Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 16 March 2021)

English translation by Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 415 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thriller is a genre that I have only really started reading in the last couple of years and it is swiftly growing to become one of the top types of novels I tend to check out.  While most of the thrillers I read are somewhat mainstream and from authors I have read before, I occasionally branch out and check out something from an unfamiliar author if it has an unusual-sounding plot synopsis which really grabs my attention.  One of the most recent of these was Bullet Train by bestselling Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  Bullet Train, which is the first English translation of Isaka’s 2010 standalone novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle), is a unique and clever thriller which follows five very unusual killers who find themselves aboard the same ill-fated train ride.

On a seemingly normal day, a bullet train is setting out from Tokyo, making its regular trip to Morioka, with several stops planned along the way.  As the train leaves, everything appears quiet, except for the fact that five dangerous killers are on-board, each of them with a very different mission in mind.  The youngest killer, Satoshi, looks like an innocent schoolboy, but in reality his is a psychotic master manipulator, easily able to get people to do what he wants.  His latest victim was Kimura’s young son, who is now in a coma after being thrown off a building.  Kimura, a former hitter turned alcoholic, has tracked Satoshi to the train and intends to kill the youth in revenge.  However, when Kimura underestimates his opponent, he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of survival, as he and Satoshi encounter some of the other passengers on board.

Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, has a relatively simple retrieval job that requires him to spend only a few minutes on the train.  However, when his unnatural bad luck conspires to keep him trapped aboard, he is forced into a desperate battle for survival.  At the same time, the lethal and unconventional assassin partners, Tangerine and Lemon, are also travelling to Morioka, until an untimely death puts them in the crosshairs of a notorious crime lord.  When a suitcase full of money also disappears, all five killers are forced to show their hands, beginning a desperate battle aboard the moving train.  However, as things get serious, the killers begin to wonder why all of them are aboard the same train and who is really pulling their strings.  As the bullet train pulls closer to its destination, betrayals, manipulations and secrets are revealed, and not everyone will survive to reach the last station.

Now this was an extremely awesome and deeply impressive novel that I am so very glad I decided to check out.  This translated novel from Isaka, an author who has written a massive collection of mystery and thriller novels over the last 20 years, including several that have been adapted into films, was a clever, fast-paced thrill ride that follows several awesome and captivating assassin characters.  This resulted in an epic and compelling read which proved to be extremely addictive and is one of the most entertaining books that I have read this year.

I absolutely loved Bullet Train’s slick and clever story that quickly dives between the book’s various characters.  Split between the five central killer protagonists, as well as a few intriguing supporting characters, Bullet Train has a particularly intricate narrative that is heavy on the twists, rapid turns and unique moments.  Isaka does an exceptional job setting the scene and introducing each of the great characters, and the reader is soon engrossed in seeing how the story and individual character arcs play out.  It does not take long for all five main characters to find themselves involved in some surprising and dangerous situations, which they must work to extricate themselves from.  As each character attempts to deal with their own problems, be they a dead client, stolen money, blackmail or being suddenly forced to deal with a dead body, their various storylines soon begin to intersect.  The way in which the individual storylines come together works extremely well and it proves to be extremely entertaining to see to the vibrant and distinctive personalities of each of the protagonists clash against each other when they meet.  Their intriguing interactions include some intense action sequences, clever manipulations and even some amusing confrontations that include anything from philosophical debates to discussions about a certain children’s show.  At the same time, the characters are also forced to contend with several additional complicating factors, including other killers aboard the train, seemingly oblivious onlookers, secrets from the past and a dangerous long-reaching plot.  All of this leads to an epic and clever conclusion that sees several protagonists die and a number of clever twists come to fruition.  I honestly did not see some of these cool twists coming and I ended up on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next and which of the characters were going to survive the whole thing.  I ended up being really impressed with this cool book and I really enjoyed this thrilling and compelling read.

While Bullet Train’s narrative itself is extremely cool, the true highlight of this epic book is the five killer main characters of the story.  All of these main characters are a lot of fun and the author has imbued them with some excellent and memorable traits and personalities.  All five characters add so much to the story in their own right, but their real strength is the way in which they interact with each other.  The way in which these unique protagonists play off each other is just perfect and it was great to see them get the measure of each other and fully understand just whom they are dealing with.  You really get invested in each of these five characters fates and it is rather interesting to see who survives until the end and who comes out on top.

The first two major characters featured within the book are the interesting combination of vengeful former hitman Yuichi Kimura and teenage manipulator Satoshi Oji.  Kimura is a recovering alcoholic who is hunting Satoshi due to the teen’s role in Kimura’s son getting pushed off a roof and ending up in hospital.  However, his attempts at revenge are quickly thwarted by Satoshi, whose nickname “the Prince” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kid.  Using threats towards his comatose son, the Prince manipulates Kimura into helping him investigate the strange events occurring on the train, and the two quickly find themselves in the middle of the dangerous situations, with Kimura attempting to find a way to save his son while the Prince attempts to work the situation to his own advantage.  Both fantastic killers are well-written and compelling characters who add a significant amount to the tale.  You really get invested in Kimura’s struggle to save his son and overcome his own inner demons, while Satoshi serves as a particularly unlikeable villain, who you really want to suffer, even if he is a teenager.  Isaka also throws in a few intriguing flashbacks which highlight how the rivalry between the two started, and which helps to dive into both insecurities and fears.  Both end up having fantastic story arcs within this book, and I really enjoyed the complex web that the author wove around the two.

Another of the main characters is Nanao, a young professional killer with a conscience who has only recently entered into the game.  Nanao is an absolute sweetheart whose most defining characteristic is his abysmal bad luck, which plagues him throughout the course of the book.  It proves rather amusing to see all the dramatic and amusing setbacks that happen to Nanao during Bullet Train, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is actually cursed, a fact that he faces with particular sadness and a certain amount of fatalism.  You cannot help but feel for Nanao as the book progresses, and there is something about his general unhappiness with the situation that draws the reader to him.  Thankfully, he is also a particularly skilled operative, especially in dangerous situations, which gives him a fighting chance against his opponents, and the times when this resourcefulness appears are pretty awesome.  I personally felt that Nanao’s story arc was one of the best in all of Bullet Train and I really loved seeing the other side of the characters’ unluckiness eventually come into play, even if the protagonists never realised just what happened to him.

The final two killers featured within Bullet Train are the memorable partnership of Tangerine and Lemon.  Despite their similar appearance which makes many people believe that they are twins, Tangerine and Lemon are very different people, both with unique personalities that clash with one and other.  While Tangerine is the well-organised professional with a love for classic literature, Lemon is the wild card, a seemingly flaky and eccentric killer with an unnatural appreciation for the children’s show Thomas and Friends.  This makes for a very entertaining odd-couple pairing, as the two characters, who at times appear not to even like or understand each other, need to sort through the chaotic situation about the train.  While Tangerine is an enjoyable character who serves as a good straight man to some of the more outrageous personalities aboard, I definitely enjoyed Lemon way more.  Lemon is a wildly entertaining and captivating character whose unique viewpoint on life, which is inspired by Thomas and Friends, is both childlike and clever at the same time.  I really enjoyed seeing some of Lemon’s reactions and solutions to the problems he encounters, especially as he mainly draws on lessons from the characters in Thomas in Friends, when it comes to judging people (you really do not want to be a mean old Diesel).  This leads to some great scenes, especially as he can see through manipulations that have tricked some of the other characters.  It was also great to see the full breadth of the friendship between Tangerine and Lemon become clear as the book continued, especially as it leads to one of the best scenes in the entire book.  Each of these character arcs ended up being truly spectacular and I had an outstanding time seeing each of their unique tales unfold.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka was an epic and immensely captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed the unique and exciting tale told within it, loaded as it was with all manner of cool twists and surprise reveals, and I cannot emphasise how awesome the main five characters were.  This was a superb read and I will have to keep an eye out for English translations of any of Isaka’s other books.  I am also quite excited for the upcoming film adaption of this book, also titled Bullet Train.  I assume that this English translation novel is the result of the major Hollywood adaption of Maria Bītoru that is currently in production, and which looks set to feature an impressive array of actors including Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beets, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock.  While I am a little uncertain about why a film set on a bullet train in Japan is going to feature a primarily American cast, this looks set to be a fun movie, especially if it lives up to this impressive and clever novel.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

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

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Power Cover

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

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 19

Length: 9 hours and 27 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

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.