Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

Usagi #34

Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

Usagi #35

The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

Usagi #37

Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

WWW Wednesday – 9 March 2022

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley (Trade Paperback)

A Great Hope Cover

I just started reading this intriguing Australian political drama novel, A Great Hope by debuting author Jessica Stanley.  This compelling novel follows a political family in Australia following the death of their famous politician father.  I have only made a little progress on this novel, but so far I am enjoying its fascinating story and interesting dive into Australian politics.

 

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney (Audiobook)

Sierra Six Cover

I also started the latest Mark Greaney Gray Man novel today, Sierra Six.  This novel continues to tell the story of Court Gentry, the legendary assassin known as the Gray Man, and this latest entry dives back into his first mission for the CIA.  I am only a short way into this book, but it is so far proving to be pretty awesome.  Due to how cool the rest of the series (The Gray Man, Mission Critical, One Minute Out and Relentless) have been, I am expecting great things from this book and I look forward to seeing all the carnage unfold.

What did you recently finish reading?

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner (Trade Paperback)

Her Perfect Twin Cover

 

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz (Audiobook)

Dark Horse Cover

 

League of Liars by Astrid Scholte (Paperback)

League of Liars Cover 2

 

Warhammer 40,000: Krieg by Steve Lyons (Audiobook)

Warhammer 40,000 - Krieg Cover

 

36 Streets by T. R. Napper (Paperback)

36 Streets Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan

The Justice of Kings Cover

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

Dark Horse Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Orphan X – Book Seven

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top spy thriller authors in the world today, Gregg Hurwitz, returns with the latest book in his exciting and captivating Orphan X series, Dark Horse.

Over the last few years, I have been having an absolute blast checking out the epic Orphan X series by Hurwitz, which has featured some amazing and extremely fun reads.  The series started back in 2016 with Orphan X, which introduced the former government assassin turned vigilante known as Orphan X.  Since then, the Orphan X series has expanded to seven great books, each of which pushed the protagonist against some dangerous and ruthless foes.  I have deeply enjoyed the last few books, including Out of the Dark, which set Orphan X against the corrupt President of the United States; Into the Fire, which was one of the top audiobooks of 2020; and Prodigal Son, a fantastic and exciting dive into the world of advanced military technology.  All these novels have been really good and I was quite excited to see what Hurwitz had planned for his latest book, Dark Horse.

After barely surviving a deadly explosion in his sanctuary, Evan Smoak, the former government assassin known as Orphan X, has returned to his mostly usual life.  Once again taking up his persona as the elite vigilante, the Nowhere Man, Evan attempts to balance his dangerous activities with the unusual romantic and familial bonds he has formed.  However, his latest case will push him like none before as he finds himself thrust into a deadly and conflict between two notorious criminal organisations.

Aragon Urrea is a lifelong criminal who has established himself in south Texas as a major underworld figure.  Operating a subtle and profitable undercover drug smuggling operation, Aragon has set himself as the patron of his local area, supplying employment, help and justice to those who need it, while ensuring the love and loyalty of everyone surrounding him.  However, despite all his power and influence, Aragon has one weak spot, his teenage daughter, Anjelina, who is kidnapped by one of the most vicious and notorious drug cartels.  Now held captive in the cartel’s impregnable stronghold, Aragon has no way to rescue her, and in desperation he turns to a man even more dangerous than him, the Nowhere Man.

Despite his misgivings about working for a drug kingpin, Evan soon finds himself drawn to Aragon’s side to save Anjelina, and discovers his new client is an honourable man worthy of his help.  Forced to contend with dangerous murderers, drug dealers and psychopaths, Evan starts his attempt to infiltrate the cartel’s ranks and enter their fortress.  However, what he discovers inside the fortress will change the entire mission and force Evan to attempt an impossible rescue.  But can even the Nowhere Man defeat an entire drug cartel by himself, or has this legendary spy finally met his match?

This was another great novel from Hurwitz that combines an intense and action-soaked story with deep character moments and powerful self-examinations, all of which comes together into one heck of a novel.  I had a brilliant time with Dark Horse, and it was an awesome continuation of the Orphan X series.

Dark Horse has an excellent narrative that I found to be extremely captivating and fun, especially as it pits the protagonist against a brutal drug cartel.  The story has an interesting start, introducing the client and his kidnapped daughter, before resetting the story towards Evan and showing how he survived the cliff-hanger conclusion of the last novel.  From there, Evan is slowly drawn into Aragon Urrea’s life as the drug lord convinces him to save his daughter, which eventually leads to the Nowhere Man attempting to infiltrate the rival cartel.  This leads to some impressive and dark scenes as Evan draws the attention of the cartel and starts to gain the trust of their deranged leader.  This central part of the book is very powerful, especially as the protagonist finds out several complications to his plans and witnesses the true evil of his target.  At the same time, Evan is dealing with multiple personal problems, as issues with his friends, family and love interest all impact upon his mind, resulting in a richer narrative.  This all leads up to the epic and destructive final major sequence where Orphan X is unleashed and takes out his opponents in some very clever and brutal ways.  The book ends on a satisfying conclusion which touches on many of the brilliant character moments built up throughout the novel, while certain hints at the events of future novels will ensure that you come back for me.

I love how Hurwitz told the cool story in Dark Horse.  Like the rest of the novels in the series, Dark Horse can be read as a bit of a standalone read, although Orphan X fans will really enjoy seeing the continuation of certain storylines, especially those raised in the last couple of books.  Readers are in for the suspense, intense and highly detailed action, and intriguing dives into the complex character that have been such a distinctive feature of this series, and I loved how they improved the cool new story Hurwitz came up with.  The scenes set down in Mexico are particularly dark, and I found myself inevitable drawn to the over-the-top depictions of cartel country and the dangerous people living there.  I also need to highlight a particularly gruesome scene inside a drug house in San Bernardino, which will leave you shocked and reeling, especially with Hurwitz’s descriptive writing.  There was a very interesting focus on ethics, morality and personal emotion throughout Dark Horse, with two very different drug organisations shown.  Evan’s attempts to decide whether the person he is trying to help is a good person become a key part of the story, and I enjoyed the captivating comparisons between the protagonist and the various people he interacts with throughout the novel.  I do think that Hurwitz could have perhaps sacrificed a little of this philosophical introspection and replaced it with some more action or suspense in a few of the slower parts of the novel, but overall this was an impressive and highly enjoyable read.

Hurwitz has once again loaded his novel with some complex and intriguing characters who add a substantial amount to the story.  The most prominent of these is main protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X.  Evan is a particularly complicated figure who Hurwitz has been carefully building over the entire series.  Raised since childhood to be an assassin, Evan lacks many of the appropriate social skills people are supposed to have.  This, combined with his intense OCD and lack of emotional awareness, ensures he has difficulties adjusting to everyday life now that he is mostly retired from his assassin work.  His many issues cause multiple strains on his relationships in Dark Horse and it is very compelling to see him continue to adapt and improve as a person.  Evan also experiences many revelations in this novel, especially when it comes to the complex people and families he encounters.  Seeing people who strive to be good like him while also supporting evil or illegal actions really impacts him, and it proves to be very intriguing to see him attempt comprehend what sort of person he is and the people he is dealing with.

In addition to Evan, Dark Horse contains an interesting collection of supporting character who round out the story and ensure that the main character’s life is even more complex and meaningful.  Dark Horse makes use of a good combination of recurring characters from the previous novel and several new figures, including several over-the-top and menacing antagonists.  A large amount of focus is placed on new character, Aragon Urrea, who in many ways is a similar figure to Evan, as he is a genuinely good person, but he does bad things to achieve his goals.  There is also the character of Anjelina, who finds herself as a secondary point-of-view character in parts of Dark Horse.  A young, scared teenager, Anjelina makes some dangerous decisions in this novel and Hurwitz throws in some great surprises about her actual motivations and mindset.  I also really enjoyed seeing more of some of the recurring characters from the previous novels.  Evan’s main love interest, Mia, goes through some dark moments in this book, which adds to the emotional weight on the protagonist’s shoulders.  It was also cool to see more of Joey and Peter, Evan’s substitute children, whose interactions with the protagonist go to show how unprepared and damaged he truly is.  Throw in the residence of Evan’s building, who have some entertaining and frustrating interactions with Evan, and you have a fantastic cast for this novel that proves to be extremely fascinating to follow.

While I did receive a physical copy of this novel, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Dark Horse, which was a fun and enjoyable experience.  Dark Horse’s audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, and proves to be easy enough to power through, especially when you get caught up in the cool story.  I loved having this cool action-packed story read to me, and I found it helped me to really envision the great fight scenes, as well as context with the multitude of compelling characters.  This great audiobook also features the impressive voice work of Scott Brick, a veteran narrator of thriller audiobooks, including the previous Orphan X books, as well as entries in the Cotton Malone series by Steve Berry (The Malta Exchange, The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web).  Brick has an excellent voice that really lends itself to the spy thriller genre.  I felt that he perfectly captured many of the great characters in this novel, and he ensured that their full range of emotions and reactions were on full display.  This amazing voice work helped to turn the Dark Horse audiobook into a real treat, and I am very glad that I decided to enjoy it in this format.

With the awesome and impressive Dark Horse, Gregg Hurwitz presents an excellent continuation to his outstanding Orphan X series.  Containing an epic story filled with cool action, entertaining sequences and impressive characters, Dark Horse is a captivating and addictive read that is really worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13: Grey Shadows by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grey Shadows Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2000)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 13

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another epic entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai with the 13th volume, Grey Shadows.

Usagi #23

I had a lot of fun reviewing the 12th volume, Grasscutter, last week and it set me down a bit of a reread journey which saw me revisit several other Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  As such I thought I would take the time to do another review of one of Stan Sakai’s comics, and luckily the next one on my list, Grey Shadows, is a particularly good one.

Grey Shadows takes place immediately after the massive events of Grasscutter and details several adventures that rabbit ronin protagonist Miyamoto Usagi goes on during this period.  Made up of issues #23-30 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, Grey Shadows returns to the series norm of featuring several shorter stories, each of which pit Usagi against a new threat or opponent.  Grey Shadows have several excellent stories, including some that focus on fantastic murder mystery elements while simultaneously introducing interesting new characters.

The first story in this volume is the intriguing and touching entry, My Father’s Swords.  This single-issue story first sees Usagi at the temple of his friend priest Sanshobo recovering from his deadly duel with the demonic spearman Jei at the end of Grasscutter.  Still troubled by the disappearance of Jei’s body and the sudden burden of being responsible for the legendary Grasscutter sword, Usagi journeys out from the temple to scout the surrounding area and determine if it is safe to move the divine blade.  His journeys eventually lead him to meet young wandering samurai, Donbori Chiaki, whose father was an old friend of Usagi’s who served with him under Usagi’s former lord.  While travelling with Chiaki, a chance encounter reveals secrets that will rock Usagi’s soul as a samurai.

Usagi #24

This was an interesting first story for Grey Shadows and it is one that I really appreciated.  I liked the excellent start that revisited key events of the previous volume and examined the burden that Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen now bear.  Not only does Sakai use this opportunity to inform the protagonists about some of the other events of Grasscutter that they were unaware of, but it also helps set up the future 15th volume, Grasscutter II, which will end this overall storyline.  Sakai also takes a little time to showcase Usagi dealing with the dark details of the defeat of his adversary Jei, especially after Jei’s body disappeared upon his defeat.  There is a great scene where a clearly shaken Usagi destroys Jei’s fallen black spear to convince himself that his foe is truly dead, although you can tell he doesn’t believe it.  I am rather impressed that Sakai manages to do such a comprehensive wrap up of the events of the previous volume in such a short amount of time, while also leaving room for another interesting story.

The main story of My Father’s Swords is pretty moving, as Usagi is immediately brought back to another trauma, his service to Lord Mifune and the Battle of Adachi Plain (see Volume 2: Samurai and Volume 11: Seasons).  Travelling with the son of an old comrade lets Usagi briefly relive his glory days, before the past is once again thrust upon him when it is revealed that his friend, Donbori Matsuo, is still alive, following his son anonymously as a cripple.  The reasons for Matsuo hiding his existence from his son and the burden he then places on Usagi to keep this secret for him is a little heartbreaking, and it provides more context about the samurai way of life Usagi is bound to.  The entirety of this storyline is handled perfectly, from the great introduction to Chiaki, the fun remembrances of Usagi’s past, to the final revelation about Matsuo that ends the story on a poignant note that will leave you very thoughtful and moved.  I enjoyed some of the clever artistic tricks in this story, such as the dark shade around Usagi when he deals with Jei’s spear, and the fun way in which Sakai slips in the beggar Matsuo into the background of several scenes, revealing his subtle surveillance of his son.  An excellent entry that not only references the events of Grasscutter but also features a powerful story of its own, My Father’s Swords proves to be a great start to this entire volume.

Usagi #25

Sakai follows up the moving first story of Grey Shadows with the dark second entry, The Demon’s Flute, a clever and memorable horror story.  The Demon’s Flute sees Usagi traversing some remote hills only to be drawn to a small town by the haunting melodies of a flute.  Once there, he discovers that the village is under attack by a mystical menace which kills villagers in utter darkness while the sound of a flute plays.  Believing it to be a ghostly figure of a flutist who wanders around with a white tokage (the dinosaur lizards that serve as this world’s main animals), the villagers implore Usagi to help save them.  However, the true evil attacking them proves to be more complicated and sinister than anyone of them believed.

The Demon’s Flute is a great story that shows just how haunting a Usagi Yojimbo story can be, especially when Sakai utilises some of the creepiest elements of Japanese mythology.  While some of the elements of the story are slightly predictable (Usagi has rocked up to save a lot of random villages over the years), the story has a great pace to it that sees Usagi attacked by dark forces he cannot overcome.  The various scenes where Usagi runs around the village chasing the darkness and the sound of a playing flute are extremely tense, and the sudden reveal of the story’s monster proves to be very thrilling.  I loved the great art that surrounded this part of the story, especially as Sakai makes great use of pure blackness to enhance the tension and threat of a scene, with Usagi often only illuminated by a small hand torch.  The final reveal of the monster and the reason for the haunting flute is pretty cool, and I liked the dark sense of honour and duty that drives even the evil and dead of this realm.  While parts of the story are wrapped up a little too neatly, this was still a brilliant entry which reaffirms my love for Sakai’s horror stories.

The next entry in Grey Shadows is the wholesome and enjoyable Momo-Usagi-Taro, which sees Usagi arrive at a large town.  However, he is almost immediately accosted by a group of orphan children who wrangle him into accompanying them to their orphanage, where he tells them an epic tale to keep them entertained.  This is a genuinely nice entry in this volume, which helps to break up the tension and serves as a gentle buffer between the darker stories in the volume.  While Sakai does take the time to do a little set up for the upcoming stories, most of Momo-Usagi-Taro is dedicated to Usagi’s story to the children, which is a retelling of the classic Momotarō folk story.  I always love it when Sakai tells traditional Japanese stories in his comic, especially as you get to see his artistic take on the legend (which usually results in the protagonist being altered to resemble Usagi), and it was great to see this classic tale brought to life in a new way.  Readers are in for a nice story here, and I loved the fun revelation at the end that the orphanage is the same one shown in Daisho, which is supported by the bounty hunter Stray Dog.

Usagi #26

Now we are getting to some of the main stories of Grey Shadows with The Hairpin Murders.  Set across two issues, The Hairpin Murders sees Usagi get involved in a murder mystery case in town when several prominent merchants are killed using a woman’s hairpin.  Teaming up with the brilliant detective, Inspector Ishida, Usagi helps with the investigation and is soon thrust into a long-hidden conspiracy that bind the victims together.  However, the closer they get to the truth the more resistance they encounter from Ishida’s superiors, forcing them to decide just how far they want to go to get justice.

This was an excellent and intriguing story that serves as one of the more impressive entries in this entire volume.  While still maintaining its comic style and focus, The Hairpin Murders reads just like a classic murder mystery story and sees the protagonist involved in a constricted investigation to find the truth.  Sakai sets up this mystery perfectly, and you are soon racing along to find out who is responsible and why.  There are a couple of great twists here, as well as some interesting connections to kabuki theatre, with the eventual reveal of the murderer and their motivations is handled really well.  The story ends on a pretty satisfying note, and it proves to be quite an intense and intriguing story.

Usagi #27

One of the best things about The Hairpin Murders is the introduction of new character Inspector Ishida, who serves as a supporting figure in the rest of Grey Shadow’s stories.  Based on real-life policeman Chang Apana (the inspiration for fictional detective Charlie Chan), Ishida is a hard-boiled police inspector who is tasked with investigating various crimes around his town, mostly murders.  Despite being restricted by feudal Japanese practices (he can’t do a proper investigation of a body), and the interference of his corrupt superiors, Ishida is a brilliant detective, able to solve complex crimes with the most basic of clues.  Ishida gets a great introduction in The Hairpin Murders, as not only do you see him investigating a tough case but you also learn more about his personality, dedication to justice and elements of his tragic past.  It is so fun to see him in action in this story, especially as he has that great fight scene that shows of his unconventional fighting style (which is surprising considering his small, hunched stature), as well as his excellent use of the cool jutte weapon (I love the jutte so much).  However, the real hint at just how complex and fascinating a character Ishida is occurs at the end of The Hairpin Murders when Ishida is presented with a massive dilemma of justice.  It is strongly implied that Ishida, who spends most of the story sticking to the rules, takes justice into his own hands, and I think it fits perfectly into his character arc, while also leaving some ambiguity about how far he went.  This really was one of the best character introductions of the entire Usagi Yojimbo series and it was so successful that Ishida would become a major recurring character in future volumes (such as Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden).

The other two-issue long story in Grey Shadows is the compelling and moving tale, The Courtesan.  In The Courtesan, Usagi runs into the scared young woman he has noticed multiple times in the last few stories and saves her from a group of masked attackers.  His actions lead to him gaining the attention of the town’s leading courtesan, the alluring Lady Maple, who begs Usagi to help save the life of her young son, who is the legitimate heir to the local lord.  However, dangerous forces within the lord’s court see Lady Maple kidnapped and her son in danger, with only Usagi able to help.

Usagi #28

This was another powerful story that really helps to make this volume stand out in terms of story building and character work.  The Courtesan is a particularly well-paced story that ties in well with the other entries of the Grey Shadow’s volume.  Sakai has come up with a pretty compelling narrative here, and the secret battle for control of the lord’s inheritance is played out with some awesome elements, such as a dive into the world of Japanese courtesans and including several great fight sequences.  The character of Lady Maple is particularly strong, as not only does Sakai make a lot of effort to highlight her elaborate beauty with his artwork, but he also shows the mother hidden underneath the fancy makeup and costume, one who is concerned solely for the welfare of her child.  This leads up to an epic and tense conclusion, as Usagi faces down all the conspirators, only for his victory to be marred by tragedy.  I loved the powerful ending this story contained, which, while sad, also ensures that several worthy characters get what they most wanted in life.  Easily one of the strongest tales in the entire volume, I always enjoy reading this impressive story.

The final entry in Grey Shadows is the fast-paced and action-packed single-issue story, Tameshigiri, which serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire volume.  Tameshigiri is another mystery story that sees Usagi assist Inspector Ishida to investigate some murders around town.  This time the two friends are looking into a series of random killings by mysterious masked samurai.  The attacks seem extremely random and lacking in motivation, but the two are soon drawn towards the acolytes of a failing sword testing school who may have a dark reason for dropping bodies around town.

Usagi #29

This was a pretty fun and cool final story for the volume, and it leaves an exciting end note for the reader.  Sakai pulls together a fantastic and compelling shorter story here that once again combines murder mystery elements with the traditional comic book action.  While the culprits of the murder are quite clear from the outset, it is pretty fun to see their plan unfold and the protagonist’s subsequent investigation into it.  The reasons behind the antagonists’ actions are pretty fascinating, and the author paints an outstanding picture of desperation and duty that drives them to kill.  I also quite liked the intriguing investigation into traditional sword testing, which ties into the story extremely well and proves to be a fascinating addition to Tameshigiri’s plot.  The entire story leads up to a massive action sequence that sees multiple participants on both sides engage in a deadly battle to the death.  Not only doe we get to see more of Inspector Ishida’s unique fighting style, but Usagi also shines in an awesome duel.  Throw in the amusing jokes about the events of the preceding story, where Ishida clearly knows Usagi is behind some of the mayhem, and you have a very entertaining entry that not only wraps up the Ishida-based storylines extremely well, but also ensures that the reader has some fun on the way out.

I must once again highlight Sakai’s brilliant artistic work in this cool volume, as Grey Shadows contains impressive examples of Sakai’s amazing style.  There are so many beautiful and intricately detailed drawings throughout this awesome volume, and I love how perfectly it enhances the already great storylines.  I particularly love the amount of detail that he throws into the various panel backgrounds, ensuring that the reader sees both the full breadth of Japan’s majestic natural landscape and the traditional feudal style buildings in the towns and villages Usagi visits.  Sakai also does incredible justice to the many battle sequences scattered throughout Grey Shadows, perfectly portraying the intricate deadly movements that make up the character’s sword play.  You always get an impressive sense of how the characters moved as they battled, and I deeply appreciated all the brilliant and brutal fight scenes.  This incredible artwork always pairs so perfectly with the written story, ensuring that this 13th volume was very spectacular and awesome to look at.

Usagi #30

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with Grey Shadows, and it proved to be another excellent entry in Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series.  This 13th volume features several outstanding stories, which really dive into their unique protagonists and antagonists and show the full majesty of this version of feudal Japan.  Serving as a key entry in the overall series thanks to the introduction of a cool new character, Grey Shadows is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans and it gets another five-star rating from me.

WWW Wednesday – 2 March 2022

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner (Trade Paperback)

Her Perfect Twin Cover

I haven’t had much of a chance to read this book this last week but I am still enjoying this fantastic novel.  I am hoping to finish it off in the next few days and I can’t wait to see how it ends.

 

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz (Audiobook)

Dark Horse Cover

I have nearly finished this awesome audiobook which takes Hurwitz’s complex protagonist on another dark mission.  Dark Horse has an outstanding story and I am deeply enjoying this intense and powerful novel.  I will probably finish this off in the next day or so and I cannot wait to see how it all ends.

What did you recently finish reading?

Star Wars: Bounty Hunters: Volume 3: War of the Bounty Hunters

Star Wars - Bounty Hunters - Volume 3 - War of the Bounty Hunters Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

 

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

WWW Wednesday – 23 February 2022

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner (Trade Paperback)

Her Perfect Twin Cover

I just started reading the intriguing dark thriller novel, Her Perfect Twin, the debut book from new author Sarah Bonner.  This fantastic book follows a woman who kills her twin sister and then starts living her life in order to cover up the murder.  I haven’t gotten too far in yet but I am already pretty damn hooked on this cool story and I look forward to seeing how it proceeds.

 

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz (Audiobook)

Dark Horse Cover

It looks like I am having a bit of a thriller week here as I just started listening to the latest spy thriller from the impressive Gregg Hurwitz, Dark Horse.  This cool book brings back Hurwitz’s awesome protagonist, Evan Smoak, the legendary spy known as both Orphan X and The Nowhere Man, for another action-packed adventure.  This time Orphan X goes up against a criminal cartel to save a young girl for her crime lord father.  Sure to be pretty damn epic and intense, I have had a great time reading the last few Orphan X novels (Out of the Dark, Into the Fire and Prodigal Son), and I am predicting that Dark Horse will be another five star book.

What did you recently finish reading?

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman (Trade Paperback)

City of the Dead Cover 2

 

Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford (Audiobook)

Engines of Empire Cover

 

Warhammer 40,000: Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Audiobook)

Day of Ascension Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

 

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

WWW Wednesday – 16 February 2022

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman (Trade Paperback)

City of the Dead Cover 2

I just started reading the latest Alex Delaware novel from legendary crime fiction author Jonathan Kellerman, City of the Dead.  I have really been getting into this long-running series over the last few years, and I had a lot of fun reading the last three books, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine.  This latest book is off to a great start, with the discovery of a double murder which includes one of the protagonist’s patients.  I look forward to unravelling the entire mystery which I think will be pretty awesome.

Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford (Audiobook)

Engines of Empire Cover

I am still going with this interesting and cool fantasy novel and I have made a fair bit of progress.  Engines of Empire has a brilliant fantasy narrative to it and I am really enjoying the awesome adventure in this new fantasy land.  I will hopefully finish this off in the next few days, especially as there are several other awesome audiobooks I want to start listening to.

What did you recently finish reading?

Outcast by Louise Carey (Trade Paperback)

Outcast Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

Dark Horse Cover

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Book Haul – 8 February 2022

It has been a while since I have done a Book Haul post, but seeing that I received several interesting books recently, I thought I would quickly do one to highlight some of the best novels I have gotten in the last few weeks.  Each of the below books sound extremely cool and captivating, and I cannot wait to see how they all turn out.

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Burning Road Cover

The first book I want to highlight in this haul is The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom, an awesome and action packed historical thriller.  Set in ancient Sicily, this book follows a father and son team as they attempt to survive a brutal slave uprising that threatens to kill everyone they love.  I have already read and reviewed this fantastic novel and it comes very highly recommended.

 

Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of the latest Star Wars novel, The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray, which is part of The High Republic range of Star Wars fiction.  The Fallen Star continues the major storylines from the previous central High Republic novels (Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm), and sees the vicious Nihil launch a deadly attack against the Jedi aboard Starlight Beacon. This is another book I have already read and it turned out to be a compelling and intense survival story in space.  I will hopefully get a review for it up soon but it is a must read for Star Wars fans.

 

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

I was extremely happy to receive a copy of the new Gray Man book, Sierra Six, by Mark Greaney.  Following a lethal spy as he attempts to fix a mistake from his past, this cool novel will show the first mission of awesome series protagonist, Court Gentry, and the many regrets he has from it.  I am already confident that this will be one of the best thrillers of 2022 and I cannot wait to check it out.

 

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

Dark Horse Cover

Another awesome thriller I have received a copy of is Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz.  The seventh book in his action-packed Orphan X series, Dark Horse will set Hurwitz’s legendary spy turned vigilante against an entire cartel.  I cannot wait to see how this book turns out but I know I’m in for a very fun ride with it.

 

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman

City of the Dead Cover 2

I just seem to keep getting books from some of my favourite authors as I also received the latest novel from Jonathan Kellerman, City of the Dead.  This new novel from Kellerman will see his fun protagonist duo attempt to solve a brutal double murder.  I am very keen to read City of the Dead, especially as I have really grown to enjoy Kellerman’s excellent and methodical murder mysteries, and this should be a compelling and enjoyable novel.

 

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner

Her Perfect Twin Cover

I was very excited when I received this cool and unique thriller a little while ago.  Set to be one of the most intense debuts of 2022, Her Perfect Twin follows a woman who kills her twin sister and then takes up her identity to ensure no-one knows she’s dead.  I love the sound of this amazing novel and I am extremely keen to see how it all turns out.

 

The Cane by Maryrose Cuskelly

The Cane Cover

Another awesome debut I recently received is The Cane by Maryrose Cuskelly.  Set in the wilds of rural Queensland, this Australian noir novel will dive into the creepy disappearance of a teenage girl.  The Cane sounds pretty damn dark and I am sure I will have amazing time plumbing the depths of its disturbing story. 

 

Abandoned in Death by J. D. Robb

Abandoned in Death Cover

The final book I received was the latest novel from J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Abandoned in Death.  The 54th book in a long running series, Abandoned in Death follows the investigation into a killer who apparently targets bad parents.  I love the sound of this novel and I may have to try diving into this series very late in the game.

 

Well that’s the end of this latest Book Haul post.  As you can see I have quite a bit of reading to do at the moment thanks to all these awesome books that have come in.  Let me know which of the above you are most interested in and make sure to check back in a few weeks to see my reviews of them.

Top Ten Tuesday – Most Anticipated Books Releasing in the First Half of 2022 (non-fantasy)

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 the first Top Ten Tuesday of 2022 participants get to list their most anticipated upcoming books for the first half of the year.  This is a regular post I do each year and I always look forward to highlighting the most awesome looking books for the start of the year.  I am actually planning to do two versions of this list, this one and another that will focus on some incredible upcoming fantasy novels, so make sure to check that out as well.

Despite only just starting, 2022 is already shaping up to be an epic and exciting year for books with a huge range of impressive and highly anticipated novels due for release in the next 12 months.  This includes exciting debuts, anticipated sequels and the latest entries in beloved bestselling series.  The first half of the year is looking particularly awesome, with a substantial number of incredible upcoming releases that I am deeply looking forward to. 

Even though I excluded fantasy books, this ended up being a rather difficult list to pull together due to all the awesome releases coming out in Australia between 1 January 2022 and 30 June 2022.  There were way too many extraordinary upcoming books that I could have included, and I ended up having to make some very tough calls and cutting several novels that have an immense amount of potential.  Despite this, I am rather happy with the eventual choices that I made, and I think that this list reflects the upcoming novels and comics I am going to have the most fun reading.  I have mentioned several of these books before in my weekly Waiting on Wednesday articles, and some of them also appeared on my recent Summer TBR list.  However, there are also some interesting new books that I am discussing for the first time here, so that should give this list a bit of variety.  I am also excluding a couple of upcoming books with real potential, mainly because a lot of details about them haven’t been released yet, such as the third book in Conn Iggulden’s Athenian series.  So let us get to my selections and find out which upcoming novels are my most anticipated releases for the first half of 2022.

Honourable Mentions

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden – 25 January 2022

Road of Bones Cover

A fun and intriguing horror thriller.

 

Warhammer 40,000: Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky – 1 February 2022

Day of Ascension Cover

One of the best sounding upcoming Warhammer 40,000 novels by impressive science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky.

 

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman – 8 February 2022

City of the Dead Cover

Another fantastic Alex Delaware novel from leading crime fiction author Jonathan Kellerman, that follows on from his last amazing novels, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine.

 

Star Wars: Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher – 28 June 2022

There are several interesting new Star Wars novels coming out in 2022 and one of the more intriguing ones is Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher (no cover available yet).  Set in the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Shadow of the Sith follows Luke and Lando as they attempt to uncover ancient Sith secrets and identify the new threat rising to destroy the New Republic.

Top Ten List:

Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray – 4 January 2022

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

The impressive new High Republic subseries of Star Wars novels continues with The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray.  Continuing the main storyline contained in previous novels Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm, The Fallen Star looks set to contain an intense and captivating story as the Nihil launch their most devastating attack yet.  I am hoping to start The Fallen Star this week and it should be a pretty epic read.

 

Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz – 8 February 2022

Dark Horse Cover

The seventh book in Hurwitz’s action-packed Orphan X series, Dark Horse has a great sounding story and is easily going to be one of the most exciting books of the year.

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Tengu War by Stan Sakai – 15 February 2022

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

One of my favourite comic series, Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, has another great volume coming out early this year.  Tengu War, the 36th volume, looks set to feature several really cool stories in it and I already know I am going to love every page of this exceptional comic.

 

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney – 15 February 2022

Sierra Six Cover

Another epic thriller, Sierra Six will be the 11th novel in the Gray Man series by amazing author Mark Greaney.  I have deeply enjoyed the last few Gray Man novels (One Minute Out and Relentless were particularly good) and I am really looking forward to seeing how this incredible series continues.

 

The Misfit Soldier by Michael Mammay – 22 February 2022

The Misfit Soldier Cover

After deeply impressing me with his debut Planetside series (made up of Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside), science fiction author Michael Mammay has a cool new novel up his sleeve with The Misfit SoldierThe Misfit Soldier will follow a conman and thief turned futuristic soldier as he attempts to pull off a heist in the middle of a warzone.  I love the sound of this book and The Misfit Soldier should be an outstanding read.

 

An Empty Throne by Robert Fabbri – 1 April 2022

An Empty Throne Cover

One of the most entertaining historical fiction authors in the world today, Robert Fabbri, will continue his amazing Alexander’s Legacy series with the third book, An Empty Throne.  Following on from To the Strongest and The Three Paradises, An Empty Throne will explore the unique chaos that occurred following the early death of Alexander the Great and should be a lot of crazy fun.

 

Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis – 7 April 2022

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

Another cool and entertaining historical fiction series continuing this year is the Flavia Albia series by veteran author Lindsey Davis.  Set in ancient Rome, this cool series sees its titular protagonist investigate several strange murders around the city, often in hilarious circumstances.  Several of the recent books, including Pandora’s Boy and The Grove of the Caesars, have been exceptional reads, and the new upcoming novel, Desperate Undertaking, has a great sounding story about a serial killer obsessed with architecture.  Sure to be a gripping and clever read, I cannot wait to check it out.

 

Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen – 10 May 2022

Star Wars - Brotherhood Cover

Another awesome upcoming Star Wars novel is Brotherhood by Mike Chen.  Set at the start of the Clone Wars, this novel will place Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in a dangerous situation as they attempt to uncover who is behind a terrorist attack on an alien planet.  With some cool action and an interesting look at the relationship between former master and apprentice, this will be a great read, especially as it will likely tie into the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi television series.

 

Kingdoms of Death by Christopher Ruocchio – 17 May 2022

Kingdoms of Death Cover

Impressive science fiction author Christopher Ruocchio will continue his massive Sun Eater space opera series this year with his fourth book, Kingdoms of Death.  Following on from the outstanding Empire of Silence, Howling Dark and Demon in White, this latest novel will continue to chronicle the life of the universe’s greatest heroes and villains as he fights for humanity’s survival in the stars.  This will be an incredible and powerful science fiction read and I cannot wait to see how Ruocchio continues his epic series.

 

The Omega Factor by Steve Berry – 7 June 2022

The Omega Factor Cover

The final book on this list is another cool and impressive thriller by the legendary Steve Berry.  Berry, who is best known for his Cotton Malone novels (such as The Malta Exchange, The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web), is introducing a new protagonist in The Omega Factor, who is thrust into a deadly historical conspiracy involving a missing piece of artwork.  Set to expose a war between the Vatican and a secret order of nuns, this sounds like an awesome novel, and I am very excited to dive into another enjoyable Steve Berry novel

 

 

That is the end of this list.  I am extremely happy with how my latest Top Ten Tuesday article turned out and this list contains an intriguing collection of upcoming books that should prove to be incredible reads.  I think that nearly every one of these books has the potential to get a full five-star rating from me and I cannot wait to see what amazing and exciting stories they contain.  While I am waiting to get my hands on these books, why not let me know if any of the above interest you, as well as what your most anticipated releases for the next six months are in the comments below.  Also, make sure to check out my other Top Ten List with the top upcoming fantasy books of 2022.