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.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth Cover

Publisher: Tor (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Ninth House – Book One

Length: 448 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From debuting author Tamsyn Muir comes a very unique and compelling science fiction novel filled with death, comedy and necromancers in space, Gideon the Ninth.

Before I begin reviewing Gideon the Ninth, I have to point out how impressive the design of the hardcover copy I received was. When I previously featured this book in one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, I mentioned how much I loved the cover art. Indeed, the drawing of the book’s titular redheaded character with her face painted liked a skull surrounded by exploding skeletons is pretty damn cool. The hardcover copy also has some excellent visuals, as the outer rim of all the pages is coloured black, which definitely gives prospective readers a noticeable visual hook, especially when combined with the all-black binding underneath the jacket, emblazoned with gold writing on the spine and a single golden skull on the front. I really liked this fantastic presentation style, and it definitely left an impression on me as I started to read the book.

In the far future, a vast interstellar empire is ruled by necromancers whose control over the various magical disciplines of death make them a powerful force. Eight noble houses serve under the First House of the Emperor, and each of them has just received a message from their ruler. The heirs to each of these houses and their cavaliers, loyal sword-wielding protectors and companions, must attend the Emperor’s planet in order to compete to become the next generation of Lyctor, immortal beings of vast power.

Gideon Nav is an indentured servant to the Ninth House of the Empire, a small and impoverished house that carries a dark reputation. A skilled swordswoman, Gideon wants nothing more than to enlist in the imperial army to leave the dark crypts, the strict occult nuns and the multitude of skeletons that make up the Ninth Planet far behind. However, when her latest escape attempt fails, she finds herself offered an irresistible bargain: act as the Ninth House’s cavalier for the period of the trials and be granted her freedom. There is just one minor problem: Gideon and the heir to the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, an extremely powerful bone witch, absolutely hate each other.

Forced to temporarily put their differences aside, Gideon and Harrow travel to First House, only to discover it is a near ruin, looked after by a few old and mostly unhelpful servants. They soon learn that the secrets to becoming a Lyctor lie hidden within the walls around them, and the representatives of various houses can do whatever they wish to learn them. Trapped on the planet, Gideon and Harrow begin to explore the First House and encounter the heirs and cavaliers of the other houses. As the mismatched pair from the Ninth House start to unravel the various mysteries and challenges before them, a gruesome murder occurs. Something powerful is lurking within the First House, and it has the heirs in its sight. Can Gideon and Harrow work together, or will their own turbulent past and the secrets of their house tear them apart?

Gideon the Ninth is a chaotically clever and massively entertaining first novel from Tamsyn Muir, who has done an excellent job introducing readers to her intriguing new world. Gideon the Ninth is the first book in her The Ninth House series, which already has two planned sequels in the works, with the first of these currently set for release next year. After hearing the awesome plot synopsis for this book earlier in the year, I had picked this as potentially being on the best books for the latter half of 2019. I am glad to see that my instincts were once again correct, as this was an awesome read that gets four and a half stars from me.

Muir has produced an outstanding story for her first novel, as the plot for Gideon the Ninth is an amazing combination of humour, universe building, emotional character moments and a captivating set of mysteries as the protagonists attempt to uncover not only the vast secrets of the First House but the identity of the person or being that is killing them off one by one. The author has stacked this book with all manner of fantastic twists, and there are a number of major and game changing developments that are well paced out amongst the story. There is never a dull spot within the book, as even parts where no substantial plot developments are occurring are filled with excellent humour from the sarcastic narrator with a huge vocabulary of various swear words. There is also a substantial amount of action throughout the course of the book. The various fight scenes blister and explode off the page, especially thanks to the unique magical system that Muir has populated this world with. All of this results in an addictive and electrifying overall story with a very memorable ending.

The real heart of Gideon the Ninth lies in its incredible main characters, Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and the complex relationship the two of them have. Gideon is the badass, rebellious, coarse, girl-loving mistress of the blade, who serves as the book’s narrator and only point-of-view character. Gideon is an absolute blast as a main character, as she deals with every situation she comes across with an abundance of disrespect, anger and exaggerated responses, resulting in much of the book’s humour. Harrow, on the other hand, is the dark noble necromancer heir to the Ninth House, whose reserved persona, obsession with necromantic research and abilities, and vindictive nature work to make her initially appear as a polar opposite to Gideon. The relationship between these two main characters is initially extremely adversarial, as both characters declare their absolute hatred for each other, and Harrow seems determined to make Gideon’s life a living hell. As the book progresses, however, Muir really dives into the heart of the relationship between the two characters, revealing a complex history and a twin tale of woe and dark secrets that has defined them for their entire lives. The combined character arc of these two main characters was done extremely well. While you knew from the very start of the book that the two characters would eventually work together, the exact reason why this occurred was handled perfectly, and the final form of this cooperation helps create an epic and tragic conclusion to the entire book. While their relationship is not explicitly romantic (Harrow’s sexuality really is not explored in this book), they do become quite close by the end of the novel, and both characters are written exceedingly well.

In addition to Gideon and Harrow, Muir has also included a range of different characters, representing the heirs and cavaliers of the other major houses in the Empire. This results in an intriguing assortment of side characters who add a lot to the overall story. The author has made sure to invest in substantial backstories for all these additional characters, and this has a number of significant benefits for the story. Not only are the readers now blessed with an abundance of viable and duplicitous suspects for the story’s murder mystery, but each of the various representatives of the houses have their own individual secrets and motives for being at the First House. Learning more about each of these characters is quite fascinating, and a number of them have some pretty amazing character arcs. I particularly enjoyed the storyline of Palamedes Sextus of the Sixth House, who treats his necromancy more as a science than a form of magic. Sextus is the most logical character out of all the people in the book, and he serves as a major driving force of the investigation into the murders. His connection to some of the other characters in the book is a major part of the book, and the ultimate conclusion of his story arc is really cool. Muir has done an incredible job coming up with the book’s various characters, and it is a major part of why this book is so awesome.

It is quite clear that Muir has an amazing imagination, as she has produced a grim and compelling new universe to set this book in. Necromancy and a futuristic science fiction setting make for a fascinating combination, and I really loved her examination of an empire built on worshipping an immortal, necromantic Emperor and the various secrets that come with it. The sheer range of different necromantic magic featured within this book is pretty impressive, especially as each of the Imperial Houses has their own specific form of necromancy, all of which are examined throughout the book. Not only are all these different types of magic really fascinating to examine but it also results in some diverse pieces of magical action, as many of the necromancers unleash their various forms of magic throughout the book, resulting in some fantastic sequences. I do think that the author could have done a slightly better job of explaining some of the unique elements of her universe at the start of the book, as I got a little confused at some points towards the beginning; however, this was quickly chased away by deeper dives into the universe’s lore later in the book. Muir has left open a number of questions and plot directions to explore in future books in the series, and I am really curious to see what happens next.

Gideon the Ninth is a wild and exciting novel that makes use of an intriguing concept, some compelling characters and an excellent story to create an exceedingly entertaining book that was a heck of a lot of fun to read. Featuring laugh-out-loud humour, intense action and major emotional moments, this is an incredible read that is really worth checking out. Muir has hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I cannot wait for the next book in the series.

Throwback Thursday – Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving PIcture Cover.jpg

Publishers: Corgi and ISIS Audiobooks (14 November 1991)

Series: Discworld – Book 10

Length: 332 pages or 10 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Because my blog shares the name of a building featured in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, some people might have assumed that I am a fan.  You would be right, so very, very right.  I have loved Discworld since I was a small child, and my appreciation and respect for the complex writings of the late, great genius, Sir Terry Pratchett, has grown with me.  The Discworld series represents one of my ultimate comfort series of books.  It’s the series that I go back to at any time when I want something fun and familiar to enjoy.  I have read all of the adult books set in Discworld multiple times (I have yet to read all of the young adult ones), and it is an unusual year when I do not listen or read some of these books in my spare time.  Pretty much every single book in this series deserves five out of five stars or higher (with one or two exceptions that I may mark down to a 4.75 with a heavy, heavy heart), and you are unlikely to find any real criticisms about this book below.  After nearly a year of running this blog, the continued exclusion of a review of any of Pratchett’s Discworld is a travesty, and one that I seek to rectify in this somewhat late Throwback Thursday with a review of the 10th book in the series, Moving Pictures.

Before I review Moving Pictures, here is some quick context of the Discworld series for those people unfamiliar with these books.  Discworld is the main series of Sir Terry Pratchett, set upon the Discworld, world and mirror of worlds.  The Discworld, or the Disc, is a flat world that rests on the backs of four massive elephants, who themselves stand on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming in space, Great A’Tuin.  The Discworld itself features a huge range of different nations and continents that bear striking similarities to real-world locations.  This series is, without a doubt, the best series that utilises a combination of fantasy and satire in the entire world.  The seamless blend of the two elements is just incredible, and both elements do an unbelievable job at enhancing each other.  Before his death, Pratchett wrote 41 books in the Discworld series, six of which are considered young adult books.  While the books can be read in any real order, the series were mostly written in chronological order (with the exception of Small Gods), and events from earlier books in the series are often referenced.  Although most of the Discworld stories are self-contained, a number of the books are linked together by a recurring main character and are subsequently grouped together into subseries.  These include the Rincewind, Witches, City Watch, Death, Tiffany Arching and Moist von Lipwig subseries, in addition to a few standalone books that fall outside of any of the subseries.  Characters often appear in other Discworld books outside of their subseries, and there are a string of side or secondary characters who appear in multiple subseries and standalone books.

The book I am reviewing, Moving Pictures, is a standalone book that does not really fall within any of the main subseries.  It is sometimes considered part of minor subseries, called the Industrial Revolution subseries, with The Truth and Monstrous Regiment, but I am not a big fan of that distinction.  As it is the first Discworld book I am reviewing, you might think that it is my favourite book in the entire series, which is not true; although it does get five out of five stars from me and I have enjoyed it an amazing number of times, it is not my absolute favourite Discworld book, although it is high on the list.  It is, however, an easier one for me to review as there is a lot I can say about it.

Goodreads Synopsis:

‘Holy wood is a different sort of place. People act differently here. Everywhere else the most important things are gods or money or cattle. Here, the most important thing is to be important.’

People might say that reality is a quality that things possess in the same way that they possess weight. Sadly alchemists never really held with such a quaint notion. They think that they can change reality, shape it to their own purpose. Imagine then the damage that could be wrought if they get their hands on the ultimate alchemy: the invention of motion pictures, the greatest making of illusions. It may be a triumph of universe-shaking proportions. It’s either that or they’re about to unlock the dark terrible secret of the Holy Wood hills – by mistake…

The blurb above is a bit vague on the details of what is actually happening in Moving Pictures.  Essentially, the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork, the largest city on the Discworld (and a central location for many of the books), suddenly develop filmmaking, which they call moving pictures, and set up a filming base at the ancient and abandoned Holy Wood.  The moving pictures issue a weird siren call to the inhabitants of the Discworld, dragging all manners of people and creatures from across the lands and infecting them with their magic (not a metaphor).

Among those drawn to Holy Wood are Victor Tugelbend, a former student wizard, and Theda “Ginger” Withel, a small-town girl with big dreams.  Thanks to the magical on-screen chemistry between them, Victor and Ginger quickly become the superstars of the fledgling moving pictures industry, especially when the Discworld’s most infamous salesman, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, comes to town and takes over the studios.

However, reality on the Discworld is always a bit thin, and Lovecraftian monsters (a favourite recurring antagonist of Pratchett’s early Discworld novels) are revealed to be the ones who planted the idea of moving pictures and Holy Wood in the alchemists’ heads.  Using the new sort of magic created by Holy Wood, the creatures start to break through.  With the wizards of Unseen University, the people who are supposed to guard against these sorts of incursions, distracted by the arrival of an unconventional new Archchancellor, it is up to Victor, Ginger and a ragtag band of other Holy Wood characters to save the day.

This book has so many moving parts to it that it’s hard to know where to begin when reviewing it.  While the main story is concerned with the introduction of moving pictures into the Discworld, there are a number of other entertaining storylines going on throughout the book, each one complementing the main story and creating an amazing overall narrative.  The major appeal of this book is its sharp and intelligent satire of the movie business, which also examines the nature of a film industry in a world as crazy as the Discworld.  I also quite like all the amazing characters, either introduced or built up in this book, many of whom appear in later books in the series.

This book is absolutely hilarious and filled with a huge number of clever and outrageous jokes and observations about the film industry, all of which lie on top of Pratchett’s usual humour about day-to-day life in the Discworld and his random observations, many of which are perfectly introduced in the book’s footnotes.  The main storyline is an amazing portrayal of the hectic early days of the film industry, placed in a fantasy setting.  The cameras are powered by miniature demons (who paint the pictures really, really fast), the lighting is done by salamanders, actors of all species make up the cast, the audience eat ‘banged grains’ while watching the ‘clicks’ and the film’s monsters and villains are all trolls in crude costumes.  However, literal movie magic is making people do strange things (strange even for Discworld folk), talking animals are showing up looking for work, Dwarfs are singing “Hihohihohiho” as they work, characters routinely burst into song and dance in the rain, and one producer keeps threatening to turn people into stars, all while the book’s few straight-characters look on in bemusement.  All of this is amazing, and the sheer number of fantasy-assisted jokes throughout the book is pretty unbelievable.

At its heart, Moving Pictures is a satire and a critique about the film industry as a whole.  Quite a large amount of the story is dedicated to parodying the real-life the crazy effect that movies can have on audiences and the people who make them, as the book shows some ridiculous events.  The story also reflects the insubstantial nature of fame and the fragility of dreams surrounding the movie industry.  The fast-moving world of the film industry is also shown, although sped up even more for comedic and story value, as they film creators are constantly searching and finding new advancements in their field.  A great example of this is shown when Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler invents and then continually advances the art of advertisement, so that, within a few short weeks, the film industry goes from ineffective text advertisements to eye-catching posters and explorations of product placement and subliminal messages.  Pratchett handles these critiques very skilfully, and you cannot help but laugh aloud as he skewers the film industry quite cleverly throughout Moving Pictures.

Pratchett also filled Moving Pictures with a ton of references to iconic films and elements of the film industry.  Many of the characters involved with the films are caricatures of famous movie actors, with Victor playing all the typical romantic or manly male heroes of the day, and Ginger is essentially Marilyn Monroe.  Several films are parodied throughout the book, such as Gone With The Wind, which becomes Blown Away, an epic love story set around a famous Ankh-Morpork Civil War.  There is a rather good King Kong parody, in which a gigantic woman kidnaps a poor defenceless Ape (the Librarian) and drags him to the roof of the tallest tower in Ankh-Morpork, all while two wizards on a broomstick shoot at it with a crossbow, with one shouting “If it bleeds, we can kill it!”  That is only scratching the surface of the references featured within this book.  A golden figure with a name starting with O plays a big part in the story, the various studios are all parodies of real-life studios, and there a huge number of funny and subtle references to various famous films.  Examples of these include Wizard of Oz, Lassie, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Looney Tunes, Blues Brothers, Casablanca, Tarzan and Star Trek just to name a few.  Readers can go through this book multiple times and not pick up every detail, which is a testament to the cleverness of Pratchett and his ability to come up with some hilarious references.

I have always found the way that Pratchett utilises or re-uses his characters to be extremely fascinating; while some characters appear in multiple books, a number of his main characters, especially from his earlier books, are only used once. There are several examples of this, including Mort from Mort, Pteppic from Pyramids and Esk from Equal Rites (who did appear in a later young adult novel, but there was a significant time gap between the writing of these two books).  While Pratchett may have simply had only one story in mind for these characters, I have a feeling that he simply did not like how they turned out and decided not to use them again under any circumstances.  Mort is probably the best example of this.  Despite being the protagonist of the first Death subseries book Mort, he never appears in any of the Death subseries books again (aside from one brief flashback), and is instead replaced by his own daughter, Susan.  It is interesting to note that most of the main characters who were never or rarely used again are somewhat similar to each other, being young heroes without too many obvious flaws to them.  On the other hand, the unique main characters Pratchett creates with notable flaws, such as Rincewind, the wizard who has turned cowardice into an art form, or the overly cynical and dangerous alcoholic Sam Vimes, helm multiple books.

If I have to make one criticism about this book, it is the weak and somewhat inconsistent main characters, Victor and Ginger.  Ginger is a generic female character, and while she is a good parody of Marilyn Monroe and other early screen actresses, she is pretty one-dimensional and unlikeable.  Victor starts out with some very interesting character traits, as he is described as an extremely lazy person, whose unique brand of laziness forces him to become a brilliant student wizard in order for him to succeed in his quest to fail every test he ever takes by a certain point margin to ensure he remains a student.  However, these character traits are pretty much thrown out the window a few chapters in and he becomes a typical male hero for the rest of the book.  While this sort of straight-man character was needed for this wacky adventure, it is surprising that the character never again really shows the slightest hint of some of these earlier established character traits.  It is interesting to note that neither Victor or Ginger appear in any of the subsequent Discworld novels, so I think there is a strong possibility that Pratchett might also have disliked how these characters turned out.

While one or two of his earlier main characters were somewhat unimpressive, Pratchett always managed to make up for this by creating a range of memorable and enjoyable side characters.  It was always interesting to see which of these side characters would appear in various later books, as you knew Pratchett had to like them as well.  For example, Granny Weatherwax was a supporting character in Equal Rites, but Pratchett must have liked writing her, as she became a major character in the Discworld series, even getting her own subseries with several other witch characters.  Moving Pictures is perhaps the best example of Pratchett’s love of side characters; while Victor and Ginger never appear in the Discworld again, many of the side characters introduced or developed in this book have major roles later in the series.

For example, I was always impressed with how this book turned two minor characters from Guards! Guards!, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and Detritus the troll, and gave them more expanded roles in Moving Pictures.  Dibbler was an opportunistic merchant who got a couple of good, if minor, scenes in Guards! Guards!, but in Moving Pictures, Pratchett transformed him into a ruthless and extremely savvy salesman who gets in the front door of every major new opportunity inflicted on the Discworld, but is often forced by circumstances back to becoming a sausage-in-a-bun merchant.  Dibbler was absolutely fantastic as the stereotypical sleazy film producer, and it is unsurprising why he suddenly became a major recurring character throughout the Discworld books, not only appearing in nearly every book set in Ankh-Morpork but also having clones of him appear in the other nations and cities, all of whom sell disgusting local delicacies.  Detritus is another great example, as he goes from the simple bouncer introduced in previous books to a troll seeking love and a new way of life.  Pratchett comes up with a great personality for Detritus in this book, and it carries through to the City Watch subseries when he joins the Watch in Men at Arms and becomes a major recurring character in this subseries and other books set around Ankh-Morpork.  Other recurring characters, Death and the Librarian, are as awesome as ever, but Dibbler and Detritus are the real standout stars of this book.

Several new characters introduced in this story also make a number of reappearances throughout the rest of the Discworld series.  A good example of this is the talking dog, Gaspode, who is a fantastic and sarcastic character through the book.  He has some great scenes, with the highlight being his friendship with Laddie, a Lassie parody and idiot who Gaspode takes under his wing.  The idea of a clever, underappreciated and sarcastic talking dog side character apparently worked so well that Pratchett found a way to return his magical intelligence and ability to speak a few books later in Men at Arms (the same book Detritus reappeared in) and he then featured in several additional books.

You also have to love the new wizard characters that Pratchett also created for this book.  Before Moving Pictures, the faculty of Unseen University, with the exception of the Librarian and Rincewind, were replaced each book with a new group of senior wizards, thanks to the competitive nature of succession in the university.  However, this 10th book introduces a brand new and more permanent faculty of Unseen University, led by Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully.  Ridcully is a fantastic character as he is big, loud and sporty man who is generally the complete opposite to any other wizard previously shown in the Discworld series.  I really enjoyed his storyline and found it to be one of the most entertaining in the entire book.  Pratchett must have agreed, as Ridcully became the only recurring Archchancellor in the Discworld series.  This also allowed for the creation and stabilisation of unique characters to make up the senior faculty of Unseen University, including the Bursar, the Dean, the Chair of Indefinite Studies and the Lecturer in Recent Runes.  While the other wizards have a fun romp breaking out to go see the moving pictures, the Bursar has a great story, as you get to see the first signs of madness that would afflict him throughout every other book he appears in, as he first encounters the stress associated with working under Ridcully.  I also liked the introduction of a young Ponder Stibbons, whose bad day while trying to escape from the university is pretty humorous, but also the complete departure from his later role as the only serious member of the faculty.  Thanks to their entertaining storylines, the wizards would appear in multiple books in the rest of the Discworld series, and while they never had their own specific subseries, they would get major inclusions in several other subseries, including substantial stories in The Last Continent, Soul Music, Lords and Ladies and The Hogfather, as well as their own novel, Unseen Academics.

While I have physically read most of the books in the Discworld series, including Moving Pictures, these days I tend to only listen to the audiobook formats of these books.  The Discworld audiobooks are pretty awesome, and the two narrators for the series, Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs, both do an incredible job.  I find that the humour in the Discworld novels is massively enhanced by the narration, and I love listening to the stories this way.  At 10 hours and 8 minutes, this is not a long audiobook, and I always tend to power through these books really, really quickly.  Planer is a comedy veteran and has an awesome audiobook voice, and it is quite impressive the sheer range of different and distinctive voices he can come up with.  I also like his incredible consistency when it comes the multiple books in the Discworld series; for example, voices he creates for Moving Pictures are generally the same used for that character in later books he narrated.  The audiobook format of Moving Pictures is my preferred way to enjoy this book, and it is really worth trying out.

As you can see from my extremely long rant above, I absolutely love Moving Pictures and the Discworld series.  Pratchett created an incredibly complex and extremely funny novel that laughs right at the heart of the film industry.  The sheer range of references in this book is amazing, and the creation and enhancing of the various side characters featured in this book has massive ramifications for many of the later Discworld novels.  If you have yet to experience the joy of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, get on it as soon as you can.  It is well worth it, and Moving Pictures is a great place to start your Pratchett adventure.  I fully intend to review more books in this series in the future.

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

A Shot in the Dark Cover.jpg

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

From Lynne Truss, one of England’s most creative minds, comes A Shot in the Dark, a hilarious take on the historical murder mystery that sets three fantastic and exaggerated police characters against a sinister and surprising criminal mastermind.

Brighton, 1957.  Following a terrible massacre that saw the death of every member of two rival gangs some years before, the city of Brighton is now clear of all crime.  At least, that’s what Inspector Steine believes, and, as he is the famous and inspirational police detective whose actions allowed the eradication of these vicious gangs, that’s what the rest of the Brighton Constabulary believe as well.  Unfortunately for everyone, Inspector Steine is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  Despite all the evidence, he simply refuses to believe the theory of his long suffering ‘bagman’ Sergeant Brunswick that a mysterious third crime boss organised the massacre and is currently running crime in Brighton.

So when the young, keen and exceedingly annoying Constable Twitten arrives in Brighton and starts investigating a series of burglaries, Steine is particularly aggrieved.  Despite Steine’s insistence that Brighton’s criminal element is no more, Twitten seems determined to find criminal activity – and he does.  The opening night of a new controversial play is unfortunately ruined when the opinionated and unpleasant film critic that Twitten is sitting next to is shot in the head.  Finally a crime that even Steine can’t ignore.

Who could have wanted the critic dead?  Is his death due to the multiple plays and productions that his reviews have destroyed?  Or is it perhaps related to a bank robbery that the critic witnessed many years ago, and that Steine failed to solve.  As Twitten and Brunswick start their investigation and Steine provides his own special brand of ‘help’, a second body is found.  As the case continues, Brighton’s newest constable is about to uncover a dark secret about his city and the sinister figure manipulating everything behind the scenes.

Truss is a highly talented writer, author and radio personality who has produced a huge range of different works, including the non-fiction book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Truss has also created several other fictional and non-fictional books, as well as a number of popular radio series.  A Shot in the Dark is Truss’s fifth fiction novel and is the first book in her Constable Twitten Mystery series.

One of the most interesting features of A Shot in the Dark is that it is actually a novelisation of Truss’s popular radio comedy drama series, Inspector Steine, which ran between 2007 and 2013 and starred the inimitable Michael Fenton-Stevens.  This is a great introduction to the franchise that will have a massive amount of appeal both to fans of the radio show and people who are unfamiliar with this great comedy series.  Rather than being a simple write-up of one of the Inspector Steine episodes, A Shot in the Dark is a combination of several different episodes, containing plot elements from various seasons of the show’s run.  In particular, it contains components borrowed from the series one episodes While the Sun Shines, Separate Tales and The Deep Blue Sea, the series two episode The Entertainer, and the series three episode While the Sun Shines.  As a result of this combination, people unfamiliar with this series get to experience several of the radio show’s best stories and plot points in their first outing.  On the other hand, fans of the radio series get a completely new adventure that re-imagines Constable Twitten’s early days at Brighton.  Storylines listeners may be familiar with have been altered in some new and substantial ways to create a fun and excellent combination of some key stories in the series.

In the original Inspector Steine series, Truss created some amazing characters who are not only terrific by themselves but who played off each other extremely well.  The author has done an amazing job transplanting these characters into a completely different format.  The three main characters are Inspector Steine, Constable Twitten and Sergeant Brunswick.  Inspector Steine is your classic self-important senior management figure who thinks they are so much smarter than they actually are.  Steine is extremely self-absorbed and very easily manipulated, but ultimately well meaning, given he is completely convinced that all the crime in Brighton was erased years ago as a result of his brilliant actions.  Twitten, on the other hand, is actually as smart as he thinks and has no trouble letting everyone he meets know it.  His clever investigative work is capable of solving the crime, but his cleverdick attitude ensures that no-one, especially Inspector Steine, will actually listen to him.  Sergeant Brunswick plays straight man to both of his colleagues, and seems to be the middle ground between these two extreme personalities.  However, while he is a competent investigator, he is also easily manipulated, and fails to see that his brilliant plans to go undercover on every case are hampered by the fact that all of Brighton’s criminals already know who his is.  These three are all extreme examples of some of the classic police characters.  In a normal piece of crime fiction, these three characters work well together (think Endeavour for example), but in A Shot in the Dark they bring out the worst in each other and combine together for great comedic value.

While the three police characters are excellently used and a whole lot of fun by themselves, special mention needs to be given to the brilliant antagonist of this story.  Whiles fans of the radio series will not be surprised about their identity, I will try to avoid revealing too much in order not to ruin the surprise for any new readers.  That being said, this character is an excellent villain who is able to manipulate the three police characters in some suitably comedic ways.  The various and often quite unsubtle ways in which this villain manoeuvres the protagonists in A Shot in the Dark is absolutely hilarious, especially when their ridiculous plots actually work.  New readers will have a fantastic time finding out who this character is and how they’ve gotten away with their crimes, while fans of the radio series will love seeing this outstanding antagonist in all their criminal glory once again.

A Shot in the Dark contains a fantastic story that expertly combines a clever murder mystery with hilarious comedy elements.  As mentioned above, due to main characters’ various shortcomings and the devious nature of the villain, this is not your standard criminal investigation.  The protagonists have to deal with some absurd situations as well as various unusual plans to stop them solving the case.  That being said, the police do perform an investigation and the truth of the various crimes are eventually uncovered, although again without the standard solution crime fiction readers would be used to.  The crime elements are compelling and there is a really interesting mystery contained within this book, with some imaginative twists leading up to the conclusion.  In addition, the two murders are connected together in some clever ways, and the overarching conspiracy about Brighton is particularly intriguing.  While the book contains some gripping mystery elements, it is a comedy at heart; there are some really amazing comedy elements, including some great sequences that really cracked me up.  In addition to the shenanigans of the main characters, there are a range of other eccentric characters throughout the book that provide some fun moments of comic relief with their antics.  These elements come together perfectly, and it is incredibly fun watching all attempts at a serious investigation get disrupted in various silly ways.

Truss set the Inspector Steine series within Brighton in the early 1950s.  While this would already be an interesting setting, the author has amped this up by using elements from the classic crime novel and movie, Brighton Rock.  Truss has stated that her series is based on captions at the start of the 1948 movie which declared that Brighton went from a crime hub between the two World Wars to an area completely free of criminals and corruption by the 1950s.  While many people would be somewhat suspicious of such a statement, the Inspector Steine series is based on the idea that a member of the police actually believed this and acted accordingly.  As a result, the whole city has, on the surface, a wholesome family atmosphere.  That makes the crime hiding underneath a lot more fun to see, especially as the criminals really don’t need to do too much to disguise their activities, secure in Steine’s blissful ignorance.  In addition, fans of the crime classic may be interested to know that there are a number of elements from Brighton Rock that play a key part in the story.  As both the book and the movie exist within the Inspector Steine universe, Inspector Steine actually blames the events of this book on Graham Greene, the original author of Brighton Rock (a sentiment shared by Truss).  In addition, various characters within A Shot in the Dark are obsessed with the events of the classic crime book, and many locations from the Brighton Rock book and movie become major plot settings in the story.  In particular, there are several sequences based around one certain murder from the movie that results in some very entertaining scenes.  Overall, this is a great setting for this excellent comedy-mystery hybrid, which also has some fantastic tie-ins to a classic post-war crime novel.

Lynne Truss delivers an extremely fun and very entertaining adaption of her popular Inspector Steine radio series with A Shot in the Dark.  Featuring all of the exceptional characters that were a standout feature of the original series, A Shot in the Dark is an excellent piece of comedy that also contains some intriguing mystery elements and a unique settings with ties to the crime classic Brighton Rock.  This five-star book comes highly recommended and is guaranteed to leave you laughing for hours.  I am already looking forward to the next Constable Twitten Mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Special thanks need to be given to my partner, Alex, who, on top of her usual editorial expertise for my reviews, happens to be a geek for BBC Radio 4 comedies and was able to help me properly analyse A Shot in the Dark without spoiling the identity of Brighton’s greatest criminal mastermind.

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

The Defiant Heir Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit

Australian Publication Date – 24 April 2018

World Publication Date – 19 April 2018

 

Melissa Caruso follows up her extraordinary debut with another unmissable magical adventure.

On the continent of Eruvia lies the Serene Empire of Raverra.  Ruled by the Doge and the Council of Nine, the Empire’s power comes from its mages, the legendary Falcon Army.  When a mage comes to power in the lands of Raverra, they are conscripted as a Falcon and bound to a Falconer, a non-mage who can choose to unleash or bind their Falcon’s power with a word.

However, the Serene Empire is not the only great power on Eruvia.  To the north lies the mysterious nation of Vaskandar, controlled by a dangerous group of mages known as the Witch Lords.  Each Witch Lord is a powerful vivomancer whose magic grants them control over all living beings, such as animals, plants and even humans.  After years of peace, several of the Witch Lords desire additional territory and are preparing for war against the Serene Empire.  Large forces of soldiers and the Vaskandar’s dreaded chimeras amass on the border while covert attacks are undertaken against the Serene Empire’s most powerful Falcons.  But before the Vaskandar can formally declare war, all seventeen Witch Lords must meet in a conclave to agree to a course of action.

Lady Amalia Cornaro is heir to one of the oldest and most powerful families in all of the Serene Empire.  Formerly a sheltered academic, her life dramatically changed when she was accidently bonded to the rebellious teenage runway Zaira, a rare and destructive fire warlock and the most powerful mage in the Empire.  Despite a turbulent and resentful start to their relationship, Amalia and Zaira have come to a mutual understanding following their adventures in the city of Ardence.

As the tension between the two nations increases, Amalia and Zaira are sent as a military deterrent to the border province of Callamourne, ruled by Amalia’s grandmother.  Despite their presence, it quickly becomes apparent that forces are conspiring to bring the war to pass, especially with spies and assassins targeting Amalia and Zaira directly.  Determined to maintain the peace, Amalia knows that the only way to prevent the war is to infiltrate Vaskandar and attend the conclave on behalf of the Serene Empire.

Entering Vaskandar is a dangerous proposition.  Each Witch Lord has their own territory which they rule absolutely thanks to a mysterious bond to the land that allows them to control all living creatures within their boundaries.  In addition, Amalia already has powerful enemies among the Witch Lords.  The deadly Lady of Thorns holds a grudge against her entire family, and Amalia and Zaiara have experience with the machinations of the Skinwitch Ruven, whose plot could cause great destruction.

Their only hope to influence the conclave may come from the mysterious Crow Lord, who has taken an interest in Amalia.  However, the Crow Lord is playing his own game, and Amalia and Zaira are the perfect pawns.

Melissa Caruso is a relatively new fantasy author whose first book in the Swords and Fire series, The Tethered Mage, was released in late 2017.  The Defiant Heir is a direct sequel to this, and is set a few months after.

The Tethered Mage was one of the surprising hits of last year.  What started out as an intriguing sounding fantasy novel turned into one of the most exciting and memorable debuts of 2017 and proved near impossible to put down.  Caruso maintains this trend of excellent writing in The Defiant Heir, which continues to the provide the same great characters, fantasy adventure, worldbuilding and amazing story writing that made her first book such an irresistible read.

Caruso has chosen to expand her fantasy world in The Defiant Heir by detailing the nation of Vaskandar and focusing on its rulers, the Witch Lords.  While Vaskandar was mentioned and one of nation’s vivomancers, Prince Ruven, was a secondary antagonist, this area of her world wasn’t really explored in the first book.  For this book, Vaskandar is a major location and the protagonists spend a large portion of the story within its boundaries.  As a result, Caruso has produced a significant amount of fascinating lore about this country, especially when it comes to the Witch Lords.  The focus on the Witch Lords is particularly interesting as Caruso has developed complex backstories, powers, plots and motivations for many of them, which adds immensely to the story.  In addition, despite the fact that they all study the same branch of the magic, each of the Witch Lords has their own speciality and their appearance and abilities are different as a result.  This is especially noticeable during the numerous magical duels that occur throughout the book, where these differences allow for a wider variety of magical action.  It is also quite fun when the various Witch Lords use their powers to show off with memorable entrances and appearances during the opening scenes of the conclave.

Readers should also keep an eye out for Caruso’s focus on character development within The Defiant Heir for the two main characters.  Amalia’s growth is the most significant, as circumstances force her to become a more savvy and decisive political player, very much like her mother.  As a result, she is forced to make a number of tough decisions and struggles to maintain her morality in a harsh world where her options are becoming more and more limited.  There is also the growing realisation that her position may not allow her to have the personal life she wants, and this greatly affects her relationship with the dashing Captain Marcello, the main love interest of the first book.  This is a well done bit of character development that will draw the reader in emotionally, especially when it comes to Amalia’s most significant decision in the book.

Zaira’s development is more subtle, as she is not the book’s narrator, and is mostly a continuation of the transformation from inverted loner to team player that started in The Tethered Mage.  However, it is more realistic to see that this growth is a slow process, and her stubbornness is not automatically fixed in the span of one book.  The same could be said about the satisfying but gradual development in the relationship between the main characters.

Melissa Caruso once again shows why she is one of the brightest new stars in the fantasy fiction.  The Defiant Heir is an outstanding continuation of her first series that introduces significant and exiting lore to her already intriguing universe while providing significant development to her main characters.  If you haven’t already discovered the magic of Caruso’s Swords and Fire series, you are in for a serious treat.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date – 5 April 2018

 

Ancient Rome’s premier female detective returns in the latest Flavia Albia mystery from veteran historical crime author Lindsey Davis.

Rome, 89 AD.  Flavia Albia, the daughter of the legendary investigator Falco, is now a proficient private investigator and informant in her own right.  When the ex-wife of her husband, Tiberius, brings a case of family drama to her, Flavia is tempted to refuse, but when Tiberius disappears she needs a distraction.

The case revolves around a teenaged girl found dead in the prosperous Quirinal Hill district of Rome.  The girl, Clodia, was the apparent victim of a poisoned love potion, and her parents and grandparents are blaming each other for her death.  What begins as a simple investigation quickly becomes complicated when the witch accused of supplying the potion turns out to be the sister of the city’s biggest crime boss.  No-one is talking, and everyone in the Quirinal Hill has a secret.

Flavia is forced to seek the truth from a variety of people, including warring grannies, concerned parents, criminal lawyers, secretive slaves, a lettuce salesman with an interesting religious statue and, worst of all, the overprivileged offspring of Rome’s elite.  However, as Flavia’s investigation continues and a friend of hers dies, it soon becomes apparent that a vicious gang war is imminent.  Can Flavia solve the crime without getting caught in the crossfire, especially when she has a terrible history with one of the gangs?

Pandora’s Boy is the sixth book in the Flavia Albia series, which acts as a direct sequel series to Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series.  Davis is one of the most prolific authors of historical whodunits and has a particular focus on novels set in ancient Rome.  For example, her Marcus Didius Falco series contains 20 books, and she has produced some stand-alone books set in the same period.

Like the previous books in the Flavia Albia series, Pandora’s Boy takes a contemporary look at Roman culture and lifestyles.  The inhabitants of Davis’ books act in a very modern way despite their ancient surroundings, and this results in a very humorous interpretation of the ancient Roman characters.  Davis also uses this book to parody a specific group in modern society: the millennials.  Throughout the story, Flavia is forced to follow, interview and generally endure the victim’s friends, who are the offspring of the city’s rich and powerful.  These friends are exceedingly selfish, have sordid love lives and get into all sorts of mischief.  In other words, they act in a very similar way to how modern day millennials are often perceived and portrayed.  Their appearance is quite jarring in the ancient Roman setting and leads to a lot of the books humour.  In all, it is a fun, quirky addition, and an amusing examination of modern society through very ancient eyes.

The core of the book is the death of a young woman and its investigation by the main character.  This is a well-done mystery that takes many twists and turns to keep the attention of the reader.  Flavia’s investigation is done through interviews, trickery, observations and undercover work, and, like many other parts of the book, is infused with Davis’ trademark humour.  The investigation is wrapped up in a final scene that is a throwback to classic murder mystery dénouements.  All the interested parties are gathered together in one place and the investigator reveals their conclusions, eventually leading to their solution to the crime.  Davis provides a perfect parody of this, infused with her own unique touch.  As a result, there are several jokes about this well-used literary device, including discussions around the necessary prep work and tricks to keep the gathered parties’ concentration of the speaker that will greatly amuse many murder mystery buffs.

One of the more diverting and memorable aspects of the Flavia Albia series is Davis’ tendency to include big action sequences that devolve into near absurdity and provide some of the best laughs in the entire book.  For example, in Davis’ previous book, The Third Nero, the climactic scene was a battle in the heart of Rome that featured, among other things, a war elephant, Parthian cataphracts and one of the most improbable chase sequences in all of fiction.  While nothing will quite top this, Davis has striven to include one such scene in Pandora’s Boy, featuring an interrupted séance, an all-out brawl between legionnaires and Vigiles at a collapsing temple, all of which serves as a backdrop to a fight between two warring grannies.  This is an extremely entertaining scene and definitely a highlight to watch out for.

Another notable feature of the books in the Falco universe is the deeper examination of the Roman criminal justice system.  The investigators in these books often deal with the Vigiles and the Aediles, the ancient Roman equivalent of the police and magistrates, many of whom turn into key characters.  This is a unique feature, as most Roman historical fiction books neglect to focus on these institutions, only mentioning them if in the context of political gain.  Pandora’s Boy includes a detailed look at the Vigiles who patrol the Quirinal Hill district and their investigation into the death and other serious crimes.  Loaded up with a suitable modern twist, the inclusion of these characters is an intriguing addition that highlights an often-neglected side of ancient Roman life.

Pandora’s Boy is a wonderful addition to one of the best ancient crime series currently on the market.  Davis once again creates a fantastic murder mystery and infuses it with outrageous humour and a modernistic take on ancient Roman life.  This is an exceedingly fun and deeply absorbing novel that will appeal to a very wide audience of readers.

My Rating:

Five Stars