Throwback Thursday – Predator One by Jonathan Maberry

Predator One Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 7 April 2015)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book Seven

Length: 16 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi 13

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

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

Usagi 14

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

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

Usagi 15

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

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

Usagi 16

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

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

Usagi 17

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

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

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

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

Usagi 18

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

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

UY_Book_4_HC_cover

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

Usagi Yojimbo The Wanderer's Road Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 17 January 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Three

Length: 146 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi 7

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

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

Usagi 8

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

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

Usagi 9

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

 

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

Usagi 10

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

Usagi 11

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

Usagi 12

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

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

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

Doctor Aphra Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume Six

Writer: Simon Spurrier

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

Inkers: Marc Deering, Walden Wong and Scott Hanna

Colour Artists: Chris O’Halloran and Stephane Paitreau

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 112 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

DoctorAphra-32

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

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

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

DoctorAphra-33

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

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

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

DoctorAphra-34

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

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

DoctorAphra-35

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

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

DoctorAphra-36

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

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

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian

Ember Queen Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Ash Princess – Book Three

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Young adult fantasy fiction author Laura Sebastian brings her debut series to a close in a big way with Ember Queen, the excellent and exciting conclusion to the Ash Princess trilogy.

Years ago, when the vicious Kalovaxians invaded the island of Astrea, they killed their queen, enslaved the Astrean people and stole their sacred magical gems. Princess Theodosia, heir the Astrean throne, was imprisoned and spent over 10 years as a captive of the Kalovaxian Kaiser, belittled by the mocking title of “Ash Princess”. However, this imprisonment didn’t break Theo; instead, with the help of her friends, she was able to escape to forge her own destiny. Now Theo has returned to Astrea, leading an army made up of freed Astreans, pirates, refugees and forces from the other nations the Kalovaxians have ruined. Hoping to free her people, Theo and her friends believe that they finally have the advantage over the Kalovaxians. However, the sins of Theo’s past have come back to haunt her.

Cress is a young Kalovaxian noblewoman who claimed Theo as her best friend during Theo’s imprisonment, despite being the daughter of the man who killed Theo’s mother. Theo chose to poison Cress and her father when she made her escape, and while she succeeded in killing Cress’s father, the magical poison she used had unexpected side effects on Cress. Despite being burned and mutilated, Cress survived, with the fire-imbued poison granting her powerful and deadly magical abilities. Using these to her advantage, Cress has done the unthinkable, killing the Kalovaxian Kaiser, poisoning Theo and claiming power over Astrea as the Kaiserin.

Barely surviving her own poisoning after a sojourn down into the magical Fire Mine, Theo must now find a way to free Astrea from her former best friend. With her own fire magic greatly increased, Theo plots to take the fight straight to the Kalovaxians. However, Cress has her own plans, and whole of Astrea may burn in order for her to get her revenge. Who will rise as the Ember Queen, and will the winner have anything left to rule?

Wow, talk about an impressive end to a great trilogy. Ember Queen is an amazing book from Laura Sebastian, who over the last couple of years has done an excellent job establishing herself as one of the best new young adult fantasy fiction authors. This is the third and final book in Sebastian’s debut Ash Princess trilogy, and this is definitely another superb addition to this fun series. I have been enjoying this trilogy since the beginning, reading Ash Princess in 2018 and Lady Smoke in 2019, both of which are pretty fantastic novels. Ember Queen turned out to be an excellent conclusion to this entire trilogy, and I had a great time reading it.

Sebastian has pulled together an excellent story for the final volume of the Ash Princess series, and I really liked the way in which she wrapped up the entire trilogy. After the first two novels dealt with the oppression of Astrea by the Kalovaxians, we finally get to see Theo’s big attempt to free her country from the invaders. I loved the way that Sebastian changed the theme of each novel, with the first novel relying on espionage, the second on diplomacy, and this third book on war. Sebastian produced a compelling narrative around this battle for the control of Astrea, and I really liked some of the directions that the story went into, especially when some intriguing new fantasy elements were introduced by the antagonist. Overall, I was really impressed with how Ember Queen turned out, especially as Sebastian used it to expertly conclude this awesome trilogy.

One of the main strengths of the Ash Princess trilogy has always been its great characters, who evolve throughout the course of the books. This is particularly true for Ember Queen, as Sebastian wraps up many of the character threads that have been introduced in the previous books, resulting in some excellent character devolvement as well as some satisfying conclusions for many character arcs. The main example of this is the series protagonist and point-of-view character, Princess Theodosia (Theo). Throughout the course of the first two books, Theo has grown substantially as a character, from a meek and seemingly broken prisoner to a cunning spy and manipulator, to a canny diplomat to finally an effective military commander. We finally get to see Theo take up the reins of leadership and responsibility that she has been somewhat apprehensive of in the previous books, as she starts making the hard decisions needed to ensure the freedom of her people. I really liked seeing all this character growth from the protagonist and I also appreciated the fact that Sebastian had Theo look back and own many of her prior mistakes and decisions that she regretted. Overall, I thought that Sebastian did an amazing job portraying Theo’s entire arc, and I think that she concluded her story in an impressive and enjoyable manner.

Sebastian has also produced some great conclusions to the arcs of the various side characters that were featured within this trilogy. For example, Soren has an intriguing story during Ember Queen, as he finds himself once again caught between the woman he loves and supports, Theo, and his people, the Kalovaxians. Like Theo does with the Astreans, Soren must come to a decision about his role as a leader of the Kalovaxians, and I think that his story and romance with Theo came together quite well. Blaise, Theo’s childhood friend and secondary love interest, also has an excellent arc within this book, finally getting some closure over his relationship with Theo, as well as the conclusion to his mine-madness arc. Several of the other supporting characters get some great advancement within this book as well. Artemisia, Erik and Heron all have their individual tales expanded on, and it’s great to see how comfortable and close they, Theo, Soren and Blaise have come together as a group. I particularly liked the way that Theo has gotten closer to Artemisia, her tough-as-nails cousin and bodyguard, and I had a good laugh at the way that Art allowed Theo a one-off session of girl talk as a way of calming her down before the final battle. New character Maile is an interesting addition to the series, and while she initially comes across as rather abrasive, she eventually becomes part of the group, resulting in a significant revelation for one of the characters.

The main thing that really made Ember Queen stand out to me was the complex relationship between the protagonist of the book, Theo, and the antagonist, Cress. This has always been a rather interesting relationship, as within the first book Theo and Cress were, in theory, best friends, referring to the other as their heart’s sister, even if Cress was actually rather controlling and manipulative. Theo eventually allowed Cress and her father to be poisoned at the end of the first book, and Cress now holds a heavy grudge against Theo for her betrayal. She has also evolved as a character since this first book, morphing into a much more confident woman who has taken control of her people in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Theo’s growth as a leader. However, this is where some of the similarities end, as Cress is now a bit of a black mirror to Theo, as she is cruel, ruthless, determined to win whatever the cost and has no compunction about killing innocents. Despite all this, Theo is still drawn to her old friend, and the two of them have a compelling emotional bond (as well as an actual magical bond) throughout this novel. Theo feels guilty for the way that she betrayed and poisoned Cress, and she has a bit of a hard time seeing the evil person that she has become, and is more inclined to consider mercy than her friends would like. Cress, on the other hand, acts as ruthlessly as possible towards Theo and her friends, and is actually an extremely convincing antagonist for this book. Despite her actions, the reader gets to see that Cress is still deeply concerned with what Theo thinks about her and her plans, and there are still hints of a connection. However, her sense of betrayal, anger and determination to keep her newfound power always start to overwhelm any connection she feels to her old friend, and this leads to some devastating and heart-breaking confrontations. This whole dynamic between protagonist and antagonist is a really amazing part of Ember Queen, and adds significantly to the overall quality of the story.

I have always appreciated the magical system that Sebastian has featured in her Ash Princess books. This magic is elemental in nature, based around fire, earth, water or air (similar to the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with a few key differences), and is exclusive to the Astreans, due to the presence of the magical mines located on their island. This magic has been a bit of an understated affair in the previous books, as the plots of those novels focused on espionage and diplomacy and required smaller, more subtle displays of magic. However, in Ember Queen, the Astreans are now at war, and so the magical gloves are off. This book is filled with a number of great examples of just how powerful or effective Astrean magic can be and it is a really cool addition to the series. Seeing the formerly enslaved or dispossessed Astreans unleash their power against their oppressors is a little cathartic, and it certainly makes for some great, if devastating, scenes. Sebastian also does some intriguing morphing of her magical system when it comes to Theo, Cress and some other characters, and this results in a rather interesting plot line that I liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Ember Queen is a rather good piece of young adult fiction. Sebastian has created an amazing story that features a group of young people growing as characters and sacrificing everything for freedom, friendship and justice. This a great book for younger readers, and while there is plenty of violence, war and fighting, there is nothing too graphic or over-the-top that makes it inappropriate for younger readers. I personally really appreciated Sebastian’s excellent portrayal of several LGBT+ characters within this book, especially as two of these characters had one of the best romantic relationships in the entire series. Despite being angled towards younger readers, Ember Queen is one of those books that can be enjoyed by a wider audience of people. There is definitely something for everyone in this book and it is really worth checking out.

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian is a wonderful novel that not only contains a captivating story, but which also does an awesome job concluding the author’s debut trilogy. In this final book in the Ash Princess trilogy, Sebastian presents a desperate battle for freedom, complete with intriguing magical elements, excellent characters, complex interactions between the protagonist and antagonist and a fantastic story. All of this comes together in a first-rate read, which is a great conclusion to this series. I note that Sebastian has her next body of work already planned out, with the first book in her upcoming young adult fantasy series, Constellation of Chaos, set for release next year. This new book has an interesting plot synopsis out already and I am planning to grab this book when it comes out. Until then, Ember Queen is an excellent book from Sebastian and it is really worth seeing how this fantastic trilogy ends.

The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman

The Museum of Desire Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 4 February 2020)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 35

Length: 348 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a compelling and intricate novel from one of the leading authors of the murder mystery genre as I check out The Museum of Desire, the newest novel from Jonathan Kellerman.

The Museum of Desire is the latest book in Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series of murder mystery books, which is the author’s main body of work. This series has been running since Kellerman’s 1985 debut, When the Bough Breaks, and the author has since released over 50 books, several of which he has co-written with either his wife or his daughter. I only started reading Kellerman’s novels last year when I picked up a copy of the previous book in the Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest, which contained a rather clever mystery that I had a great time reading. As a result, I made sure to keep an eye out for Kellerman’s next release and I subsequently found myself deeply intrigued when I saw the plot for his latest novel, The Museum of Desire, and really wanted to check it out. This latest Kellerman novel is the 35th novel in the Alex Delaware series and it contains another intriguing and complex murder mystery storyline that I had a lot of fun unravelling.

In the aftermath of a wild party in a Beverly Hills mansion, the cleaner assigned to the property makes a terrible discovery: a limousine containing four blood-soaked dead bodies. Each of the four has been murdered and artistically posed within the car, making for a grim and disturbed scene. To make matters even more unusual, the victims all appear to have been chosen at random, with none of the victims having any apparent connection to any of the others.

Realising that they are dealing with another special case, LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis calls in his friend and frequent consultant, psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, to help unravel this mystery. Over the years that Alex and Milo have been working together, they have seen some particularly heinous and unusual murders, but these might be the most disturbing one yet. As the two begin running down the case, they find themselves on the trail of a vicious killer with a love for unusual art and a penchant for eliminating any potential witnesses to their crime. Worse, it soon becomes apparent that their killer is not yet done, and that many more people are going to die.

The Museum of Desire is another excellent release from Kellerman that delivers the reader an amazing and compelling murder mystery. The author has done a fantastic job with his latest mystery, coming up with a unique and interesting murder scenario, with four apparently random victims posed in a very distinctive manner. This turned into a quite a clever and complex mystery storyline that went in some very intriguing directions. Kellerman makes sure to fill the story up with a substantial number of twists, strong false leads and a raft of plausible suspects, making the real killer a bit hard to predict. I was certainly a bit surprised by who it turned out to be, but I thought it was quite a good twist. Kellerman makes sure to wrap this whole murder mystery storyline up with a memorable conclusion, which I thought was an incredible way to end this entire plot. The end result is a very captivating tale of passion, brutality and revenge, and I very much enjoyed unravelling this awesome mystery storyline.

One of the things that I really like about Kellerman’s books is the slower-paced, methodical style in which his protagonists investigate the various murders that they come across. Rather than coming to a massive conclusion off the smallest pieces of evidence, the two central characters slowly build up their case throughout the course of the book in order to work out what happened. This is mostly done by interviewing witnesses to the crime, as well as the friends and family of the murder victims, establishing what sort of people they were, where they spent their time and who they interacted with. With this information in hand, as well as some physical or forensic evidence and potentially some internet search results, they can create a rough picture of what happened and what sort of people they are dealing with in order to narrow down their suspects and come up with the necessary leads to identify the killers. This methodical approach to a murder investigation is quite distinctive and it makes the whole book feel a lot more realistic, like you are reading about a real investigation rather than one of those television shows where the crime is solved in a matter of hours. That being said, several breaks in the case are only coincidently revealed because the narrator happened to be driving by. This feeling of realism is backed up by the protagonists having to deal with things like delays in the lab, conflicting priorities within the department and a lack of manpower from overworked police officers who have multiple cases, all of which expands the investigative timeline out. I actually really like this style of crime writing from Kellerman, as it makes The Museum of Desire stand out from some of the other murder mysteries out there. I am a big fan of the realism that he installs in his work, and I feel that it makes the story even more compelling and enjoyable.

Another great part of the Alex Delaware books are the two main characters, Doctor Alex Delaware and LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis. While this is the Alex Delaware series, with Alex Delaware serving as the books narrator and point-of-view character, Milo is just as important to the series. Both Alex and Milo are great characters in their own right. Alex is the brilliant child psychologist whose insights into the human mind are useful for many of the cases seen in these books and who also serves as a bit of stand-in for the author, who himself is a noted psychologist. Milo, on the other hand, is an openly gay veteran homicide detective who is heavily respected by both his fellow officers and the wider community he has been serving for years. While on paper this seems like a bit of an unusual partnership, Alex and Milo have been working together since the first book in the series and have now formed a rather effective team and a close friendship. It is a lot of fun watching the two of them solve crimes, especially as play off each other really well during the course of the book, with Milo providing the police knowledge and experience, while Alex brings his outside view and professional expertise to the game. While both are serious when it comes to the crimes they are investigating, Milo has a bit of a comedic edge to him, which works well as Alex is a bit more of the team’s straight man. Their views of the various people they meet and circumstances surrounding the cases are usually amusing, especially when dealing with unusual situations. The Museum of Desire is a great example of this, as you get to see them deal with art snobs, disrespectful rich kids, fierce landladies, a socially different teenager and unhelpful witnesses, and they have some good discussions about them later. Overall, I am a massive fan of this team up (although I like Milo a bit more as a character) and I cannot wait to see what crazy crimes and people they go up against in Kellerman’s next book.

With his latest novel, The Museum of Desire, Jonathan Kellerman has produced another captivating murder mystery. Featuring a unique case, a fantastic and twisty mystery and Kellerman’s trademark brand of investigation, this latest novel is an amazing and enjoyable read that pits his great protagonists against a clever killer. This was another awesome addition to the terrific Alex Delaware series, and readers are going to have an amazing time getting to the bottom of his latest case.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Into the Fire

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

Series: Orphan X – Book Five

Length: 12 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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