House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Audible Studios (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: Crescent City – Book One

Lenght: 27 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to meet your new obsession! One of the world’s top young adult fantasy fiction authors, Sarah J. Maas, breaks into the adult fantasy fiction genre in a big way with the first book in her brand-new Crescent City series.

Sarah J. Maas is an author that needs very little introduction. She is one of the most highly regarded young adult fantasy authors in the world today, having written two major bestselling series and a couple of standalone young adult novels. Maas debuted in 2012 with Throne of Glass, the first novel in her acclaimed seven-book long Throne of Glass series, and she has since gone on to write a second major series, A Court of Thorns and Roses. I have been meaning to check out some of Maas’s main series for a while now, especially Throne of Glass, as I have heard some very good things about them. Unfortunately, the only book of Maas’s that I have so far read was her DC Comics tie-in novel, Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I really enjoyed, especially as Maas had an amazing understanding of some iconic comic characters. As a result, I was interested when I heard about her new book, House of Earth and Blood, and I was curious to see how her first adult fiction novel would turn out. This is the first book in the Crescent City series, which presumably will be the author’s main body of work for the next few years. I received a physical copy of this book to review, although I eventually decided to listen to the audiobook format to fit it into my reading schedule, and I have to say I was rather impressed.

Welcome to Crescent City, a bustling metropolis where magic and technology meet in a world ruled over by all-powerful godlike creatures. Bryce Quinlan is a half-Fae, half-human, party girl at the low end of her world’s magical hierarchy, content to live her days clubbing and celebrating with her best friend, the powerful werewolf Alpha Danika Fendyr. All that changes the night Danika and her entire wolf pack are brutally slaughtered while Bryce is out partying. Bryce arrives home just in time to encounter the demon that committed the act, chasing it out into the streets before it escapes, never to be seen again.

Two years later, Bryce is a shell of her former self. Still reeling from the death of the closest person in her life, Bryce finds herself without direction or purpose. However, the revelation that a fresh wave of killings that mirror the bloody way Danika and her pack were taken out quickly changes that. Due to her experiences with the unknown species of demon and her intimate knowledge of Danika’s movements and history, Bryce is tasked by the governor of Crescent City to find who or what is summoning the destructive demons and unleashing them upon seemingly random members of the populace. However, Bryce will not be working on this case alone, as she finds herself teamed up with the governor’s personal assassin, the brooding, dangerous and surprisingly attractive fallen angel, Hunt Athalar.

Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Bryce and Hunt start to scour the dark underbelly of their city, attempting to find any leads to who summoned the demon. However, they soon run afoul of many of Crescent City’s inhabitants, some of whom do not want the pair to uncover the truth. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a terrible conspiracy with terrible connections to Bryce’s traumatic past and which threatens all of Crescent City. However, the closer they come to the truth, the more pain and torment the two damaged souls uncover, especially as both of them try to fight the intense feelings blooming between them. With the fate of Crescent City hanging in the balance, can Bryce and Hunt get to the bottom of these killings, or will they be overwhelmed by all the hurt that is about to come their way?

Well damn, that turned out to be one hell of a book. I do have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of major romantic subplots in the novels I read (I know, typical male, Bryce would probably be calling me an Alphahole), and I was a little apprehensive that the romantic angles described in the book’s synopsis would overwhelm the fantasy story. However, any doubts I had about whether I was going to enjoy House of Earth and Blood were quickly blown away in the early stages of the story, especially once I hit the major plot development about 70 pages in. From there I was absolutely hooked on the story, as Maas kept piling on revelations, shocking moments, character development and an impressive murder mystery. I ended up really loving this amazing novel, and I ended up giving it a five-star rating.

I really enjoyed the way that Maas told this story, and this book contained an expansive and deeply addictive narrative that proved hard to put down at times. House of Earth and Blood is told from several character perspectives, most notably Bryce and Hunt, although quite a bit of the story is shown from the perspective of Bryce’s half-brother, Ruhn Danaan. Having these three main point-of-view characters results in a much more expansive story, as each of them has their own contributions to the plot, although there is a huge amount of crossover between each of their storylines. While Mass tends to focus most of her character development and storylines around Bryce, Hunt and Ruhn, there are a number of additional supporting characters, some of whom have some rather interesting roles throughout the book. Maas also includes a huge amount of foreshadowing throughout the book, hinting at several things that are to come further along in the narrative. While it is obvious where some of this foreshadowing is going, some of it was only noticeable in hindsight, and some of these more subtle inclusions made me really appreciate the author’s clever writing style.

One of the best things about this book was the incredible and intriguing new fantasy world. The Crescent City series is set on a version of Earth called Midgard, which was invaded thousands of years ago by vast armies of various magical creatures, ending humankind’s dominance of the planet. The modern world of Midgard is a chaotic and fascinating place, filled will all manner of magic and creatures who live in a hierarchal system, with all-powerful beings at the top and humans at the very bottom. There are so many cool elements to this world, from the unique magical systems, the different factions and organisations, and a vast multitude of different magical creatures with their own traits and characteristics. Maas dedicates a substantial amount of time exploring all these different elements of her new world, and the result is an impressive and vast setting which serves as a fantastic backdrop to this exciting story. I also liked the rather fun similarities between this fantasy world and the modern world, and it was interesting to see fantasy creatures running around with modern technology such as phones and guns. I also had a rather good laugh at some of the television shows that the author featured in the book, including a rather trashy-sounding True Blood inspired television show, which was made fun of relentlessly for its sexual content (which is kind of ironic considering how much sex was in this novel). Maas is clearly a master of universe building, and she has come up with a really great fantasy world that holds a lot of potential for future novels in the series, as well as opening up the possibilities of spin-off stories around some of the fantastic side characters introduced. I personally would love to see a novel based around the character of Fury Axtar, the mysterious assassin friend of Bryce, who has a minor role in the book.

In addition, Maas has also come up with a rather clever murder mystery storyline that I had an outstanding time unwrapping. The vast majority of House of Earth and Blood’s plot revolves around the murder of Danika Fendyr and her pack, as well as the similar murders that are occurring in the modern day. The subsequent investigation by Bryce and Hunt turned into a rather captivating storyline, as they explored the underbelly of their fascinating city, trying to find leads and uncover who had a motive to kill Danika. This whole mystery storyline goes to some very interesting places, and Maas comes up with a number of red herrings, alternate suspects, potential leads and side mysteries (a missing magical horn and a new street drug), all of which come together into a pretty incredible and clever narrative. I was actually rather surprised about who the culprit turned out to be, although Maas does set up the reveal rather well, and there are some rather clever hints in hindsight. That being said, while I didn’t know who the culprit was in advance, I totally knew where the final showdown with them was going to take place, and how the whole confrontation was bound to go down (there was a literal Chekov’s gun there). Still, it turned into quite a good confrontation scene, and I had a good laugh at the over-the-top way that the villain was taken down for good. This was a rather impressive element of the story, and I hope that Maas includes some more clever mysteries in her future books.

While I really loved the fantastic story, incredible world building and captivating mystery, the true centre of this book are the two compelling and exceedingly damaged main characters who Maas sets the story around, Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar. Maas does some outstanding work setting these characters up, exploring their pasts and developing their personalities and emotions throughout the book. Bryce starts House of Earth and Blood as a seemingly carefree party girl with major daddy issues. However, the loss of Danika in the book’s first act severely changes her, as she has to deal with an extreme amount of guilt, isolation and social hatred in the following two years. This really alters her as a character and turns her into an extremely vulnerable person with a real emotional investment in the case, who hides all her true feelings behind a sassy and angry façade. Hunt, on the other hand, is a powerful fallen angel who lost his freedom and the love of his life in a failed rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet, and has spent the last several decades being tortured and used by the victorious archangels, and is now the personal assassin of the governor of Crescent City. Now known throughout the city as the Umbra Mortis, the Shadow of Death, Hunt is a simmering pot of anger who is resentful of how he has been treated all his life, and who is determined to be set free. Like Bryce, he is deeply invested in solving the case, as its resolution will allow him to take a serious step towards freedom, and on the surface he is the more serious of the duo. However, also like Bryce, Hunt has some major vulnerabilities and he is hurting deep inside. Both Bryce and Hunt are incredibly interesting protagonists, and I am really impressed with the layers that Maas was able bring to their characters, which added a significant amount to the story.

While Bryce and Hunt are amazing characters in their own right, the real magic comes when they are paired together. It is obvious from the start that these two are going to hook up at some point, but the journey to get there was written extremely well. The combination of these two exceedingly vulnerable and complex characters in the story is great, and it makes for some incredible and dramatic story moments, as Bryce and Hunt slowly work out all their issues and history. The way they slowly go from dislike to mutual respect to lust/romance is accompanied with a slow exchange of secrets, facts and personality reveals, and I had an amazing time seeing them come together as a couple. This turned into quite a good romantic subplot, although the two of them have some major bumps and betrayals along the way. Still, there are some rather nice moments in their relationship, from the way that they take care of each other after traumatic events, to funny reveals and mutual moments of protecting one and other. Bryce and Hunt make for a great pair, and I am really impressed with the way that Maas portrayed them and the complex story she wove around them. It looks like there are more secrets and backgrounds about both coming up in the future books, and I am looking forward to seeing where Maas takes them in the future.

While this book had some amazing elements, I did find this novel to be a tad trashy at times. As I mentioned above, this is Maas’s first foray into non-young adult fiction, and she certainly did not shy away from adding all manner of adult content into her book. While I can certainly appreciate Maas wanting to differentiate this book from some of her young-adult fiction work, I honestly think she overcompensated. This book is filled with a huge amount of adult language and sexual content, as pretty much every character in this book is crude, rude, oversexed and incredibly thirsty. While some of this served a purpose, such as showing what sort of party-girl character Bryce was before the traumatic incident, the sheer amount of stuff that Maas included was a bit over the top, and I found it to be somewhat distracting at times. This book also introduced me to the brand-new term, Alphahole. In the context of this book, an Alphahole is the term that Bryce gives to any magical male who thinks that their abilities and power give them the right to control women and run their lives, especially those women with less magical power than them (i.e. humans and half-humans like Bryce). Unfortunately, in this book pretty much every male that Bryce encounters is an Alphahole in her opinion; even the more redeemable characters like Hunt or Ruhn are deemed Alphaholes at the start of the novel, especially once they venture an opinion about her behaviour or actions. While I appreciate that this dislike for domineering men is part of Bryce’s character due to her father, and controlling guys really aren’t that cool in either fiction or real life, I do think that Maas kind of overdid their inclusion just a bit and I was honestly getting sick of hearing Alphahole as a descriptive term by the end of the book (although it became less apparent as the story progressed).

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of House of Earth and Blood. This audiobook has a runtime of 27 hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. I am rather glad that I decided to check out this format of the book. While I probably would have finished it off faster if I had read a physical copy (it took me a few weeks to get through the audiobook), I always feel that I absorb more of the novel when I listen to it, especially with longer books. This proved to be really useful when listening to House of Earth and Blood, as Maas packed so much plot and world building into this immense novel, and I think I ended up getting more out of this book by utilising this format. I have to say that I was also immensely impressed with Elizabeth Evans’s narration. Evans did an incredible job bringing the story to life, and her steady and emotional dictation of the story really helped me get to the end. I really loved the cool voices that Evans was able to come up with for all the characters, and I think that each of them matched the distinctive personalities of each character. Evans produced a huge range of different voices for these characters, and I really liked how she was able to alter them to reflect the ethereal or magical nature of some of the characters featured in the book, as well as hint at how powerful some of these creatures were by modulating her tone and adding a commanding quality to it. This was an impressive and deeply enjoyable audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying House of Earth and Blood. That being said, be careful where you listen to this book, as it can be a little awkward to hear some of the steamy sex scenes when you are out in public. I somehow managed to be out shopping during two separate and particularly graphic scenes, and it proved very hard to keep a straight face while I was trying to grab groceries.

House of Earth and Blood is an incredible adult fiction debut from Sarah J. Maas, who has produced another outstanding and captivating read. There are so many excellent and enjoyable story elements in this book, and I absolutely loved every second I spend listening to it, even though some parts were a little over the top at times. This was an awesome start to Maas’s new Crescent City series, and I cannot wait to see what impressive and addictive story the author comes up with next. This novel comes highly recommended, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Lone Goat and Kid Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – January 1992)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Five

Length: 142 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.

In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again check out another early volume of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo series, which I have been reviewing over the last couple of weeks. For this review, I am looking at the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. Lone Goat and Kid was first released in 1992 by Fantagraphics Books and contains issues #19-24 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo once again sees series protagonist, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, traverse a feudal Japanese landscape populated solely with anthropomorphised animals. This volume follows on right after the chaotic events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and contains five new stories across six issues. This is an interesting entry in the series, particularly as it is the first volume to barely feature any of the previously introduced recurring characters aside from Usagi (a huge departure from the last volume, which contained a number of recurring characters coming together and teaming up). Instead, Sakai takes the time to introduce a bunch of new characters and scenarios across the volume’s five separate stories. Unsurprisingly, I really liked this fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, especially as Sakai manages come up with some fantastic and exceedingly enjoyable tales.

The first story featured within this volume is titled Frost & Fire, and it is a tragic story with undertones of forbidden love and class struggle. In this story, Usagi is hired by the cold and proper widow of a samurai to travel to the place of her husband’s death and retrieve his swords. Upon arriving at the small village where the samurai died, Usagi discovers that the swords are in the possession of the dead man’s lover, a poor peasant girl, who wishes to keep them as a remembrance of the man she loved. Unwilling to take the swords by force, Usagi leaves, but the peasant girl’s greedy brother has other plans for the swords.

This was a rather heartfelt first story for the volume, and it contains some great underlying elements to it. Much of the story revolves around a forbidden romance between a samurai and a peasant girl who wanted to be together but were unable to due to class differences. This was a rather intriguing central element for this story, and you can’t help but feel for the poor peasant girl, especially after meeting the samurai’s harsh and honourable widow in the opening pages. There is also examination of the evils of greed and avarice, as several of the side characters attempt to deceive and murder in order to get a quick payday. Luckily, their greed proves to be their undoing, as karma quickly strikes throughout the course of the story. There are some great scenes in this story, including one sequence where Usagi stares down the peasant girl when she refuses to give up the swords, “You know I can just take them from you”, before ultimately backing down and refusing to force her to give them up. I also liked a scene later in the book where the brother’s greed proves to be his undoing, as not only does Usagi appear behind him at one point like a vengeful spirit, but he is then ironically attacked by his “friends”, who are jealous of the wealth he achieved because of his bad actions, and whose mindset mirrors that of the brother. All of this makes for a great first entry for this volume, and I really enjoyed the amazing and captivating story that Sakai came up with.

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The next story is a rather unique entry called A Kite Story, which I have a particular love for. A Kite Story is actually broken up into four distinctive parts, each of which focuses on a different character participating in a famous kite festival. The first part, called The Kite Maker’s Story, follows a kite maker, Tatsusaburo, in the lead up to the festival. This part of the story contains no dialogue, but instead features a first-person narration from Tatsusaburo that overlays the drawings. This narration explains how he gathers the resources for his kites and the various processes he goes through to craft them together. It particularly focuses on the work he puts into creating an odako, a giant kite that he and a team of handlers hope to fly. The story then jumps to its second distinctive part, called The Gambler’s Tale, which follows the crook Hatsu and his gang of itinerant gamblers as they work the crowds gathering for the kite festival. This part starts off with some first-person narration from Hatsu and explores how he and his gang set up a rigged game of dice. This part ends its narration on the second page, when Usagi arrives on the scene and it becomes purely dialogue driven after that. Usagi, upon noticing the game, gets involved and is able to prove the gamblers are cheating (thanks to some fancy sword work), which sees not only the crooked gamblers run out of town but also those gamblers who were running fair games, and who are none too pleased with how they have been treated. This then moves to the third part of the story, called The Ronin’s Tale, which is nearly entirely dialogue driven, with only a small bit of narration at the front. Usagi deals with some of the players from the first two parts of the book, as he is unfairly blamed by the cheating gamblers in The Gambler’s Tale as the source of all the trouble to the honest gamblers. This sees Usagi have to make a rather quick and unconventional exit from the festival, which quickly breaks down into chaos. The story then concludes with a quick two-page final part, called The Kite Maker’s Tale II, which follows Tatsusaburo again and serves as an epilogue to the whole story.

I really liked A Kite Story, as Sakai did a really good job blending together a couple of distinctive narratives into one fantastic story. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating first part of this story and I always love it when Sakai uses his stories to explore certain unique Japanese cultural elements and industries. For this one, the author presents the reader with an amazing examination of the traditional kite-making process, and I loved seeing the process explained by the titular kite maker. This part of the story blends in surprisingly well with the other sections of A Kite Story, and I was impressed with how Sakai was able to turn these seeming separate and disparate tales into a complete narrative that is both entertaining and informative. Sakai also produces some amazing artwork in this story, from the giant kite to the visually impressive and detailed crowd scenes, and this is easily one of the more innovative stories that Sakai has come up with.

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The third story is the action-packed spectacular, Blood Wings, which Sakai tells over two issues. Late one night, Usagi is wandering along the road when he comes upon a dying peasant. The peasant’s last words are a mysterious warning about whatever killed him, “wings of blood”. Travelling to a nearby village, he finds a settlement living in terror, completely cut off from the outside world. They are being kept prisoner by a new and dangerous group of ninja, the Komori Ninja Clan, killer flying bats. The Komori Ninja were accidently discovered by the villagers as they prepared to ambush a shipment from a nearby goldmine and the ninja are now keeping them prisoner while they execute their attack. Knowing that the ninja will not leave the villagers alive as witnesses after the heist, Usagi attempts to break out and warn the goldmine, and when that fails, he leads the villagers in a spirited defence of their home.

Blood Wings was a fantastic and exciting story that serves as an excellent set piece for the middle of this volume. This third story is an impressive read that not only introduces a notable new group of antagonists, but it also contains some rather good action sequences. The Komori Ninja prove to be a great group of villains, and I really liked the character design that Sakai came up for them, as they fly around with sword blades attached to their wings, cutting through anyone and anything they encounter. The highlight of this story has to be the thrilling action sequences between Usagi and this new foe, who are able to outmatch the protagonist with their unique combat style. This all culminates in an extended battle sequence which sees a swordless Usagi defending the village with a force of farmers. This is probably the fastest-paced story in the volume, and Sakai comes up with an awesome narrative for it. This is also the entry in this volume that is most tied into the overarching Usagi Yojimbo world, as the Komori Ninja are revealed to be working for Lord Hikiji and are seeking to replace the Neko Ninja. This story also contains my favourite joke in the whole volume, as only Saki would have a guard yell out, “Holy flying furball! It’s Bats, man!” as the Komori Ninja descend.

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The fourth story is an elaborate and compelling entry titled The Way of the Samurai. This story sees Usagi intervene when a gang of bandits (including a very cool-looking walrus samurai), attack a messenger, and is directed to seek out the magistrate of the local town. Arriving at the town, Usagi is amazed to discover that the magistrate is a famed former general Oyaneko, whose battles and tactics Usagi idolises. Staying in the general’s house for a night, he learns that Oyaneko was a loyal retainer to the land’s former lord but was cast aside when the lord’s brash young son came to power. Now regulated to the role as a simple administrator and slowly dying of a disease, Oyaneko is discontent with his life, and, after meeting an honourable and skilled Usagi, challenges him to a duel to the death, “The way of the Samurai is found in death”.

This fourth entry in the volume is a moving tale that the author uses to explore the complexity of the samurai code of duty, loyalty and service. I really liked the intricate story that Sakai weaved around the characters of Usagi and Oyaneko, and Oyaneko’s story is particularly tragic and fascinating. This entire story is set up really well, with Usagi encountering Oyankeo, the two gaining a mutual respect for the other, learning about Oyankeo’s past and motivations, before the emotionally charged duel at the end. Sakai did a fantastic job illustrating the stress and emotion surrounding this final duel with his epic drawings, and the end result was really touching. I think this is one of the best written stories in the entire volume, and it becomes quite an emotional ride for the reader in the end.

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That leaves us with the fifth and final story in this volume, which shares the same name as the overall volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This story focuses on the characters of Yagi and Gorogoro, the titular Lone Goat and Kid. Years ago, Yagi served the same lord as Oyaneko. However, when their old lord died, Yagi was falsely accused of a crime by the new lord’s corrupt advisors and forced out of his service. Yagi and his son Gorogoro now work as Lone Goat and Kid, assassins for hire who many believe now travel the road to hell. The two assassins are also constantly targeted by their former lords’ samurai and bounty hunters sent after them by the corrupt advisors who framed them. As part of their latest attempt to kill Yagi and Gorogoro, these advisors use a proxy to hire the Lone Goat and Kid to assassinate Usagi, who they believe may be able to defeat the infamous assassin. When they meet, Yagi and Usagi engage in a brutal fight to the death, with the corrupt lord’s forces waiting to ambush the winner.

This was another awesome story filled with epic duels, a massive battle sequence, some superb artwork featuring Japan’s exquisite landscape, and a fun narrative packed full of deceit and conspiracy. The titular Lone Goat and Kid are a rather cool adaptation of the iconic Japanese fiction duo, Lone Wolf and Cub. Lone Wolf and Cub was a manga series back in the 1970s that followed a samurai assassin and his child as they travel feudal Japan searching for vengeance. This series has inspired several movies and a television show, and many different pieces of fiction have paid homage to them over the years, from The Mandalorian to Bob’s Burgers. Heck, Rick and Morty literally just did an anime homage to them last week on YouTube. Sakai’s versions of the characters are rather good, and they become fun recurring characters within the Usagi Yojimbo series. I loved how Sakai came up with some fantastic and unique character designs for the two assassins, turning them into goats rather than wolves (which was a nice touch, especially as the name “kid” has that fun double meaning), and providing them with a different backstory. However, there are some excellent similarities, such as the father’s skill with the blade, the desire to take down conspirators who wronged them and the baby carriage the son travels in, equipped with all manner of hidden weapons and blades. The character of Yagi, the Lone Goat, is particularly intense, and is almost demonic in his attitudes and persona, while still maintaining a samurai’s sense of honour. I was also really impressed with the battle sequences that featured in the last half of this story, and I liked how Sakai went from an elaborate one-on-one duel, to a mass fight against multiple opponents. All of this leads to another excellent story in this volume, which I really enjoyed reading.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, Lone Goat and Kid, was another incredible and powerful addition to the series, and I think Stan Sakai did another amazing job with this volume. Featuring five fantastic stories that contained Sakai’s usual complex narratives, iconic artwork and compelling underlying themes, Lone Goat and Kid gets another five-star rating from me, and it is really worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday – Predator One by Jonathan Maberry

Predator One Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 7 April 2015)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book Seven

Length: 16 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this latest Throwback Thursday, I decided to I wanted something fast-paced and action-packed, so I went and checked out another book in Jonathan Maberry’s dark and thrilling Joe Ledger series with the seventh book, Predator One.

Those familiar with my blog will be aware of my recent love affair with the Joe Ledger series. I first encountered this series back in late 2018, and after massively enjoying the tenth book, Deep Silence, I have been slowly reading and reviewing my way through the entire series from start to finish. There are so many different things that I enjoy about these novels, including the outstanding action, gripping stories, fantastic characters and the crazy scenarios each book is set around. When combined, these elements help produce some truly incredible books, and I had an amazing time reading several Joe Ledger novels last year. I also read the first book in Maberry’s Rogue Team International series, Rage, which was one of my top books (and audiobooks) of 2019. I am hoping to finish off all the remaining books in the Joe Ledger series this year, and Predator One is the first one that I have so far checked out in 2020. I have to say that I was once again blown away with Maberry’s writing ability, as Predator One is another epic and remarkable read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

It is the opening day of the new baseball season, and Joe Ledger, point-agent for the high-tech counter terrorist organisation, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is enjoying a well-earned day off. Everything seems to be going well, the sun is shining, the beers are flowing, and a decorated military pilot is about to throw out the first ball. Then a model airplane flies out onto the field, a replica of the one flown by the war hero. Everyone assumes it’s a harmless prank, everyone except Ledger, who can only watch in horror as the toy plane explodes. Within seconds, a swarm of bomb-laden drones appears, devastating the crowd and leaving Ledger injured in the wreckage of the stadium.

As Ledger attempts to process what has happened, a series of coordinated attacks are taking place across America. While some of the attacks appear random, several are deliberately targeting the friends and family of key members of the DMS, attempting to distract the agency and take them off the board. It soon becomes clear that an old enemy has risen from the flames, determined to get revenge on those that they believe have wronged them in the past, including Ledger and everyone he loves. Worse, they have teamed up with a force of pure evil whose deepest wish is to torment and destroy the head of the DMS, the mysterious Mr Church.

Diving back into the action, Ledger and his team attempt to find and neutralise the source of this new threat. But at every turn, they find themselves outmatched, outmanoeuvred and severely outgunned, as the enemy has access to advanced technology that allows them to take control of America’s military vehicles, aircraft, ships and drones. As the attacks against America worsen, their opponents even gain control of Air Force One, with the President aboard, and start to fly it towards New York City. Can Ledger save the day one more time or have the DMS finally come up against an enemy even they can’t outsmart?

Wow, just wow. Predator One is another impressive and extremely captivating thriller novel that I had an outstanding time listening to. Maberry has come up with another incredible, action-packed story which utilises his trademark writing style to present a first-rate novel. Readers are treated to a multi-layered story, which cleverly features multiple character viewpoints, flashbacks and deep examinations of a several major characters’ pasts and motives. All of this allows Maberry to tell a complex and intriguing thriller story that never lets up on the excitement. The various storylines flow together perfectly thanks to the short chapters and constant dancing between different character perspectives, and all the storylines lead up to an epic and memorable conclusion. Maberry really knows how to ramp up the tension and the excitement throughout the book, and the final couple of hours are exceedingly thrilling, as several exhilarating scenarios come into effect at the same time. All of this results in a deeply exciting read, which I really loved and is another perfect Joe Ledger story.

Just like so many books in this series, amongst the best things about Predator One are the fantastic antagonists and their over-the-top plot against America, Joe Ledger and the DMS. For the main antagonist, Maberry goes back to some of the earlier books in the series, and brings back the Seven Kings organisation, which is being led by an old, established opponent of the DMS. While a new, complex villain for this book could have been fun, I really loved the author’s use of the historical antagonist, especially as they have been substantially transformed since the last book, and they are now aiming for a destructive end. This older antagonist is paired with the mysterious, evil character, Nicodemus, and together they form quite a partnership. Nicodemus is a character that has been hinted at and featured in the shadows of several previous books, so it was really cool to see him in a more substantial role. The key to Nicodemus is his extremely enigmatic persona and history, as no one quite knows who or, more importantly, what he is. He seems to have some sort of mystical abilities, and it is hinted in this book that he is some form of demon or devil, although it is never fully revealed. This mystery and mystique make for a quite an intriguing addition to the series, and the two main antagonists work together quite well as an evil, villainous pairing. On top of them, Maberry also throws in a good secondary antagonist who acts as a crooked assistant to the leader of the Seven Kings and who serves as a useful narrator, as well as the standard sexually depraved henchmen. Combined, these excellent antagonists make for a fun and exciting opposition for the main characters and they help produce some extremely interesting storylines.

I was also a major fan of the fantastic and complex master plan that Maberry envisioned for the antagonists of this book, which served as a fantastic basis of much of the story. Maberry crafted a sinister and exceedingly destructive campaign of terror and destruction that culminated in the takeover of Air Force One with the President and other key characters on board, sending it on a kamikaze mission. This proved to be a rather fun villainous storyline to follow, and I enjoyed seeing it unfold from both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ points of view, as these different perspectives led to some very intriguing scenes. I also liked the way that that the origins of the plot were explored in a series of interludes, allowing the reader to become familiar with the key players of the scheme, and get hints of the full extent of the planned destruction. It was also rather cool to see these antagonists land some real blows against the DMS. Maberry has never been shy about killing off key side characters (for example, he killed off the main secondary character and primary love interest in the second book, The Dragon Factory), and he ensures that some real damage is done to some DMS characters in Predator One. This helps add a real emotional edge to the story, and I liked the way that it upped the stakes, as well as the obvious emotional and psychological impacts that it had on some of the series’s well established, long-running protagonists.

Maberry makes sure to bring back the full and unique bevy of good-guy characters for this seventh book, most of whom have appeared in multiple books before. At the fore is the series’s titular protagonist, Joe Ledger, who is the sole first-person narrator in the book, with around a third of the story told from his point of view. Ledger is his usual witty and damaged self in this book, infecting his parts of the story with his wicked humour and sarcasm, while also unleashing his barely hidden rage and special brand of hyper-violence. Ledger goes to some dark places in Predator One, especially after his friends and allies are attacked, and the way he ends the villain is particularly gruesome and memorable. In addition to the usual examination of Ledger’s complex psyche, I really liked the way that a number of other side characters got some substantial sequences in this book. Joe Ledger series stand-out character Mr Church gets quite a lot to do in this book, and it was excellent to not only see him calmly lead his people in a severe crisis, but also react to some substantially personal attacks from the shadowy Nicodemus, who he has some obvious history with. The DMS’s psychiatrist, Rudy Sanchez, also gets quite a few scenes in this book, as he and his family come under substantial attack from the antagonists. It was really intriguing to see Rudy, whose usual role is to calm and centre the rest of the protagonists, come apart a bit in this novel, and it was quite stirring to see him pull himself together in a major way. I have to say that I also really enjoyed the inclusion of Toys as well, especially as Maberry has written a rather good redemption arc for him in this book. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple viewpoints, each of these characters, and more, get multiple moments to shine in this novel, and this helped create a full and captivating thriller tale, especially as the reader inevitably becomes invested in these characters’ survival.

I can’t go past a Joe Ledger novel without commenting on the exquisite and ultra-violent action sequences that are heavily featured throughout the book. Maberry is an expert at writing detailed and explosive action scenes, and Predator One is filled with a substantial amount of battles and fights, with all manner of armed and unarmed combat. These scenes are an absolute delight to behold, and it is always cool to see these well-crafted fights come to life. There are a number of large-scale battle sequences throughout this book, and Maberry did an amazing job switching between several fights that were happening simultaneously towards the end of the book, resulting in some extremely action-packed and exciting sections of Predator One. I really enjoy the way that the author breaks down the fight, and it is interesting to hear about the tactical reasons or destructive capabilities for certain moves or weaponry. All of this makes for a really cool book, although readers should be warned that there is a lot of extreme violence in this book that might not be for everyone, especially the graphic torture scenes.

Just like the previous Joe Ledger novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, I chose to check out Predator One’s audiobook format, which was narrated by the exceedingly talented Ray Porter. Running at 16 hours and 55 minutes, this is one of the longer Joe Ledger audiobooks (not by much), but I found myself able to power through it in only a few days, and the audiobook format remains my favourite way to enjoy a Joe Ledger book. Porter’s outstanding narration is the highlight of this format, and I will never get tired of praising his vocal work in this format. The voices that Porter comes up with for these productions are pretty damn awesome, and he has perfected some amazing voices for the characters featured in this series. I once again have to highlight Porter’s take on Mr Church, as his version of the character has some real presences, authority and gravitas. I also liked some of the voices that he did for the villainous Nicodemus, especially as the script called for a change of accent and voice mid-sentence, something which Porter pulled off perfectly, and which made the character sound pretty sinister in this format. However, nothing can top the amazing work that Porter puts into the series’s titular protagonist, Joe Ledger, as the narrator is scarily in sync with this character, and expertly portrays all his emotion, personality and raw sarcasm. I cannot emphasise enough how impressive the Joe Ledger audiobooks are, and if you are keen to check them out, this is the format to do it in.

Predator One by Jonathan Maberry is an outstanding and captivating tale of revenge, destruction, action and war, as the author’s team of elite warriors go face to face with an army of pure evil. This was an intense and thrilling read, which I once again completely failed to put down multiple times. Filled with amazing characters, including some very well-crafted evil antagonists, a fun story, violent action sequences and some outrageous story elements, this book is relentlessly entertaining and it proved to be an impressive addition to the Joe Ledger series. Predator One comes highly recommended, especially in audiobook format, and I look forward to finishing off the final two books in the series later this year.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 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.

For this slightly belated Throwback Thursday, I continue my trend of the last couple of weeks by checking out another volume of Stan Sakai’s ground-breaking and utterly addictive Usagi Yojimbo series with the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. Reviewing all these Usagi Yojimbo books has proven to be a lot of fun, and I am really glad that I have been able to show off my love for this series (make sure to check out my reviews for volumes One, Two and Three). The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is another excellent early volume in this long-running series, which features a fantastic full-volume-length story.

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A storm is brewing throughout feudal Japan, as war and revolution against the Shogun lie just beyond the horizon. In his fortress, the ambitious and dastardly Lord Tamakuro has been plotting. Despite appearing to be a loyal supporter of the powerful Lord Hikiji, Tamakuro has his own plans to take control of the country and rule as Shogun, utilising an army of ronin armed with teppo, black powder guns imported from the barbarian lands outside of Japan.

However, despite his best attempts at discretion, Lord Tamakuro’s actions have not gone unnoticed. His neighbour, Lord Noriyuki, has sent his trusted advisor and bodyguard, Tomoe, to investigate Tamakuro’s castle, where she discovers the hidden armaments he is planning to use in his upcoming revolution. At the same time, Lord Hikiji, suspicious of Tamakuro’s true loyalties, has sent the notorious Neko Ninja clan to infiltrate his castle. When both Tomoe and the Neko Ninja are discovered, Tamakuro makes ready for war against all his opponents.

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Into this vast conspiracy walks the wandering ronin Miyamoto Usagi. A friend to Lord Noriyuki and Tomoe, Usagi witnesses Tomoe being captured and rushes to Tamakuro’s castle to save her. Despite his best efforts, Usagi finds himself outmatched by the powerful forces Tamakuro has pulled together. His only chance at saving his friend and averting a civil war is to team up with the Neko Ninja, a group he his fought many times in the past. Can Usagi and his new allies succeed, or will Tamakuro’s greed engulf the entire country? And what role will blind swordspig Zato-Ino and the bounty hunter Gennosuke play in the final battle?

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an outstanding and highly enjoyable comic that I have a huge amount of love for. Containing issues #13-18 of the Fantagraphics Books run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, this fourth volume is broken down into seven separate chapters. It is a major early edition in the series, as it contains a massive and wide-reaching story. This is the first storyline that takes up an entire volume (several notable stories do this later, such as the two Grasscutter volumes and the 33rd volume, The Hidden), and it presents the reader with an epic tale of war, friendship, honour, loyalty and uneasy alliances, while featuring a number of the best Usagi Yojimbo characters.

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The entire story contained within this fourth volume is quite spectacular and comes with minimal build-up from the Usagi Yojimbo issues that preceded this volume. Sakai does an amazing job introducing the relevant plot and new key players surrounding this storyline, and then telling a complex and detailed narrative within the confines of this one volume. In addition to the main conspiracy storyline, the story follows several different character-based storylines, all of which come together for one big epic confrontation. I really enjoyed where Sakai took the plot of this volume, and I liked how the story was broken up into several distinctive chunks defined by the respective chapter (the chapter names, which refer to parts of a storm, identify the intensity and importance of each chapter). The entire story is rather self-contained, and I think that the author did a great job wrapping it up and giving it several satisfying conclusions.

Like many of the Usagi Yojimbo issues out there, the true heart of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy’s story is the outstanding characters, many of whom have appeared in prior issues in the series. Usagi once again accidently finds himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy and must risk everything to save his friend and stop a war. If I am going to be honest, Usagi has one of the weaker arcs in this volume, with several of the side characters getting much more interesting storylines and more development. That being said, parts of Usagi’s story are fairly intriguing, such as when he manages to infiltrate Lord Tamakuro’s castle as a new retainer in order to rescue Tomoe, or his guilt-ridden dream sequence where his regret over his perceived failure manifests itself as a series of ghosts and monsters. Usagi also has the fun job of recruiting reluctant and unusual allies to his cause, such as the Neko Ninja or his old foe Zato-Ino. Indeed, his whole storyline is similar to classic Japanese films such as The Seven Samurai (the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven) or The Hidden Fortress (which served as an inspiration for the first Star Wars movie), as he recruits or forms alliances with various people in order to take down an evil opponent (in a castle, no less, for The Hidden Fortress fans). He also has some rather fantastic interactions with several different characters throughout the volume, and it results in some major developments in his relationships with them.

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While Usagi’s storyline is quite enjoyable, several returning supporting characters also have some substantial and impressive arcs throughout this book, and I really loved the way in which Sakai brings back a number of key characters from earlier issues in the series. The best character in this entire volume is the blind swordspig, Zato-Ino. Both of Ino’s previous storylines have been extremely impressive, so it was great to see him return again for another volume. Ino, who had already found some measure of peace thanks to his new companion, the tokage lizard Spot, finds some major redemption in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and he easily has the most character development. An entire chapter of this volume is dedicated to the eventual fate of Ino, and it was fantastic to see him finally find what he has been desperately searching for, even if he has to lose his only friend along the way. The rhino bounty hunter, Gennosuke, once again proves himself to be a fun and endearing character throughout this volume. Initially involved in a rather humorous hunt for Ino’s bounty, he finds himself working with him to fight Lord Tamakuro’s forces, although he always intends to betray him. However, Ino’s heroic actions end up changing his mind, and he once again reveals his hidden good nature by secretly assisting Ino and selflessly helping him. This is also the volume where Gen loses his horn, with all future versions of him appearing with just a small stump on his nose. His cut-off horn is quite an iconic look for the character, and after seeing him without out for all these years in later volumes, his earlier horned appearance just looks odd.

Recurring female samurai, Tomoe, also has an extremely strong appearance in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, as she finds herself captured within Lord Tamakuro’s castle quite early in the volume and is forced to resist his abuses. Tomoe has some great dialogue with Usagi about how her mission and her loyalty to Lord Noriyuki are more important than her own life, and she has to talk Usagi into abandoning her for the greater good. She also has a rather fantastic sequence where she manages to remain hidden in the fortress, right after she rides through various parts of the interior on a horse. I also really liked Shingen, the Neko Ninja chief who Usagi teams up within this volume. Shingen previously appeared in the Volume 3 story, The Shogun’s Gift, where he formed a great rivalry with Usagi. While the two clash in this volume, they eventually reach a level of mutual respect and work together for the greater good. Shingen gains multiple dimensions as a character in this volume, and it was interesting to see his discussion with Usagi about honour, and how even ninja have a code of duty. His story comes to a fantastic close towards the end of the volume, but Sakai really made him one of the standout characters of the volume: “A ninja’s duty in life is death!”

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In addition to the excellent inclusion of several amazing returning characters, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy also featured a couple of terrific new characters, who really helped bring this story together. The evil Lord Tamakuro was a really good villain for this volume, and Sakai did a fantastic job of showing of his greed, brutality and utter disregard for anything except his own power. Needless to say, he was a rather vile character who the reader cannot help but dislike, making his eventual comeuppance all the sweeter. The best new character in this volume has to be the leader of Tamakuro’s samurai army, Captain Torame. Torame is a loyal and capable warrior, who is forced to serve an evil lord who takes him for granted. He forms a bond with Usagi when the protagonist infiltrates the fortress under the guise of a mercenary ronin, and they have several discussions about bushido, loyalty and the ways in which a samurai must serve his lord. Usagi’s subsequent betrayal in order to rescue Tomoe enrages Torame, who takes it as a personal afront. This leads to a fantastic duel later in the volume, although not before Usagi and Torame have one final discussion, in which Usagi attempts to talk Torame into abandoning Tamakuro. Torame however refuses, as his strict adherence to the samurai code forbids him betraying his lord, even if it is clear he disagrees with Tamakuro’s plans:

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

The result of the quick and brutal duel that follows visibly saddens Usagi, who was once again forced to fight a man he respected. This volume also sees the brief introduction of the Neko Ninja Chizu, a major recurring character in later volumes of the series, whose one scene in this book was rather fun.

The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an extremely action-packed volume that actually features some of the best action scenes in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series. I absolutely loved all the action sequences in this book, as Sakai did an incredible job illustrating them and bringing the fights to life. The main action set piece of this volume has to be the assault on Lord Tamakuro’s fortress by Usagi, Ino, Gen, Shingen and a force of Neko Ninja armed with explosives, as they attempt to rescue Tomoe and put an end to Tamakuro’s ambitions. This entire extended action sequence is exceedingly impressive, and it was really cool to see all the characters engage in a massive battle throughout a castle complex. I also have to say how incredibly awesome it was to see a force of ninja face off against an army of samurai, predominately armed with European muskets. This made for some incredible fight scenes, all of which I really and truly loved. I also have to highlight a couple of duel sequences that occurred earlier in the volume. The first of this was a great fight between Usagi and Shingen, as the two face off against each other in a quick fight to the death. This duel focuses on the extreme clash of styles between the two, as Usagi had to contend with all manner of traps and ambushes before he got anywhere near this foe. However, this duel pales in comparison to the awesome fight between Ino and Gen that occurred towards the middle of the volume. This two engage in an incredible and beautifully drawn fight that lasted several pages. This fight did a fantastic job showing of their respective skills with the sword, and this fight helps feed into Sakai’s love for classic Japanese films, as this duel was essentially Zatoichi vs Yojimbo. This volume featured some first-rate action, which is really worth checking out.

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In addition to the extremely well-drawn action sequences, Sakai has filled this volume with some truly incredibly examples of his artistic style. This volume features so many impressive and iconic Japanese buildings, landscapes, traditional outfits and other aspects of the country, that the reader can’t help but feel they have been transported back to feudal Japan. I particularly loved the way he included a number of stormy backgrounds throughout this volume. The continued artistic rendering of rain, clouds, mud, wind and storms throughout the entirety of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy really helped to set the mood of the entire volume, and I loved how the intensity of the storm seemed to match the volume’s story. I really enjoyed how a number of pages were streaked with massive bolts of lightning across cloudy or darkened skies, and several scenes, particularly the duel between Ino and Gen, were majorly enhanced by this artistic inclusion. As usual, this art does an amazing job backing up the volume’s fantastic stories, and I was once again left stunned by Sakai’s obvious and incredible artistic talent.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is another exceptional and captivating comic which I am awarding a full five-star rating. Sakai is a truly incredible writer and artist, and this fourth volume did a fantastic job highlighting his talents for both. Not only does this volume feature some amazing and distinctive drawings, but it also contains an outstanding and enjoyable story backed up by some awesome characters. Sakai did an awesome job bringing together several key recurring characters into a compelling and well-written narrative, which I once again fell in love with. The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is really worth checking out, and is a must read for fans of the masterpiece that is the Usagi Yojimbo series.

UY_Book_4_HC_cover

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Wanderer's Road Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 17 January 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Three

Length: 146 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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the third volume of the outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic book series, The Wanderer’s Road. I was originally planning to save this one until next week, but I just watched some episodes of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated show today that featured Usagi, and so inspiration struck once again.

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The third volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series follows on from the events of the second volume, Samurai, and features several standalone adventures as the series’ titular protagonist, Miyamoto Usagi, continues to wander around this alternate version of Feudal Japan. The Wanderer’s Road features six first-rate and deeply enjoyable stories which were originally contained within issues #7 – 12 of the Fantagraphics Books’ Usagi Yojimbo series. It also contains a short bonus story from the Turtle Soup comic project which features a very special guest star.

The first of the stories featured within The Wanderer’s Road is The Tower. This story revolves around a hungry tokage lizard (the dinosaur-like lizards that infest Usagi’s world), who finds himself in a spot of bother and is chased up a tower by an angry shopkeeper, who refuses to let it down. Usagi, arriving upon the scene, decides to intervene, and attempts to rescue the tokage; however, thanks to the vindictive shopkeeper, he finds himself also trapped atop the tower. Attempting to bond with the tokage, who he names Spot, Usagi endures the conditions on the tower, while enraging the shopkeeper even more, until the story comes to a crashing end. The Tower was a fantastic start to this third volume, and it features a rather enjoyable and fun story. While it is perhaps the weakest story in this volume, only by dint of how incredible the other issues featured in The Wanderer’s Road are, it was still an excellent entry in this series, and served as a great introduction to a fun recurring character in Spot. The Tower contains some funny moments, from the way Usagi inadvertently keeps messing with the bullying shopkeeper on the ground, to the tiny turtle with a ninja mask that Sakai hides away in one of the crowd shots. All of this results in a fantastic story which I rather enjoyed.

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For the second story in this volume, A Mother’s Love, we go from a comedy to a tragedy. In this story, Usagi and his new companion Spot befriend an old woman on the road and accompany her back to town. Once in town, it is revealed the that old woman is the mother of a ruthless moneylender whose thugs have been terrorising the populace. After a tense night at the moneylender’s house, the old lady begs Usagi to kill her son, as she cannot bear to see the evil creature that he has turned into. While Usagi refuses her request, he is soon forced into a fight with the moneylender’s men. However, it is revealed that the old woman has manipulated the guards into attacking Usagi so that she can use the distraction to kill her son herself. When Usagi and Spot discover this, the old woman beseeches a stunned Usagi to kill her and finally put her out of her misery. A Mother’s Love is an incredible and heartbreaking story, which puts Usagi in a no-win situation. The last three pages of the books have to be one of the most heartbreaking and tragic sequence in the entire series. The teary old woman sing a lullaby as she cradles her dead son in her arms while a heartbroken and defeated Usagi watches on is extremely sad. The way that the old woman’s lullaby suddenly ends heavily implies that Usagi fulfilled the old woman’s wish and killed her. His final statement, “I do pray the Gods will be merciful…. Mother” as his despondently leaves the moneylender’s house, accompanied by Spot’s mournful cry are a sad way to end this story, but it makes for one heck of a captivating sequence. Other highlights of this book include Usagi’s large-scale fight against an army of bodyguards, the fun inclusion of Spot in several of this fights (little dude is lethal with his tail), and a stare-down scene between Usagi and the moneylender, which highlighted how intimidating Usagi can be when he wants to. All in all, a perfect and compelling story which shows just how amazing Usagi Yojimbo can be.

The next story in this volume, Return of the Blind Swordspig, is another masterpiece from Sakai, which features another outing from one of the best characters from Usagi Yojimbo, Zato-Ino, who was first introduced in The Ronin. This story sees the blind outlaw Zato-Ino travelling the road, still pursued by assassins and bounty hunters. Ambushed in the woods once again, Ino is able to fight off his attackers thanks to a timely warning from Spot, who had briefly walked away from Usagi. While Spot and Ino part ways, Ino soon catches up with Usagi, who cut off Ino’s nose the last time they met (he’s got a wooden nose in this book, it’s a transplant!). Ino follows Usagi to a nearby temple, where he is able to gain an advantage over Usagi in the dark as the two engage in an epic duel. Usagi’s life is spared only by the intervention of Spot, who stands between them, forcing Ino to back down, envious of the friendship Usagi is blessed with. Realising that the two souls have much in common, Usagi sends Spot to accompany Ino on his journey to find peace, and the two wonder off as friends.

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Return of the Blind Swordspig is another fantastic story that shows some complex and powerful character work. Sakai’s portrayal of Ino as a tortured and hate-filled loner is once again tragic and very moving, and it was fantastic to see him finally find a true friend and companion, something he has always desired. The way that Ino changes his travel songs from ballads about walking the roads alone to a melody about how he is grateful to have a companion is telling, and Usagi’s parting utterance of “Have a good life… both of you” matches the audience’s thoughts for these two great supporting characters. While the best thing about Return of Blind Swordspig is the continued examination of Ino’s complex personality and the progression of his character arc, I also really need to highlight the incredible swordfight in the dark between Ino and Usagi. Not only is this amazingly drawn, but the start of the duel where Ino slices the candle in half once again shows off Sakai’s love for classic Japanese movies. Slicing a candle to make a room dark is the trademark move of Zatoichi, the movie character that Ino in based upon, and Sakai backs this up by having Ino say “Now we’re both blind, Usagi” which is very similar to what Zatoichi says in these circumstances. All in all, this is an outstanding entry that really shows of Sakai’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around some exceptional characters.

 

The fourth story in this volume is Blade of the Gods, which introduces readers to the incredible antagonist Jei. Jei is a skilled and murderous spear-wielding samurai who wanders the land killing those he deems evil in the name of the Gods (spoiler: pretty much everyone is evil in Jei’s eyes). Encountering Usagi one night in a peasant’s hut (it is heavily implied that Jei killed the peasant before Usagi showed up), Jei suddenly declares Usagi to be evil and they engage in a brutal fight to the death both inside and outside the hut. Usagi is only saved by a blast of lighting and is left wondering if Jei was a madman or a true emissary of the gods. This was a compelling and fantastic story, which features one of the best fight sequences in the entire volume. The true highlight of this story is the introduction of Jei, who is easily one of the best characters in the entire Usagi Yojimbo universe. Jei is probably the most dangerous antagonist so far encountered in the Usagi Yojimbo series (Lord Hijiki really hasn’t revealed himself too much yet), and he serves as a wonderful recurring character. Sakai did an excellent job introducing Jei in this story, showing off his motivations, his style and the fact that he is a killer without peer and a fighter on par with Usagi. The character design for this villain is really striking, from his black-bladed spear to his pure white eyes and deranged wolf smile. I also liked the way that the reader is left wondering whether he is actually supernatural in origin or just a crazy person. While this is revealed in later volumes, the mystery of him is an exciting feature for the early Usagi Yojimbo stories that he appears in. I really love the character of Jei, who is actually based on Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (fun fact: when you use the Japanese honorific his name, Jei-san, becomes a pun on Jason), and I think that this was an excellent first appearance for him.

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The next story in The Wanderer’s Road is the fun entry, The Tea Cup. The Tea Cup sees the return of the bounty hunter Gen, who Usagi encounters on the road in the midst of a fight. Gen is escorting a precious tea cup to a tea master and must defend it from assassins who are trying to steal it. Accompanying Gen, Usagi helps him defend the cup with the samurai encountering a number of complications, including a band of killers, two orphaned children and the bad luck that follows Usagi and Gen when they team up. This was easily the funniest story in the entire book, thanks to the inclusion of Gen. Usagi and Gen have a hilarious relationship which is always fun to see, and they play off each other really well. This includes a number of running jokes from the previous Gen stories, the final entry in their game of sticking the other person with the lunch bill (which doesn’t go the way they planned this time) and several other hilarious scenes, including one joke that takes the entire story to come to fruition (he really was slow of mind). In this story, you get to see a bit of Gen’s softer side and the fact that, despite his rough exterior, deep down he is a good and caring person. Sakai also fills this story with a number of fantastic references to the cartoon, Groo the Wanderer, which Sakai previously did the lettering on, including a unique stylised poem at the start of the story, a fun imitation of Groo “Gen does what Gen does best”, and even cameo appearances from Sakai, Sergio Aragonés and the rest of the creative team behind Groo the Wanderer. All of this makes for a hilarious and entertaining tale, which is going to produce quite a few laughs for readers.

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The final full story in this volume is The Shogun’s Gift, which sees Usagi facing off against a Neko Ninja who has stolen a valuable sword from his friends Noriyuki and Tomeo of the Geishu Clan. This turned into quite an action packed and clever game of cat and rabbit (I mean cat and mouse), as Usagi puts on a great dumb samurai act to fool the ninja, Shingen. It was entertaining to watch Usagi continually encountering Shingen, especially as the ninja got more and more enraged each time Usagi appeared and casually poked holes in his story. The Shogun’s Gift ends with a great fight sequence and a rather clever bit of trickery from Usagi, which serves to turn this into a cool and enjoyable tale. I liked the introduction of Shingen, who has a big role in a future volume, and the scene where he is able to conceal the fact that he is hidden in the ceiling even after being stabbed is pretty badass. I also think that this volume did need a story that looked at the larger political picture of this world, including the nefarious plans of Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja, and it was good to see some more of that. Overall, this proved to be another phenomenal entry in this volume, and it served as a great concluding main story.

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In addition to all the big stories mentioned above, The Wanderer’s Road also contained the short bonus story, Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew. This short story originally appeared in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic project, Turtle Soup, and features the first encounter between Usagi and one of the turtles, in this case Leonardo. In this comical tale, Leonardo suddenly lands in Usagi’s realm and is immediately attacked by a band of ronin, while at the same time just down the road, Usagi is attacked by a group of Neko Ninja, the two fights join into one brawl, where Usagi and Leo are the only survivors. Upon seeing each other, the two assume that the other is part of the band that initially attacked them, and they run at each other to engage in battle, only for Leo to be dragged back to his Earth. This of course doesn’t stop the momentum they built up charging at each other, and it results in chaos and injury on both worlds. This was an exceedingly funny first meeting between these iconic comic characters, and this entire story is boundlessly amusing, even with its shorter size.

As you can see from my passionate descriptions above, each of the stories featured in this volume is an outstanding entry in its own right, and I deeply enjoyed each of them. I honestly cannot tell you which story in this volume was my favourite, as three in particular were quite exceptional. Sakai did a masterful job with each of these stories, and I really enjoyed how they are presented in this volume. I think that The Wanderer’s Road contains an excellent blend of stories, which range from the tragic, the dramatic and the comedic, and each of them contains some amazing examples of Sakai’s trademark artistic skill. I also think that having a volume made up entirely of shorter standalone stories also works really well, especially as Volume 3 falls between two other volumes made up of larger, multi-issue stories. The Wanderer’s Road gets another five-star rating from me, and I look forward to reviewing more Usagi Yojimbo volumes in the near future.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Volume 6 – Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

Doctor Aphra Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume Six

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Pencilers: Wilton Santos, Caspar Wijngaard, Andrea Broccardo and Cris Bolson

Inkers: Marc Deering, Walden Wong and Scott Hanna

Colour Artists: Chris O’Halloran and Stephane Paitreau

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 112 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The most devious woman in the galaxy, Doctor Aphra, is back, and she’s got both side of the Galactic Civil War gunning for her in the sixth volume of one of the best Star Wars series out there. I have been meaning to review this volume since it first came out in December. However, I just picked up the seventh and final volume of the current run of Doctor Aphra, so I thought I would quickly review this volume first before I get around to that.

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Doctor Aphra is one of the few ongoing Star Wars comic book series that has been released in the last couple of years, and in my opinion it is one of the strongest Star Wars series out there. The Doctor Aphra comics are set in the period of time between the fourth and fifth Star Wars films (A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back), and follow the adventures of Doctor Chelli Aphra, renowned archaeologist, adventurer and master criminal. Aphra is an original character who was introduced in the first volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Vader, where she served as Darth Vader’s secret agent. Following the conclusion of the Darth Vader series, Aphra, who proved to be a very popular character, received her own spin-off series, which followed on after the events of Darth Vader and feature Aphra as she attempts to make money while trying to ensure Vader doesn’t find out that she is still alive. This series was initially written by one of the original creators of the Doctor Aphra character, Kieron Gillen, however, the second half of the series has been written by Simon Spurrier. Spurrier is the sole writer of this sixth volume of Doctor Aphra, which also features the artistic talent of a several talented artists.

In Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, Aphra is up to her old tricks again. Despite only recently recovering from a life-threatening injury, Aphra has taken on a dangerous job robbing an alien robot death cult shrine with the help of her new sidekick and ward, Vulaada. However, while aboard the shrine, Aphra notices an ancient Jedi weapon, a sniper rifle that utilises lightsaber technology to kill opponents from vast distances. Unable to help herself, Aphra steals the rifle, starting a chaotic chain of events across the galaxy.

Already extremely unpopular with the Empire, this theft pops Aphra to the top of their most wanted list with a hefty bounty placed on her head. Captured by the Rebel Alliance first, Aphra learns that her stolen rifle is the key to a secret rebel superweapon that they plan to use to assassinate the Emperor. Sensing an opportunity to make some money and permanently get the Empire of her back, Aphra recruits her old associate, the Wookiee Black Krrsantan, in order to steal the rifle back from the Rebels. However, this puts her into conflict with her ex-girlfriend, Captain Tolvan, who is now working for Rebel Intelligence.

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As Aphra recovers the rifle and flees to the Empire, she finds herself face to face with the mysterious Imperial Minister for Propaganda and Misinformation, Pitina Voor, the woman behind the latest Imperial manhunt for Aphra. Voor has plans for her, and Aphra is right in the middle of a vast scheme involving both the Rebels and the Empire. However, no plan has ever survived contact with the good doctor, especially when Aphra has revenge on her mind.

Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon was a superb and outstanding addition to the excellent Doctor Aphra comics, and this might actually be one of the strongest volumes in the entire series. Author Simon Spurrier tells a tight and compelling story within this volume which not only dives back into the past of the series’ titular character but which also showcases new elements of both sides of the Galactic Civil War. You also see the welcome return of several of the best characters from the series, such as Black Krrsantan and Aphra’s love interest, Captain Tolvan, as well as the introduction of an intriguing new antagonist. Featuring issues #32 – 36 of the Doctor Aphra series, this volume is a riot from start to finish (hell, the last two pages are the best in the entire volume), and I really loved the captivating tale that Spurrier wove together in these issues, especially as it features the series trademark dark humour and the focus on its self-destructive and conniving main character.

At the centre of Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon lies an amazing narrative of schemes, plots and lies as Aphra is hunted and manipulated by elements of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Thanks to a recent archaeological theft, Aphra is thrust into the midst of a Rebel conspiracy to kill the Emperor and must decide what to do. Of course, Aphra being Aphra, she goes with the course of action that benefits herself the most and ends up backstabbing and manipulating both the Rebels and the Empire. This leads to some great scenes, including a heist aboard a Rebel spaceship and a sequence where Aphra hacks the entire Imperial communications system in order to sing her praises as an Imperial hero in order to avoid a summary execution. However, not everything is as it seems as the various sides are all trying to manipulate Aphra to their own ends, which results in a surprising number of different twists and turns (or as one character puts it “that is the most convoluted plan I’ve ever heard”). It was fascinating to see Aphra, the ultimate manipulator, being played by so many different sides, each of whom thinks they know how she is going to react. Aphra manages to end up on top, but it was cool to see the various ways she managed to get to the bottom of the plans surrounding her and use it to her own ends. Her motivations for doing so were really compelling, and it was amazing how the creative team had been building up to them throughout the course of the book. Of course, it doesn’t all end up Aphra’s way, and the end result of her schemes sees her come full circle to the last place she wants to be. This all makes for one hell of thrilling main storyline of intrigue and deception, and I really loved where all the twists and turns went.

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Just as with the rest of the entries in this series, one of the best things about the Doctor Aphra series is the titular character herself. Aphra is a complex and haunted character who seemingly lacks a moral code and will only do what is in her own best interest. The character has a rather flippant and disrespectful attitude, and most of this volume’s amazing humour is down to her clever quips and humorous observations amongst the more serious Star Wars characters. One of the things that I have really enjoyed about the Doctor Aphra series has been the examination of Aphra’s self-destructive tendencies and the way that she makes the lives of everyone she comes into contact with worse. This is continued once again in Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, as she runs from one bad situation to the next, with her every action making her life and the lives of those around her infinity more miserable and more complicated, which makes for some very dramatic and emotional sequences. This is such an expected trait that many of the characters who Aphra has dealt with in the past or who have studied her actually expect her to make these bad or selfish decisions, and I really liked the way that this was a central plot point in the intrigue and espionage storyline. I also loved Aphra’s interactions with her love interest, Captain Tolvan, especially because, during their last meeting, Aphra purposely altered her memories to make her believe she had killed Aphra in a jealous rage. While Aphra did this with the best of intentions (it was the only way to save both Aphra and Tolvan from Vader), this has obviously had a major negative impact on their relationship, and Tolvan now actively loves and hates Aphra in equal measure and apparently has zero trust in her. This is one of the many things haunting Aphra in this volume, as she clearly knows the damage she has done to woman she loves: “I broke her heart. She’s too smart to ever help me again.” Of course, this fraught relationship is another part of the intrigue surrounding Aphra, and it was rather clever the ways in which both sides tried to manipulate Aphra through it.

In addition to the all the awesome character work happening with Aphra in the present, the readers of this volume are also treated to a look back at the characters past. In particular, you finally get to see Aphra’s mother for the first time and learn the tragic circumstances around her death. This has been hinted at for some time, all the way back to the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. As a result, it was great to finally see the full extent of this character background, and it was fascinating to see what happened and how this has impacted on the personality of Aphra. I enjoyed the way in which the scenes from the past were mirrored in the scenes from the present, and I really liked the similarities in the way that Aphra was raised with the harsh way she is treating her new ward, Vulaada. I was also impressed by the way in which seemingly innocuous details from Aphra’s past suddenly had a big impact on her current story, and the creative team did a great job hinting about these impacts throughout the entire volume. All of this helps build up a much more complex story around the character that is Aphra, and I found this dive into her past to be extremely compelling.

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I also need to say how much I loved the parts of this book that featured Darth Vader, whose villainy and hatred for Aphra shine through in the few short scenes that he has. Aphra and Vader have a complicated history together, and Vader is desperate to kill Aphra once and for all (she’s faked her death on him a few times already), as she is the only living person in the galaxy who knows about his obsession with Luke Skywalker and his plans to overthrow the Emperor. Vader has two sequences in this book, both of which revolve around his determination to kill Aphra, no matter the perceived costs. While the first is really good, mainly due to Vader answering an Imperial officer’s request to state his rank with “Lord”, nothing quite beats the second appearance on the last two pages of the volume. After apparently beating all of her opponents, Aphra is sure of her safety due to her status as an Imperial hero, right up until Vader appears, lopping off heads with his lightsaber. The moment Aphra sees him, she knows she and Vulaada are dead, and she immediately hugs Vulaada and gets her to close her eyes. I really loved this scene, especially the resigned way in which she responds to Vulaada’s frantic belief that them being heroes is going to save them with “he doesn’t care”. This was a pretty outstanding end to the entire volume, and it was amazing to see the next chapter of the turbulent relationship between Aphra and Vader.

The Doctor Aphra series has always done a great job showing off several different sides of the Star Wars universe, including giving a closer look at parts of its criminal underbelly and its archaeological sector. However, in this book, we get to see new sides of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. In particular, we get to see the Empire’s Coalition for Progress, a sinister organisation led by new antagonist Pitina Voor that is dedicated to expanding and maintaining the Empire through manipulation, trickery and propaganda, rather than brute force. This is rather fascinating inclusion into the canon, and it was rather interesting to see a whole new side to the way that the Empire controlled the galaxy. Voor is also a rather intriguing character, with a unique vision for how the Empire should be run and maintained, and it was kind of fun to see her gripe about the PR problems that occur when you are being ruled by Sith Lords (I had to agree, the Emperor really isn’t adequately loveable). They also have a rather nifty little museum dedicated to some of the Empire’s greatest victories and propaganda coups, which the artistic team filled with several Easter eggs. I was also rather impressed by the way that the creative team explored the darker side of the Rebel Alliance by examining the covert and morally ambiguous actions of their intelligence agency. This is something that has been explored before in some other Star Wars entries, such as in Rogue One, but this volume of Doctor Aphra takes it to a new extreme with Rebel Intelligence apparently plotting to build a miniature Death Star in order to take out the Emperor and win the war. I rather liked this darker side of the Rebels, and it was interesting to see more of a Rebel organisation that uses less moral tactics to achieve their goals.

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Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon features the work of several different artists, each of whom worked on a couple of different issues within the volume, which results in an interesting combination of styles. This means that this volume of Doctor Aphra contains a range of different art styles and techniques across the various issues. I actually liked the myriad changes that occurred issue to issue, and it was fantastic to see the different styles and artistic ideas that this large team produced. This volume contains some rather impressive and beautifully drawn scenes and sequences, which fit perfectly around Spurrier’s compelling story and which work really well together. The end result is a fantastically drawn and executed comic, which is a delight to look at.

This sixth volume of the always entertaining and incredible Doctor Aphra series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, is an outstanding addition to the series, and it is one that I had an amazing time reading. This volume contains a complex plot of intrigue and doublecrosses, which sets the loveably dysfunctional protagonist down another road of self-destruction and manipulation in order to survive. Filled with some excellent and memorable story moments, and an incredible conclusion to this volume’s key storyline, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon is relentlessly entertaining and endlessly captivating, and I had an absolute ball unwrapping it. A highly recommended read; if you have not read any Doctor Aphra yet, then you are missing out!

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai

Usagi Yojimbo Samurai Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Two

Length: 141 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After the fun that I had reviewing the first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, last week, I decided to follow it up with a review of the second volume in the series, Samurai. Samurai is an impressive second outing from author and artist Stan Sakai, which does an amazing job continuing his epic series after the introductory stories contained within the first volume.

After his adventures in the first volume, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi has continued on his wandering ways. However, his latest journey quickly turns to violence when he encounters another ronin on the road. Without a word being spoken, both samurai engage in a swift and brutal duel to the death, in which Usagi is the winner. The only witness to the duel is the bounty hunter Gennosuke, who inquires into the origin of the apparent feud between Usagi and his recently deceased opponent. Usagi reveals that the dead samurai was named Gunichi and Usagi had much cause to kill him.

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Regaling Gen with his tale as they travel together, Usagi reveals that the origins of this feud goes all the way back to his childhood and his tutorage under the unusual and skilled sword master Katsuichi. This tale follows Usagi as he becomes a young samurai in the services of his Lord Mifune, where he was comrade to Gunichi, and leads all the way to the fateful battle of Adachigahara Plain and the day that Usagi became a masterless samurai.

Back in the present, Usagi continues his adventures across the land, encountering many different people and unusual creatures. Watch him fight against a kappa, help defend a village of silk merchants against a roving group of bandits and witness his weird meeting with a mysterious and powerful little monster who is going to be a big somebody one day.

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Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai, is an amazing and fantastic volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, which does an outstanding job continuing the story after the events portrayed in The Ronin. This second volume contains the first six issues of the actual Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the excellent adventures that are contained within these issues. The volume is broken down into four separate stories, the expanded story Samurai, as well as three stories which are significantly shorter. Each of these stories are really entertaining, and they all come together to create an impressive and incredible total volume of comics which I had a fantastic time reading.

The first story in this volume is also titled Samurai, and it is the major story contained within the Samurai volume. Running for 92 pages, this was one of Sakai’s first expanded Usagi Yojimbo stories, and I think it is one of his better ones. Samurai contains a captivating and exciting narrative that not only continues Usagi’s story in the present but which also goes back and explores much of the character’s past. This is shown through a lengthy flashback about Usagi’s childhood, his tutorage under the skilled samurai Katsuichi, his first meeting with Gunichi, their service under Lord Mifune, the events that led to Mifune’s war with the evil Lord Hikiji and the terrible final battle which cost Usagi his lord.

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Sakai comes up with an excellent background for Usagi in this story, and it was great to see how he expanded on some of the ideas and plot points that were featured within the first volume’s early stories. Even after all these years, the flashback contained with Samurai is still the definitive history of the character’s early days, although it has been expanded on several times in future volumes. This background is really intriguing, and I think that Sakai tells an amazing story, showing of Usagi’s unique training, his early triumphs including obtaining his swords, his service with Lord Mifune and then an expanded version of the battle of Adachigahara Plain, which has been briefly shown in the previous book. Woven into this is the tale of Usagi’s friendship with his fellow Mifune retainer, Gunichi, and the fateful day in their relationship that will cause Usagi to kill him the next time they meet. Sakai paces this entire extended story out well, and it turns into quite a complete and intriguing narrative. I like that it also added a lot more depth to the love triangle between Usagi, Mariko and Kenichi, and the scenes where Usagi and Kenichi put aside their differences for the first time for the sake of Mariko is great, and helps show that Kenichi is not a bad guy, he’s just occasionally blinded by his jealousy of Usagi.

I personally really enjoyed the scenes that featured Usagi and his sensei Katsuichi, the reclusive swords master. Their entire arc is really fun, and I love a good training sequence. Katsuichi is your typical wise and eccentric old hermit master who takes the young and eager student with potential under his wing to make him a superior student. Despite coming off as an aloof and hard man, Katsuichi is actually a kindly master who is impressed by Usagi’s determination and spirit (he gives a sly smile at the start of the training period). Katsuichi has some really interesting training techniques, and it is interesting to see how Usagi developed the skills that have kept him alive in the dangerous world he lives in. I loved the menial tasks montage, which is very reminiscent of The Karate Kid. It was also fun to see Usagi get randomly hit with a bamboo stick until he learns to anticipate surprise attacks, and I liked how it helped explain Usagi’s seemingly supernatural ability to sense when he is being watched or in danger. Overall, this proved to be an excellent inclusion to the story, and Katsuichi was easily the best new character introduced in this volume.

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Another major highlight of this first story is the part set in the present, which sees Usagi once again reunited with Gen. Gen was one of the better characters featured in the first volume, so it was really good to see him reintroduced in Samurai, especially as it helps set him up as a major recurring character in the Usagi Yojimbo series. Throughout the story, Usagi and Gen form quite an amusing partnership, with Usagi acting the honourable Zen warrior, while Gen is the unapologetic and uncultured mercenary. The two play off each other extremely well, with their great repartee and jabs at each other, and it is fun to see Usagi come out his shell a lot more around his companion. Gen also proves to be an entertaining audience for Usagi’s story, and it was fun to see his reactions to Usagi’s life tale. This was especially true when Gen started to get really into the story, despite his feigned indifference, and overreacted to several key moments. This entire story ends on a rather heartfelt moment between the two, with Gen indicating he completely understands how Usagi felt when he lost his lord “the saddest day of a samurai’s life is the day he becomes a ronin. Some day I’ll tell you how I became masterless…” and Usagi hinting that he really does see Gen as a friend. I really enjoyed seeing these two characters back together again, and this story definitely serves as a much better basis for their friendship than their backstabbing adventures in the previous volume. I also have to say, the silent dual at the front of the book between Usagi and Gunichi is the tops, and you could not ask for a better start to a story than an unexplained and sudden fight to the death.

The next story featured in this volume is the short, horror-based story, Kappa. Wandering a desolate, swampy area, Usagi comes across a kappa, a Japanese water demon, who demands a toll to cross the marshes. While Usagi is able to pass, he must go back and try to save another traveller from the kappa, resulting in a desperate conflict. This is quite a good story, especially with the ghostly twist contained at the end. I really love that Sakai chooses to explore pieces of Japanese mythology like the kappa, and it was really interesting to see Usagi face off against one. There is also an extremely brutal and impressive fight sequence against the kappa featured within this comic, which was all manner of impressive.

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The third story in Samurai was called Zylla, and featured Usagi finding and befriending a mysterious creature hidden in the bushes, that he names Zylla, when he visits the hot springs. Zylla repays Usagi by saving him from some bandits using his fiery (one could even say atomic) breath and reveals itself as a large newborn bipedal lizard who Usagi speculates may be a god, “Are you a god, Zylla?”. This is a really fun short story in this volume, and it adds a fascinating new element to the world that Usagi Yojimbo is set in. It was also great to see Sakai continue to show off his love for Japanese culture by featuring baby Zylla, and he makes several humorous references to Zylla’s future work, such as how he should visit the big city at some point. All of this makes for an amusing entry in this volume and it had me smiling as I read it.

The final story was Silk Fair, which sees Usagi come to the aid of a silk worker, defending him from bandits. The worker takes him to his village, where Usagi eventually helps defend the village from a large bandit raid, after he deals with the silk works greedy administrator. This was a nice, short entry that showed a typical Usagi Yojimbo storyline of Usagi helping to defend the helpless again bandits. This was one of the first stories where Sakai explored a Japanese craft or industry, and while it does not go into as much detail as some of the later industry based stories (later volumes feature length depictions of things like sword crafting, seaweed farming, kite making and soy sauce production), it was still interesting to see. Silk Fair contained a good mixture of action and humour, and I especially enjoyed seeing the way Usagi managed to mess with the corrupt administrator and his cowardly bodyguard. There was also a rather unique battle sequence where Usagi and the silk workers are able to defeat the bandits with sewing needles and silk streamers. In the end, Silk Fair proved to be a strong and amazing story, and I felt that it was an extremely entertaining way to conclude this volume.

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Like with every volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, Stan Sakai’s artwork is once again a major and incredible highlight of Samurai. This second volume contains some fantastic examples of Sakai’s artistic talent, and it is clear that by the time he was working on the stories contained within Sakai had settled on his preferred designs for the various characters and landscapes featured, although further refinements did occur later down the track. This new character work is really impressive, and I liked how various new characters appeared, such as the warthog Gunichi and the lion based Katsuichi. I am also continually impressed with the way that Sakai can convey emotion and expression with his drawings, and you are constantly aware of what the various characters are thinking, just from seeing their faces. The various stories contained within Samurai featured some truly amazing and visually stunning landscape backgrounds, as Sakai continued his practice of showing off the beautiful scenery of Japan. Sakai also drew a number of impressive action sequences throughout the book, and he really got the hang of sketching out and showcasing the fast-paced and skilful fights that occurred between samurai. There are some impressive duel sequences throughout this volume, including the quick and sudden fight between Usagi and Gunichi at the start of the first story or the practice duel between Usagi and Kenichi which showed the ferocious fight between the two, which quickly ended with one strong strike from the obviously more skilled Usagi. Sakai also included several larger-scale battle sequences throughout the volume which really are something to behold. I particularly liked the major war sequence that showed the expanded battle of Adachigahara Plain. Sakai did an amazing job presenting the frenetic chaos of war and the explosive action that occurred with his art, and it was certainly a visual highlight of this volume.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai was an outstanding addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is one of my favourite volumes in this entire franchise. Stan Sakai presents a fantastic blend of character backstory, action, adventure, eye-catching art and clever humour in this volume, and the end result is a five-star comic which is really worth checking out. Thanks to the excellent background based main story, Samurai is a key volume in this series, making this book a must read. Samurai gets another five stars from me, and once again I have to strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the whole Usagi Yojimbo series, to anyone looking for an epic and enjoyable new series.

The Holdout by Graham Moore

The Holdout Cover

Publisher: Orion/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 18 February 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From acclaimed author Graham Moore comes an amazing new thriller story that is one part legal drama, one part murder mystery and 100 per cent awesome: The Holdout.

The Holdout is an outstanding standalone book that I have been looking forward to for a little while now. I really enjoyed the sound of the premise when I first heard about it, so I was really glad when I received a copy of this book. Moore is probably best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, having written the screenplay for The Imitation Game, which won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, Moore is also a novelist, having previously written two books, The Sherlockian and The Last Days of Night, the latter of which I read and enjoyed back in 2016. The Holdout is Moore’s first foray into contemporary fiction, and he has produced quite a fantastic read.

It was the trial of the century. Jessica Silver, the 15-year-old heiress to a vast fortune, vanishes and the prime suspect is her African American teacher, Bobby Nock, with whom she was having an inappropriate relationship. With substantial evidence against him, a verdict of guilty for Jessica’s murder seemed assured, until one juror voted not guilty. This one holdout, Maya Seale, refused to alter her verdict and was eventually able to convince the other jurors to change their votes. Their resulting decision would shock the country and change the juror’s lives forever.

Now, 10 years later, Maya is a successful defence attorney who has tried her hardest to move on from the infamous trial that ruined her life, until Rick Leonard, her fellow former juror and secret lover during the trial, tracks her down. Rick has spent the last 10 years obsessing with case, believing that they let a guilty man go free. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of the trial, a true-crime show wants to interview each of the jurors in the hotel they were sequestered at during the trial. At the end of the interview, they will be presented with new evidence that Rick has uncovered which he believes definitively proves Bobby Nock’s guilt. While initially reluctant to go, Maya ends up making an appearance, only to find Rick dead in her hotel room.

Now the prime suspect in Rick’s death, Maya is forced to relive the infamy that has dogged her for years. Determined to prove her innocence, Maya begins interviewing the only potential witnesses to the crime, the former members of the jury who were gathered at the hotel. However, her investigation reveals that Rick has been digging up dirt on each of the former jurors, and several of them may have had a motive to kill him. As she digs deep, Maya begins to believe that the solution to this current murder lies in the trial that brought them together. Did they let a guilty man go free all those years ago, and is that decision coming back to haunt them with lethal consequences?

Wow, just wow, this was a pretty incredible thriller novel. Moore has pulled together quite a compelling and complex read which presents the reader with a fantastic and intricate story that combines an excellent legal thriller with a captivating murder mystery to create a first-rate read.

The Holdout’s story is told in alternating chapters, with half of the chapters set back during the original trial in 2009, and the rest of the book is set 10 years later in the present day. The 2019 chapters are told exclusively from the point of view of Maya as she attempts to uncover who killed Rick Leonard, while each of the chapters set in the past are told from the perspective of a different juror as they observe the events surrounding the trial. This is a really clever storytelling technique as it presents the reader with two connected but distinct storylines. The storyline set during the original trial is a legal drama-thriller in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Runaway Jury, and it shows various points of the Bobby Knock murder trial and the jury deliberations that followed. Through the author’s use of multiple perspectives, the reader is able to see how the various members of the jury came to their ultimate verdict, what factors influenced their decisions and what they thought about the various people involved in the case and their fellow jurors. The storyline set in the present day, on the other hand, reads more like a murder mystery, and it deals with the protagonist’s hunt to find Rick’s killer in order to prove her innocence. Both of these separate storylines work extremely well together, especially as the Maya storyline explores the impacts of the events that occurred during the older timeline. I also think that Moore did an excellent job jumping between the various time periods and character perspectives, and this clever storytelling style helped to create a compelling read with a fun flow to it.

At the centre of this novel lies two fantastic and complex mystery storylines set around 10 years apart. The first one of these revolves around what happened to Jessica Silver in 2009, while the other involves the murder of Rick Leonard in 2019. Both of these separate cases are really intriguing, and they present the reader with some clever twists, compelling potential theories, alternative suspects and conflicting evidence, so much so that the eventual solutions to these mysteries are actually quite surprising. While both of these two mysteries work really well by themselves, the real beauty is in the way that they combine together throughout the book. The solution to the Rick Leonard murder is strongly rooted to the original 2009 trial with the jury, while the eventual revelation about Jessica Silver doesn’t come out until the events of the 2019 murder are concluded. I really enjoyed seeing both of these mysteries come together, and it was cool to see the motives for one case be revealed in a prior timeline, while the protagonist investigated in the present.

I also had a great appreciation for the legal aspects of The Holdout, as the author dives deep in the United States court system and shows off what happens during a murder trial. There are some tricky legal scenes throughout this book, and one of the major appeals of the 2009 storylines is seeing the entirety of the murder trial unfold. Moore also does a great job exploring how the jury system works and how jurors deliberate and decide upon a person’s innocence and guilt. There are some intriguing examinations of the jury system throughout the book, and it was interesting to see what information they are given and how a jury could come up with one verdict when the rest of the country has already decided. The use of multiple perspectives works well during the 2009 part of the book, and I quite enjoyed seeing how the disparate jurors had different opinions about the information presented to them. The 2019 storyline also contains some intriguing legal scenes which are shown from the perspective of Maya as a successful defence attorney. As a result, these scenes contain fascinating information about legal strategy and defence plans, and it was a little scary to consider innocent people being advised that their best legal strategy for a crime they didn’t commit was to claim self-defence. The Holdout also tried to show the chaos that surrounds a high profile court case, including examining the crazy media coverage, the impact of public perception, and the fact that people involved are often more concerned with making money or advancing their careers rather than finding out who actually committed the crime. All of this is extremely fascinating, and I enjoyed seeing Moore’s take on the current legal system, especially as he comes across as somewhat critical of it at times.

Moore has also filled this book with a number of complex and relatable characters in the form of the jurors, who you get to know throughout the course of both storylines. Thanks to the two separate timelines, you get to see how the events of the trial affected these people as each of them had their lives completely ruined thanks to one decision they made 10 years ago. Thanks to the use of multiple perspectives during the earlier timeline, you actually get to briefly see inside the mind of each of the jurors, and explore how events in their past lives, plus the stress of the trial helped influence their verdict. I also found it fascinating to see how the not-guilty verdict impacted on other characters associated with the trial, such as the family of Jessica Silver and the accused, Bobby Nock. This was especially true in the case of Bobby, who, despite being found innocent, was controversially prosecuted for another crime and was then subsequently hounded by the media for years, resulting in some compelling scenes around this character in the 2019 storyline. I also have to point out the underlying theme of obsession that the author expertly inserted into this story. Obsession with the trial affected several characters within the book, causing many of them to act in unpredictable ways to achieve their goals. This obsession came from a number of places, including from guilt, a sense of righteousness, a desire for revenge or to find justice, and it was quite compelling to see what this obsession drove some characters to do. One member of the jury in particular is driven to do some very dark things that were completely out of character to the person who was introduced in the earlier storyline, and this characters development was extremely fascinating to behold. Moore did an amazing job with these characters, and I really liked seeing how the events depicted in the book influenced and impacted them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Holdout, which was narrated by Abby Craden. The Holdout audiobook runs for just over 10 hours and I found myself flying through this novel, especially when I became obsessed with working out the overall solutions to this book. Craden is an excellent audiobook narrator, and I previously enjoyed her work on Recursion by Black Crouch last year. For The Holdout, Craden comes up with a number of distinctive voices for the various characters featured within the book. Each of these voices fit their respective characters extremely well, and I think that Craden did a good job portraying these character’s various ethnicities and genders. All of this really helped me to enjoy this incredible story, and this format comes highly recommended as a result.

The Holdout was an absolutely incredible read that does a fantastic job showcasing Graham Moore’s superb skill as a master storyteller. This amazing novel expertly combines together a compelling legal thriller with an addictive murder mystery in order to produce a first-rate story with some captivating twists and intriguing character developments. The Holdout gets a full five-star rating from me, and I am very excited to see what this remarkable author produces next.

Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 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.

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Darth Vader (2015): Volume 2 – Shadows and Secrets

Darth Vader - Shadows and Secrets

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Salvador Larroca

Colourist: Edgar Delgado

Publication Date: 5 January 2016

Length: 136 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.

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For my latest Throwback Thursday, I take a look at the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. This is a superb and fantastic addition to a series which I honestly consider to be one the best overall pieces of Star Wars fiction out there, as it continues to explore the complex character that is Darth Vader.

Following the events of the first volume of this series, Vader, Darth Vader now knows that the mysterious Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star is actually his son, Luke Skywalker, and that the Emperor has been lying to him for years. This revelation, combined with the fact that the Emperor is forcing him to compete for his favour with the scientific creations of the cybernetic genius Cylo, has crystallised Vader’s rage, and he is now determined to overthrow the Emperor and rule the Empire with his son. To that end, he has commanded his new agents, the rogue archaeologist Doctor Aphra and her two murderous droids, Triple Zero and BT-1, to gather the resources needed to pursue his agendas.

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Whilst Aphra and her criminal contacts do their work for him, Vader must appear to obey the commands of his new superior officer, Grand General Tagge. His latest mission from Tagge requires him to find out who stole a massive consignment of credits that the Empire recently seized from crime lords in the Outer Rim. There is just one problem: Aphra and a small group of bounty hunters stole the credits on his behalf. Vader attempts to cover up his involvement in the crime and lead the investigation away from Aphra. However, the arrival of his new aide, the brilliant Inspector Thanoth, may prove troublesome, as Thanoth’s investigation leads him in all the right directions.

However, despite the importance of Vader’s plans within the Empire, his main concern is the search for his son. Needing to locate and corrupt Luke before the Emperor finds out who he is, he tasks Aphra with not only finding his son’s location but to also find and silence the one person who knew that Luke was actually born. As Vader does all he can to keep Thanoth from finding Aphra and incriminating himself, he finds himself walking a fine line between victory and destruction. With new rivals and both the Empire and the Rebellions seemingly against him, can even Darth Vader get what he wants?

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Well this was another fantastic bit of Star Wars fiction! The first thing that I do have to admit is that Shadows and Secrets is probably my least favourite volume in the entire 2015 Darth Vader series. However, this is only because every other volume in this series is just so incredible that this one suffers a little in comparison. That being said, I absolutely loved this second volume as it contains an excellent story, some great moments, fantastic characters and some impressive artwork. Containing issues #7-12 of the Darth Vader series, Gillen and Larroca have done an incredible job with this second volume, and I still consider it to be a five-star read.

One of the best things about Shadows and Secrets is Gillen’s outstanding story, which continues some of the tantalising threads from the first volume while also introducing some great new elements. Gillen sets out a clever, well-paced story that is filled with all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, as Vader begins his duplicitous actions within the Empire, attempting to amass the resources he needs for his projects without drawing the suspicion of either his rivals in the Imperial hierarchy or his new superior. Most of the story contained within this volume is fairly self-contained, featuring a fantastic heist sequence and the subsequent fallout from this event. This fallout mostly revolves around Vader’s investigation into his own heist, which he attempts to cover up from his new aide, Inspector Thanoth. Thanoth is a genius detective of Sherlockian talents who was quickly able to get to the truth of the matter and find the culprit of the heist, despite Vader’s vest efforts. I really enjoyed this whole investigation element to the book, especially as it was fun watching Vader routinely sabotage his own investigation, often by killing any and all potential witnesses, only to have Thanoth easily breeze through these obstacles. Thanoth turned out to be an excellent new addition to this series, and I really enjoyed the intriguing partnership he formed with Vader, especially as he plays a dangerous game by continuously hinting that he knows Vader is behind the theft. This turned out to be quite an amazing and enjoyable storyline, and I really appreciated Gillen’s perfect blend of humour and serious storylines throughout the volume.

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I also loved the continued focus on Vader’s obsessive hunt for Luke Skywalker, which has taken on a new edge now that he knows he is his son. While he was already searching for him in the first volume, now that he realises who he really is, Vader decides to protect his identity and the find out the whole truth behind his birth. This is shown in the first part of Issue #7, in which Vader and Aphra visit both the Lars Homestead and Ben Kenobi’s hovel on Tatooine, where he tries to gleam some knowledge from both houses about his son, before setting off a molecular bomb to erase all useful forensic evidence. Shortly after this, Vader than sets Aphra a task of finding and interrogating a former mortician from Naboo who prepared Padme Amidala’s body for her funeral, including setting up a hologram to make it appear that she was still pregnant. This tuned out to be an outstanding sequence, as the mortician, who has a huge amount of personal loyalty towards Amidala, at first refuses to provide any information about his work, before being tortured and confirming the existence of a child. While this admission is a betrayal of his beloved Queen that clearly costs the former mortician a lot, he is able to do one last act of service for her by not revealing any details about the second child, Leia. I thought that this scene was amazing, and I liked how it helped explain how Vader was aware of Luke’s existence and status as his child, but not that he also had a daughter. I also appreciated Gillen’s focus on the loyalty the inhabitants of Naboo had to Amidala, even in death, which was even able to move the cynical Aphra. Her subsequent mention to Vader of how Amidala must have really been something was a nice touch, as Vader’s subdued and hidden reaction hints at his continuing deep feelings towards his long-dead wife. I really liked this focus on the search for Luke, as not only does it makes sense in the context of the movies, but it also showcases the lengths Vader was willing to go to find and protect his son, and it leads to the best sequence in the entire volume.

I personally really enjoyed how the creative team continued to show off Vader as a dangerous and vicious powerhouse in this volume. While it does not contain the same level of carnage that he unleashed in the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Shadows and Secrets contains several amazing scenes depicting his destructive abilities and personality. Whether he is stuffing a crime lord into the mouth of his own exotic beast and then easily killing the distracted monster, or whether he is taking down and entire squadron of Rebel space fighters one at a time by throwing his lightsaber at them, he is shown to be pretty impressive.

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Just like in the first volume, Doctor Aphra continues to shine as the series’s main supporting character, and her entire character arc within Shadows and Secrets is very intriguing. Throughout this volume, Aphra ends up undertaking several missions for Vader, such as trying to find the location of Luke Skywalker, and has become one of his main confidants. This puts her in a terrible position, as Vader is likely to kill her to protect his secrets, especially when Thanoth gets close to capturing her. Watching the various ways that this ultimate opportunist attempts to survive against the odds, including by brazenly withholding information from Vader in order to stop him killing her, is pretty impressive, and it makes for some great reading. Shadows and Secrets also contains one of the first deeper looks at Aphra’s internal character. During the sequence I mentioned above with the mortician, she gives a lengthy monologue about the death of her mother and how it has affected her. This was a heavy scene, and while she tries to play it off as not being very important, you can see that it has impacted her, turning her into a much more cynical and self-reliant person who has no room for idealism or blind belief. The significance of this scene is also quite crucial when you consider that much of what she said is later shown in the Doctor Aphra spinoff series and ends up becoming a defining part of her character. I also like how the noticeable changes that the creative team have inserted into Aphra’s personality when she deals with Vader. For most of the volume, Aphra comes across as an ultraconfident being who is able to manipulate and control bounty hunters, murderers and crime lords with ease. However, whenever Vader appears, there is a noticeable change in her bearing and personality, which isn’t too surprising as Aphra knows Vader is going to kill her one day.

I also have to point out how much fun the two murder droids Triple Zero and BT-1 continued to be in this novel. Essentially perverted versions of C-3PO and R2-D2, Triple Zero and BT-1 are remorseless killers who delight in murdering or torturing all organic life. These two add an insane element of humour to the entire series, and they have a number of great moments in Shadows and Secrets. Watching the two of them delight in all sorts of murder and mayhem is all sorts of fun, and you’ve got to love the weird and friendly relationship the two of them have formed with each other.

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One of the best highlights of this second volume is the amazing artwork. The artistic team, helmed by Salvador Larroca, did another fantastic job bringing the amazing story contained within Shadows and Secrets to life on the page. There are so many vibrant and imaginative panels in this volume, and the volume’s artistic team produce some amazing pieces of art that showcase the wider Star Wars universe. One of the things that continues to impressive me about this series is the way that the artistic team are able to convey so much emotion from the faceless main protagonist. Despite only ever seeing Vader’s expressionless and iconic mask, I found that I was constantly able to glean the true emotions that Vader was surely feeling at the time when I looked at him, ranging from cold menace, surprise, frustration to deeper emotions, such as sadness when Amidala is mentioned. There are some truly amazingly drawn scenes throughout this entire volume, although there are two that I would bring particular attention to. The first is the very first scene in Issue #7, which shows Vader standing out the front of the Lars Homestead, staring at Tatooine’s twin suns as they set. I absolutely loved how this drawing matched the iconic scene from A New Hope where Luke stared off in the same position, and I really appreciated the symmetry. The other piece of art that really stood out to me was a quick sequence that appeared a little later in the volume within Issue #8. In this scene, Aphra has just confidently dealt with one of the bounty hunters in her employ and is looking off in the distance speaking to someone. As she talks, Vader slowly materialises out the shadows behind her, responding to her comments. Despite the fact that Aphra’s expression does not change at all there is a notable shift in the tone of the panel when Vader appears, and you cannot help but feel the threat and menace that he exudes. This was some impressive artwork, which helped to really increase how much I loved this comic.

The second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets, is a first-rate comic book that once again shows off how impressive Star Wars comics can really be. Gillen and Larroca did an incredible job following up the first volume of this epic series and I really enjoyed the complex and fun story that this second volume contained, especially when it was backed up by great characters and exceptional artwork. This is a superb addition to the series that is really worth checking out.