Throwback Thursday – The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

The Last Continent Cover

Publisher: Doubleday and ISIS Audiobook (1 May 1998)

Series: Discworld – Book 22

Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is 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 Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite books of all time, the incredibly funny and always enjoyable The Last Continent, by legendary author Sir Terry Pratchett.

I have never made it a secret that I absolutely love the works of the late, great, Terry Pratchett, who I consider to be one of the best authors of all time.  I love and adore every single one of Pratchett’s hilarious and captivating novels, especially the entries in the wacky and wild Discworld series, a comedy fantasy series set in an absolutely insane world of magic, monsters and outrageous personalities that lies upon a disc shaped world, borne through space on the back of four elephants, who themselves are on the back of a giant turtle.  I have so much love for this outstanding and hilarious series, and I have read each and every entry in multiple times.  Heck, even the name of my blog, The Unseen Library, is taken from a fictional institution in the Discworld series!  However, despite how much I love the series, I have so far only reviewed one Discworld novel on this blog so far (Shame! Shame! Shame!), Moving Pictures, and this is something I have been meaning to rectify for some time.

I recently did a Top Ten Tuesday list where I looked at some of the funniest books I have ever read, which included several Discworld novels, and this inspired me to do a review for another Pratchett read.  I ended up going with one of my favourite Discworld novels of all time, the incredible and wildly entertaining The Last Continent, which places one of the author’s most iconic characters into the most dangerous places imaginable, Australia.  I am reviewing this book slightly out of the order I originally planned, but I figured reviewing this one now may encourage me to get to others in the future.  I should admit that I have not read The Last Continent recently, but this is one of the many Discworld novels that I have read multiple times, either in its paperback (I’ve actually got a signed copy of this book) or its audiobook format, and at this point I have it pretty much memorised. 

So the first thing I should cover is:

“This is not a book about Australia.  No, it’s about somewhere entirely different which just happens to be, here and there, a bit…Australian.

Still…no worries, right?”

Welcome to EcksEcksEcksEcks (XXXX), the Discworld’s last continent.  Made by a rogue creator who snuck in after the rest of the Disc was created and kept hidden away from its other civilisations by a series of massive storms, XXXX is a deadly and dangerous place.  Filled with some of the most lethal and confusing creatures on the entire Disc and populated by a friendly, if occasionally murderous, group of people, XXXX is a hell of a place to live.  Unfortunately, everything in it is about to die as the water dries out and even the beer is getting hard to find.

Luckily for the people of XXXX, a hero has been found, one who is battling his way through the wastes and towns of the country, his legend growing all along.  But who is this road warrior, sheep shearer, horse wrangler, beer drinker and ballad-worthy bush ranger, and why is he apparently so determined to run away from his heroic destiny?

That man is Rincewind, the Discworld’s most cowardly and inept wizard, who has been bounced from one end of the Disc to the other and been chased by every sort of monster, maniac and seller of regional delicacies you can imagine.  All Rincewind wants to do is go home, and he is determined to avoid any new adventures as a chosen hero, no matter what the talking kangaroo stalking him tries to tell him.  Despite his best efforts, Rincewind once again finds himself caught up in the special craziness of the locals, and if he wants to survive, he needs to find a way to save everyone.  What’s the worst that could happen???

So, as you may be able to tell from the above synopsis, this is a bit of a crazy novel, but it is one that is always guaranteed to make me laugh, especially with its fantastic Australian-based humour.  The Last Continent is the 22nd overall entry in the Discworld series and the sixth book to focus on the character of Rincewind.  I personally have a lot of love for this particular Terry Pratchett novel, and it is probably one of my all-time favourite Discworld novels. 

Pratchett came up with a pretty clever and fantastic story for The Last Continent, which sees several of his established characters get involved in wackiness all around a newly discovered continent.  The main story follows Rincewind as he tracks across the wastelands of XXXX after getting sent there at the end of his previous novel, Interesting Times (there was an accident with a butterfly), and he is now primarily concerned with trying to find a way home.  However, mysterious forces soon work to turn him into the hero who will save XXXX from a thousand-year crippling drought.  Rincewind, who is more concerned with reaching the nearest port, soon gets involved with all manner of road bandits, deadly creatures, drunken locals and an annoying talking kangaroo, all of which lead him to the secrets at the heart of this lost continent.  At the same time, the wizard faculty at Unseen University are faced with a serious problem when their trusty orangutan colleague, the Librarian, falls ill, and they require his real name to work a spell to save him.  However, the only person who knows the Librarian’s real name is Rincewind, and so the faculty blunder their way through a magical portal to find him.  However, in predictable fashion, they find themselves trapped on a weird island thousands of years in the past and forced to deal with an immature and slightly beetle-obsessed god of evolution.  

I really enjoyed both story arcs contained within this book, and Pratchett did an amazing job bringing them together.  Both have some fantastic and weird elements to them and they make great use of the particular adventures and attitudes of their relevant characters.  While Rincewind is forced to run away from all manner of deadly situations you typically see here in Australia (let me tell you, the dropbears and road gangs are murder), the wizard faculty blunder their way through all manner of unique situations, mostly by ignoring what is happening to them.  Each storyline is unique and has some fantastic highlights, but the real strength is the way in which Pratchett combines them together into one cohesive narrative.  Not only are both distinctive arcs perfectly spread out and separated throughout the course of the book, but Pratchett does a fantastic job combining them together in a clever way.  This ended up serving as a great near-final adventure for Rincewind (he’s more of a supporting character in his following appearances), and I think it did a wonderful job wrapping up his main arc.  While readers should probably read some of the earlier Discworld novels featuring Rincewind (especially the preceding Interesting Times), The Last Continent can easily be read alone, and readers will have an outstanding time reading this fun and compelling comedic adventure.

In my opinion, The Last Continent is one of Pratchett’s funniest novels, although I might be somewhat biased by my own personal humour and background.  I always have an outstanding time reading this book and there are so many clever jokes and amusing references that I cannot help but laugh, no matter how many times I hear them.  This book has a lot of Pratchett’s classic humour elements to it, such as the unusual quirks of his various characters and the funny little footnotes, filled with great references and punchlines.  The author goes off on some very entertaining segues during this book, and I love some of the great jokes he came up with, especially those that make fun of Australia.

Now, despite what the author says at the front of this book, The Last Continent is clearly a parody of Australia, and Pratchett clearly enjoyed utilising every single Australian reference or cliché he could think of to craft his funny book.  The continent of XXXX is an over-the-top fantasy version of Australia, with many of the outrageous stereotypes that you would expect, as well as some more subtle choices, and it serves as a truly amusing setting for this book, especially as Rincewind perfectly plays the part of clueless tourist.  While you could potentially discount The Last Continent as merely satirising Australia, I have always seen it as something cleverer, as I think that Pratchett was more making fun of the stereotypes that outsiders came up with rather than Australia itself.  That being said, Pratchett, as a Brit, did take a few good shots, although that’s only to be expected.  As an Australian myself, I always enjoy when comedy writers try to encapsulate Australia in their works, as it is quite amusing to see what they reference.  I always thought that Pratchett did this the best with The Last Continent, as he really dived into so many aspects of Australia life, nature and culture, and there are some truly funny jokes contained within.  Australian historical or cultural icons like Mad Max, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Skippy, The Man From Snowy River, Crocodile Dundee, and Ned Kelly are utilised in this book to great effect throughout The Last Continent, and there are some truly outrageous and clever references and jokes here.

While The Last Continent is filled with many, many funny Australian jokes, a few really stick out to me.  I personally always laugh so hard when Death, wanting to learn more about the continent his elusive prey Rincewind has landed on, decides to ask his library for a list of all the deadly animals on XXXX.  However, this results in him being buried by a massive pile of reference books, including “Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita: (Volume 29c, Part Three).  This is followed up by a request for a list of harmless creatures on the continent, and a single card appears bearing the sentence “some of the sheep”.  I love that over-the-top joke about how dangerous Australia’s wildlife is (it is honestly not that bad, although my editor was bitten by a sheep the other day), and that was one of the best ways I have seen it bought up.  I also loved the references to Australian hero worship of notorious criminals such as Ned Kelly or the jolly swagman from Waltzing Matilda.  There are some amazing jokes here, from people attempting to make catchy ballads, to the prison guards providing advice and help on last words and escape possibilities, all of which capture the rebellious Australian spirit.  I particularly liked Pratchett’s version of Waltzing Matilda, which was perfect in its rhyme, its satirical analysis of the original poem, and how it fit into The Last Continent’s narrative:

“Once a moderately jolly wizard camped by a waterhole under the shade of a tree that he was completely unable to identify.  And he swore as he hacked and hacked at a can of beer, saying ‘what kind of idiots put beer in tins?’”

Other great Australian comedic sequences for me include the scene where the Unseen University wizards attempt to design a duck by committee, resulting in the mighty platypus, an impromptu Mad Max road chase with horse-drawn carts and the constant references to a certain line in our national anthem.  All of these jokes, and more, were pretty amazing and I really enjoyed seeing some of the outrageous and over-the-top elements that British culture picks up about Australia.

While I really enjoyed all the fun references to Australia, some of Pratchett’s best jokes in The Last Continent occurred during the secondary storyline that followed the faculty of Unseen University as they go back in time and encounter the god of evolution.  The author uses this part of the book to make comedic observations about time travel, evolution and advanced biology.  Not only does include a particularly hilarious sequence in which someone tries to explain the grandfather paradox to a group of wilfully ignorant wizards, but there are some truly funny jokes about evolution and biology which cleverly reference some advanced concepts and historical basis of the science.  While I read this book years ago, it wasn’t until I took some specific biology classes that I fully grasped just how intelligent some of the jokes in this part of the book are.  I personally love a book which you can come back to time and time again and find some new joke or layer to, and this is the case with The Last Continent, which no doubt still contains elements or references I’ve missed.  All of this results in a comically brilliant read, and The Last Continent remains one of my favourite Disworld reads as a result.

I have always enjoyed the great character choices contained within this book, as Pratchett brings together some old favourites, as well as a few entertaining new ones, to tell the story.  The main character of The Last Continent is Pratchett’s original Discworld protagonist, Rincewind, the cowardly and inept hero who cannot even spell “wizard” properly, but who has served as a world-saving hero on multiple occasions.  Rincewind is always a particularly fun character to follow, not only because he constantly finds himself caught in all manner of unique situations which he heroically tries to run away from (he has become quite the expert at running away), but he has a certain realistic approach to life that allows him to see through the ridiculousness around him and address it in a funny manner.  At this point in the series, Rincewind has been bounced around from adventure to adventure against his will so much that he has developed a bit of knack for knowing when it is going to happen again, including figuring out all the signs someone gives off when they are trying to con him into being a hero.  It proves to be quite entertaining to see Rincewind try to escape from people trying to drag him into the narrative, especially as all his attempts to get out of dangerous situations generally put him in even worse trouble.  It is also really worth seeing Rincewind’s reactions to the various elements of XXXX life, especially as he soon begins to realise that everyone there has some very unusual ideas about how to live and die, most of which he is very opposed to.  I really enjoyed this more mature and somewhat resigned version of Rincewind and I have to say that this is one of my more favourite adventures of his (either this or Interesting Times).  It was definitely great to see the character get a happy ending towards the end of the book for once, which he frankly deserved after his last few adventures.

While Rincewind is tearing it up in not-Australia, Pratchett also dedicates around half of The Last Continent to the characters who form the faculty of the Disc’s premier wizard school, Unseen University.  Many wizard characters have featured in the Discworld books, but this current iteration of the faculty (with the exception of the Librarian) was originally introduced in the 10th book, Moving Pictures, and has remained pretty constant ever since.  This group includes the hunting-obsessed Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully; the quite insane Bursar; the incredibly obese Dean; the amusing team of the Senior Wrangler, the Chair of Indefinite Studies and the Lecturer in Recent Runes; the orangutan Librarian (working in a library is dangerous work); and the long-suffering Ponder Stibbons, the youngest member of the faculty and the only one with any common sense.  Pratchett had previously done an amazing job building up all of these characters in prior books, highlighting their unique quirks and issues, including the overwhelmingly stubborn, childish and traditionalist personalities of the older wizards.  This excellent blend of personality types really makes the older wizard characters really amusing and their adventures, especially when encountering strange gods and creators who they generally ignore, are extremely funny.  While an entire book about these characters would potentially be a bit overwhelming, I think that Pratchett got the balance right in The Last Continent, and they ended up serving as a fun counterpoint to Rincewind.  Stibbons was also a particularly good straight-man to his fellow wizards, and the contrast between keen intellectualism and entrenched “wisdom” is a fantastic part of the book.  I rather enjoyed Stibbons arc in this book, especially as you get to appreciate the true depth of his frustration with his fellow wizards, although he does gain a deeper appreciation for them as the book progresses.  Other amusing storylines with the wizards includes the Senior Wrangler’s obsession with housekeeper, Mrs Whitlow, which eventually gets shared with some of the other wizards, and the uncontrollable shapeshifting infecting the Librarian, which makes for some entertaining gags.  I also really enjoyed the fact that much of the book’s plot revolves around the fact that no-one actually knows the Librarian’s name, a fun feature from the previous books, and it was interesting to see the reasons why this was the case.

Aside from this fun collection of wizard characters, Pratchett makes great use of a fine selection of supporting characters, each of whom add some fantastic fun to the overall story.  This includes a very inventive group of new characters, each of whom represent various parts of XXXX life, whether they be depressed operatic chefs, police officers more concerned with getting their charges ballads and famous last stands, bushland drovers, belligerent drinkers, desert-wandering crossdressers in a princess-themed cart and even a crazed road warrior named Mad.  Despite most of them being the result of a punchline or extended joke, Pratchett sets each of these characters up really well and ensures each of them has a fun and satisfying character arc in the book.  I also quite enjoyed the return of fan favourite character, Death, who goes on a bit of a tourist phase through the book.  I really liked Death’s random appearances throughout The Last Continent, especially as he drops some amusing anecdotes about dying in XXXX, and it was also great to see his current viewpoint on Rincewind.  Whereas before he was always determined to catch and kill Rincewind, as he was the one mortal who constantly got away from him, in this book, Death, who no longer has any idea of when Rincewind is actually going to die and is now quite fascinated by him, keeps himself appraised of his progress and is generally friendly to him, even if that freaks Rincewind out.  I also loved the appearance of another member of the extended Dibbler clan, even if the XXXX version was a parody of a certain unpleasant right-wing political figure here in Australia.  The appearance of another ruthlessly mercantile hot-food dispenser with inedible food is a great continuation of a running joke Pratchett has been using for several books, and it is one that really pays dividends in The Last Continent, when Rincewind recounts all the terrible foods he’s eaten over the years from the various Dibblers he has encountered, which then runs into a fantastic diatribe about the dangers of national delicacies, especially XXXX’s meat pie floater (a real meal here in Australia, although there is no way in hell I would ever eat one).  All of these characters add so much to the book’s story, and I love the inventiveness that Pratchett puts into them.

While I have enjoyed all the Discworld novels in their physical paperback format at one point or another, my preferred way to experience a Pratchett novel these days is in its audiobook form.  All of the Discworld novels have been turned into excellent audiobooks over the years, and The Last Continent is no exception.  Narrated by the outstanding Nigel Planer, who ended up narrating over 20 Discworld novels (The Last Continent was the penultimate Discworld book he leant his voice to), and with an easily enjoyable runtime of just under 10 hours, this is a pretty fantastic audiobook that I regularly rush through in not time at all.  I find that all the awesome jokes in this book come across in the audiobook format extremely well, even the jokes traditionally contained within the book’s footnotes, and Planer’s witty voice is always pitched at the best tone to bring out the joke’s potential.  I really appreciate the way in which Planer utilised the same voices for the various recurring characters he has used in all their previous appearances, and each of the voices fit the characters very well.  I also really enjoyed the voices he came up with all the new characters, and it was exceedingly amusing to see him come up with a range of Australian voices and accents and have them belt out a variety of outlandish slang terms.  All in all, this turns out to be an excellent audiobook version of The Last Continent and it is pretty much the only way I enjoy this novel at the moment.

As you can see from the huge review I pulled together above (I have written university essays that were shorter), I really love The Last Continent.  This fantastic Australian parody is easily one of my favourite Discworld novels, and I deeply enjoy the outstanding and entertaining story that Pratchett wove around this outrageous version of my country.  Anyone who is familiar with anything Australian is going to have an incredible time reading this book, and I honestly do not think I could give this anything less than five stars.  A highly recommended read from one of the funniest authors of all time.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this latest Top Ten Tuesday, participants have the fun task of listing their favourite books that made them laugh out loud.

While coming up with list was an enjoyable and entertaining task, this was a topic that I slightly struggled with as I don’t tend to read purely comedic novels.  Instead, I usually get my comedic fix through somewhat more serious books that have funny protagonists or are filled with jokes or excellent humour.  Nonetheless, I was able to pull together a good list in the end filled with some amazing reads that always leave me laughing.  I did end up having to feature multiple books from the same authors to fill this list up, but these guys are just so funny it was hard not to.  So, with that, let us get on to the funny stuff.

 

Honourable Mentions:

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra by Sarah Kuhn

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

 

Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Best Left on the Drawing Board by Vince Houghton

Nuking the Moon Cover

With luminous foxes and exploding bats, this fun non-fiction book is proof that reality is sometimes stranger, and more hilarious, than fiction.

 

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Early Riser Cover

 

Footrot Flats by Murray Ball

Footrot Flats Cover

An amazing comic strip I loved in my childhood thanks to my fun grandfather.  This cool New Zealand comic still holds up even after all these years and makes me laugh like crazy every time I read it.

 

Top Ten List:

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Jingo Cover

I do not think that anyone is going to be too surprised that I have featured several books from the utterly hilarious and indefinably clever Terry Pratchett.  Pratchett is easily my favourite author of all time, and I have so much love for his amazing Discworld series, the novels of which I have read and re-read time and time again, and each of them always makes me laugh.  I ended up including five Discworld books on this list, which I honestly think is me showing restraint, as I could have filled up three separate lists purely with Discworld novels.  The first of these books is one I am particularly fond of, Jingo, which sees the Ankh-Morpork City Watch attempt to stop a war.  Filled with all manner of jokes about war, political assassinations and jingoism, while also featuring an hilarious boat chase in unusual weather, Captain Carrot turning into Lawrence of Arabia and an entire battlefield arrested for causing an affray, this book never fails to amuse me, and I always laugh while reading it.

 

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

The Constant Rabbit Cover

The second entry on this list was last years awesome and captivating release from Jasper Fforde, The Constant Rabbit.  Set in an alternate version of England filled with anthropomorphic rabbits, Fforde has come up with an outrageous narrative that is both fantastically funny while also serving as a clever send up of current British politics.  I laughed at so many scenes during this book, including a great court sequence, that The Constant Rabbit easily made this list and is really worth checking out.

 

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

The Last Continent Cover

The next Discworld novel to appear on this list is The Last Continent, a very amusing novel that pits Pratchett’s main protagonist, the cowardly wizard Rincewind, against the terrors and horrors of that most dangerous of places, Australia (although the author is very clear to state that this is not a book about Australia, it just seems, in some places, very Australian, so no worries, right?).  Naturally, Rincewind manages to run into every single dangerous Australian stereotype you can think of, including road gangs trying to steal a mad dwarf’s hay, talking kangaroos, drop bears, a chronic lack of rain and, worst of all, a local delicacy (a pea soup pie floater, shudder!).  The Australian jokes and references come thick and fast throughout this book, which become even more entertaining when viewed from the point-of-view of someone born and raised in Australia.  At the same time, the wizards of Unseen University engage in their own separate adventure, which sees them lost in the past (potentially killing their own grandparents) and forced to contend with a sex-obsessed god of evolution (once someone explains what sex is to him).  All of this makes for a hilarious and captivating read that is easily one of my favourite Discworld books, and one which I will always have a good laugh at.

 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City Cover

There was no way that I could not include the impressive and captivating Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City on this list.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, which was one of my favourite books of 2019, tells the story of a desperate and comical siege of a major fantasy city.  Told from the perspective of a very unreliable narrator, this book sees the protagonist defend his city with the most effective weapon he has, bluffs and lies.  This is an outstanding book, and readers are guaranteed to giggle at every single manipulation, con and elaborate subterfuge that is deployed to save the city.

 

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving Pictures Cover

A Discworld book that is perfect for movie buffs, Moving Pictures examines what happens when a new form of entertainment comes to this crazy world, giving a whole new meaning to the term “movie magic”.  There are so many great jokes and references in this compelling and exceptional book, that multiple re-reads are a must to see just how clever Pratchett really was.  Highlights include the introduction of multiple amazing characters, a reverse King Kong moment and a very entertaining Gone With The Wind parody (to this day I cannot hear the words “Blown Away” without thinking about this book and sniggering).  An impressive comedic treat.

 

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts Cover

A Star Trek parody written by science fiction genius John Scalzi was always going to be an amazing read, and it proves to be utterly hilarious.  I loved all the fantastic jokes made about Star Trek in this book, and it was extremely funny to see the adventures of an Enterprise equivalent ship told from the perspective of the doomed redshirts.  I had some good laughs as I powered through this book and it is an incredible comedy read to check out.

 

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids Cover

Another long-time favourite Discworld novel of mine is the outstanding Pyramids, which serves as a comedic adventure in an ancient Egyptian facsimile.  Pratchett came up with some fantastic sequences for this book, and I always chuckle at the scene with the various sun gods fighting for their prize like a football while a priest does commentary: “It’s noon! It’s noon!”.  An utterly hilarious novel.

 

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

A Shot in the Dark Cover

This next excellent entry on this list is A Shot in the Dark, Lyne Truss’s novelisation of her genius Inspector Steine radio show.  This serves as an amazing take on this fantastic radio show and I loved the comical premise which sees a new police constable be reassigned to the seemingly crime free Brighton, only to discover something very sinister is lurking just around the corner, ready to offer him a cup of tea.  A very funny and entertaining read that got a lot of laughs out of me.

 

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! Cover

The fifth Discworld novel on this list is the exceptional Guards! Guards!, which serves as the introductory book in the City Watch subseries.  This is an outstanding read that presents a fantasy parody of classic crime fiction novels, by having a severely understaffed police force attempt to arrest a summoned dragon.  There are so many clever comedic scenes in this book, but I personally laughed the hardest as the descriptions of the heroic and naïve Captain Carrot arresting the head of the Thieves Guild.  One of Pratchett’s best and funniest books, this is a great one to check out if you want to laugh out loud.

 

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

My final entry is How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, the sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City that I featured above.  This excellent and amazing read (which was one of my favourite books of 2020) continues the story started in the first novel, although this time it follows an actor who manages to con his way to the top of the besieged city using stage techniques.  This was another hilarious and exceptional read that really made me chuckle multiple times.



That is the end of this list.  I think it came together really well and I liked the different novels I decided to feature, even if it was a tad Pratchett heavy (not that there is anything wrong with that).  All the above novels come highly recommended and are definitely worth reading if you are in the mood for a funny and laugh provoking read.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 22 September 2020)

Series: Thursday Murder Club – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

British comedian and television personality Richard Osman presents one of the best debut novels of 2020 with The Thursday Murder Club, a clever and hilarious murder mystery novel that was an absolute treat to read.

Welcome to Coopers Chase, a luxury retirement estate near the town of Fairhaven where the elderly can relax and enjoy their final years in peace, quiet and good company.  But for four enterprising septuagenarians, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, retirement also offers them a bold opportunity for some excitement and adventure as the Thursday Murder Club.  Meeting up each Thursday in the Jigsaw Room, these four friends attempt to solve cold cases forgotten by the police.  While it may seem like a harmless hobby, these retirees are thrilled by their amateur investigations and welcome the chance to bring a little justice in the world.  However, when a local property developer with a dodgy past is brutally murdered with a mysterious photograph left next to his body, the Thursday Murder Club jump at the chance to investigate a real live case.

Thanks to a lifetime of connections, skills and intuition, the members of the Thursday Murder Club are able to quickly position themselves in the middle of the burgeoning case, much to the frustration of the local police.  Using every unorthodox and somewhat unethical trick at their disposal, the club members gain vital information about the murder.  However, when a second person is poisoned right in front of them, the club soon begin to realise how high the stakes are.  A killer is stalking Coopers Chase and they will do anything to protect their secret.  Can the Thursday Murder Club stop them before it is too late, or will their first real mystery be their last?

Well, that was exceedingly delightful.  Osman is a fantastic British comedian who has been in a number of great British television programs (we’re big fans of Pointless), and, like many celebrities, he decided to have a go at writing his own novel.  I have to admit that when I first heard that Osman was writing a crime fiction book, I was intrigued but I did not initially plan to read it.  However, after hearing some positive buzz from other reviewers and being in the mood for something a little different I decided to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did!  The Thursday Murder Club turned out to be an exceptional read which blew me away with this incredible and unique crime fiction story.  Osman has come up with something special with this book, and I had an outstanding time listening to it and exploring the fun story, unique characters, and clever depictions of the elderly of Britain.  This is easily one of my favourite debuts of 2020 and it gets a full five stars from me.

Osman has come up with an elaborate and entertaining story for The Thursday Murder Club that combines an excellent murder mystery with large amounts of brilliant humour and several amazing and tragic moments of drama.  The author makes great use of multiple character perspectives to tell his clever story, and the reader is soon wrapped up in a number of different personal tales that all tie into the murders that form the centre of this book.  While The Thursday Murder Club is a little slow at the start, it does not take long for the story to get going, and once the first body drops the reader is firmly entranced and cannot wait to see where the author is going next.  There are so many great elements associated with this book, and you are guaranteed to have an outstanding time getting through The Thursday Murder Club.

At the centre of The Thursday Murder Club’s narrative lies a compelling and intriguing murder mystery that follows an intense case around the Coopers Chase retirement village.  Osman has weaved together a pretty impressive murder mystery here, with two disreputable people killed in quick succession in apparently connected killings, which prompts the members of the Thursday Murder Club to get involved.  Watching these characters investigate proved to be extremely fascinating and entertaining, especially as they employ some much more unique and unusual methods to get the answers they are looking for.  Osman pairs this unorthodox search for the killer with the official investigation being conducted by the police, and the two different methodologies make for a good contrast, especially when they both get some extremely different results.  The two murder cases go in some extremely compelling and clever directions, and Osman has come up with a number of impressive twists and misleading suspects to deflect from the real culprits.  The conclusions of the cases were really good; I loved how the entirety of the mystery came together and how the various crimes were connected.  Osman adds in lot of foreshadowing for the various twists featured within The Thursday Murder Club, but some of the results were still pleasantly unexpected.  I was able to predict one of the major twists of the book in advance, which allowed me to work out who a killer was and why they were doing it, but I did not see certain other twists and reveals coming.  I really love it when a mystery can shock and surprise me and I think that The Thursday Murder Club was one of the best murder mystery novels I read all year.

An exceptional highlight of The Thursday Murder Club is the excellent characters from whose eyes we see the story unfold.  The Thursday Murder Club is made up of four unusual friends who make for very fun central protagonists.  All four members of the Thursday Murder Club are entertaining and complex characters in their own right and who each add a lot to the story.  Osman spends a great deal of time exploring each of these characters, and the reader soon becomes intimately familiar with their lives while also becoming enamoured with their intriguing personalities.  The main character of the book is probably Elizabeth, the founder of the Thursday Murder Club and its apparent leader.  Elizabeth is extremely determined, and it is strongly hinted throughout the book that she was formerly a rather successful spy.  Described by one of the other characters as being essentially Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Elizabeth is the driving force behind the club’s investigation into the murders around Coopers Chase, especially with her innumerable contacts and natural intuition.  Elizabeth has a very strong personality, and it is fantastic to see her go about her business, intimidating and outmanoeuvring everyone she encounters with practiced ease.  Despite this hard, clever exterior, Elizabeth has a number of emotional vulnerabilities, including an ailing husband and a comatose best friend, which Osman explores throughout the novel.  These vulnerabilities help to drive Elizabeth throughout the book, and she becomes quite a complex character as a result.

The other female member of the Thursday Murder Club is Joyce, a former nurse.  Joyce is a great character who becomes an invaluable part of the investigation.  Appearing to be mostly quiet and somewhat placid, Joyce is actually a deeply intelligent person who uses her mild and kind personality to get people to do what she wants.  As the newest member of the club, Joyce provides the reader with an outsider’s view of the other major characters, and you get an interesting glimpse of how the investigation is progressing as her point-of-view chapters are written in a fun journal format that is unique to her.  Aside from Elizabeth, Joyce probably gets the most character assessment and development in The Thursday Murder Club, especially as some of her personal relationships become key parts of the plot, and she proves to be a particularly intriguing character as a result.

The other members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron, two very different people who are actually the best of friends.  Ibrahim is a particularly pleasant man, a former psychologist, who is nice and sociable to everyone he meets and who serves as the heart and soul of the team.  Out of all the main characters in this book I think that Ibrahim got the least amount of development, which was a shame considering how entertaining he proved to be.  I hope he gets more of a storyline in the future entries of this series and I look forward to seeing how Osman expands this character out.  Ron, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Ibrahim.  A famous former union activist, Ron enjoys the spotlight and revels in fighting for lost causes against authority figures.  Ron is the hot-headed member of the group and he has a personal stake in the investigation when his son becomes a prime suspect for the police.  Despite his rough and impulsive attitude, Ron fits in well with the rest of the club and is a keen investigator, mainly because of the way he refuses to believe anything anyone else tells him.  All four of these main characters are exceptionally well written, and I really enjoyed the way that they played off each other and used their unique talents to solve the case.

This novel also focuses on two police officers, Donna and Chris, who are leading the official investigation into the murders and who find themselves working with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  Donna is a young rookie cop who has transferred over from the London Police and now finds herself bored to death as a member of a small town force.  Thanks to the manipulations of Elizabeth, she finds herself assigned to the case, which revitalises her and helps address some of her issues and concerns from her past.  Donna proves to be a fun character to follow, especially as she is the only younger person who sees through the members of the Thursday Murder Club and doesn’t fall for their antics.  She also has a fun partnership with Chris, the senior officer investigating the case, and the two swiftly form a connection throughout the story.  Chris, despite being a clever and experienced detective, is a bit of a sad-sack who finds himself stuck in a rut.  This fresh case also reinvigorates Chris, and he starts to fall out of his bad habits with Donna’s help.  However, unlike Donna, Chris is a lot more susceptible to the charms of the Thursday Murder Club, and it is extremely entertaining to see him get manipulated for a good part of the novel.  These two police characters get a fair bit of attention throughout the novel, and their official investigation nicely complements the unofficial one being run by the Thursday Murder Club, with the divergent information they receive coming together perfectly in the final results.  I also quite enjoyed the friendship that forms between Donna and Chris, as it allows both of them to grow and has a very nice development at the end which I thought was rather sweet.

Osman also creates a bevy of distinctive and entertaining side characters, many of whom have a connection to the crime or are a potential suspect.  This includes all the residents of the retirement village, which is filled with unique personalities with lifetimes of secrets.  Osman explores several of these great characters throughout the course of the book, providing some rich backstory and intriguing motivations for their potential involvement.  I personally enjoyed the character of Bogdan, a relatively young Polish immigrant who works as a labourer for the local property developers and who finds himself involved in the case after finding a body.  Bogdan forms a fantastic friendship with Elizabeth and her husband throughout the book, and I really enjoyed his guarded personality and shrewd intelligence, which proves to be an excellent match for the secretive Elizabeth.  I also have to highlight the two major murder victims.  Both of these victims get a few scenes early on in the novel before they are killed, and Osman sets them up as particularly outrageous and unlikeable people.  While this does ensure that the readers are not too cut up when they end up dead, it does mean that there are a whole of suspects when it comes to their murders, and I liked how that added to the case.  All of the characters featured in The Thursday Murder Club were a lot of fun and I had an amazing time seeing how each of their individual arcs unfolded and what each of them was capable of deep down.

I quite enjoyed how Osman turned The Thursday Murder Club into a fun and entertaining ode to the elderly that highlights the fact that retirees can achieve quite a bit and have a lot to offer to the world.  I really enjoyed the author’s story idea of four senior citizens investigating a murder and it produced a truly entertaining and enjoyable read.  Some of The Thursday Murder Club’s funniest moments revolved around the four protagonists manipulating or swindling the younger characters in the book to get what they want, whether it be information on the case or a confession about certain illegal actions.  The way in which they go about influencing the younger people they encounter is very entertaining, as they mostly utilise the classic trick of appearing helpless and innocent, while in reality they are controlling the entire situation.  Some of their methods will be very familiar to any reader with an elderly grandparent or parent, and I personally laughed my head off at one scene where one younger character is slowly worn down through a unique interrogation method involving crowded chairs, friendly company, an overflowing mug of tea and crumbly cake.  Watching the veteran police characters slowly work out how and why they are being manipulated was extremely funny, and by the end of the book they are noticeably more wary about dealing with the members of the Thursday Murder Club.  As this is a book about senior citizens, there are naturally a number of jokes about growing old, including entertaining discussions about their thoughts on today’s society and several depictions of them trying and failing to work modern technology.  While most of the discussion about the elderly is light-hearted and inspiring, it does get quite sad in places.  There are a number of scenes that focus on the debilitating impacts of aging, with each of the protagonists witnessing someone close to them starting to fade for one reason or another, resulting in several deep sequences when they consider their own mortality or frailty.  There are also a number of extremely tragic character moments involving age, and you can’t help but feel a little heartbroken in several places thanks to Osman’s excellent writing.  This adds some memorable and necessary drama to the overall narrative and it really helps to turn The Thursday Murder Club into a much more captivating read.  Overall, I think that Osman captured the issues surrounding aging extremely well, and I very much enjoyed his depictions of these badass septuagenarians outsmarting everyone they meet.

I also liked how Osman went out of his way to make his debut novel exceedingly British.  Everything about this book screams “British” to the reader, from the way the characters, act, talk and interact with each other, to the classic, subtle humour that is featured throughout.  Osman also includes a ton of references to various cultural, social and political elements of the country, with the characters discussing or reminiscing about everything from their favourite foods, television shows, bands, locations, historical experiences (Ron, for example, has some thoughts on Thatcher) and various other aspects of day-to-day life.  Due to the way that British culture funnels down into Australia, I had a decent understanding of most of the references that Osman made, although I imagine that some readers could get a little offput by the many references to aspects of the culture they are unfamiliar.  That being said I found the constant discussion about everything British to be exceedingly fun, and I really appreciated the way in which the author made a truly British book.

In order to enjoy this fantastic book I decided to grab a copy of the audiobook version of The Thursday Murder Club which was narrated by actress Lesley Manville.  The Thursday Murder Club audiobook has a run time of 12 hours and 25 minutes, and I got through it rather quickly, especially once I become wrapped up in the fun and captivating mystery.  I found myself really enjoying this excellent audiobook version of this novel and I think that having the events of the book narrated to me helped me follow the plot more closely and connect to the characters more.  I do have to admit that I was a tad disappointed that Osman did not narrate his own audiobook, but this disappointment quickly faded once I experienced Manville’s excellent narration.  Manville’s voice and narration style really fit into the unique tone of The Thursday Murder Club, and she was able to convey all of the novel’s humour, mystery and drama extremely well.  I also absolutely loved the great voices that Manville came up with for the characters featured within the novel, and I felt that she was able really accentuate the various personalities that made up the story, as well as come up with several different accents.  While Osman doesn’t narrate this audiobook, there is an interview between Osman and Marian Keyes featured at the end of it, in which Osman details how he came up with the idea for his book and why he wrote it, which I am sure many people will find fascinating.  I ended up having a wonderful time listening to this version of The Thursday Murder Club, and it ended up being one of my favourite audiobooks of 2020.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is an exceptional and masterful crime fiction novel that is easily one of the best debuts of 2020.  Osman has crafted together an outstanding read that follows some entertaining and compelling protagonists as they investigate a complex murder mystery in a very fun way.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic novel and I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun and intriguing read.  This was an absolute triumph from Osman, and I am extremely keen to see what he writes next.  I note that a sequel to The Thursday Murder Club is planned for next year and I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.

The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

The Salvage Crew Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 27 October 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 8 hours and 21 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Come for the Fillion, stay for the story!  In this review, I check out the wildly entertaining audiobook version of The Salvage Crew, written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and narrated by actor and science fiction icon Nathan Fillion.

In the far future, a small salvage crew is about to embark on the mission of a lifetime.  It was supposed to be a simple job: travel to an alien planet and salvage an ancient UN starship.  However, from the very start everything goes wrong.  The three-man team, led by a young and still relatively human computer intelligence, is far from the most effect group, made up of outcasts with some serious personality issues.  However, their incompatibility is the least of their problems, especially once they make planetfall.

The crew quickly discover that their job is going to be far harder than expected.  The planet they have arrived on, Urmahon Beta, is full of all number of problems, such as harsh conditions, a lack of useful resources and unregistered megafauna that could crush them all with ease.  Forced to forge through this unexplored and hostile world to their goal, it soon becomes clear that they are not alone.  A rival crew of dangerous and heavily armed mercenaries made planetfall before them and has the potential to wipe out the crew with little effort.  However, something is very wrong with them, and not everything is what it seems.  The salvage team is about to discover that Urmahon Beta contains a massive secret that has the potential to change all of humanity, if it does not kill them all first.

The Salvage Crew is an interesting and captivating new science fiction novel from author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, who debuted back in 2017 with the intriguing-sounding science fiction novel, Numbercaste.  I have to admit that I was not familiar with Wijeratne’s writing before The Salvage Crew, and the main reason that I decided to check out this book was because the audiobook was narrated by Nathan Fillion, who I am a major fan of.  However, I am extremely happy that I decided to check this novel out as it turned out to be an excellent read that featured a clever and compelling science story, with some fantastic characters and unique science fiction elements.  This, combined with Fillion’s exceptional narration, produced an impressive novel which I really enjoyed listening to.

Wijeratne has come up with an outstanding story that follows a small team as they try and overcome a series of unexpected dangers and challenges upon an isolated planet.  The author presents a cool and enjoyable narrative for The Salvage Crew, and I liked how it started out with the crew attempting to pull together a base on the planet and gather the resources needed to survive and then complete their task.  Naturally, things quickly go downhill for the characters, as they encounter all manner of challenges and surprises that hit hard and fast throughout the book.  There are a lot of cool and exciting moments throughout the plot, including a fun new version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the protagonists experience a lot of heavy and traumatising experiences throughout the book, some of which are quite horrific in nature.  Wijeratne lays all these events out in a compelling and logical manner and the story flows along at a great pace.  Some of this was apparently assisted with a random generator that helped Wijeratne to work out when certain events occurred in the book, which apparently worked out quite well, as I personally wouldn’t have changed the order of anything.  The end of the novel somewhat veers away from the science fiction exploration/adventure elements that defined the start of the book, and it gets quite a bit metaphysical, which could potentially lose some readers.  I myself had a good time following these intriguing plot changes, though, and I liked where the story ended up in the end.  Overall, I really enjoyed the compelling story that Wijeratne featured in this book, especially as at times it could either be wildly funny, extremely exciting or somewhat disturbing.  This blend of cool story elements resulted in an impressive read which is definitely worth checking out.

On top of this impressive science fiction narrative, I also have to point of the great characters that the story is set around, primarily the character of the Overseer.  The Overseer, also known as Amber Rose or OC by his crew, is a former human whose brain was uploaded into a computer and who now exists as an artificial intelligence.  Most of the story is told from OC’s perspective, and he is the primary first-person narrator of the book.  Despite now being a machine, OC is a very human character, with a fun and extremely likeable personality that ensures that The Salvage Crew is a very entertaining read.  Much of The Salvage Crew’s humour and comedy comes from OC’s narration, as he provides the reader will all manner of fun observations and witty jokes, including one particularly charming Jeeves and Wooster impersonation.  OC is also an amateur poet, regaling the reader and the other characters with a series of short poems that help to capture the events or the feelings that flow through OC.  These poems, which are ironically AI-generated (Wijeratne used a computer program to come up with them), add a quirky and artistic side to this character, and they end up having a surprising impact on the overall story.  As well as being a humorous narrator, OC serves as the emotional heart of the book.  Despite the fact that his transformation to an AI was supposed to make him more efficient and less concerned with the fates of his assets, OC is a very caring being, who is extremely protective of his human crew and is determined to bring them all back safe.  Watching him attempt to stay in control and save everyone is very heart-warming and it is extremely hard not to deeply appreciate him as a character as a result.  The events of The Salvage Crew also ensure that OC faces some deep and searching questions about whether he is a machine or a man, and these intriguing self-examinations ended up becoming a major part of the books plot.  I really enjoyed this complex and impressive character, and I had an amazing time seeing how his story arc unfolded.

The Salvage Crew also focuses on three other substantial characters, namely the human crew that OC drops down onto Urmahon Beta with.  These characters, Simon Joosten, Anna Agarwal and Milo Kalik are interesting people in their own right, each with their own unique and damaged personalities that makes them outsiders.  These characters are primarily shown through the eyes of OC, which adds a bit of a slant to their characterisations, although Wijeratne does also include a couple of interludes told from these characters perspectives which expands on their personalities.  These characters add a lot to the story, helping OC to achieve his goal, while also providing some compelling drama to the narrative as their issues and different personalities come to a head.  All three of these characters go through a substantial amount of trauma throughout the book, and they do not deal with it well, breaking down mentally and physically, while also clashing with OC and each other.  Watching these characters struggle to remain alive and sane becomes quite intense at times, and you really cannot help but feel sorry for each of them and hope that they survive the events of this book.  I felt that these side characters provided an interesting counterpoint to the AI character OC, especially as they helped to highlight how much humanity OC has actually lost, despite outward appearances.  The inclusion of these three compelling characters was a great touch by Wijeratne, and it helped to produce an emotionally rich overall narrative.

I also quite enjoyed the excellent science fiction elements that Wijeratne came up with for this cool book.  There are a lot of amazing science fiction inclusions throughout The Salvage Crew, and Wijeratne makes sure to utilise a lot of realistic and practical technologies.  You really get a sense of what a futuristic team of salvagers would experience and what tools they would bring to the table, and I had an amazing time seeing this depiction.  The alien world that Wijeratne utilises as the main setting for this book is also rather cool, and it serves as an excellent challenging location for the characters.  Apparently, Wijeratne used computer models/generators to come up with this planet and some elements of the book, such as what weather the characters experienced, was randomly chosen.  The author also comes up with a much wider universe in which the book is set, presenting the reader with a somewhat grim future, riven with war, over-expansion and planets negatively impacted by greedy, profit-orientated corporations.  This proves to be a bit of a grim view of the future, although it fit the overall tone of the novel extremely well.  Wijeratne shares these additional universe elements slowly throughout the course of the book and it proves to be an interesting counterpoint to the events occurring on Urmahon Beta.  The Salvage Crew also features some deep and fascinating examinations of Artificial Intelligence, as well as some other scientific elements/theories, which, without going into too many details, are quite essential for the plot of the book.  I really enjoyed these cool science fiction elements, and it is clear that Wijeratne put a lot of thought into creating his universe.

As I mentioned above several times, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Salvage Crew, which was narrated by the amazing and incredible Nathan Fillion.  Now, I never had any doubt that I was going to enjoy Fillion’s narration of this book and I was not disappointed in any way, shape or form.  Fillion drags listeners in from the very beginning with a very amusing introduction about how he has sanitised his voice for the listener’s protection, and the audience is pretty much in the palm of his hands from there on out.  Thanks to his excellent and compelling narration, the novel moves along on at a quick and exciting pace, allowing the listener to get through the entire story in quick succession and ensuring that there is not a significant lull in the production.  Fillion’s voice is perfect for this great story, and I really liked how he dived into the main character, the former human and current AI, Amber Rose/OC.  Thanks to his quirky personality and fun sense of humour, OC honestly felt like he was specifically written to be played by Fillion, who does an amazing job bringing him to life throughout the audiobook.  I really loved how Fillion portrayed this great central character, and the reader becomes a lot more attached to OC because of this excellent narration.  Fillion also does a good job portraying the other major characters in the novel, although he mostly uses the same voice for everyone, which occasionally made it hard to work out who was speaking.  Despite that, listeners can follow the story perfectly, and it proves to be extremely hard to get lost listening to the story.  The Salvage Crew has a run time of nearly eight and a half hours, and thanks to how awesome this format is, listeners can generally breeze through it in relatively short order.  This is an audiobook you could easily get through in one extended session, and it would be a perfect book to listen to on a long car ride.  I really loved this audiobook, and I would highly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Salvage Crew.  I cannot talk up Nathan Fillion’s narration enough, and to be frankly honest, it ultimately knocked my overall rating of The Salvage Crew up a few points.

The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an impressive and captivating science fiction novel that takes the reader on a wild ride to the darkest frontier of human exploration.  Featuring an intense adventure on an alien planet that goes horribly wrong, The Salvage Crew makes excellent use of amazing characters, clever science fiction inclusions and a compelling plot to produce an awesome novel that is hard to put down, especially when narrated by the incredible Nathan Fillion.  As a result, The Salvage Crew comes highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and I am extremely keen to see what Wijeratne writes next.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

Throwback Thursday – Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts Cover

Publisher: Audible Frontiers (Audiobook – 5 June 2012)

Series: Standalone

Length: 7 hours and 41 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Prepare to dive into one of the most meta and entertaining novels you will ever read with Redshirts by John Scalzi, a fun and clever Star Trek parody that explores what it must be like to be a background character in a science fiction series.

John Scalzi is a well-established and highly regarded science fiction author responsible for a number of impressive and expansive series.  Some of his best-known works include his Old Man’s War series, his Lock In novels and his The Interdependency series, the last of which I have been eying off for a couple of years now and have been meaning to check out.  Each of these series sounds really exciting and have received a lot of positive praise from readers and reviewers.  In addition, Scalzi has also written three standalone novels, each of which has a very fun concept behind it, including the focus of this review, Redshirts.  While I am extremely interested in some of Scalzi’s other works, the moment I found out that he had written a Star Trek parody novel told from the perspective of a redshirt, I grabbed myself a copy of its audiobook format and I have been looking for a chance to listen to it.  Last weekend I had a long car trip with my wife/editor Alex, and we decided that listening to Redshirts would be the perfect entertainment for the drive.

Redshirts takes place in humanity’s far future, aboard the flagship of the Universal Union, the starship Intrepid.  The Intrepid is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and exploration, containing only the most talented crew and scientists that humanity has to offer.  In all respects it seems like the perfect posting for newly commissioned Ensign Andrew Dahl, but it does not take long for Dahl to suspect that there is something seriously wrong aboard the Intrepid.  Not only does the lab that Dahl is assigned to have a magical box which solves every major problem that the ship runs into (with only seconds to spare, without fail), but the entire crew is terrified of the captain and his senior officers, actively trying to avoid them and the near constant away missions.  The crew has come to realise that the away missions are guaranteed to be lethal, with any crew member who joins likely to die while the senior officers constantly walk away without a scratch (with the exception of the unlucky Lieutenant Kerensky).  Now a great deal of energy is place into avoiding an away mission at all cost, with new transfers to the ship kept in the dark until it is too late.

As Dahl and his friends begin to realise the full extent of the terror that has engulfed the ship they attempt to find some sort of answers for what is going on.  However, the more deadly adventures that they go on the more obvious it becomes that some mysterious force is controlling their actions and causing their deaths.  With the lives of every crewmember aboard the Intrepid at stake, Dahl and his friends are left with only one crazy plan, to hunt down the beings controlling them and convince them to stop no matter the cost.  However, what happens when these expendable redshirts end up meeting their own creators?

I am going to say right of the bat that both Alex and I absolutely loved this book and we had an incredible time listening to it.  A good indication of how much we enjoyed it can be seen in the fact that we easily and eagerly powered through it during the two halves of our car trip without any breaks, laughing our asses off the entire time.  Redshirts is an extremely funny and clever novel that acts as both a parody of and a love letter to the Star Trek television show.  Scalzi has come up with a truly awesome and enjoyable novel that combines an amazing amount of humour and parody with a clever and heartfelt story.  This results in a memorable and addictive tale which you cannot help but enjoy, especially if you are a major fan of Star Trek.

For this great novel, Scalzi has come up with a very compelling and enjoyable story that acts in many ways like a unique combination of Galaxy Quest, The Cabin in the Woods and The French Mistake episode of Supernatural.  The story focuses on Ensign Dahl and his friends as they begin to work out the issues aboard the Intrepid.  This is a very fast-paced narrative and the reader is soon introduced to all the mysterious events occurring on the ship, from the terrified crew, the weird science, the exceedingly dangerous and improbable away missions and the strange characters who seem to have the answers.  All of this is shown to the reader in a very clever way, and while you are expecting many of these events occur, especially if you are familiar with Star Trek, seeing these characters react to the various odd occurrences with realistic shock and scepticism is a great source of entertainment.  Following the initial introduction, you get several chapters of the protagonists humorously traversing a chaotic ship full of self-aware redshirts desperately trying to avoid their fates.  The various attempts by the characters to understand what is going on and change their fates are amazing, if a little tragic in places, and this is a very comedic part of the book loaded with some of the best jokes at Star Trek’s expense.  The story then takes a very interesting change of direction as the protagonists undertake a desperate plan (inspired by a classic Star Trek film) to save the ship and prevent their upcoming deaths.  This third part of the book is exceedingly meta, and fans of both Star Trek and surreal, self-referential fiction will love where the story goes and various clever character interactions that occur.  These distinctive parts of the book come together extremely well and form an intricate and captivating overall narrative that fits a lot of story elements into a relatively short novel.  I had an amazing time listening to this complex story, as not only did it make me laugh, but it also made me care about the various characters who are introduced throughout the course of the book (something which the author is aware of and sadistically exploits at times, especially with that last joke at the end of the main story).

In addition to the main story, Scalzi also features three substantial codas at the end of the novel.  These codas are essentially short stories that follow side characters the protagonist meets during the course of the main narrative.  While I would normally be a little concerned about some concluding material taking up so much space from an already shortish novel, these codas are extremely well written and contribute a great deal to the book.  Titled Coda 1, 2 and 3, the codas are told in the first, second and third person narrative respectively, and contain some truly impressive and touching character-driven narratives.  These extremely clever codas really dive down into the psyches and emotions of their respective characters, showing their own complex histories and how their encounter with the protagonist had such a major impact on them.  Of the three, my favourite is probably Coda 1, which is easily the funniest, containing a very humorous series of blog posts, although Codas 2 and 3 are both emotionally rich and heart-warming.  While some readers may be tempted to skip these codas after the main story is finished, I would very strongly recommend checking each of these out as you are guaranteed to come away being extremely attached to each of these great side characters and also feeling a lot better after hearing each coda’s happy ending.

While Redshirts also has its own unique and captivating story at its heart it is an extremely funny parody of the iconic Star Trek television show.  Scalzi is clearly a fan of the series as he expertly works all manner of fun jokes and references to the show into the novel.  The Intrepid and its bridge crew are clear parodies of the Enterprise and the main characters of The Original Series, and Scalzi does an amazing job working his narrative around them, emphasising all their iconic character traits and showing just how ridiculous they and their actions are to the eyes of a normal person.  This includes the captain’s dramatic tone and way of over exaggerating events, and the poor junior officer with a Russian accent who gets the crap kicked out of him every single episode and yet is fully recovered by the next adventure without a hint of injury or PTSD.  Redshirts contains all manner of references or parodies to the over-the-top, badly written or ridiculous elements of the show, and Scalzi lovingly features and critiques them in an amazingly funny way; everything from the evolutionarily questionable alien monsters, the repetitive space battles (those poor people on decks six to twelve!) and the high death toll of the normal crew.  The highlight of the book has to be the terrified and disbelieving reactions that each member of the crew has to the events going on around them, and the fun and exaggerated attempts to survive them.  I also really loved the comedic metafiction elements of the book, which allowed Scalzi to take some humorous shots at the writers and creators of shows like Star Trek.  While this humour is obviously geared towards Star Trek fans, you really do not need to have a lot of in-depth knowledge of the series to appreciate the humour.  Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Star Trek and its tropes will find this book deeply amusing and hilarious and you are guaranteed to have a fun time getting through it.

While I absolutely loved Redshirts’ story, I did find that the dialogue was a little clunky in places.  While most of the conversation is quite fun and snappy, the overabundance of dialogue tags and the extreme overuse of the word “said” gets repetitive and distracting, especially in scenes where the conversations fly thick and fast.  In some heavy dialogue scenes, “character 1 said”, “character 2 said”, “character 3 said” repeats about 20 times in a minute, which is really distracting.  If Scalzi had used more variety in indicating which character said what, this book would have been pretty damn perfect.  But the story and the comedy were strong enough to overcome most of these issues, and I chose to focus on them instead.  However, I can easily see other readers getting a little frustrated with this, which would be a real shame as this is a very fun book.

The audiobook format of Redshirts ran for 7 hours and 41 minutes, although it is a closer to six hours if you decide to skip the codas at the end of the book.  This was an extremely easy audiobook to listen to quickly and we absolutely flew through it.  One of the main reasons that we were so interested in this book is because the audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton.  Now, there is obviously a lot of appeal to Wil Wheaton, or any cast member of a Star Trek television show, getting involved in a parody like this, but Wheaton did a pretty good job narrating this audiobook.  Wheaton had a great voice for this novel, and he was able to keep the audience’s attention through the entirety of the story.  While he did not really change his voice from character to character, the listener was generally able to tell when someone new was talking (ironically thanks to the author’s overuse of “said”).  Wheaton was, however, extremely adept at expressing the relevant emotions of the characters through his voice, and the fear, anger, frustration and sheer disbelief of the protagonist and the people he encounters really shines through.  I also really enjoyed his portrayal of the Intrepid’s senior crewmembers, each of whom is a parody of the main characters from Star Trek: The Original Series.  I particularly had a lot of love for the Captain’s “dramatic voice” that Wheaton did, which really captured the over-the-top tone Kirk had when he was excited or animated.  Overall, the audiobook format is a fantastic way to enjoy Redshirts and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in checking this novel out.

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a masterful and hilarious novel that presents the reader with a wonderful and clever parody to the classic Star Trek television series.  While there are some style issues associated with the dialogue, the story is loaded to the brim with all manner of great jokes, interesting characters, compelling plot elements and a whole lot of meta comedy.  An absolutely fantastic read that will appeal to all manner of Star Trek fans or people in need of a good laugh, Redshirts comes highly recommended and I can guarantee that Wil Wheaton’s audiobook format will serve as a great form of entertainment for a long road trip.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

The Constant Rabbit Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the insanely creative mind of one of fiction’s cleverest authors, Jasper Fforde, comes The Constant Rabbit, an incredible comedic satire featuring human-sized anthropomorphic rabbits in an alternate version of modern-day England.

Jasper Fforde is an awesome and fantastically inventive author who has a very distinctive and enjoyable writing style.  I have been a fan of Fforde’s work for years, and his Thursday Next books were a favourite series of mine when I was growing up (I should really go back and reread those).  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of his 2018 standalone novel, Early Riser, which was certainly one of the more unique and entertaining books that I read that year.  While I do love Fforde’s writing, I have to admit that I was initially a little wary when I heard that his new book was going to be about rabbits as I assumed it was going to be a kids’ book.  However, once I realised that it was going to be another crazy adult standalone novel, I made sure to get a copy, especially once I found out it was a satire on UK politics.  I am extremely glad that I got a copy of this book as The Constant Rabbit turned out to be a truly remarkable novel with a complex and enjoyable story.

In the year 2020 there are over a million anthropomorphic rabbits living in the UK thanks to a mysterious event 55 years previously.  These rabbits can walk, talk, think and have developed their own unique culture and society.  While the rabbits on the whole are a polite and peaceful group, many in England, including the ruling United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party (UKARP), fear them and are planning to forcibly rehome them to a new Mega-Warren in Wales.  Before the planned rehoming occurs, one rabbit family moves into the quiet and cosy village of Much Hemlock, much to the concern of the villagers.  Convinced that this rabbit family will cost them their chance at the Best Kept Village award, the citizens of Much Hemlock attempt to force them out, but the family matriarch, Mrs Constance Rabbit, is having none of that and resolves to stay in the village.

Surprisingly, the rabbits soon find support from their neighbours, Peter Knox and his daughter, Pippa.  Peter, an employer at the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, the organisation tasked with policing and controlling the rabbit population, quickly becomes infatuated with Constance and begins to question everything that he thinks he knows about rabbits.  However, with plans for the upcoming rehoming accelerating, Peter soon finds himself in the midst of a complex battle for freedom and control, and his actions will have surprising impacts on the entire future of the country.

Wow!  Just wow!  Now this was one hell of a fun read.  Fforde has absolutely outdone himself with this latest book which proved to be an exceptional and amazingly clever piece of fiction.  The Constant Rabbit is a captivating and widely entertaining novel that drags the reader in with its creativity and humour until they become enthralled with the unique story that it contains.  I had an incredible time reading this book and I ended up laughing myself silly throughout it due to Fforde’s clever and distinctive style of humour.  This book gets a full five stars from me and it truly was a thumping good tale.

The Constant Rabbit is told from the first-person perspective of human Peter Knox as he recounts some of the historical events he witnessed.  This was a truly remarkable story that follows a mostly blameless and ordinary small-village inhabitant as he navigates a complex and controversial world of rabbits and rabbit-hating humans.  This turns into quite a compelling tale about a battle for freedom, recognition and human stupidity, as the protagonist witnesses both sides of the struggle.  There are some great moments of drama, excitement, action, and romance throughout the book, which come together extremely well in a compelling and entertaining manner.  Fforde features some unique story elements throughout this book and introduces the reader to a series of enjoyable characters who are caught up in these crazy events.  These memorable characters include Constance Rabbit, a resourceful and clever rabbit who serves as a major moving part of the plot and the protagonist’s main love interest.  There is also a Lugless, an outcast rabbit who, after having his ears cut off in a ceremonial fashion, has turned against his own kind and now works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, and Mr Ffoxe, an anthropomorphised fox, who serves as the book’s vicious main antagonist and the head of the taskforce.  However, most of the character development is reserved for main protagonist Peter Knox, who goes through some serious redemption throughout the course of the story following some troubling events in his past.  His association with his rabbit neighbours really changes him, especially once he starts to see how crooked and petty humans are in comparison, resulting in him making some surprising decisions.  This is a gripping narrative and I really enjoyed all the wonderful and weird directions that the author took it.

Another fantastic aspect of The Constant Rabbit is the distinctive and intelligent sense of humour that permeates every page of this book.  I personally found this novel to be deeply funny, and I ended up laughing myself silly at several awesome jokes.  Much of the humour revolves around the ridiculous situations, the outrageous personalities, and the clever parodies of life in modern day England, all of which are considered normal in this version by the characters.  Seeing these various events or people occur in the novel is itself entertaining, but when combined with the witty and dry observations of the protagonist, the rabbit characters or the narrator through his footnotes, it becomes an absolute riot of fun and comedy.  There are some amazingly funny jokes and sequences throughout this book, although the part I laughed the hardest at had to be a farcical murder trial in which a man’s innocence or guilt was determined by whether they had brought an owl with them to the murder scene.  Other great jokes included lines about the rabbits’ inability to tell humans apart (most rabbits apparently cannot tell the difference between Brian Blessed and a gorilla), fun observations about rabbits in popular culture (spoilers, the rabbits are unimpressed) and the inclusion of rabbit versions of films and books.  I also had to have a laugh at the author’s description of a potential anthropomorphic event occurring at the city of Goulbourn in Australia (which is quite near to me), and all I have to say about that is I very much doubt my government could organise a secret massacre of a group of drunken wombats, much less hunt down a whistleblowing sheep.  That being said, the Big Merino statue in Goulbourn does totally exist and it is the town’s defining feature (which tells you quite a lot about what life in Goulbourn must be like).

One of the things that I most like about Fforde’s books is the way that he comes up with a whole new alternate universe for each of his works.  All his works are set in alternate versions of England that is specific to that series, all with a number of noticeable differences between the fictional and real worlds.  The version of England that The Constant Rabbit is set in was altered by an unexplained event 55 years earlier that turned a group of rabbits (as well as some other animals) into human-sized sentient beings who have gone on to create a large society of over one million rabbits which has its own culture and ideals.  This in turn has led to a much different version of the UK, with significant social and political differences as humanity tries to come up with new ways to adapt to the rabbits.  This is such a fantastic and out-there concept, but it works surprisingly well as a setting for this amazing and clever story.  There are so many intricate details associated with this new, rabbit inhabited England, and Fforde does an outstanding job welding together this new universe and showcasing all of its features.  While several key elements of this new world were introduced right at the start of the book, many were not identified until later, when they became relevant to the plot of the story.  I felt that this was a great way of presenting all the major aspects of this world, as it ensured that the reader was not overwhelmed right off the bat.  Fforde also includes a number of footnotes and short, out of narrative paragraphs at the start of each chapter, to provide intriguing and often hilarious anecdotes and descriptions of parts of rabbit culture or other inclusions from this world.  All the clever inclusions and distinctive variations from the real world prove to be a fascinating and entertaining part of the book and I had a wonderful time seeing what wacky and inventive things Fforde would come up with next.

Another thing that I really appreciated about this book was the way that Fforde used his overly ridiculous story and setting to successfully satirise racist politics in modern day England.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with some of the political and cultural issues in the UK will really appreciate what Fforde is trying to achieve with his story, and there are some great parables throughout it.  The whole ‘us vs them’ mentality surrounding the issues of rabbit rights is a clear send-up of racism and anti-immigration policies and mentalities that have infected the country.  Having peaceful, hardworking and tolerant rabbits and their supporters be targeted by bigoted idiots is very relevant and you cannot help but think of real-world examples of such behaviour.  The ruling UK political party, UKARP, is an obvious parody of the right-wing party UKIP, equipped with its own version of Nigel Farage.  Fforde really does not pull any punches and portrays them as an incompetent, intolerant, and power-hungry political party who are determined to forcibly rehome and contain all the rabbits as their main political ideal.  This book contains some terrifying, if probably accurate, depictions about how a ruling party like UKARP would act when it came to people it did not like, such as putting the ultimate anti-rabbit group (in this case anthropomorphised foxes) in charge of control and monitoring the rabbits.  There are some other great elements of satire throughout this book, and English readers in particular will probably get the most out of The Constant Rabbit as a result.  Overall, I thought it was a great piece of satirical fiction and I had a blast seeing the author highlight all these social issues in his own special way.

The Constant Rabbit is an outstanding and incredible novel that proves to be boundlessly entertaining and deeply funny.  Jasper Fforde did an incredible job writing this novel and readers are in for an awesome and memorable read that will have them laughing for hours.  This is such an impressive and inventive novel, and I am highly recommending it to anyone who is after a boundlessly entertaining read that contains a real sense of comedic fun and some excellent satirical observations.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton

Nuking the Moon Cover

Publisher: Profile Books (Trade Paperback – 3 December 2019)

Series: Stand alone/Book One

Length: 296 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Have you ever been curious about the craziest top secret plans the world’s top militaries and intelligence agencies ever came up with? Well, wonder no longer as Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum, presents Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Best Left on the Drawing Board, a hilarious collection of some of the most over-the-top, insane or ahead-of-their-time military and intelligence ideas that were ever thought up.

Before we start getting too far into this review, I feel I need to point out that this is actually the first review of a non-fiction book that I have ever featured on this blog. Over the last few years, I have not really read any non-fiction books, mainly because I suffered an overload of them at university. However, the moment I received Nuking the Moon, I knew that really needed to read it. That says a lot about how interesting the content was to me, as it takes a lot for me to actually sit down and read a non-fiction book cover to cover. However, I have always enjoyed reading about some of the weirdest moments in human history, especially as in many cases reality can be so much weirder than fiction. Nuking the Moon certainly sounded like it would be right up my alley, and I am so glad I decided to try it as this book proved to be an amazingly entertaining read with some truly outrageous historical accounts that were a lot of fun to learn about.

In Nuking the Moon, Houghton has written a detailed account about the history of 21 different projects, operations or schemes that were implemented, attempted or researched to some degree by a government, military, intelligence agency or private company. Each of these different projects and operations have their own chapter within this book, which is then broadly broken up into four separate sections, Adventures in the Animal Kingdom, Astonishing Operations, Truly Extraordinary Technology and “Fun” with Nuclear Weapons. The vast majority of these planned operations originated in America and the United Kingdom, and pretty much all of them were researched during the course of either World War II or the Cold War, when bold ideas were encouraged.

The first thing you need to know about Nuking the Moon is that it contains a fantastic and unique range of different historical projects and plans examined within it. There are some really entertaining and intriguing stories from history contained within this book, and while I was vaguely familiar with a few of them, the vast majority were actually completely unknown to me. This speaks not only to the obscure or hidden nature of many of these projects but also to the research ability and knowledge base of the author, which guarantees that the reader is bound to find out something new in this book. There are some truly interesting stories within this book, including the titular plan to nuke the moon, scientists implanting listening devices into trained cats, chickens being housed inside nuclear landmines to keep the electronics from freezing, misinformation campaigns about death rays, satellites containing sun guns, research into creating tidal waves with explosives, ill-advised attempts to disperse cyclones with nuclear bombs and so much more. I found all of these topics to be deeply fascinating and I think many readers will be amazed at some of things that these people came up with.

While I really enjoyed nearly every unique plan contained within this book, there were a few that really stood out for me and ended up being my favourite entries. This includes a particularly fun research project by the Allies into the viability of creating massive battleships out of ice, which I think Houghton did a really good job explaining. Not only is this chapter deeply intriguing, especially as this wild idea apparently had a huge amount of support from the American and English governments, but the author paints a great picture about the work and historical personalities involved. I particularly enjoyed the stories about how Lord Mountbatten, the head of the project, thought that the best way to show off the viability of his project to interested dignitaries was to repeatedly shoot the proposed construction material with a range of different guns.

I was also a big fan of the five separate chapters that detailed some extraordinary plans to utilise animals as weapons or intelligence assets. Two of these entries in particular were deeply fascinating and I really enjoyed learning about them. The first of these was a plan to turn bats into lethal weapons by loading them up with explosives. The reasoning behind this plan is quite dubious, and what is amazing is that it actually made it to testing, with particularly disastrous results. The mental picture that Houghton is able to conjure up while describing these tests is extremely hilarious, and it was an extremely entertaining entry for the front part of the book. The second animal-related project that was a personal highlight was another plan by the Allies to paint foxes with luminous paint and set them lose in front of an army invading Japan. The idea was that the Japanese, whose culture features many stories about foxes being a form of supernatural trickster, would be terrified by the sight of the glowing foxes and flee in terror before the Americans. This is probably one of the stories that Houghton is most scornful of, and it was really entertaining to see him tear into the inherent racism behind this plan. I also particularly liked hearing about the various setbacks involved with plan, as well as the chain of events that led to a horde of luminous foxes being released in the middle of New York. The three above chapters were easily the highpoint of the book for me, and I reckon a lot of people would enjoy learning more about the amazing plans they contained.

Now, while a lot of the various chapters in this book were absolutely fantastic to read, Nuking the Moon did have a couple of parts to it that did slightly reduce my overall enjoyment of the book. For example, I personally found the Astonishing Operations section of the book to be a little less interesting than the other major parts of the book. Sitting between the chapters that dealt with animals and weird technology, the Astonishing Operations were nowhere near as “astonishing” as some of the other parts of the book. Don’t get me wrong, some of these chapters were pretty interesting, and I did enjoy reading about the various operations, but they seemed to pale in comparison after the truly over-the-top tales told in the other parts of the book. That being said, some of these stories dragged a little, and I also thought that a couple were a bit unnecessary in their inclusion.

I felt that Houghton did an excellent job of fully exploring the various projects and operations that are featured within this book. Each of the chapters within Nuking the Moon contains quite a bit of detail about the history of the entire plan, including who came up with it, who approved it and the various people who were involved (it is actually quite amazing some of the major historical figures who had a hand in these intriguing projects). He then details the entire design process and testing phases of these projects, examining the results, including the surprising successes and disastrous failures that occurred, and then finally looking at why it was cancelled or suspended. There are some interesting historical examinations involved with each chapter, as Houghton attempts to look over all the relevant details associated with the plans or projects. I particularly liked that he examined the historical context around these proposed ideas, and actually tries to explain why the various creators thought that something this unusual or dangerous was actually necessary. I also appreciated that he looked at the impacts or future implications of some of the projects, as well as some of the connections that they have to modern technology. Overall, I think that the author did an incredible job exploring the various topics contained within this book, and I really enjoyed learning about the full extent of these projects and about how far they actually progressed.

I was also a big fan of the sarcastic and humorous writing style that Houghton utilised for most of the book. I really enjoyed this light-hearted and comedic tone, and it was definitely the perfect way to explore such outrageous and eccentric ideas and concepts. Houghton made sure to fill each chapter with a ton of funny jokes and observations, as well as some clever takedowns of parts of, or the entirety of, the plans being discussed, and I had some great laughs as I worked my way through Nuking the Moon. That being said, I do think that the author did get a bit off-topic at times, which had a slight negative impact on the flow of the book. While he does take a sarcastic approach to these ideas, Houghton is not as critical as he could have been; instead in some of the chapters he actually tries to see the concept from its creator’s point of view and explain why they thought it was a good idea. He also makes sure to highlight in the introduction that even though the projects contained within this book may seem ridiculous, if that had actually succeeded, we would consider them to be works of absolute genius. I like this slightly fairer examination of some of these entries, and it was definitely better than reading a book completely filled with negatively.

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton is a fun and fascinating non-fiction book that did a wonderful job of capturing, exploring and satirising some of the weirdest attempted plans and operations from the military and intelligence worlds. This is an exceedingly entertaining read which I think will appeal to a wide range of readers, and I would definitely recommend it. I actually hope that Houghton thinks about doing another book detailing some of the other crazy plans, projects and operations (because let’s face it, there are bound to be some other pretty unbelievable and true stories out there), as I for one would really be interested in see what other amazingly bad ideas people have come up with.