Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9: Daisho by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

It has been another good week of reading and reviewing for me, so I thought I would reward myself by doing a Throwback Thursday review of Daisho, the ninth volume in the outstanding, long-running Usagi Yojimbo series from one of my favourite authors, Stan Sakai.

Daisho is an impressive and exciting entry in the series, which unsurprisingly gets a five star rating out of me (full disclosure, every volume of this series is going to get five stars from me, it is just that damn good). This volume contains Issues #7-14 of the second run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, which was originally published by Mirage Comics (Issues #7 and #8 are only partially represented in Daisho as some stories from these issues were used in the prior volume, while a story from Issue #13 appears in the tenth volume that I will review next), and which has been collected into this volume by Dark Horse Books. This ninth Usagi Yojimbo volume is filled with several fantastic and creative stories that follow Usagi as he journeys across the land, getting into all manner of trouble and misadventures in this version of feudal Japan populated solely by anthropomorphic animals. Daisho serves as a significant inclusion in the overarching series, due to its connections to previous stories, and its introduction or resurrection of several key characters.

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This volume starts off with an inspiring and tragic story, The Music of Heavens, which once again sees Usagi traversing the wilderness. His solitude is broken when he encounters the pack of Tokage lizards who he unwittingly befriended in a previous story, The Lizards’ Tale (which was featured in Volume 8: Shades of Death). While Usagi is less than thrilled to see the Tokages, they end up leading him towards another traveller who is making their camp in the woods. The traveller, Omori Kazan, is a mendicant Buddhist priest and skilled musician, who invites Usagi into his camp and talks to him about the various forms of music he studies. However, someone is stalking their camp, determined to get revenge and unafraid to kill an innocent bystander to get it.

I really liked The Music of Heavens and it proved to be a compelling first entry in this volume. The story is based on Usagi’s encounter with a new character, Omori Kazan. Kazan is an intriguing person due to his position as a komuso monk (the monks of emptiness) of a particular sect of Buddhism, which lends him a very distinctive look thanks to the woven basket hat (tengai) he wears on his head disguising his features. Kazan has an amazing arc that delivers a lot in a short while, as he introduces himself to Usagi and the reader, discusses music and religion, and then simultaneously meets his end while also experiencing the divine for the first time. This entire character arc is both beautiful and tragic at the same time, and it provides both Usagi and the reader with some significant emotional moments, especially when it comes to Usagi’s farewell to the Tokages. I also liked how Sakai utilises an antagonist from a previous story, and the fight between Usagi and this character was swift and well-drawn. This was an excellent introductory entry for this volume, and it is a story that I really enjoyed.

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The second story in Daisho is the entertaining and clever entry, The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin. This story reintroduces the gambler from the previous story, The Duel (featured in Volume 6: Circles), who is up to his old tricks of organising deadly sword duels and cashing in on the bets of the local townsfolk. After the death of his previous samurai accomplice, Shubo, during a duel with Usagi, the gambler has been forced to find a new partner, the brutish and less skilled swordsman, Kedamono. However, Kedamono’s greed has convinced the gambler that it is time to end their partnership, and he quickly finds the ideal solution when Usagi arrives in town. However, as the gambler plots, he fails to realise that he is being stalked by Shubo’s widow, who is determined to get her revenge for the role he played in her husband’s death.

This was another amazing story that serves as a fantastic follow-up to a great prior Usagi Yojimbo story. I always get a real western vibe out of The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin, due to its title and the premise around a duel, it proves to be an excellent entry in this volume. Usagi is once again drawn into the plots of the gambler, and thanks to his humility, honour and good manners, which are mistaken as a weakness, both Kedamono and the local villagers are convinced that Usagi is a poor swordsman. However, the gambler, who has seen Usagi in action before, manipulates the odds so that he wins all the money when Usagi defeats his opponent, in a fun reversal of the events of The Duel. This was an incredibly entertaining scene as Usagi is again forced to deal with a bloodthirsty crowd, while the gambler feigns being saddened by the loss of his companion, despite being secretly delighted. However, the gambler ends up getting his comeuppance, and the widow, whose sad final scene was so memorable in The Duel, finally gets a small measure of justice. This was a very clever and enjoyable story, and I really loved how Sakai dived back to a prior standalone story to provide some closure and a fun continuation.

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The next story is called Slavers, and it is a longer entry made up of two separate issues. In Slavers, Usagi encounters a young boy being pursued by bandits. Usagi defeats them and learns that the boy was attempting to get help for his village, which has been taken over by a gang of bandits who have enslaved the villagers as part of a destructive scam to steal their harvest and make a small fortune. Deciding to help the villagers, Usagi infiltrates the gang and attempts to rally the villagers to his cause. However, the gang’s leader, the villainous General Fujii, discovers the deception and captures Usagi, planning to kill all the villagers to make good his escape. Slavers is an amazing story that is not only intriguing in its own right but which also expertly sets up the series of follow-up stories that make up most of this volume. While the standalone narrative of Slavers gets a bit dark at times, due to an extended capture scene surrounding Usagi, it is a rather compelling story filled with action, deception and struggles against adversity.

Slavers is quickly followed up by three separate but distinct stories that can be combined together with Slavers into one large narrative that wraps up all the loose ends from the initial entry. The first one of these stories, Daisho Part One, sees Usagi in hot pursuit of General Fujii, who is in possession of Usagi’s precious swords. Due to the brutal actions of Fujii, Usagi loses his quarry and is forced into an extended hunt for him, eventually coming to a ransacked village. It turns out that the village had recently been raided by Fujii’s new gang, and Usagi must make a hard choice between recovering his soul or helping those in need.

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I have a lot of love for Daisho Part One; it is probably one of my favourite entries in this entire volume. The story starts out with a magnificent and beautifully drawn sequence that shows the various elaborate processes by which a samurai’s swords are created. This impressive opening sequence is one of my favourite pieces of Usagi Yojimbo art from the entire series, and its creation highlights not only Sakai’s skill as an artist but his ability to research and portray intriguing parts of Japan’s unique culture and heritage. This sequence also shows the important a samurai’s swords to their wielder, as they are reflections of that warrior’s soul. This key concept is then brought to life in the main story, as it sees a somewhat unhinged Usagi risking everything to reclaim his swords from Fujii. Sakai does an outstanding job showing off how frustrated and enraged Usagi is at having his swords stolen from him, and he comes across as being quite frightening several times through the story. Usagi’s anger comes to a head when he reaches the village and his initial decision is to abandon the villagers and immediately follow Fujii and his men. However, a local village girl is able to shame him into thinking of others, and the old Usagi returns, providing aid to the villagers. This was an extremely compelling story that does a wonderful job combining a powerful, character driven narrative, with some exquisite artwork and some intriguing aspects of history, into an exceptional entry in this volume.

The next story in this volume is Mongrels, a quick story about a recurring Usagi Yojimbo side character, the bounty hunter Gen, which occurs around the same time as Daisho Part One. In this story, Gen enters a village and starts asking questions about his current bounty, General Fujii. However, he is not the only bounty hunter in town, as he soon encounters the notorious hunter Stray Dog, who is also hunting for Fujii. After a tense conversation, the two-part ways; however, both are determined to capture Fujii and outsmart their competition. This was a fun story that not only brings Gen into this multi-issue narrative but also introduces a couple of great recurring characters. Stray Dog is a fantastic character in the Usagi Yojimbo universe, and he often appears as a compelling rival (and sometime partner) to Gen (such as in the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories). This story serves as a swift and clever introduction to the character, and it was fun to see the rivalry between Gen and Stray Dog form so quickly. Mongrels also introduces the extremely entertaining side character, the Snitch (also called Toady), a sneaky, greedy character who provides information to the highest bidder. While the Snitch has only a short appearance in this story, he is going to start appearing in a lot of follow up volumes, and it is always fun to see where a character starts out. Overall, this was a great story that fits a lot of significant introductions and events into a few short pages.

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The final story in this arc surrounding General Fujii is Daisho Part Two, in which Usagi and his guide meet up with Gen and Stray Dog right at the end of Mongrels. The three samurai decide to team up to raid General Fujii’s lair, and they engage in an all-out fight for money and honour. However, not everyone on the team is keen to work together, and betrayal is afoot. This was an excellent conclusion to the entire storyline, which I really enjoyed. This is a story chocked full of action, as the entire narrative sets up a massive fight between multiple combatants within an abandoned temple. There is some great character work within this story, not only from the protagonists, who bicker and fight amongst themselves, but also with the major antagonist, General Fujii. There some intriguing scenes that show Fujii’s efforts to lead and control a gang of bandits and cutthroats, and I also liked how Sakai shows him being haunted by thoughts of Usagi, whose swords he is holding onto. Usagi and Fujii finally get their showdown in this story, and it served as a fantastic end to this whole extended narrative. There are also some compelling moments surrounding Stray Dog, as he seeks to cheat the others out of the reward money for Fujii. While this initially paints him in a bad light, the source of his need for money is quickly shown, and it highlights just how complex and multifaceted this new side character is. I really liked how this entire story narrative ends, and Daisho Part Two is an excellent part of this volume.

The next story in this volume is the two-part entry, Runaways. In Runaways, Usagi journeys through a small town, when he finds himself in the path of a procession of the local noble lady. Hearing the lady’s name, Usagi is thrown back into the past as he remembers an adventure that occurred many years prior, when he was in the service of Lord Mifune. After finding out that the love of his life, Mariko, has married another man, Usagi is given a seemingly simple mission as a distraction. His task, to escort the young Princess Kinuko to the lands of her future husband, becomes infinitely more complicated, when their party is ambushed by a horde of Neko Ninja. Escaping with the princess, Usagi disguises Kinuko as a peasant in an attempt to hide her from their pursuers. However, the more time that Usagi and Kinuko spend together, the closer they become, until the lines of duty, honour and station become extremely blurred.

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This was another exceptional story within the volume, and I liked how it flashed back to an adventure during his pre-ronin life. Set during the period when Usagi served Lord Mifune (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai), Runaways contains a powerful and emotional narrative that is actually based on Roman Holiday (Sakai is a massive Audrey Hepburn fan), which sees a princess run away with a strong male protagonist and grow close to him, despite her responsibilities and their differences in station. This proves to be a fun, if extremely loose adaption of the movie, and Sakai builds up a complex relationship between Usagi and Kinuko, as the two characters, both tragic victims of circumstances when it comes to love, grow closer to each other. However, despite their feelings, this relationship is fated to never be, and it ends in heartbreak, with the memories of it haunting both Usagi and Kinuko years later. I really liked how this story played out, and it was interesting to see aspects of samurai honour folded into the narrative from Roman Holiday. Other fantastic highlights of this story include the multitude of impressive fight scenes between Usagi and the Neko Ninja, starting with a major battle between two large groups of samurai and ninja. I also liked the exploration of the traditional Tanabata Matsuri festival that the two characters find themselves attending, especially as Kinuko has fun experiencing local customs, foods and activities that someone of her station will never get to enjoy. It was also cool to see an early adventure from Usagi, especially as this entry foreshadows events that have occurred in other volumes, including the return of several now-dead characters, such as Shingen (future leader of the Neko Ninja, who was introduced in Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road, and died in Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy). An overall exciting and impressive story, Runaways is an amazing highlight of this volume.

The final entry is the short story, The Nature of the Viper. In this tale, a local fisherman finds the badly injured body of Usagi’s recurring foe, Jei, after he was thrown from a cliff during the climatic events of Circles. Bringing him back to his hut, the fisherman tends to Jei and manages to save his life. When Jei awakens, he shows his gratitude to the farmer be recounting a tale of viper and a peasant (a version of the classic fable, The Farmer and the Viper), before killing him and resuming his hunt for Usagi. This is a good, short entry that shows the fate of Jei after his last appearance. Jei comes across just as villainous and creepy as ever, and it was fun seeing the fisherman slowly realise just how much trouble he is in as the story progresses. While having a villain recount The Farmer and the Viper as justification for why they are killing a person is somewhat cliched at this point (although to be fair, this story was written back in the 90s), it was still a fantastic sequence. I think that this was an excellent way to end the volume, especially as the reader is left knowing that Jei has returned and that Usagi will be encountering him once again in the future.

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Sakai has once again knocked it out of the park with the ninth volume in his series. Daisho contains several outstanding and memorable stories that are all wildly entertaining and contain some clever links to past and future entries in this series. I had an absolute blast reading this volume, and it is an extremely strong addition to the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series that comes highly recommend.

Just Watch Me by Jeff Lindsay

Just Watch Me Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Riley Wolfe series – Book One

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s most popular thriller authors, Jeff Lindsay, comes Just Watch Me, an electrifying heist novel that pits an intriguing new protagonist against impossible odds.

Prepare to meet Riley Wolfe, the world’s greatest thief. Wolfe is a master of disguise, an expert con artist and a true devotee of the ridiculous heist. There is nothing he can’t steal, and he lives to target the super-rich with his capers in order to make them suffer. However, Wolfe is starting to get bored. His last few heists have gone off without a hitch and he is looking for a challenge. But his new target might be truly impossible to steal, even for him.

Wolfe has his eyes on some of the most impressive treasures in the world, the Crown Jewels of Iran, and in particular the Daryayeh-E-Noor, a gigantic pink diamond that is valued beyond compare. With the jewels finally out of Iran and in New York for a tour, Wolfe knows that this is the time to steal them. They have been placed within the most secure gallery in the country, which utilises impenetrable security systems, state-of-the-art alarms and a small army of former special forces soldiers acting as guards. In addition, a regiment of the lethal Iranian Revolutionary Guard are also standing watch, ready to kill anyone who gets too close. With these security measures in place, the jewels appear to be beyond the reach of any potential thieves, no matter how careful or elaborate their plan may be, and anyone who tries is going to end up dead. However, Wolfe is no ordinary thief, and he has come up with a cunning scheme that no one else would have ever thought of. If all his planning succeeds, he will have an opportunity to make off with the jewels. But with all manner of complications in front of him and a determined FBI agent hunting down his past, can even the great Riley Wolfe succeed, or will his most daring heist be his last?

When I first saw that Jeff Lindsay was doing a heist novel, I knew that I was going to have to grab a copy of it. Lindsay is a bestselling thriller author who debuted in 1994 with the novel Tropical Depression. Lindsay is of course best known for his Dexter series, which was adapted into a highly popular television series. While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Lindsay’s work prior to this book, I did really enjoy the first few seasons of the Dexter television show, so I was really interested in seeing the author’s take on a heist novel. I am really glad that I checked Just Watch Me out as Lindsay has produced a deeply compelling and exceedingly fun novel that not only contains a really cool heist story, but which also features another complex protagonist for the reader to sink their teeth into.

First of all, let’s talk heists. For Just Watch Me, Lindsay came up with a very interesting heist scenario which sees one man try to break into a massively secure gallery guarded by some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, as well as some of the deadliest killers. The story follows Wolfe as he attempts to find some way into the building that everyone agrees in impenetrable, and while he initially encounters major setbacks, he eventually comes up with an audacious plan to get in. This plan is very bold and complicated, and involves a lot of manipulation, disguises, seduction, confidence work, forgeries, doublecrosses and even a couple of well-placed murders. All of this comes together into one fun and exciting conclusion which sees everyone understand the full extent of the plan. Lindsay paces out all the parts of the heist extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the entire thing unfolded, especially as it was a cool, roundabout way to attempt to steal something from a gallery. The heist proves to be an exceptional centre to the whole narrative, and I really enjoyed seeing how this part of the book progressed.

I also liked the way that Lindsay utilised multiple viewpoints to tell this story. While several chapters are told from the protagonist’s point of view using the first-person perspective, a large amount of the book is actually told from the perspective of the book’s side characters. These side characters include a range of different people, such as Wolfe’s allies, the people he is trying to manipulate, the FBI agent hunting him and even several bystanders who are caught up in the whole heist. All of these different viewpoints help to show off the various angles of the heist, which I felt helped enhance this part of the story. It was also really cool to see how normal people, including police officers, guards, gallery employees and some of his marks, perceive the various disguises he comes up with or the confidence tricks that he is pulling. I loved seeing this outside perspective of Wolfe’s criminal techniques, and it was a great way to portray a large amount of the heist.

While the heist is a really amazing part of this book, one of the most compelling parts of Just Watch Me is actually its protagonist, Riley Wolfe. Lindsay obviously has a lot of experience writing complex and intriguing protagonists for his thrillers, and he has done an amazing job creating another one here in Wolfe. Wolfe is a master thief whose defining characteristic is an overwhelming compulsion to steal from the mega-rich, especially those who obtained their wealth by screwing over the little people in the world. Wolfe is absolutely obsessed with his crusade against the rich due to his experiences as a child, and this obsession forces him to complete his heists no matter the cost. The author spends quite a bit of time exploring Wolfe’s hatred for the rich, and it is quite fascinating to see his internal thoughts on why he is stealing from them. The reader also gets to see some of the events from the character’s childhood which form the basis for this obsession. Ironically enough, the reason we get to learn so much about Wolfe’s childhood is because one of the book’s antagonists, FBI Special Agent Frank Delgado, becomes so obsessed with learning more about him that he briefly leaves the FBI in an attempt to hunt him down (obsession is a key element of several of the book’s main characters). Delgado spends several scenes scouring the country trying to find out Wolfe’s history, which is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. I really enjoyed that Lindsay included this dive into the character’s past, and I felt that it really complemented the main heist storyline and helped to create a fantastic overall narrative, especially as this investigation into his history, represents the biggest risk to Wolfe’s freedom.

Now, as Wolfe steals from the richest of the rich, it might be easy to assume that he’s a good guy or an anti-hero you can cheer on, but that is really not true. Not only does this protagonist come across as an excessively arrogant person who is high on himself, but he also does a ton of stuff that is totally morally wrong. For example, throughout the course of the book, Wolfe commits several murders, frames people for crimes they did not commit and totally ruins a number of people’s lives. While some of these people probably deserve to suffer at the hands of Wolfe, a bunch really did nothing wrong; they were either born into money, in his way, or merely collateral damage. In one case, he even spends time thinking about how much he respects one of his victims right before he arranges for her to be arrested for art fraud. What’s even worse is that, in many cases, Wolfe doesn’t even realise that he’s done something wrong. While he knows that he maybe should not have committed some of the murders, he totally fails to think of the emotional consequences some of his cons or manipulations will have on the people he is playing. He is even called out about some of his actions towards the end of the book by his only friend; however, he completely fails to see her point of view. Instead he merely thinks that she is overreacting and goes right back to plotting to get into her pants. Stuff like this makes Wolfe a very hard protagonist to like, and even the knowledge that his actions and viewpoint are the result of a messed-up childhood doesn’t really help. It does result in a much more compelling story though, and it was refreshing to follow a morally ambiguous protagonist. I will be interested to see if Lindsay will examine the impacts Wolfe’s actions had on some of the supporting characters in a later book, and I personally would love to see a story where one of his incidental victims attempts to hunt him down to get revenge for their ruined lives.

I have to say that I was also really impressed with all the discussions of art, paintings and other valuables that the author was able to fit into the story. Lindsay obviously did a large amount of research into the subject (his acknowledgements mention an art professor he consulted) and it was interesting to read the various discussions about art and art forgery. I have to admit that I have no real knowledge of or appreciation for art (except comic book art), but I really enjoyed all the discussions about art style and technique that were peppered throughout the novel. Overall, this was a pretty intriguing inclusion in the book, and I found it to be quite fascinating at times.

In conclusion, Just Watch Me is an amazing fast-paced heist thriller that is really worth checking out. Lindsay has come up with not only an awesome scenario that features a fun heist at the centre but also another complex and morally corrupted protagonist whose inner demons and powerful obsessions we get to explore. I really enjoyed this excellent new book from Lindsay, and I am definitely planning to grab any future novels that come out in this series.