Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell

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Publisher: Harper Collins

Publication Date – 24 September 2018

 

Uhtred of Bebbanburg returns in another rich historical adventure set in the heart of post-Roman Britain in this incredible and first-rate story from historical fiction legend Bernard Cornwell.

In the early 10th century, after many years of trials and tribulations, Uhtred has at last achieved his lifelong goal of reclaiming his ancestral fortress of Bebbanburg.  Finally able to claim his independence from Wessex and the Saxon Christians who have always treated him with scorn and hostility for his pagan beliefs, Uhtred seeks to move away from the politics, battles and backstabbing that has been his life for so long.  However, his new peaceful life is about to be interrupted by the interventions of enemies new and old.

In the outside world, King Edward of Wessex has made his move on the kingdom of Mercia, and has finally achieved his father’s dream of uniting the Christian kingdoms of Britain into one nation.  The only remaining country outside of his control is the Kingdom of Northumbria, ruled by Uhtred’s son in law, Sigtryggr.  These events have led to dangerous changes and new alliances for the remaining factions living outside of Edward’s control.

When a mysterious priest sends Uhtred on a mission to save Edward’s maligned firstborn son and Uhtred’s former ward, Æthelstan, from a Mercian siege, he finds himself outmanoeuvred by a new army of Danes who have come to claim Northumbria for themselves.  Faced with great loss, Uhtred finds himself in a brutal fight against an opponent who seems to have mystical powers at his command.  At the same time, the politics of the Wessex court threaten to start a war on another front, as the various contenders for the fading Edward’s throne seek to gain position, and many of the potential heirs want Uhtred dead.  With enemies all around and not enough men at his back, the odds look grim for Uhtred.  But, despite years of brutal battles and the ravages of age, Uhtred is still the most feared warrior in all of Britain, and he’s about to show everyone why he is always a force to be reckoned with.

War of the Wolf is the 11th book in The Last Kingdom series of historical fiction books from Bernard Cornwell.  To my mind, Bernard Cornwell has to be considered one of the greatest authors of historical fiction in the world today, both in the quantity of books he has written and the quality of their content.  Cornwell has been writing since 1981 and has produced more than 55 novels in his career, the vast majority of which are either set in England or focus on English characters out in the world.  The sheer scope of Cornwell’s work is incredible, as he has covered vast tracts of world history, including several more obscure eras not regularly covered by other historical fiction authors.  He is possibly best known for his long-running Richard Sharpe series, which followed the adventures of a British soldier and commander during and around the time of the Napoleonic Wars.  The Richard Sharpe series featured 24 books and was adapted into the British television series, Sharpe, featuring Sean Bean as the titular character.  Other series that Cornwell has published include the American Civil War series The Starbuck Chronicles, the Arthurian legends series The Warlord Chronicles and the Grail Quest novels, which are set during the early years of the Hundred Years’ War.  Cornwell has also produced a number of standalone novels, including several sailing based modern thrillers and a number of intriguing individual historical novels.  These standalone novels cover a huge range of different topics, from the prehistoric English story in Stonehenge, to the war novel Azincourt, the excellent examination of one of the more interesting battles of the American Revolutionary War in The Fort and the thriller set among Shakespeare’s theatre company in Fools and Mortals, which I have previously reviewed here.

The Last Kingdom series, alternatively known as the Saxon Stories, the Saxon Tales, the Warrior Chronicles or the Saxon Chronicles, started in 2004 and is Cornwell’s second–longest-running series, with 11 books currently written, and more set for the future.  The Last Kingdom series is the second of Cornwell’s series to be adapted for television, with a third season of The Last Kingdom television just starting yesterday.  I have always been a massive fan of this series, especially as one of the books in the series, Sword Song, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction I ever read and which helped get me into the genre.  This is a fantastic series, as each of the books contains an electrifying adventure set during a period of history often overlooked or underutilised by other historical fiction authors.  I have routinely reviewed several books in this series over the years, many of which will appear in future additions of my Throwback Thursday series of reviews.

War of the Wolf is another incredible outing from Cornwell that once again focuses on the life of his grizzled and battle-tested protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  Uhtred is a superb series protagonist who has witnessed the changing political and religious landscape of this period of post-Roman Britain.  Originally a Christian Saxon, he is captured by pagan Danes as a child after the death of his father and the theft of his Uhtred’s ancestral fortress of Bebbanburg (modern day Bamburgh Castle in Northeast England) by his uncle.  Raised by the Danes, Uhtred gains an appreciation for their culture and even starts practicing their religion.  Uhtred is eventually forced into the service of the last remaining Christian kingdom of Wessex and its pious King Alfred (Alfred the Great).  Even with several falling outs between the two, Uhtred serves Alfred and his family for many years as his most ferocious warrior and war leader, participating in several of the defining battles of the era.  Throughout the series, Uhtred is constantly torn between the Christian Saxons and the invading pagan Danes.  Despite being born as a Christian in a formerly Christian kingdom, Uhtred finds more in common with the Danes after being raised by one of their noble families and taking on their religion.  While he’d rather fight alongside the Danes, circumstances force Uhtred to swear oaths of loyalty to various Saxon kings, especially Alfred, despite the hatred and disdain they show towards him for retaining his pagan faith.  These dual loyalties are a key part of the character, and often result in much internal and external conflict for Uhtred and form the basis of a number of excellent storylines.  Cornwell uses the character of Uhtred extremely well to highlight the differences between the Danes and the Saxons, as well as the importance of religion to these warring groups, especially when it comes to the somewhat insidious spread of Christianity to the Danes.

These storylines continue in War of the Wolf, as one of Uhtred’s oaths sends him into battle once again.  This sets up the main story of the new book perfectly, as Uhtred is forced to deal with the politics and betrayals of the Saxons, while also fighting against a dangerous pagan opponent.  I liked how Cornwell has continued to focus on Uhtred’s ties to the warring factions of Britain, and his attempts to reconcile his loyalties with his sense of honour and right and wrong.  I also really enjoyed the way that Cornwell has aged up his protagonists throughout the series.  Many authors will try to fit a number of adventures in to a short period of time in order to keep their protagonists in the same age range.  Cornwell, who has based many of the key occurrences of his books on real-life historical events, has instead chosen to age up his protagonist as he outlives several historical figures.  As a result, in War of the Wolf, Uhtred is no longer the young warrior he was at the start of the series, but is now an old sword in his 60s.  This is an intriguing narrative element from Cornwell, who has been slowly building up to this over the last few books in the series.  Not only has Cornwell been slowly ageing him but he’s been making him a more canny and crafty individual, able to rely on his brains and experiences more than his sword arm, although he still finds himself in the middle of every battle.  In the latest book, this leads Uhtred to think more about the future of the people he cares about than his own future, as he realises he is getting closer to death.  This is another fantastic outing featuring one of Cornwell’s best protagonists, and I am excited to see that he has left the series open for several additional stories in the future.

One of the more interesting parts of The Last Kingdom series is Cornwell’s outstanding research and his focus on historical details and events that are often not part of the public consciousness.  I can think of no better way to highlight this then to mention that while I was doing a post-Roman Britain archaeology course at university, my lecturer actually included several books from The Last Kingdom series on his suggested reading list among the usual textbooks and scholarly articles.  The previous books have all featured major battles or political events that helped decide the future of England, and his fictional point-of-view character often finds himself discussing the events with significant historical figures.  Smaller details, such as the traditional names and spellings of historical people and places, give all of these books an incredibly authentic feel and really make the reader think they are back in this time period.  As a result, these books are extremely intriguing for those fans of history and I cannot speak highly enough of the level of historical detail or insight Cornwell shows in his work.  Cornwell continues his trend of interesting historical features in War of the Wolf, as he examines several key events during this period.  This includes the annexation of the Kingdom of Mercia by King Edward of Wessex following the death of his sister Æthelflæd, the Queen of Mercia, and the subsequent rebellion by the Mercians.  There is also focus on the submission of King Sigtryggr of Northumbria to King Edward, and focuses on the events that led up to it.  Uhtred also finds himself embroiled in the politics around who would rule Sussex following the future death of Edward.  All of this is incredibly fascinating and form an amazing background for the rest of the book’s story.

Intense action sequences have always been a major part of this series, with the large-scale fight scenes between the various warring factions battling around the British countryside.  Cornwell does an excellent job replicating the battle tactics and techniques of the Saxons and the Danes, especially the standard technique of the shield wall, where the two opposing sides line up their shields and advance at each other.  The battles are always incredibly detailed and pull no punches when it comes to the gruesome realities of war and combat.  War of the Wolf in particular has quite a few great battle sequences, including one extended siege sequence towards the end of the book at an old Roman fort.  I also loved the inclusion of the úlfhéðnar, the fabled wolf berserkers, who become a major part of the story, as Uhtred and his soldiers must find a way to overcome these dangerous opponents.  It was quite interesting to see how these sorts of legendary historical fighters would actually fare in battle, and the author presents both the advantages and disadvantages of using them.  Special mention should also be given to the dual between the two opposing ‘sorcerers’ during the climactic battle that was extremely entertaining and one of the more amusing parts of the entire book.

Cornwell has once again delivered a five-star classic piece of historical fiction with the latest book in his bestselling The Last Kingdom series.  Filled with fantastic action, amazing historical context and focusing on a well-established and amazingly fleshed and complex protagonist, War of the Wolf is an incredible read that comes highly recommended.  Even after 11 books, this is still one of my favourite series and I’m very excited to get the next edition.

My Rating:

Five Stars