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.

Execution by S. J. Parris

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 24 July 2020)

Series: Giordano Bruno – Book Six

Length: 484 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Conspiracy, betrayal and treason.  The heretic monk Giordano Bruno returns for another outstanding and exciting historical murder mystery with Execution, the latest impressive release from S. J. Parris.

England, 1586.  Queen Elizabeth I rules England as a protestant queen, but not everyone is enamoured with her rule.  Many people throughout the world, including the hidden Catholic population of England, wish her gone and replaced by her cousin, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.  Into this hotbed of English conspiracy and treason returns Giordano Bruno, former monk turned heretic and occasional spy for Elizabeth.

Bruno has obtained troubling information about a potential conspiracy and travels to London to deliver it to the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.  His information confirms that a group of Catholic Englishmen are planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and liberate Mary.  However, rather than being shocked by the news, Walsingham reveals that he is aware of the plot and is hoping to use it to obtain proof of Mary’s treason, allowing for the removal of the greatest threat to Elizabeth’s rule.

Brought into this piece of espionage, Bruno is tasked with infiltrating the conspirators under the guise of a Spanish agent and ensuring that their attempted plot proceeds the way Walsingham desires.  However, Bruno’s mission becomes complicated when another one of Walsingham’s agents, a young woman, is brutally murdered, apparently due to her connection to the conspirators.  Was the victim’s murder related to the assassination plot that Bruno now finds himself in the middle of or are more sinister forces at play?  Can Bruno solve the murder before his cover is blown and will his actions save Queen Elizabeth from the assassin’s blade?  Either way, a queen will die!

Now this was an extremely enjoyable and incredible piece of historical murder mystery fiction.  Execution is the sixth novel in the awesome Giordano Bruno series which is written by S. J. Parris, the pseudonym of Stephanie Merritt.  This fantastic series follows the adventures of the titular Giordano Bruno, a real-life Italian monk, academic and heretical thinker, who roamed around Europe during this period and who did act as a spy for the English under the employ of Walsingham.  I have been a major fan of Parris’s series for a while now and I have really enjoyed several of the preceding novels in the series which deal with some fascinating and compelling conspiracies and murders that Bruno finds himself involved with.  As a result, I have been looking forward to this new novel for a while and I knew that I would have an awesome time reading Execution when it came out.

It turns out that my patience was well worth it as Execution proved to be an incredible novel that presented the reader with an exceedingly compelling and addictive historical murder mystery/thriller.  The story follows Bruno as he not only infiltrates a group of conspirators but also investigates the murder of a young woman.  These separate story points are strongly linked and Bruno’s success as a spy is tied into the result of the murder investigation, as the murderer may have the ability to blow Bruno’s cover or reveal to the conspirator.  I absolutely loved the resultant story as Parris produced a complex tale of betrayal, double dealing, espionage, political intrigue and murder.  Parris ensures that there are a huge number of twists and surprise reveals throughout the course of the book, and the eventual conclusion of the story is very well established and extremely compelling.  This all results in a powerful and thrilling narrative that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat as the protagonist is drawn deeper into the conspiracy and gets closer to revealing the villain’s true identity.  I loved the final reveal about the overall antagonist and their motivations, as it was both excellently foreshadowed and hard to predict with the story having the potential to go in several other intriguing directions.  This was a truly amazing story and I had a wonderful time working my way through it in order to see how it turned out.

I was also really impressed with the historical setting that Parris utilised for her story: Elizabethan London on edge as the plots to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne come to fruition.  I felt that the author did a fantastic job bringing this historical and dangerous version of London to life, and the protagonist ends up exploring several key areas of the city.  This included the notorious entertainment area of Southwark, which proved to be a significant area for the story and which is shown in all its sleazy glory.  I also liked how Parris was able to cleverly work her mystery and espionage story around a historical and well-documented plot to assassinate the Queen.  The author comes up with some great ways for the events of the real conspiracy to impact on the overall story while also doing a fantastic job of examining key elements of the plot, such as who the key players were, what they were up to and how Sir Francis Walsingham had spies in their midst the entire time.  I felt that Parris’s narrative synced up perfectly with this real-life conspiracy and I liked seeing the various interactions between Bruno and the various historical figures that he encounters, including Walsingham, his spies and the various conspirators.  This fantastic attention to historical detail really helped to make Execution a first-rate story and I look forward to seeing which events or conspiracies Parris bases her next Giordano Bruno novel around.

Perhaps it is because it has been a few years since the previous entry in the Giordano Bruno series, but I was particularly happy to read Bruno’s point of view.  Bruno is an excellent protagonist whose fictional adventures are only slightly more unrealistic then his chaotic real life.  The author once again does a great job exploring Bruno’s unique life experiences, including by expanding on his view on Catholicism and religion, as well as his unique obsession with the art of memory and other philosophical practices.  Parris has so far cleverly worked the series around the events of Bruno’s life, including his time in England, and this novel ties into Bruno’s work as an agent for Walsingham.  I liked the author’s portrayal of the character as a reluctant spy and misunderstood intellectual, and it was great to see his attempts to go undercover and infiltrate a band of fanatical Catholics, especially thanks to his own lapsed views on religion.  The story makes a number of references to Bruno’s past adventures and also reintroduces several friends and antagonists from the prior novels.  Despite this, you do not really need to have read any of Parris’s previous Giordano Bruno novels as the author makes Execution extremely accessible, with the reader receiving all the relevant details about the referenced adventures or characters.  It was, however, great to see these existing story elements continue throughout Execution, including the return of Bruno’s slippery and mysterious love interest, Sophia, and I cannot wait to see more of this character in the future.  Bruno has a lot of very interesting life events coming up in his future, so this serious has a lot of potential to continue in the future, something for which I am really grateful for.

Overall, Execution by S. J. Parris was an outstanding and captivating novel that serves as a fantastic sixth entry in the amazing Giordano Bruno series.  This novel contains an intelligent and truly addictive historical mystery narrative that works a compelling murder mystery into the chaotic politics and insidious conspiracies of the era.  This book is worth checking out as once you start trying to unwrap Execution’s intriguing mystery you won’t be able to stop reading it until the very end.  A highly recommended read, I really hope that the next Giordano Bruno novel comes out soon.

The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean

The Bear Pit Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Damien Seeker – Book Four

Length: 410 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Destroying Angel, the third book in S. G. MacLean’s Damien Seeker series of historical murder mysteries.  I had an amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I ended up giving a full five-star rating, and I was excited when I heard that a sequel was coming out in 2019.  This sequel, The Bear Pit, had an intriguing premise and sounded like it was going to be quite an awesome read.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read it last year when it first came out, which I have been regretting for some time now.  Luckily, I recently found myself with a little bit of spare reading time, so I finally managed to check this book out.  I am really glad that I did, as The Bear Pit contained a captivating and clever story that sets MacLean’s intense protagonist on the trial of some dedicated killers.

London, 1656.  Oliver Cromwell rules England as the Lord Protector, but not everyone is happy with his reign.  Many believe that his death will end the Puritan state and lead to a return of the monarchy in exile.  In order to bring this about, three men loyal to the crown are currently plotting to kill him.  However, Cromwell is not without his protectors, and his most ardent investigator, the legendary Captain Damien Seeker, is on the case.

Seeker has only recently returned to London after a harrowing investigation in Yorkshire and he is determined to catch the potential assassins before it is too late.  However, Seeker soon finds himself on another case when he discovers the mutilated body of man while conducting a raid on a gaming house.  The victim appears to have been brutally savaged by a bear, yet all the bears in London were shot after bear baiting was declared illegal by Cromwell.  Where did the bear come from and why was it used to commit a murder?

While he continues his hunt for the assassins, Seeker employs his reluctant agent, Thomas Faithly, a former Royalist turned informer, to infiltrate the underground fighting pits in an attempt to find out if any bears remain in the city.  However, as both investigations progress it soon becomes clear that they are connected and that the murder is tied into the assassins hunting Cromwell.  As Seeker attempts to stop them before it is too late, he finds himself facing off against a talented and intelligent foe with great reason to hate Cromwell and everything Seeker stands for.  Can Seeker stop the assassins before it is too late, or has he finally come up against someone even he cannot outthink?

MacLean has come up with another fantastic and compelling historical murder mystery with The Bear Pit.  This book contains an amazing multi-character narrative that combines an intriguing murder mystery storyline with real-life political intrigue and plots, enjoyable characters and a fascinating historical backdrop, all of which comes together into an impressive overall narrative.  Despite being the fourth Damien Seeker book, The Bear Pit is very accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series, and people who are interested in a good historical murder mystery can easy dive into this book without any issues.

At the heart of this novel is an enthralling mystery and intrigue laden storyline that sees Seeker and his companions not only investigating a murder apparently done by a bear, but also trying to unravel a plot to assassinate Cromwell.  This turned into quite an enjoyable and exciting tale that was filled with all manner of twists, surprises, reveals, action-packed fights, disguised antagonists and confused loyalties.  Naturally, the murder and the assassination plot are connected, and the investigations of the protagonist and his compatriots combine together as they attempt to find out who is behind the various crimes and why they were committed.  This proved to be a very captivating storyline, and I really loved the way in which MacLean blended an inventive murder mystery with realistic political intrigue and plots.  There are several clever clues and plenty of foreshadowing throughout the book, and the end result of the mystery was rather clever and somewhat hard to predict.  I really liked how these intriguing storylines turned out, and they helped to make this story particularly addictive and hard to put down.

Another distinctive and enjoyable part of this book is the great characters contained within it.  The main character of The Bear Pit is the series’ titular protagonist Damien Seeker, the moody and serious investigator and loyal solider of Oliver Cromwell.  Seeker is a particularly hardnosed protagonist who inspires all manner of fear and worry in the various people he meets, and it proves to be rather enjoyable to watch him go about his business.  While Seeker is the main character, this novel also follows a substantial cast of characters who end up narrating substantial parts of this book.  Most of these additional point-of-view characters have appeared in previous entries in the series, and it was great to see MacLean reuse them so effectively while also successfully reintroducing them in the context of this book.  Two of the main characters who assist Seeker with his investigation are Thomas Faithly and Lawrence Ingolby, both of whom were introduced in the previous novel, Destroying Angel.  Both characters are rather interesting additions to the novel’s investigative plot, and they serve as a great counterpoint to Seeker due to their youth, their inexperience, and their own way of investigating the crimes.  While Ingolby was a great younger character who looks set to be a major protagonist in the next book in the series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Faithly and his conflicted loyalties.  Faithly is a former exile with strong ties to the royal family, but his desire to return to England sees him make a deal with Seeker to serve Cromwell as a spy.  Despite his desire to remain in England, Faithly finds himself torn between his existing friendships and his new loyalty to Seeker, and this ends up becoming a rather dramatic and compelling part of the book.  Extra drama is introduced thanks to the reappearance of Maria Ellingworth, Seeker’s former love interest.  Both Seeker and Ellingworth have a lot of unresolved feelings with each other, which only become even more confused throughout the course of The Bear Pit when they find themselves in a love triangle with another major character.  This romantic angle, as well as the continued use of his secret daughter, really helps to humanise Seeker, and I enjoyed getting a closer look under Seeker’s usual tough mask.

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, one of the best aspects of The Bear Pit, and indeed the entire Damien Seeker series, is the author’s fascinating look at life in Cromwell’s England.  This is particularly interesting part of England’s history, which saw the implementation of Puritan law across the country, while secret Royalists lay hidden across the country.  This book in particular took a look at what was going on within London, and it was fascinating to see the various aspects of life during the period, from the politics, the hidden loyalties, the impact of day-to-day activities and the removal of previously iconic parts of London life, such as the bear baiting and other blood sports.  MacLean does a really good job of examining these various aspects of life during the Cromwell era and working them into her novels, making them a vital part of the plot as well as a fascinating setting.

One of the most fascinating and impressive historical aspects that MacLean includes in The Bear Pit was the focus on the 1656 plot to kill Oliver Cromwell.  This was a real historical conspiracy that took place throughout London, as three conspirators attempted to kill Cromwell through various means.  The author really dives into the details of the plot throughout this book, and the reader gets a glimpse into the various attempts that were made on Cromwell during this period, as well as the identity and motivations of the three killers.  MacLean even shows several chapters from these killers’ viewpoints, showing all the various preparations they put into each attempt, and then presenting how and why they failed.  I really liked how the author worked these assassination attempts into the main plot of the book, utilising Seeker as a major reason why several of the attempts failed and ensuring that the antagonists were aware of him and considered him the mostly likely person to stop them.  This was a very clever story aspect as a result, and I liked the blend of creative storytelling with historical fact to create an epic and impressive storyline that really stood out.  I also liked MacLean’s compelling inclusion of a major historical Royalist figure as the mastermind of the plot and the main antagonist of the book.  This character has such a distinctive and infamous reputation, and I liked how the author hinted at their arrival and then sprung the surprise towards the end of the book.  This was such a great part of the plot and I look forward to seeing what major historical events MacLean features in the next book in the series.

Overall, The Bear Pit was an outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery that really highlighted S. G. MacLean’s writing ability and creativity.  I really enjoyed the excellent blend of murder and intrigue, set during a fascinating period of England’s history, and the author’s use of great characters and the inclusion of a particularly notable historical occurrence proved to be extremely impressive and resulted in an outstanding read.  As a result, The Bear Pit comes highly recommended by me and I really do regret taking this long to read it.  Luckily, this should ensure that the overall plot of the series is fresh in my mind when I get my hands on the next and final book in the Damien Seeker series, The House of Lamentations, which is out in a couple of weeks.  I have already put in my order for a copy of this upcoming book and I am looking forward to seeing how MacLean finishes off this series, especially after I had such an awesome time reading The Bear Pit.

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

Usagi Yojimbo Shades of Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1997)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 8

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi Vol 2 Issue 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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).

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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.

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.

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.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Into the Fire

Publisher: Michael Joseph/Brilliance Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Orphan X – Book Five

Length: 12 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling thriller author Gregg Hurwitz comes an outstanding and captivating adventure novel, Into the Fire, the latest book in his amazing Orphan X series.

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, a former orphan child who was taken in by a secret covert government and trained from a young age to become the most skilled assassin and special operator in the world. Orphan X served his country for years before finally having enough and leaving, pursued by the people who ordered his creation. Resettling to Los Angeles, Evan forged a new identity for himself as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante dedicated to helping those in desperate need who have no one else to turn to.

After killing his greatest enemy, the United States President, Evan has had enough of violence and is determined to retire and live a quiet life. But before he leaves everything behind, Evan has decided to help one more person as The Nowhere Man, as one final act of redemption. Enter Max Merriweather, a poor construction worker in LA. Two months earlier his cousin Grant, a successful forensic accountant, entrusted Max with an envelope and instructions to take it to a reporter if anything happened to him. Now Grant is dead, an armed thug is ransacking Max’s apartment and the reporter he was told to contact has been murdered. With nowhere else left to turn, Max calls The Nowhere Man.

Taking on Max’s case, Evan dives into LA’s criminal underbelly in order to locate the people hunting Max. Easily finding the thugs responsible for Grant’s death, Evan manages to eliminate them quickly; however, it turns out that they are just the tip of an iceberg stretching throughout the entirety of LA. Grant was on the verge of uncovering a massive conspiracy, and his evidence could put away a lot of dangerous people who are now determined to kill Max to keep him quiet. Determined to keep Max safe, Evan soon finds himself embroiled in one of the most challenging and complicated missions of his life, as behind every corner a new adversary lies, each one more powerful and connected than the last. Can even this legendary assassin and vigilante win with the odds so severely stacked against him?

Gregg Hurwitz is a veteran thriller author who has been producing compelling and exciting novels since his 1999 debut, The Tower. Since then he has written over 20 novels, including his Tim Rackley series, The Rains Brothers books and several standalone novels. He has also contributed to several DC and Marvel comic book series, such as Batman: The Dark Knight and The Punisher, and he also does a bit of screenwriting, having written several episodes of the 2009 remake of V. Hurwitz’s main body of work at the moment is his Orphan X series, which started in 2016 with the novel Orphan X. Into the Fire is the fifth book in the Orphan X series and follows on shortly after the events of the fourth book, Out of the Dark. I actually got into Hurwitz’s works last year when I read Out of the Dark due its cool story premise of a former secret agent attempting to kill the President. After I enjoyed this fun action thriller last year, I was definitely keen to check out more of Hurwitz’s work and I have been looking forward to Into the Fire for a little while now.

Now, I have to admit that while I was interested in checking out Into the Fire, I was a little worried that Hurwitz was going to have a hard time topping his previous novel and its outrageous central plot point. However, Into the Fire turned out to be an outstanding read which I ended up enjoying more than Out of the Dark. Hurwitz has produced an incredible thriller that is filled with intense action, clever plot developments and an excellent character-driven central story. All of these amazing elements combine together perfectly into a novel which can easily be read as either a continuation of the series or as a compelling standalone novel.

One of the best parts of this novel is the well-written and captivating central thriller storyline which sees the protagonist attempt to take down a criminal conspiracy in the heart of LA. What starts out as a relatively simple mission to take down a small-time criminal organisation quickly morphs into a massive task, as each time Evan thinks he has succeeded, a larger and more dangerous adversary appears behind the people he has just taken out. There are so many twists and turns in this novel, you honestly don’t know when or where it is going to end, and the story goes in some very fun and clever directions. I really enjoyed how the author layered his story with seemingly innocuous comments and discussion that later morphed into major plot payoffs later down the line in the book, and I was actually surprised about a few of the reveals that occurred.

I really liked the overarching plot idea of an elite secret agent going after everyday criminals with his full range of tradecraft, advanced weapons and training, especially as it resulted in some amazing sequences throughout the book. The protagonist comes up with some truly unique, clever and at times brutal ways to take down some of his opponents, which were fun to check out. I know I will never look at a plastic drinking straw the same way again. My personal favourite part of the book are several chapters where the protagonist breaks into a prison to deal with one of his targets. The various ways that he infiltrated the prison, pulled off his mission and then escaped was not only clever but also very entertaining, and I loved every single second of it. I also really liked how Hurwitz introduced a handicap for his protagonist throughout this book in the form of a severe concussion obtained early on in the story. The author did an excellent job portraying the symptoms of a concussion, and it was interesting to watch the protagonist struggle to complete his tasks with blurred vision or a massive headache. The concussion angle was a great way to amp the risk surrounding the protagonist’s actions, as it actually put many of his opponents on an equal footing with this former elite special agent and was a fantastic inclusion to the story. Overall, this turned out to be an extremely well-written and deeply exciting thriller storyline, which proves to be quite addictive and captivating.

I was also quite impressed by the way that Hurwitz spent time examining and developing the central characters of this book. In particular, there is a fascinating focus on the complex character of Evan Smoak, who is the main protagonist of this series. Hurwitz has always done an amazing job of portraying Evan as a man very much haunted by his past lives, both as an abandoned child and as an assassin who was trained to kill since the age of 12. Both of these parts of his life still drive him, and his whole persona as The Nowhere Man is a form of redemption for him, as he attempts to not only atone for the lives he took as Orphan X but to also help those who feel as powerless as he did when he was a young child. Hurwitz continues to utilise this characterisation in Into the Fire, although this time it is further complicated by his plans to retire after this one final mission. This whole retirement angle is a major concern for Evan, as he spends a good part of the book weighing up the good he does as The Nowhere Man against all the personal benefits of attempting to live a normal life. This makes for a lot of internal conflict, which forces the author to once again dive into Evan’s motivations for being a vigilante, which adds a great dramatic edge to the entire story.

This consideration about having a more normal life is also explored in the way that the trained loner Evan starting to learn more about human interaction and relationships in this book. Part of this takes place in the way that he interacts with Joey, the teenage hacker and former Orphan trainee he saved and took under his wing. Evan has inadvertently taken on the role of a father figure to Joey, and it was great to see him continue to act protective towards her and see their unique relationship grow. There is also the rather amusing and awkward interactions that he has with the residence of his building. Despite not wanting to have much to do with them, he actually goes out of his way to protect them, and he is actually shown to care quite deeply when one of them is hurt. Finally, there is the complex relationship he has with Mia, the single mother and ADA in his building who he has feelings for but has driven away with his acts of vigilantism. All of these interactions help Evan develop more as a character and recover a little more of his lost humanity, and I really enjoyed the way that Hurwitz explored such a complex and damaged protagonist.

While most of the book’s focus is on Evan, Hurwitz also dives into the life of Evan’s latest client, Max Merriweather. Max, who serves as a significant point-of-view character, is a down-on-his-luck individual who is dragged into the events of this book by his more successful cousin. Throughout the course of Into the Fire, you get to learn about the past of Max, showing how, due to events outside of his control, he has always been seen as the family screw-up, something he has struggled to escape due to his corresponding low self-confidence. You also get to see the history of his tragic marriage, and how doing the right thing cost him everything. I really liked the way that Hurwitz took the time to explore the life of this new client, especially as it develops him into a much more sympathetic character that reader becomes invested in over the course of the book. I also liked the relationship he slowly built up with Evan, as each of them were able to provide some help in solving the deeper emotional or personal issues that were affecting the other. This excellent character was an outstanding and distinctive part of the book, and I am definitely keen to see what excellent characters are introduced in the next Orphan X book, especially after the intriguing reveal at the end of Into the Fire.

I ended up enjoying the audiobook format of Into the Fire, which was narrated by Scott Brick. This audiobook runs for a substantial 12 hours in length, but I got through it rather quickly, as I got really drawn in by the cool and compelling story. I personally found that this was an excellent way to consume this fantastic book, and I had a great time listening to the story. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has a lot of experience bringing thriller novels to life. I previously enjoyed his narration of The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry, and I am currently listening to his narration of the sequel, The Warsaw Protocol. Brick did a wonderful job bringing the characters in Into the Fire to life, and I felt that he utilised perfect voices for each of them. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Into the Fire, as it is an amazing way to enjoy this book.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz is an incredible read that comes highly recommended. This latest book in the fantastic Orphan X series is an outstanding piece of thriller fiction, which sets its complex characters down an action-packed road of intrigue and twists to produce a five-star read. Hurwitz has really outdone himself with Into the Fire, which turned out to be one hell of a book. I cannot wait to see where Hurwitz takes the Orphan X series next, but I will definitely be grabbing a copy of his next book when it comes out.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Golden

Star Wars Dark Disciple Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 7 July 2015)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I go back and check out an amazing piece of Star Wars fiction with Star Wars: Dark Disciple by tie-in fiction extraordinaire Christie Golden. Dark Disciple is a compelling and intense Star Wars novel that features two fan-favourite characters from the extended universe in a fantastic adventure that is deeply connected with The Clone Wars animated series.

A Jedi shall not know anger. Nor hatred. Nor love!

For years, the galaxy has been locked in one of the most destructive struggles it has ever known, the Clone Wars. Led by the ruthless Sith Lord Count Dooku, the Separatists have engaged in a gruelling and bloody conflict with the Republic that has led to the death of countless innocents. While the guardians of the Republic, the Jedi, have tried in vain to capture Dooku and end the war, their methods appear inadequate to stop him. After a particularly brutal massacre, the Jedi Council do the unthinkable and sanction the assassination of Count Dooku, believing that only his death will bring peace to the galaxy.

To that end, the Council turns to maverick Jedi Master Quinlan Vos. Unpredictable, brash and experienced in undercover work, Vos is the perfect candidate for this dangerous mission. However, this is not a one-man job. In order to track down Dooku, infiltrate his defences and defeat him in battle, Vos is going to need a partner. At the suggestion of Master Yoda, Vos seeks out the one person who knows the Count better than anyone else, Dooku’s former apprentice and assassin, Asajj Ventress.

After losing everything she held dear at the hands of Dooku, Ventress is desperate to leave her past as a Sith behind. But her hatred for Dooku is all-consuming, and she jumps at the chance to finally kill him. However, Ventress believes that Dooku can only be defeated by someone empowered by their emotions and able to access the dark side of the Force. Tutoring Vos in the methods of her race, the Nightsisters, Ventress is able to make Vos stronger and more powerful as he sits on the knife’s edge between the light and the dark side. But this balance is fragile at best, and all it will take is a single push for Vos to fully embrace the darkness. Between the machinations of Dooku, terrible secrets from the past and his growing feelings for Ventress, can Vos remain true to his vows and complete his mission, or have the Jedi have unleashed a great new evil upon the galaxy?

Dark Disciple is an intriguing addition to the Star Wars canon which not only has some major connections to the popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series but also contains a cool and at times dramatic story about love, darkness within and redemption. Dark Disciple was actually based on a script for eight unproduced episodes of The Clone Wars that were never made due to the Disney buyout of Star Wars and the subsequent cancellation of the animated show. These episodes were written by The Clone Wars screenwriter Katie Lucas (who provides a foreword for this book) and subsequently adapted into this book by acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Christie Golden. Golden has authored many tie-in novels for various franchises, and I have previously enjoyed her World of Warcraft novels, including War Crimes (probably my favourite piece of Warcraft fiction) and Before the Storm. While Golden had written a few pieces of Star Wars fiction before this book, Dark Disciple ended up being her first novel in the current canon. In the end, this turned out to be an excellent read and I was really impressed in the way that Golden ended up turning this cool script into a deep and compelling novel.

Seeing as it is based off an unused script for the show, this book obviously has some strong connections to The Clone Wars television show. This book is set a little while after the events of the already aired episodes of The Clone Wars and continues their range of storylines a little further. Not only does Dark Disciple contain several characters whose main appearance was in the animated show, but it also refers to events from several episodes, including episodes that Katie Lucas wrote herself. As a result, Dark Disciple is probably best enjoyed by those readers who are familiar with the show, who will have a greater appreciation of the book’s various story elements. That being said, anyone who has seen the Star Wars prequel movies will be able to easily follow what is going on, and will no doubt enjoy the complex story it contains.

Fair warning to fans of The Clone Wars series, though: you are going to experience some sense of crushing disappointment after reading this. The book itself is pretty damn awesome, but it’s supremely disappointing that the story contained within this novel never featured as the amazing extended arc for the animated series it clearly would have been. While I really loved this novelisation, I cannot help but imagine how emotional and explosive it would have been acted out and animated as part of the show. As I review this book, it is actually less than a month until the release of the seventh and final series of The Clone Wars. While I am deeply excited for this final season, after reading this book I am a little sad as I know that the storyline contained within Dark Disciple is unlikely to be featured in it.

That being said, I really enjoyed the fact that this book focuses on two amazing characters from the animated series, Asajj Ventress and Quinlan Vos. Ventress and Vos are fan-favourite characters who have had significant appearances within the expanded Star Wars universe. Ventress is best known for her role within The Clone Wars universe (first appearing in the original 2003 Clone Wars show), where she first served as a major antagonist, before developing into more of an anti-hero. Ventress ended up being the focus of several major arcs within The Clone Wars series, some of which were written by Katie Lucas. Her success in the animated series saw her utilised in several books and comics set in the same period, although most of these are no longer canon. Vos also has an interesting origin as he was first seen as a background character in The Phantom Menace. Thanks to his cool look and some fan interest, the character was given a fleshed-out origin story as a Jedi and subsequently utilised in several works of expanded fiction. This included books and comics and an appearance in one episode of The Clone Wars. While Ventress and Vos had several interactions in the old Star Wars Legends canon, Dark Disciples is actually the first time that they meet in the current canon. Their whole relationship is a major part of the story, and I liked how it formed and developed throughout the course of the book.

I really enjoyed how Ventress was utilised in this book. Ventress is one of the best original characters in The Clone Wars, and I have always loved the gradual journey to redemption that occurred within her story arc. As a result, a book where she is one of the main characters is deeply intriguing to me and I was excited to see how she continued to evolve after her last appearance in the animated series. There are some major developments for Ventress in this book, and if you ever enjoyed this character in the animated series and wanted to know her ultimate fate than you need to read this book. Personally, I think that this was an amazing continuation to the character arcs that had been featured within the shows, and as I mentioned above, I am disappointed that it was never included as part of The Clone Wars. In adapting the script into this novel, Golden makes sure to really cover the background of this character, so those readers who are unfamiliar with the shows will be able to understand her complex and tragic backstory. I also think that Golden did an amazing job of capturing the complex character that was Ventress in this book, getting past her prickly outer layer to see the more complicated emotional person within. This was a near perfect examination of one of the best Star Wars characters who never appeared in a movie, and after reading this book it will be a shame not to see more of her in any of the planned animated shows.

Perhaps the most compelling part of this book is the complex and gripping central tale about Quinlan Vos’s fall to the dark side of the Force. This was an intrinsic part of the book’s overall plot, as Vos and Ventress both believed that having the easy power obtained by dark side users was the only way to defeat Dooku. This turn to the dark side is spurred on by lies, revelations and intense emotions, and it necessitates some deep dives into Vos and Ventress’s respective psyches, resulting in some dramatic and personal moments from both of these great characters. Watching Vos’s slow decline as he slips further and further away from the light side is painful at times, especially when you just know he is eventually going to turn. Even then, despite realizing it was coming, the point when he fully breaks bad for the first time (yellow eyes included) is pretty powerful, as he lashes out at the only person he has, and will ever, truly love. In many ways, Vos’s fall reflects Anakin’s later turn in Revenge of the Sith, in that he believes learning about the dark side is for the greater good, the Jedi Council pushes him to do something he has moral issues with and his emotional connections to a women push him over the edge. There are also some amazing scenes in the later part of the book where the reader is unsure whether Vos is actually evil or is just pretending to have fallen to fool his foes, which leads to a lot of uncertainty and hostility from the other Jedi and Ventress as they try to work out his plan. Overall, this was an outstanding centre for this book, and the complex web of deceit, deeper examination of how one falls to the dark side and all the drama surrounding this part of novel, was really cool to read.

One of the other parts of the story that I found to be interesting was the depiction of some of the other Jedi in this book. Throughout this story the Jedi, particularly the members of their ruling council, are shown to be walking a bit of a darker path thanks to the impacts of the Clone Wars. While not attempting to learn more about the dark side of the Force, members of the Council are beginning to propose action that they usually wouldn’t consider, such as the assassination of Dooku, or the execution of Vos and Ventress. This is a really intriguing take on their characterisation which plays in well with the future events of Revenge of the Sith, where their boldness in attempting to take over the Republic to protect it or Mace Windu’s attempt to kill Chancellor Palpatine backfires on them. Windu in particular comes across as a bit of an arse in this book, and the rest of the council (with the exception of Yoda and Kenobi) seem like meek followers going along with him. I thought that this aspect of the books was pretty interesting, and it liked seeing some hints of this once wise and noble Jedi Council beginning to act more rashly and dramatically.

Like most of the Star Wars books that I look at for my Throwback Thursday articles, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Dark Disciple, which was narrated by Marc Thompson and ran for just over 11 hours. I have mentioned several times before about how I find Star Wars audiobooks to be a step above most other audiobook productions I listen to, and Dark Disciple was yet another awesome example of just how cool they can be. This audiobook in particular does an excellent job of utilising the huge range of iconic Star Wars sound effects to create an exciting or appropriate atmosphere for much of the story, and there is nothing cooler than hearing lightsaber or blaster sound effects during a battle sequence. In addition, this format also features some of the incredible and memorable music from the films. John Williams’s epic score from the prequels was on full display in this book, with some of his most awesome pieces being used throughout several scenes to great effect. Nothing amps up an action scene quite as much as having the pulse pumping Duel of the Fates playing in the background, while hearing the mournful composition known as Anakin’s Betrayal playing during the scenes where Vos is turning to the dark side of the Force is a real emotional gut punch that brings back memories of Vader and the Emperor killing all the Jedi. This was actually one of the best utilisations of Star Wars music in an audiobook that I have so far experienced, and I really loved how much it increased my enjoyment of this fantastic audiobook.

In addition to the cool sound effects and dramatic music, the audiobook also benefited from the talented voice work of Marc Thompson. Thompson is a veteran narrator of Star Wars audiobooks, having worked on a huge number of their tie-in books since 2007. I have previously listened to two Star Wars books narrated by Thompson, Thrawn and Scoundrels, and with both of these I was really impressed with the realistic and clever voices that he came up with for some of iconic Star Wars characters. Dark Disciple is another exceptional example of Thompson’s skill, as he was able to reproduce the voices of several of the book’s major characters. Not only does he do an amazing job replicating Ventress’s voice, but he also produced excellent examples of Yoda, Count Dooku and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voices from The Clone Wars show. This is some first-rate voice work which, when combined with all the extra sound effect and musical inclusions, made Dark Disciples an absolute treat to listen to, and I cannot recommend this format highly enough.

Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Goldie is an outstanding and highly enjoyable piece of Star Wars fiction that I had an amazing time listening to. Featuring a first-rate story that revolves around two amazing characters and their complicated relationship to the force (and each other), Dark Disciple is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have had the pleasure of reading. A perfect tie-in to the amazing The Clone Wars animated series, this book is a must read for all fans of that series, especially before the seventh and final season is released. Dark Disciple comes highly recommend and is a force to be reckoned with.

The Russian by Ben Coes

The Russian Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 30 July 2019)

Series: Rob Tacoma – Book One

Lenght: 9 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thriller author Ben Coes returns to the world of his Dewey Andreas series with The Russian, the first book in spinoff series which sets the CIA against the Russian mafia in a violent conflagration.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, some of the most dangerous and ruthless criminals from Russia emigrated to the United States in order to take advantage of the unique opportunities available there. This led to the creation of the Russian mafia, a group whose capacity for violence, murder and collateral damage knows no bounds. The Russian mafia are now the most effective and feared criminal organisation in the world, and conventional law enforcement seems unable to stop them. However, after elements of the Russian mafia organise the brutal assassination of two prominent American politicians, the President of the United States has had enough. Utilising a top-secret piece of legislation, the President authorises the CIA to run a small kill team on US soil. Their mission: kill those responsible for the assassinations while also taking down the Russian mafia by any means necessary.

Tasked with pulling together an elite two-man kill team to undertake this dangerous mission, the director of the CIA knows that his first recruit needs to be Rob Tacoma. Tacoma is one of the best killers the CIA ever produced, an operative without peer who is able to think on his feet and adapt to any situation. Tacoma is the perfect man for this dangerous and secretive job, especially as he already bears a hefty grudge against the Russian. However, this assignment begins poorly when Tacoma finds his new partner murdered by mafia hitmen before he even officially joins the team. The Russians already know what his mission is, and with his identity exposed, Tacoma is now being hunted by the entire Russian mafia. Can even this legendary CIA operative survive against a criminal army without rules, conscious or limits?

The Russian is the first book in the new Rob Tacoma series of thriller books. The Rob Tacoma books are a spinoff of Coes’s Dewey Andreas series, which ran between 2010 and 2018, featuring eight novels. Rob Tacoma was a popular supporting character in the Dewey Andreas books, and it’s interesting to see him getting his own adventures. I have had my eye on The Russian for a little while now due to its awesome-sounding plot, and I really wanted to read it last year when it first came out but I didn’t get a chance. As a result, when I was in the mood for an exciting thriller, The Russian was at the top of my list of books to check out. I ended up really enjoying The Russian as it has a fun, fast-paced story with a lot of action that I was able to power through in a very short period of time.

This new book from Coes features a rather intriguing plot idea of a CIA agent, and by extension the CIA, going to war with an organised crime group, the Russian mafia. I really loved this concept and I think that Coes did a wonderful job expanding it out into a thrilling and enjoyable story. The start of the book is set out perfectly, with the event that shows off the notoriety of the Russian mafia and prompts the President to set the CIA on them, presenting the reader with a pretty compelling start to the book. I appreciated the author taking the time to explore how the CIA were allowed to operate on US soil, and the explanation for this was a really cool plot element. I also loved the quick jump into the next part of the book, which saw Tacoma fall headfirst into trouble when the Russians find out who he and his partner are and send hitmen after him. From there you have a great, fast-paced story, as Tacoma works his way up the food chain of the Russian mafia to the very top. Coes does a fantastic job introducing the Russian mafia and setting them up as major antagonists. Not only does he examine the history of the mafia but he also explores the background of several of the major antagonists in the book, presenting them as real threats.

Among the highlights of this book were the awesome action sequences that Coes inserts throughout the story. In his attempts to take down the Russians, Tacoma engages in a number of gun fights and covert infiltrations to find and kill his targets. Each of these is a lot of fun to see unfold, and there are some really impressive sequences throughout this book. My personal highlight was an extended sequence in an airport, where Tacoma, in the midst of a busy crowd of civilians, must take down a team of assassins who are gunning for him. There were also several great and brutal scenes involving close-combat fighting, including some knockdown brawls between competing Russian gangsters, which of course Tacoma eventually gets caught right in the middle of. Needless to say, there is plenty in this book to keep those action junkies happy, and it I found it to be an enjoyable part of the book. However, readers should be warned that there are several gruesome torture scenes in this novel, which are probably not everyone’s cup of tea.

I felt that The Russian was an excellent introduction into a new major series for Coes, and I liked how he was able to change the direction of his antagonists away from more usual spy thriller targets and towards organised crime. While the author is moving in a new story direction, The Russian is strongly associated with the Dewey Andreas universe. There are a ton of references to the events that occurred in the previous books, and a number of characters from this original series are included, such as the titular Dewey Andreas. Coes does a great job of introducing all the relevant character backgrounds and previous plot events that the reader needs to know, and absolutely no knowledge of these prior books is required to enjoy The Russian. Still, fans of the original Dewey Andreas books will no doubt enjoy seeing how the universe has progressed, especially as The Russian includes a range of different characters from the previous book.

While I did really enjoy the story that Coes pulled together in The Russian, I did find that it was occasionally let down by elements of the author’s writing style. In my opinion, a bunch of plot points were repeated unnecessarily throughout the book and there were several inconsistencies in the book’s timing and characters that stood out to me. In addition, I had issues with some parts of the dialogue, which I found to be a bit unnatural in places. The above issues occasionally broke up the flow of the story for me and they were a bit discordant. However, I still really enjoyed this book, and I felt that the amazing and action-packed story really overcame some of these technical issues. That said, I did find that some of the book’s major twists were a tad easy to predict, especially the last one, which was tied into the background of Tacoma’s character and revisited several times by a bunch of different characters.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Russian, which was narrated by Ari Fliakos, who has previously narrated one of the books in the Dewey Andreas series. The Russian is a relatively short audiobook which ran for 9 hours and 20 minutes. I quite liked the audiobook format of this novel, especially as it allowed me to get through the book really quickly. Fliakos is a pretty good narrator, and he was able to produce a number of excellent voices for the characters, giving many of them passable Russian accents. I did think that listening to The Russian on audiobook made several of the dialogue issues I discussed above stand out a little more, but overall this was a fantastic format on which to enjoy this book.

Overall, The Russian by Ben Coes is a fun and exciting read that I had an amazing time listening to. Coes has done a wonderful job spinning this book off from his previous series, and I really enjoyed the compelling and action-packed story that he came up with. At this point in time, I am planning to read the next book in the Rob Tacoma series when it comes out, and I am looking forward to seeing where this compelling series goes next.