte (#6)

Colour Artists: Neeraj Menon (#1-4, #6) and Rachelle Rosenberg (#5-6), with Jordan Boyd (#1), Andres Mossa (#1), Federico Blee (#1, #4), Erick Arciniega (#1) and Giada Marchisio (#4).

Letterers: VC’s Clayton Cowles (#1) and Joe Caramagna (#2 – 6)

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a bunch of crazy bounty hunters went after Darth Vader? Wonder no more, as writer Robbie Thompson and a massive artistic team present Star Wars: Target Vader, a fun and action-packed adventure comic that sets a dangerous team of bounty hunters against the Dark Lord of the Sith.

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There is a new criminal organisation dominating the known galaxy, calling itself The Hidden Hand. This nefarious and secretive group smuggles and sells weapons across all of Imperial Space, and while this might ordinarily be tolerated or barely noticed by the Empire, one of The Hidden Hand’s biggest clients is the Rebel Alliance, and this has attracted the worst kind of attention, in the form of Darth Vader. Vader has made it his mission to wipe out any trace of The Hidden Hand, and he has started scouring the galaxy for them, brutally destroying anyone who has had any contact or dealings with them.

Desperate to save themselves from a violent and painful death at the hands of Vader, The Hidden Hand attempt to turn the hunter into the hunted by hiring a group of bounty hunters to go after the evil Sith Lord. The man they choose to lead this suicidal mission is the notorious Beilert Valance, a former dedicated imperial soldier turned unscrupulous bounty hunter. Valance has a long and complicated history with the Empire, and he eagerly jumps at the chance to take a shot at Vader.

TargetVader-2

Valance finds himself in command of a crack team of bounty hunters, each of whom bears a grudge against Vader or the Empire and is willing to do anything to get their target. However, Vader is no ordinary quarry, and it will take far more than brute strength and firepower to take him down. Valance will need to make use of every ounce of skill and determination he has if the team is to succeed in their mission and kill the unkillable. But everyone involved on this mission has a secret. Who can really be trusted, and can a divided team truly bring down the most feared and dangerous man in the known galaxy?

This comic was written by Robbie Thompson, who is probably best known as a screenwriter for Supernatural, having written several excellent episodes between season 7 and 11 (including the 200th episode, which was an awesome meta musical). Thompson has moved to comic book writing in recent years, having written several series for Marvel Comics including Silk, Spidey, Dr Strange, the Solo comic adaption and Han Solo – Imperial Cadet. Target Vader also features a substantial team of artists, colour artists and letterers who helped this fun story jump off the page. The Target Vader collected edition contains issues #1 – 6 of the Target Vader limited series, which is set just before the events of The Empire Strikes Back.

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Target Vader is a fantastic and enjoyable comic that I had an excellent time reading. Pretty much the moment I heard that this series was going to feature a group of bounty hunters going after Darth Vader, I knew that I had to grab it and check it out (I mean frankly, who could possibly resist such a cool concept). The creative team behind this great comic did an amazing job bringing this exciting concept together and turning it into such an awesome read, with some impressive action sequences, an intriguing look at the criminal underbelly of the Star Wars universe and a great overall story.

This was an excellent standalone comic book series, which most fans of Star Wars fiction are going to enjoy. No real familiarity with the extended Star Wars universe is required to appreciate this story; all you really need to know is that Darth Vader is a badass, the Empire is evil, bounty hunters are crazy scum, and you are going to have an entertaining time watching Vader go up against some dangerous criminals. That being said, those readers who are familiar with the expanded universe are going to get a lot more out of this comic than more causal fans, especially as it presents the reader with a great look at the bounty hunters and criminals that inhabited the galaxy during the events of the original trilogy. This will also be an interesting lead-in comic to the new ongoing Star Wars comic series, Bounty Hunters, which will also feature Valance as a lead character, and which will be set after the events of Target Vader (the Bounty Hunters series is going to be set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi).

TargetVader4-CoverArt

I have to say that I really enjoyed the cool story that Thompson came up with for Target Vader. As I have mentioned above, the entire scenario for this comic is pretty awesome, and it ended up producing a compelling tale of betrayal, revenge and redemption, as the various main characters each try to achieve their own goals. I liked the places this story went, and there are some fun double-crosses and betrayals set throughout this colourful landscape of the Star Wars universe. Aside from the central characters of Valance and Vader, the creative team filled this comic with a great array of side characters, including a primitive tracker; a crazed, four gun wielding slicer; a Tusken Raider sniper; and of course Dengar, the turban-wearing bounty hunter who was part of the group Vader hired in The Empire Strikes Back, and who has featured heavily in both expanded universes after the film. This diverse group of bounty hunters come together as an intriguing and entertaining team, and they nearly succeed in their mission with their unique skills. Vader of course comes across as a total badass in this comic, which is always fun to see, and I really enjoy comics that showcase this iconic villain. There is so much to love about this amazing story, and readers are guaranteed an exciting team exploring the cool narrative within this comic.

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Target Vader also features a rather intriguing central character in Beilert Valance, the cyborg bounty hunter who leads the team against Vader. Valance is a character with an interesting past in Star Wars lore as he originally appeared many years ago in a Star Wars Legends comic, where had an excellent character arc. He has the distinction of being one of the few expanded universe characters from the Legends era who has been reintroduced into the new Disney Star Wars canon. Thompson is actually the writer who brought this character into the current canon, as he was first shown in the comic adaption of Solo: A Star Wars Story, and subsequently formally identified and strongly featured as a character in Han Solo – Imperial Cadet. In his latest appearance, Thompson does a deeper dive into his character, showing off a past full of fire, combat and death, as well as examining his motivations and his drive to keep on fighting no matter what. There are some interesting surprises involved with his actions in this limited series, I liked seeing his complex history with Vader, the Empire and other organisations featured within the comic. Valance is also shown to be a crafty and skilled individual who is actually a threat to Vader. His whole plan to assassinate Vader is rather clever, and the way that he is eventually able to outsmart everyone is pretty cool. Overall, Valance served as an excellent central character for this book, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the upcoming Bounty Hunters comic (Valance and Boba Fett should be a fun combination).

I also enjoyed the fantastic artwork that is shown throughout Target Vader. As you can see from the breakdown of contributors at the top of this review, this comic features the talents of a huge range of different artists, and there are some varied collaborations on each separate comic issue. Now I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of having so many artists contributing to one single series and I personally like a bit of consistency, but this great team (some of whose work I have seen before in comics such as Doctor Aphra, Vader: Dark Visions and Uncanny X-Men – Wolverine and Cyclops), did some amazing work in Target Vader, illustrating some awesome and action-packed sequences. There are some great explosive scenes featured within this volume, and these artists did an outstanding job showcasing all the intense action that occurred as part of the story. The artistic highlight of Target Vader has to be the massive and exciting fight between Vader and the bounty hunters, which was really cool to see. I also really enjoyed all the character designs featured within the volumes, and this team made sure to feature a number of the distinctive Star Wars alien races throughout the comic. All of this amazing artwork really enhances the enjoyable story, and readers are in for an intense visual treat with this comic.

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Target Vader is an awesome and deeply exciting limited series which I had a really fun time reading. This fantastic comic features an excellent story, some impressive artwork and a bunch of great characters, all of which comes together for a captivating and enjoyable piece of Star Wars fiction. I look forward to seeing more Star Wars bounty hunter adventures in the future, and this is a wonderful and recommended read for those Star Wars fans looking for something fast-paced and very entertaining.

House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Audible Studios (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: Crescent City – Book One

Lenght: 27 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to meet your new obsession! One of the world’s top young adult fantasy fiction authors, Sarah J. Maas, breaks into the adult fantasy fiction genre in a big way with the first book in her brand-new Crescent City series.

Sarah J. Maas is an author that needs very little introduction. She is one of the most highly regarded young adult fantasy authors in the world today, having written two major bestselling series and a couple of standalone young adult novels. Maas debuted in 2012 with Throne of Glass, the first novel in her acclaimed seven-book long Throne of Glass series, and she has since gone on to write a second major series, A Court of Thorns and Roses. I have been meaning to check out some of Maas’s main series for a while now, especially Throne of Glass, as I have heard some very good things about them. Unfortunately, the only book of Maas’s that I have so far read was her DC Comics tie-in novel, Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I really enjoyed, especially as Maas had an amazing understanding of some iconic comic characters. As a result, I was interested when I heard about her new book, House of Earth and Blood, and I was curious to see how her first adult fiction novel would turn out. This is the first book in the Crescent City series, which presumably will be the author’s main body of work for the next few years. I received a physical copy of this book to review, although I eventually decided to listen to the audiobook format to fit it into my reading schedule, and I have to say I was rather impressed.

Welcome to Crescent City, a bustling metropolis where magic and technology meet in a world ruled over by all-powerful godlike creatures. Bryce Quinlan is a half-Fae, half-human, party girl at the low end of her world’s magical hierarchy, content to live her days clubbing and celebrating with her best friend, the powerful werewolf Alpha Danika Fendyr. All that changes the night Danika and her entire wolf pack are brutally slaughtered while Bryce is out partying. Bryce arrives home just in time to encounter the demon that committed the act, chasing it out into the streets before it escapes, never to be seen again.

Two years later, Bryce is a shell of her former self. Still reeling from the death of the closest person in her life, Bryce finds herself without direction or purpose. However, the revelation that a fresh wave of killings that mirror the bloody way Danika and her pack were taken out quickly changes that. Due to her experiences with the unknown species of demon and her intimate knowledge of Danika’s movements and history, Bryce is tasked by the governor of Crescent City to find who or what is summoning the destructive demons and unleashing them upon seemingly random members of the populace. However, Bryce will not be working on this case alone, as she finds herself teamed up with the governor’s personal assassin, the brooding, dangerous and surprisingly attractive fallen angel, Hunt Athalar.

Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Bryce and Hunt start to scour the dark underbelly of their city, attempting to find any leads to who summoned the demon. However, they soon run afoul of many of Crescent City’s inhabitants, some of whom do not want the pair to uncover the truth. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a terrible conspiracy with terrible connections to Bryce’s traumatic past and which threatens all of Crescent City. However, the closer they come to the truth, the more pain and torment the two damaged souls uncover, especially as both of them try to fight the intense feelings blooming between them. With the fate of Crescent City hanging in the balance, can Bryce and Hunt get to the bottom of these killings, or will they be overwhelmed by all the hurt that is about to come their way?

Well damn, that turned out to be one hell of a book. I do have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of major romantic subplots in the novels I read (I know, typical male, Bryce would probably be calling me an Alphahole), and I was a little apprehensive that the romantic angles described in the book’s synopsis would overwhelm the fantasy story. However, any doubts I had about whether I was going to enjoy House of Earth and Blood were quickly blown away in the early stages of the story, especially once I hit the major plot development about 70 pages in. From there I was absolutely hooked on the story, as Maas kept piling on revelations, shocking moments, character development and an impressive murder mystery. I ended up really loving this amazing novel, and I ended up giving it a five-star rating.

I really enjoyed the way that Maas told this story, and this book contained an expansive and deeply addictive narrative that proved hard to put down at times. House of Earth and Blood is told from several character perspectives, most notably Bryce and Hunt, although quite a bit of the story is shown from the perspective of Bryce’s half-brother, Ruhn Danaan. Having these three main point-of-view characters results in a much more expansive story, as each of them has their own contributions to the plot, although there is a huge amount of crossover between each of their storylines. While Mass tends to focus most of her character development and storylines around Bryce, Hunt and Ruhn, there are a number of additional supporting characters, some of whom have some rather interesting roles throughout the book. Maas also includes a huge amount of foreshadowing throughout the book, hinting at several things that are to come further along in the narrative. While it is obvious where some of this foreshadowing is going, some of it was only noticeable in hindsight, and some of these more subtle inclusions made me really appreciate the author’s clever writing style.

One of the best things about this book was the incredible and intriguing new fantasy world. The Crescent City series is set on a version of Earth called Midgard, which was invaded thousands of years ago by vast armies of various magical creatures, ending humankind’s dominance of the planet. The modern world of Midgard is a chaotic and fascinating place, filled will all manner of magic and creatures who live in a hierarchal system, with all-powerful beings at the top and humans at the very bottom. There are so many cool elements to this world, from the unique magical systems, the different factions and organisations, and a vast multitude of different magical creatures with their own traits and characteristics. Maas dedicates a substantial amount of time exploring all these different elements of her new world, and the result is an impressive and vast setting which serves as a fantastic backdrop to this exciting story. I also liked the rather fun similarities between this fantasy world and the modern world, and it was interesting to see fantasy creatures running around with modern technology such as phones and guns. I also had a rather good laugh at some of the television shows that the author featured in the book, including a rather trashy-sounding True Blood inspired television show, which was made fun of relentlessly for its sexual content (which is kind of ironic considering how much sex was in this novel). Maas is clearly a master of universe building, and she has come up with a really great fantasy world that holds a lot of potential for future novels in the series, as well as opening up the possibilities of spin-off stories around some of the fantastic side characters introduced. I personally would love to see a novel based around the character of Fury Axtar, the mysterious assassin friend of Bryce, who has a minor role in the book.

In addition, Maas has also come up with a rather clever murder mystery storyline that I had an outstanding time unwrapping. The vast majority of House of Earth and Blood’s plot revolves around the murder of Danika Fendyr and her pack, as well as the similar murders that are occurring in the modern day. The subsequent investigation by Bryce and Hunt turned into a rather captivating storyline, as they explored the underbelly of their fascinating city, trying to find leads and uncover who had a motive to kill Danika. This whole mystery storyline goes to some very interesting places, and Maas comes up with a number of red herrings, alternate suspects, potential leads and side mysteries (a missing magical horn and a new street drug), all of which come together into a pretty incredible and clever narrative. I was actually rather surprised about who the culprit turned out to be, although Maas does set up the reveal rather well, and there are some rather clever hints in hindsight. That being said, while I didn’t know who the culprit was in advance, I totally knew where the final showdown with them was going to take place, and how the whole confrontation was bound to go down (there was a literal Chekov’s gun there). Still, it turned into quite a good confrontation scene, and I had a good laugh at the over-the-top way that the villain was taken down for good. This was a rather impressive element of the story, and I hope that Maas includes some more clever mysteries in her future books.

While I really loved the fantastic story, incredible world building and captivating mystery, the true centre of this book are the two compelling and exceedingly damaged main characters who Maas sets the story around, Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar. Maas does some outstanding work setting these characters up, exploring their pasts and developing their personalities and emotions throughout the book. Bryce starts House of Earth and Blood as a seemingly carefree party girl with major daddy issues. However, the loss of Danika in the book’s first act severely changes her, as she has to deal with an extreme amount of guilt, isolation and social hatred in the following two years. This really alters her as a character and turns her into an extremely vulnerable person with a real emotional investment in the case, who hides all her true feelings behind a sassy and angry façade. Hunt, on the other hand, is a powerful fallen angel who lost his freedom and the love of his life in a failed rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet, and has spent the last several decades being tortured and used by the victorious archangels, and is now the personal assassin of the governor of Crescent City. Now known throughout the city as the Umbra Mortis, the Shadow of Death, Hunt is a simmering pot of anger who is resentful of how he has been treated all his life, and who is determined to be set free. Like Bryce, he is deeply invested in solving the case, as its resolution will allow him to take a serious step towards freedom, and on the surface he is the more serious of the duo. However, also like Bryce, Hunt has some major vulnerabilities and he is hurting deep inside. Both Bryce and Hunt are incredibly interesting protagonists, and I am really impressed with the layers that Maas was able bring to their characters, which added a significant amount to the story.

While Bryce and Hunt are amazing characters in their own right, the real magic comes when they are paired together. It is obvious from the start that these two are going to hook up at some point, but the journey to get there was written extremely well. The combination of these two exceedingly vulnerable and complex characters in the story is great, and it makes for some incredible and dramatic story moments, as Bryce and Hunt slowly work out all their issues and history. The way they slowly go from dislike to mutual respect to lust/romance is accompanied with a slow exchange of secrets, facts and personality reveals, and I had an amazing time seeing them come together as a couple. This turned into quite a good romantic subplot, although the two of them have some major bumps and betrayals along the way. Still, there are some rather nice moments in their relationship, from the way that they take care of each other after traumatic events, to funny reveals and mutual moments of protecting one and other. Bryce and Hunt make for a great pair, and I am really impressed with the way that Maas portrayed them and the complex story she wove around them. It looks like there are more secrets and backgrounds about both coming up in the future books, and I am looking forward to seeing where Maas takes them in the future.

While this book had some amazing elements, I did find this novel to be a tad trashy at times. As I mentioned above, this is Maas’s first foray into non-young adult fiction, and she certainly did not shy away from adding all manner of adult content into her book. While I can certainly appreciate Maas wanting to differentiate this book from some of her young-adult fiction work, I honestly think she overcompensated. This book is filled with a huge amount of adult language and sexual content, as pretty much every character in this book is crude, rude, oversexed and incredibly thirsty. While some of this served a purpose, such as showing what sort of party-girl character Bryce was before the traumatic incident, the sheer amount of stuff that Maas included was a bit over the top, and I found it to be somewhat distracting at times. This book also introduced me to the brand-new term, Alphahole. In the context of this book, an Alphahole is the term that Bryce gives to any magical male who thinks that their abilities and power give them the right to control women and run their lives, especially those women with less magical power than them (i.e. humans and half-humans like Bryce). Unfortunately, in this book pretty much every male that Bryce encounters is an Alphahole in her opinion; even the more redeemable characters like Hunt or Ruhn are deemed Alphaholes at the start of the novel, especially once they venture an opinion about her behaviour or actions. While I appreciate that this dislike for domineering men is part of Bryce’s character due to her father, and controlling guys really aren’t that cool in either fiction or real life, I do think that Maas kind of overdid their inclusion just a bit and I was honestly getting sick of hearing Alphahole as a descriptive term by the end of the book (although it became less apparent as the story progressed).

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of House of Earth and Blood. This audiobook has a runtime of 27 hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. I am rather glad that I decided to check out this format of the book. While I probably would have finished it off faster if I had read a physical copy (it took me a few weeks to get through the audiobook), I always feel that I absorb more of the novel when I listen to it, especially with longer books. This proved to be really useful when listening to House of Earth and Blood, as Maas packed so much plot and world building into this immense novel, and I think I ended up getting more out of this book by utilising this format. I have to say that I was also immensely impressed with Elizabeth Evans’s narration. Evans did an incredible job bringing the story to life, and her steady and emotional dictation of the story really helped me get to the end. I really loved the cool voices that Evans was able to come up with for all the characters, and I think that each of them matched the distinctive personalities of each character. Evans produced a huge range of different voices for these characters, and I really liked how she was able to alter them to reflect the ethereal or magical nature of some of the characters featured in the book, as well as hint at how powerful some of these creatures were by modulating her tone and adding a commanding quality to it. This was an impressive and deeply enjoyable audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying House of Earth and Blood. That being said, be careful where you listen to this book, as it can be a little awkward to hear some of the steamy sex scenes when you are out in public. I somehow managed to be out shopping during two separate and particularly graphic scenes, and it proved very hard to keep a straight face while I was trying to grab groceries.

House of Earth and Blood is an incredible adult fiction debut from Sarah J. Maas, who has produced another outstanding and captivating read. There are so many excellent and enjoyable story elements in this book, and I absolutely loved every second I spend listening to it, even though some parts were a little over the top at times. This was an awesome start to Maas’s new Crescent City series, and I cannot wait to see what impressive and addictive story the author comes up with next. This novel comes highly recommended, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Lone Goat and Kid Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – January 1992)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Five

Length: 142 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again check out another early volume of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo series, which I have been reviewing over the last couple of weeks. For this review, I am looking at the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. Lone Goat and Kid was first released in 1992 by Fantagraphics Books and contains issues #19-24 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo once again sees series protagonist, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, traverse a feudal Japanese landscape populated solely with anthropomorphised animals. This volume follows on right after the chaotic events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and contains five new stories across six issues. This is an interesting entry in the series, particularly as it is the first volume to barely feature any of the previously introduced recurring characters aside from Usagi (a huge departure from the last volume, which contained a number of recurring characters coming together and teaming up). Instead, Sakai takes the time to introduce a bunch of new characters and scenarios across the volume’s five separate stories. Unsurprisingly, I really liked this fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, especially as Sakai manages come up with some fantastic and exceedingly enjoyable tales.

The first story featured within this volume is titled Frost & Fire, and it is a tragic story with undertones of forbidden love and class struggle. In this story, Usagi is hired by the cold and proper widow of a samurai to travel to the place of her husband’s death and retrieve his swords. Upon arriving at the small village where the samurai died, Usagi discovers that the swords are in the possession of the dead man’s lover, a poor peasant girl, who wishes to keep them as a remembrance of the man she loved. Unwilling to take the swords by force, Usagi leaves, but the peasant girl’s greedy brother has other plans for the swords.

This was a rather heartfelt first story for the volume, and it contains some great underlying elements to it. Much of the story revolves around a forbidden romance between a samurai and a peasant girl who wanted to be together but were unable to due to class differences. This was a rather intriguing central element for this story, and you can’t help but feel for the poor peasant girl, especially after meeting the samurai’s harsh and honourable widow in the opening pages. There is also examination of the evils of greed and avarice, as several of the side characters attempt to deceive and murder in order to get a quick payday. Luckily, their greed proves to be their undoing, as karma quickly strikes throughout the course of the story. There are some great scenes in this story, including one sequence where Usagi stares down the peasant girl when she refuses to give up the swords, “You know I can just take them from you”, before ultimately backing down and refusing to force her to give them up. I also liked a scene later in the book where the brother’s greed proves to be his undoing, as not only does Usagi appear behind him at one point like a vengeful spirit, but he is then ironically attacked by his “friends”, who are jealous of the wealth he achieved because of his bad actions, and whose mindset mirrors that of the brother. All of this makes for a great first entry for this volume, and I really enjoyed the amazing and captivating story that Sakai came up with.

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The next story is a rather unique entry called A Kite Story, which I have a particular love for. A Kite Story is actually broken up into four distinctive parts, each of which focuses on a different character participating in a famous kite festival. The first part, called The Kite Maker’s Story, follows a kite maker, Tatsusaburo, in the lead up to the festival. This part of the story contains no dialogue, but instead features a first-person narration from Tatsusaburo that overlays the drawings. This narration explains how he gathers the resources for his kites and the various processes he goes through to craft them together. It particularly focuses on the work he puts into creating an odako, a giant kite that he and a team of handlers hope to fly. The story then jumps to its second distinctive part, called The Gambler’s Tale, which follows the crook Hatsu and his gang of itinerant gamblers as they work the crowds gathering for the kite festival. This part starts off with some first-person narration from Hatsu and explores how he and his gang set up a rigged game of dice. This part ends its narration on the second page, when Usagi arrives on the scene and it becomes purely dialogue driven after that. Usagi, upon noticing the game, gets involved and is able to prove the gamblers are cheating (thanks to some fancy sword work), which sees not only the crooked gamblers run out of town but also those gamblers who were running fair games, and who are none too pleased with how they have been treated. This then moves to the third part of the story, called The Ronin’s Tale, which is nearly entirely dialogue driven, with only a small bit of narration at the front. Usagi deals with some of the players from the first two parts of the book, as he is unfairly blamed by the cheating gamblers in The Gambler’s Tale as the source of all the trouble to the honest gamblers. This sees Usagi have to make a rather quick and unconventional exit from the festival, which quickly breaks down into chaos. The story then concludes with a quick two-page final part, called The Kite Maker’s Tale II, which follows Tatsusaburo again and serves as an epilogue to the whole story.

I really liked A Kite Story, as Sakai did a really good job blending together a couple of distinctive narratives into one fantastic story. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating first part of this story and I always love it when Sakai uses his stories to explore certain unique Japanese cultural elements and industries. For this one, the author presents the reader with an amazing examination of the traditional kite-making process, and I loved seeing the process explained by the titular kite maker. This part of the story blends in surprisingly well with the other sections of A Kite Story, and I was impressed with how Sakai was able to turn these seeming separate and disparate tales into a complete narrative that is both entertaining and informative. Sakai also produces some amazing artwork in this story, from the giant kite to the visually impressive and detailed crowd scenes, and this is easily one of the more innovative stories that Sakai has come up with.

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The third story is the action-packed spectacular, Blood Wings, which Sakai tells over two issues. Late one night, Usagi is wandering along the road when he comes upon a dying peasant. The peasant’s last words are a mysterious warning about whatever killed him, “wings of blood”. Travelling to a nearby village, he finds a settlement living in terror, completely cut off from the outside world. They are being kept prisoner by a new and dangerous group of ninja, the Komori Ninja Clan, killer flying bats. The Komori Ninja were accidently discovered by the villagers as they prepared to ambush a shipment from a nearby goldmine and the ninja are now keeping them prisoner while they execute their attack. Knowing that the ninja will not leave the villagers alive as witnesses after the heist, Usagi attempts to break out and warn the goldmine, and when that fails, he leads the villagers in a spirited defence of their home.

Blood Wings was a fantastic and exciting story that serves as an excellent set piece for the middle of this volume. This third story is an impressive read that not only introduces a notable new group of antagonists, but it also contains some rather good action sequences. The Komori Ninja prove to be a great group of villains, and I really liked the character design that Sakai came up for them, as they fly around with sword blades attached to their wings, cutting through anyone and anything they encounter. The highlight of this story has to be the thrilling action sequences between Usagi and this new foe, who are able to outmatch the protagonist with their unique combat style. This all culminates in an extended battle sequence which sees a swordless Usagi defending the village with a force of farmers. This is probably the fastest-paced story in the volume, and Sakai comes up with an awesome narrative for it. This is also the entry in this volume that is most tied into the overarching Usagi Yojimbo world, as the Komori Ninja are revealed to be working for Lord Hikiji and are seeking to replace the Neko Ninja. This story also contains my favourite joke in the whole volume, as only Saki would have a guard yell out, “Holy flying furball! It’s Bats, man!” as the Komori Ninja descend.

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The fourth story is an elaborate and compelling entry titled The Way of the Samurai. This story sees Usagi intervene when a gang of bandits (including a very cool-looking walrus samurai), attack a messenger, and is directed to seek out the magistrate of the local town. Arriving at the town, Usagi is amazed to discover that the magistrate is a famed former general Oyaneko, whose battles and tactics Usagi idolises. Staying in the general’s house for a night, he learns that Oyaneko was a loyal retainer to the land’s former lord but was cast aside when the lord’s brash young son came to power. Now regulated to the role as a simple administrator and slowly dying of a disease, Oyaneko is discontent with his life, and, after meeting an honourable and skilled Usagi, challenges him to a duel to the death, “The way of the Samurai is found in death”.

This fourth entry in the volume is a moving tale that the author uses to explore the complexity of the samurai code of duty, loyalty and service. I really liked the intricate story that Sakai weaved around the characters of Usagi and Oyaneko, and Oyaneko’s story is particularly tragic and fascinating. This entire story is set up really well, with Usagi encountering Oyankeo, the two gaining a mutual respect for the other, learning about Oyankeo’s past and motivations, before the emotionally charged duel at the end. Sakai did a fantastic job illustrating the stress and emotion surrounding this final duel with his epic drawings, and the end result was really touching. I think this is one of the best written stories in the entire volume, and it becomes quite an emotional ride for the reader in the end.

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That leaves us with the fifth and final story in this volume, which shares the same name as the overall volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This story focuses on the characters of Yagi and Gorogoro, the titular Lone Goat and Kid. Years ago, Yagi served the same lord as Oyaneko. However, when their old lord died, Yagi was falsely accused of a crime by the new lord’s corrupt advisors and forced out of his service. Yagi and his son Gorogoro now work as Lone Goat and Kid, assassins for hire who many believe now travel the road to hell. The two assassins are also constantly targeted by their former lords’ samurai and bounty hunters sent after them by the corrupt advisors who framed them. As part of their latest attempt to kill Yagi and Gorogoro, these advisors use a proxy to hire the Lone Goat and Kid to assassinate Usagi, who they believe may be able to defeat the infamous assassin. When they meet, Yagi and Usagi engage in a brutal fight to the death, with the corrupt lord’s forces waiting to ambush the winner.

This was another awesome story filled with epic duels, a massive battle sequence, some superb artwork featuring Japan’s exquisite landscape, and a fun narrative packed full of deceit and conspiracy. The titular Lone Goat and Kid are a rather cool adaptation of the iconic Japanese fiction duo, Lone Wolf and Cub. Lone Wolf and Cub was a manga series back in the 1970s that followed a samurai assassin and his child as they travel feudal Japan searching for vengeance. This series has inspired several movies and a television show, and many different pieces of fiction have paid homage to them over the years, from The Mandalorian to Bob’s Burgers. Heck, Rick and Morty literally just did an anime homage to them last week on YouTube. Sakai’s versions of the characters are rather good, and they become fun recurring characters within the Usagi Yojimbo series. I loved how Sakai came up with some fantastic and unique character designs for the two assassins, turning them into goats rather than wolves (which was a nice touch, especially as the name “kid” has that fun double meaning), and providing them with a different backstory. However, there are some excellent similarities, such as the father’s skill with the blade, the desire to take down conspirators who wronged them and the baby carriage the son travels in, equipped with all manner of hidden weapons and blades. The character of Yagi, the Lone Goat, is particularly intense, and is almost demonic in his attitudes and persona, while still maintaining a samurai’s sense of honour. I was also really impressed with the battle sequences that featured in the last half of this story, and I liked how Sakai went from an elaborate one-on-one duel, to a mass fight against multiple opponents. All of this leads to another excellent story in this volume, which I really enjoyed reading.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, Lone Goat and Kid, was another incredible and powerful addition to the series, and I think Stan Sakai did another amazing job with this volume. Featuring five fantastic stories that contained Sakai’s usual complex narratives, iconic artwork and compelling underlying themes, Lone Goat and Kid gets another five-star rating from me, and it is really worth checking out.

One Minute Out by Mark Greaney

One Minute Out Cover

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

Series: Gray Man – Book Nine

Length: 16 hours

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 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.

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.