Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

Firefly The Ghost Machine Cover

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 28 April 2020)

Series: Firefly – Book three

Length: 335 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive into the minds of chaotic crew of Serenity as bestselling author James Lovegrove presents the third original tie-in novel to Joss Whedon’s epic science fiction television show, Firefly, The Ghost Machine.

Since the end of 2018, Titan Books have been publishing an exciting series of Firefly novels, which follow the exploits of the infamous crew both during and after the events of the original show. Since the planned third novel, Generations, was delayed towards the end of last year, all of the released Firefly novels have been written by author James Lovegrove, who is probably best known for his Pantheon series, as well as his various Sherlock Holmes novels (which feature some intriguing and unique stories around the iconic character). I have been really enjoying these recent Firefly novels, due to my love of the franchise and the excellent quality of the books involved, and I had an amazing time reading the first two entries in this series, Big Damn Hero and The Magnificent Nine. Due to how much I have enjoyed the prior books and the franchise as a whole, I was rather excited to read The Ghost Machine, and I was not disappointed. Lovegrove (with Whedon credited as a consulting editor), has produced a fantastic and compelling novel, with a really intriguing central plot premise.

Set between the events of the television show and the film, Serenity, this novel focuses on the crew of the Firefly class spaceship, Serenity, as they tour the verse looking for work, legal, illegal and all shades in between. This time, Captain Malcolm Reynolds has accepted a contract from crooked businessman Badger to pick up package on a remote planet and bring it back to him. However, Mal is less than thrilled when he discovers that the cargo is a flightcase stolen from the notorious Blue Sun Corporation, which likely contains advanced tech designed for the Alliance military.

Refusing to let such a potentially problematic cargo aboard his ship, Mal, Zoe and Jayne are forced to kill the sellers in order to leave. However, what Mal does not realise is that Jayne has snuck the package aboard Serenity without telling anyone. As Serenity leaves the planet, each member of the crew suddenly begins to live out their biggest fantasy. Mal finds himself living a peaceful family life with Inara, Jayne is back on his family’s ranch with his little brother’s damplung cured, Wash imagines that he is the owner of a vast shipping empire, and Zoe dreams that the Independence won the battle of Serenity Valley and defeated the Alliance in the Unification War.

What the crew does not realise is that the flightcase contained an experimental urban pacification device known as The Ghost Machine. This machine causes people to fall into a fugue state while imagining their greatest desires, but the tech is dangerously faulty. Soon the crew’s visions of riches, rewards and happy lives become distorted and turned into terrible nightmares that threaten to tear apart their psyches. Worse, with Wash out of commission and not steering the ship, Serenity is on a collision course with a nearby moon. The only person not affected by the machine is River Tamm, whose own mind is dangerously askew at the best of times. But with River sedated and unconscious, can she do anything to help her friends and save the ship, or will The Ghost Machine claim its next victims?

Well, that was shiny! The Ghost Machine is an excellent and enthralling Firefly tie-in novel which was a real pleasure to read. Lovegrove has pulled together one hell of a character-driven narrative which presents the reader with a perilous situation, while also diving deep into the hearts and minds of the iconic crew members. This a clever and compelling story which would have honestly made a spectacular episode of the television show, which I think is high praise in itself. The entire book is extremely slick and captivating, and once I got into it I could not stop reading it, managing to polish off the last 300 pages in a single night. Lovegrove has honestly outdone himself with this book, and I think that The Ghost Machine is my favourite of all the current Firefly books.

As I mentioned above, The Ghost Machine is the third Firefly tie-in novel that has been released, although it was initially intended to be the fourth. Each of these Firefly novels, including The Ghost Machine, are standalone novels, and you do not need to have read any of the prior tie-in books before reading this latest release, nor are there any issues involved with Generations being released out of sequence. I found that The Ghost Machine was very accessible to all readers, and even those people who are not as familiar with the events of the television show should be able to follow and enjoy what is going on within this book. That being said, this novel, like all tie-in books, is specifically designed to be enjoyed by major fans of the franchise, and Lovegrove has filled The Ghost Machine with a number of fun references and callbacks. In particular, quite a number of minor characters from the television show are referred to or appear throughout the book, either within the various dream sequences or back in the real world, and there were even a couple of mentions of characters who only appeared in Lovegrove’s prior novel. There is also a fantastic sequence that replays the opening events of the very first Firefly episode, except with a twist, and some of the plot elements of this book have some interesting connections to the Serenity film set after the events of The Ghost Machine. As a result, fans of the show are going to have a great time reading this novel, although more casual science fiction fans will probably enjoy it as well.

Just like the television show it ties into, The Ghost Machine’s story is very character driven, and focuses on the members of Serenity’s crew. In this story, Lovegrove focuses on all seven remaining characters (as this is set between Firefly and Serenity, Inara and Shepherd Book have both left the ship) equally, and each of them serves as a point-of-view character for several chapters in the book, with one or two chapters also told from the perspective of a non-crewmember like Badger. As the story revolves around each character living out their own unique fantasy, this proved to be the best way to tell the story. I was quite impressed by the way that Lovegrove was able to create distinctive and compelling storylines for each of these main characters in the few chapters each of them had, and all of their character arcs came together extremely well to make an excellent overall narrative. I also think that Lovegrove did a fantastic job portraying all the crew members, and each of them came to live in a similar manner to how they were in the show. This excellent character work added quite a lot to the narrative, and it was great to see some more of these beloved characters.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the visions that each member of the crew experiences because of the titular Ghost Machine. All the characters, with the exception of River, find themselves living a dream version of their life, where their deepest desires have come to pass. It was deeply interesting to see what each member of the crew’s desires where, and it says a lot about each of their personalities and mindsets, while also showing what some of them think about their fellow crew members. For example, Mal’s vision of a happy life with Inara speaks volumes about his true feelings for her after she left Serenity, especially as in this dream he would be willing to live on an Alliance planet just to make her happy. Jayne’s vision of a peaceful life on the family ranch with his brother cured of his terminal illness seems quite at odds with his usual gruff exterior, and it was nice to see that there is more to his character than his desire for violence and money. Simon, who misses the family life and medical career he left behind, imagines a seemingly nice sequence in which he and River are back home safe, but which also includes a relationship with Kaylee. I personally really enjoyed seeing Zoe’s vision of the Independence winning the battle for Serenity Valley and the Unification War, which made for some fascinating alternate history scenes, and which shows that she still is not over how the war ended. I also had to laugh at Wash owning a company called Pteranodon Incorporated in his dreams, due to his love of dinosaurs.

While it was really intriguing to see what each of the characters deepest desires were, it was also cool to see these desires get turned into nightmarish scenarios. The second part of the novel becomes significantly darker as each of these scenarios dissolve into truly terrible situations that play into the characters fears. Lovegrove comes up with some compelling and at times horrifying alterations to each character’s desires, and it was interesting to see each of them unfold. For example, you have a Reaver ship coming down near Mal’s new family home, Wash getting his company taken away by an unlikely source, and Simon finding himself being literally hunted by his family for pursuing a relationship with a mechanic rather than a rich, socially acceptable woman. Each of these changes in scenarios made for some great reading, and I also liked how they also revealed some more details about each character’s inner psyches, such as Simon assuming that his formal family would approve of his budding romance with Kaylee, or the fact that Zoe was always cautious of the mysterious Shepherd Book, and had suspicions about what his past could of have been. Even River, who is the only person who realises that what she is seeing is a dream, is affected by what she and the others think, which limits her ability to save the ship, adding a whole new layer of suspense to the story. Actually, the whole River character arc is actually really exciting, as she ends up bouncing around each of the other character’s nightmares. It was intriguing to see the various ways that she communicated with these characters, especially as she is significantly more mentally intact in these interconnected dreams. The inclusion of all these compelling visions and nightmares really enhances the entirety of The Ghost Machine’s narrative, and it was a fantastic and clever story element.

Overall, The Ghost Machine is an outstanding and wildly entertaining Firefly tie-in novel that was an amazing treat to read. James Lovegrove has come up with an imaginative story, full of action and excitement that also gets right to the heart of several key characters from the television show. I really loved the multiple creative dream sequences that made up most of the book, and it made for an extremely fascinating story. This was an awesome and addictive novel, and it is a must-read book for all fans of the Firefly franchise.

Song of the Risen God by R. A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God Cover

Publisher: Audible Studios (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Coven trilogy – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore brings his Coven trilogy to an explosive and enthralling end with the third and final novel, Song of the Risen God.

The Coven trilogy is an exciting series that Salvatore has been writing over the last three years, which is set in the world of Corona, the setting of his previous series, The DemonWars Saga. This new trilogy follows the adventures of an interesting group of characters in the lands surrounding Loch Beag, including the imposing mountain, Fireach Speuer. The first two novels in this series, Child of a Mad God and Reckoning of Fallen Gods, have both been extremely good, and I have been enjoying reading some of Salvatore’s non-Forgotten Realms fantasy work. I am a massive fan of Salvatore’s writing and I have been looking forward to finishing this series off for some time now. Salvatore certainly did not disappoint with the final entry in this trilogy, as this final novel is potentially my favourite book in the entire series.

War has once again come to the world of Corona, as a new evil leads its forces on a mission of conquest and destruction. The wild lands surrounding Loch Beag and Fireach Speuer have never been peaceful, but now a massive army of invaders is marching across them, determined to conquer and kill all before them. These mysterious invaders are the Xoconai, a lost race of humanoids from the other side of Fireach Speaur. Now, with their reborn god leading the charge on his mighty dragon, the Xoconai are commanded to expand their empire to the opposing coast.

With no hope of defeating the vast host that has suddenly appeared above them, the few surviving inhabitants of the villages surrounding Loch Beag flee through the wilds to find sanctuary. Led by the powerful witch Aoelyn, the frontiersman Talmadge and the ranger Aydrian Wyndon, the villagers move towards the apparent safety of Honce-the-Bear, the most powerful human kingdom in Corona. There they hope to warn the people of Honce-the-Bear of the approaching danger and gather a force that can push back the Xoconai.

However, the dark ambition of the Xoconai god, Scathmizzane, knows no limit, and his magical powers are as vast as they are terrifying in their origin. Using these powers, Scathmizzane is able to accelerate the Xoconai invasion at a tremendous pace, striking right at the heart of Honce-the-Bear, and managing to overpower both their armies and the magic of the Abellican monks. As the Xoconai horde advances, it falls to Aoelyn, Aydrian and their companions to stop them by any means necessary. But can even the most powerful magic user on the continent and a fallen king be able to throw back the invading armies, or will Scathmizzane’s dark power fall across all the lands?

Song of the Risen God is a really impressive and captivating read that provides the reader with an entertaining adventure in one of Salvatore’s detailed and expansive fantasy universe. This final book in the Coven trilogy is a cool addition to the trilogy that not only acts as a satisfactory conclusion to this new series but which also ties it even more firmly into the wider world of Corona.

This book contains an epic and wide-ranging narrative that showcases the dramatic aftermath of the second novel in the series, Reckoning of the Fallen Gods, which saw a massive army and a dragon-riding god descend on the isolated setting of the first two novels. In this third novel, the protagonists are chased all the way to one of this world’s key settings, the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, where they must fight to save the world from the invading horde. This turned out to be a rather interesting departure from the previous novels in the Coven trilogy, which were much smaller in their scope, tending to focus on a handful of closely related villages in a single location. I actually liked this change of pace, as it made for a much more impressive conclusion, and I quite enjoyed seeing the characters interact with the wider world. This turned out to be an extremely exciting and fast-paced novel that contained a lot of entertaining action and large-scale battle sequences, although the author does not skimp on the intriguing dialogue, creative world building or compelling character development. Salvatore utilises a host of point-of-view characters to tell this story from a variety of different angles, which leads to a rich and comprehensive overall narrative. I am also glad that the author continues to feature in-world texts at the beginning of each part of the novel, which provides some fascinating insights into some characters, and contains some clues about a big twist towards the end of Song of the Risen God. Overall, this was an extremely captivating story with a great blend of elements, and I had a fantastic time reading it.

One of the more distinctive parts of Song of the Risen God is how it connects with some of the previous books set in the world of Corona. Corona is a unique fantasy world created by Salvatore, which has previously served as the setting for 13 novels, including the previous two Coven books. The first seven of these books are all part of the same series, known as The DemonWars Saga, which established many elements of this world, including the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, the Abellican order of monks and the world’s gem based magical system. The Coven series has always been set in Corona, but the first novel in this trilogy, Child of a Mad God, had very little to do with these prior books. More of a connection was established in Reckoning of Fallen Gods, especially with the appearance of Aydrian, who was a major figure in the later DemonWars books. However, in Song of the Risen God, Salvatore fully combines this trilogy with his prior series, by bringing the protagonists and antagonists of the previous Coven books into the main location of The DemonWars Saga and having them interact with these established characters and settings.

Immersing this series more fully into the wider fantasy world was an interesting choice from Salvatore, and it one of the major things that distinguishes Song of the Risen God from the previous books in the trilogy. This was not a sudden or random decision from Salvatore, as there have been hints that this was going to happen in the previous two books, especially once Aydrian was introduced as a major character. I rather enjoyed the way that Salvatore so dramatically expanded the setting and started using elements from The DemonWars Saga in this novel, as it made for a much more expansive and fascinating story. I never actually read any of the books in The DemonWars Saga (a regrettable gap in my Salvatore knowledge), and before reading Song of the Risen God, I had no real idea what happened in this series, aside from what was discussed in the second Coven novel. However, I found that you really didn’t need any pre-existing knowledge of these earlier books, as Salvatore spends a good amount of time explaining some of the major story events that occurred during these novels and how they impact the current plot. As a result, at no point while reading Song of the Risen God was I in anyway confused by what was going on, and I always had a good idea how the plot was tied into the wider universe. I really appreciated being able to enjoy the entirety of the plot without having to read The DemonWar Saga first (which admittedly sounds pretty awesome, and I might have to check them out at some point), and I think that Salvatore did a fantastic job recapping the events of this prior series in text. Fans of The DemonWars Saga will no doubt like the fact that Salvatore is once again exploring this world, and many will be interested in seeing how much the universe has changed in the intervening years, as well as the major developments that occur as part of Song of the Risen God.

As I mentioned above, Song of the Risen God is the third and final book in the Coven trilogy, which does mean that this book might be a bit harder to follow for those readers who try to jump into the series at the very end (although that would be true for any trilogy). Salvatore does do a good job of recapping and exploring some of the key events of the first two novels, so most readers should be able to follow it well enough. I think that Song of the Risen God proved to be a great conclusion to the entire trilogy, as all of the major storylines were wrapped up rather well. The ending of the book also suggests that Salvatore is planning an additional Corona based series in the future, and if so, it is likely to focus on some of the major characters from the Coven trilogy. I personally would be extremely interested in a follow up series to these books, especially after all the major events that occurred in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what Salvatore cooks up next.

One of the major highlights of Song of the Risen God was the incredible raft of characters. This book had a massive and diverse group of characters featured within it, including the protagonists of the previous two books, characters from The DemonWars Saga and original characters who appeared for the first time within this book. Salvatore did a fantastic job diving down into several of these protagonists, and there was some rather intriguing character development that occurred throughout Song of the Risen God, most of which has some interesting roots in some of Salvatore’s previous novels.

A good portion of the book focuses on Aoelyn, who has served as the main protagonist for the first two Coven novels. Aoelyn is a witch who has spent the previous books trying to escape the clutches of her vicious tribe, the Usgar. In this novel, Aoelyn finally has her freedom, and finds herself in a brand new world, although she still seems to be dealing with some of the same prejudices and problems that occurred amongst the Usgar. Aoelyn spends a good portion of this book continuing to come to terms with her magical powers, which both define her and frighten her, as she has seen how magic can corrupt individuals, and she also attempts to take responsibility for the Xoconai invasion, which she inadvertently caused by killing a demon in the first Coven novel. I felt that Salvatore covered her character arc rather well, and there were quite a few intriguing moments, including Aoelyn making new friends and finding closure with some of the antagonists from the first two novels. I also liked some of the interesting developments that occurred towards the end of the novel with Aoelyn, which not only impact her outlook on life, but which may have some major impacts on any future Corona novels that feature her.

In addition to Aoelyn, quite a few other characters have some fantastic moments within Song of the Risen God. Bahdlahn, the former Usgar slave and Aoelyn’s childhood friend, probably had the most dramatic character development of all within this novel, as he grew and grew with every new encounter and experience within the plot. You cannot help but get attached to Bahdlahn, especially as he goes from wide-eyed former slave who had barely seen anything of the world, all the way up to an elite knight and resistance fighter in Honce-the-Bear. Bahdlahn is another character who has some interesting developments towards the end of this novel, and it looks like Salvatore has some big plans for him in the future. The former Usgar witch Connebragh also has a rather fascinating, if shorter, storyline within this book, as she befriends two former inhabitants of the lakeside villages, despite the long hostility between her tribe and theirs, and helps them survive the Xoconai invasion. The frontier explorers Talmadge and Khotai are also well utilised towards the front of the book, and there are some great moments with them, especially as Khotai regains her mobility in a rather unique way, although both disappear for the last third of the book. Salvatore also invests time in showing the viewpoint of a couple of key Xoconai characters, which I think really adds a lot to the story. Rather than having the Xoconai solely being mindless followers of Scathmizzane, these character perspectives help show them as being rather similar to humans, and two characters in particular have some very interesting viewpoints that lead them to question the word of their god as they attempt to fight his holy war.

All of these character arcs are great, but my personal favourite has to be the one surrounding Aydrian Wyndon. Aydrian is a major character within The DemonWars Saga, as the son of the original protagonists, who eventually became the main antagonist of the series after being possessed by a demon. Freed from his corruption at the end of the series and banished from Honce-the-Bear, which he ruled for a brief time, Aydrian has taken up the role of a ranger, which led to him meeting and helping the protagonists of the Coven series in the previous novel. In this book, he finds the threat of the Xoconai so great that he is forced to return to Honce-the-Bear, despite his banishment, to warn his former people. This leads to several outstanding scenes where he revisits the hurt and despair that he previously caused as a despotic and murderous king, and it serves as a fantastic defining characteristic as he searches for redemption. Aydrian has an absolutely incredible storyline throughout this novel, and his inclusion really added a whole lot to the overall narrative.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, I also have to once again highlight some of the enjoyable fantasy elements that Salvatore includes in this novel. At the fore of this is the cool gem-based magic that is one of the defining features of the stories set in Corona. This gem magic is an excellent concept, and it proved to be particularly fascinating in this novel as Aoelyn, a self-taught magical gem user, encounters members of the Abellican Church, who also use this form of magic, although in an apparently lesser way. Salvatore makes full use of all this cool magic throughout Song of the Risen God, and there are some rather impressive and destructive examples of the universe’s various magics, which were a lot of fun to see. I really enjoyed some of the cool and unique fantasy elements contained within this book, and it was a rather exciting addition to the story.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Song of the Risen God rather than grabbing a physical copy. This audiobook runs for just over 17 hours and is narrated by Tim Gerald Reynolds, who has provided narration for several of Salvatore’s previous books, including the other Coven books. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and it proved to be a fantastic way to absorb and experience the cool story and the intriguing settings and characters. This is a bit of a longer audiobook and it took me over a week to fully listen to it, although my audiobook listening schedule has been a bit messed up lately. I felt that Reynolds did a really good job narrating this audiobook, and his fantastic voice really helped me get sucked into this fun story. Reynolds had a great handle on all the characters featured within Song of the Risen God, and I liked all the voices that he came up with for them. I ended up having an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and this is a truly excellent format to enjoy this novel in.

Song of the Risen God is a very impressive and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel that comes highly recommended. R. A. Salvatore once again shows why he is one of my favourite authors as he produces a slick and captivating read which is not only fantastic in its own right but which concludes an epic trilogy and ties it into a wider fantasy universe. This proved to be an absolutely amazing read, and I think I have to award it a full five-star rating based on how much fun I had listening to it. Salvatore has done it once again, and I look forward to checking out his next book in a few months.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri

To the Strongest Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Trade Paperback – 2 January 2020)

Series: Alexander’s Legacy – Book One

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

War and chaos are about to be unleashed following the death of history’s greatest conqueror in the new epic historical fiction novel from amazing author Robert Fabbri, To the Strongest, the first book in his new Alexander’s Legacy series.

This is a clever and compelling new novel from Robert Fabbri, who has successfully moved away from historical Rome to ancient Greece and Macedonia. I am a massive fan of Fabbri’s writing, and he is probably one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment due to his work on the incredibly entertaining Vespasian series. His last several novels have all been rather top notch (check out my reviews for the eighth and ninth book in the series, Rome’s Sacred Flame and Emperor of Rome, as well as the associated short story collection, Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood), and I have been really looking forward to reading To the Strongest for a while now. I actually read this book a few months ago, but I am only just getting around to writing a review for it now. This is not because I didn’t enjoy the book; on the contrary, I absolutely loved it, I just got a little distracted after reading this book and kept forgetting to come back to it (to be fair, it’s been a rather hectic year). Now that I have a little time, I thought I would go back and review this great book, contains a clever and intriguing story concept.

“I foresee great struggles at my funeral games.”

Babylon, 323 BC. After bringing together one of the largest and most expansive empires the world has ever seen, Alexander the Great lies dying at a young age, and no one is truly prepared for his passing. With no legitimate heir yet born, and no obvious frontrunner to succeed Alexander as ruler of the conquered lands that make up the Macedonian empire, his loyal followers assemble at his death bed and beg him to reveal who he will leave the empire to. Alexander’s answer is simple: “To the strongest.”

Now the entire empire is up for grabs, and it does not take long for the prediction laden within Alexander’s final words to come to pass. As the news of the king’s death travel throughout the land, many seek to take advantage, either to take control themselves, or to better their own personal situation. The empire soon dissolves into a ruthless battle for the throne, as the various parties scramble for power, with shifting alliances, devious betrayals and far-ranging schemes becoming the new norm.

But in the end, only one will emerge victorious. Will it be Perdikkas, the loyal bodyguard who Alexander seeming left this ring to (the Half-Chosen); Roxanna, Alexander’s wife who bears his unborn heir (the wildcat); Antipatros, the man left behind to govern Macedonia (the Regent); his most capable warriors Krateros (the General) or Antigonos (the One-Eyed); the devious Olympias (the Mother); the clever Ptolemy (the Bastard); or the sneaky Greek advisor Eumenes (the Sly). Which man or woman has the cunning or ruthlessness to outlast the others and survive? Let the struggles begin!

What a fun and fascinating piece of historical fiction. Fabbri has crafted together an epic and clever novel that tells the outrageous true story of the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s life. Told from the perspective of a number of major figures who fought or schemed throughout this period of history, Fabbri turns all these events into an outstanding and enjoyable story that proves extremely hard to put down at times. Containing a compelling writing style, several excellent battle sequences and numerous betrayals, manipulations and shifting loyalties, this is an impressive first entry in the Alexander’s Legacy series, which does an excellent job setting up all the initial conflicts that were caused in the initial aftermath of Alexander’s death while also leaving a lot of room for the series to advance into the future.

To the Strongest is a fantastic and entertaining novelisation of some rather intriguing events from ancient history that do not get a lot of coverage in modern fiction. I think the thing that I liked the most about this book is the fact that most of the crazy events that Fabbri features within it actually happened in one shape or form, or are recorded as such in the historical record. The period of history post-Alexander the Great is not one that I am massively familiar with, and so I did a bit of reading into it after I finished To the Strongest, mainly because I was rather curious to see how much of this actually happened. It turns out that nearly all of the craziest events that occurred, such as the brutal murder of several of Alexander’s wives, the theft of his corpse by one of the characters, and a particularly disastrous river crossing with a troupe of war elephants, really did occur, and required very little literary embellishment on Fabbri’s part to make this any more exciting and compelling. I really loved learning about all these cool moments from history, and I think that Fabbri did an amazing job converting these myriad events into a cohesive and enjoyable narrative. From what I understand, there are plenty more battles and betrayals to go, and I am rather looking forward to seeing the full scope of these events unfold in future books.

In order to tell his story, Fabbri utilises a number of different character perspectives from a large roster of unique historical figures. There are 11 point-of-view characters featured within this novel, each of whom narrate multiple chapters within the book. Fabbri has provided each of these characters with their own nickname and symbol, both of which help to distinguish the character and to highlight certain character elements or parts of their history. The use of these multiple character perspectives makes for quite an interesting novel, as it allows the reader to see a much wider viewpoint of the conflicts occurring around the entire empire, as well as the multiple sides involved in it. This mixture of character-specific chapters also allows the reader to get something different out of each chapter, as chapters that follow a warrior will feature more battle sequences, while other chapters are geared more towards political fights or intrigue. This mixture works really well, and it helps to produce a diverse novel with various compelling story elements to it. The chapters are not evenly distributed between the characters, with some getting multiple chapters throughout the course of the book, while others only get a few chapters here in there. Two characters in particular only appear in one half of the book each, with one getting killed off about halfway through, while another only appears a while after. Most of this is due to the fact that some characters were not as prominent in history until a later date, and I imagine that some of these characters will be utilised more significantly in later books.

I liked Fabbri’s take on all the characters contained within the novel, and he came up with a great group of historical people to centre this story on. I thought that he did a fantastic job portraying the sort of vicious and manipulative sort of people who would have tried to take advantage of the situation, and these are the sort the sort of characters that Fabbri excelled at creating in his previous Vespasian series. There are some truly enjoyable characters amongst the main 11 point-of-view historical figures, although I personally enjoyed the parts of the book that featured the Greek advisor Eumenes (the Sly). Eumenes is an exceedingly clever individual who is generally looked down upon within Alexander’s Macedonian empire due to his Greek heritage. Despite this, Eumenes is able to gain quite a bit of power and influence in the post-Alexander era by advising and working with some of the other characters, and is generally the most politically capable out of all of them. As a result, you see quite a bit of him, as not only does he has a large number of his own chapters but he also appears in a number of other characters’ point-of-view chapters, attempting to negotiate or advise these characters to a beneficial course of action. Watching him try and deal with all the other characters is pretty entertaining, especially as they are all rather dismissive of him at times, while he is clearly exasperated by their behaviours and desires, especially with one particular character who he sides with but who completely ignores some of his better suggestions.

Aside from the 11 point-of-view characters, Fabbri has also included a huge group of interesting side characters, most of whom were real-life historical figures. These side characters do a good job of bolstering the story set around the point-of-view characters, and it was intriguing to see how their arcs played out through the course of the story. Fair warning, there are a quite a few side characters utilised throughout the story, which can get a little confusing at times. Fabbri did however include a useful character list in the back of the novel which I did find myself occasionally referencing to keep track of who was who, and which proved to be rather helpful. Overall, I thought that this turned out to be a great group of diverse characters, and I am looking forward to seeing how the surviving members of the cast progress in future books.

I did have a slight criticism with how the book was set out, particularly relating to the spacing between paragraphs. Now, I would usually say that complaining about how a paragraph is formatted is rather nit-picky, but in this case, it was a bit of a legitimate problem. In the version of To the Strongest that I had, there were no breaks between any of the paragraphs, and usually this was not too much of a problem (even if it did make the pages a tad blocky). However, there was also a complete lack of spacing between two paragraphs that are parts of two separate scenes within the same chapter. This means that there are no obvious breaks between certain scenes within the novel, as the next paragraph could be the same scene or a whole new scene altogether, and this had a bit of an impact of how the story flowed throughout. For example, there are a number of places where you have some of the characters talking about one thing, and the next paragraph could either be a continuation of that same scene, or a completely new sequence set several days or weeks in the future. Several times throughout his book, I would get completely lost about what is happening when I started reading the next paragraph without realising that it had jumped to a whole new scene in the future. While it was fine, and I was able to get back into the flow of things once I realised what had happened, it did lead to several moments of confusion, which I think could have been avoided by placing a line break to indicate when a certain scene had ended. While this is a rather minor issue, it did keep recurring throughout the book, and I felt that it should have been avoided. Still, the epic story more than made up for it, and this formatting only had a minor impact on my overall enjoyment of To The Strongest.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri is an amazing and exciting historical fiction novel that I had a fantastic time reading. Fabbri has chosen an extremely intriguing historical period to explore within this novel, and his excellent portrayal of the chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great makes for an outstanding story. I loved how the author used his vast array of historical characters to showcase all the potential battles and manipulation that occurred during this time, and it helped to create a fun and unique read. This is a first-rate read from Fabbri, and I cannot wait to read all the future books in this cool historical fiction series.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7: Gen’s Story by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Gen's Story

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1996)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Seven

Length: 187 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 week’s Throwback Thursday, I once again dive into the wonderful world of Usagi Yojimbo and review the seventh volume of this incredible ongoing comic series, Gen’s Story. I have been really enjoying going back and reviewing the older volumes of this fantastic comic by legendary writer and artist Stan Sakai, and this seventh volume is another excellent addition to the series that I always have a terrific time reading.

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Gen’s Story is an amazing example of a Usagi Yojimbo volume, which contains several short stories, each of which shows a unique tale set within the series’ clever version of feudal Japan populated with anthropomorphised animals. Each of the individual stories in this volume is rather good, and together they form a fantastic volume that not only introduces a recurring side-character but which also explores the backstory of another key character and serves as a perfect end note for one of the series’ best character arcs. This volume is made up of issues #32-38 of the Fantagraphics Books run on Usagi Yojimbo, as well as a story from Critters #38, which makes Gen’s Story a tad longer than a typical volume. All of these issues make for an awesome read, and Gen’s Story is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series.

The first story contained within this volume is the fun and enjoyable tale, Kitsune. In this story Usagi encounters a talented street performer, Kitsune, who entertains the crowd with the tricks she can perform with her koma (spinning tops). However, Kitsune is much more than a simple entertainer; she is also an extremely skilled thief and pickpocket who manages to take Usagi’s purse without him realising it. This forces Usagi to stay late at an inn, washing dishes to pay for his meal, which results in him witnessing and intervening in an altercation between a notorious gambler and some local gangsters. Deciding to help the gambler under the mistaken belief that he is an innocent merchant, Usagi attempts to escort him out of town, where the two encounter Kitsune again just before the gangsters attack, leading to a fight in the streets.

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Kitsune is an entertaining story that works well as a suitably light-hearted start to the entire volume (get a fun story in before the feels start). The whole of this story is really amusing from the very start, and it contains some great comedy elements, from Usagi getting taken advantage of by Kitsune and the way he doesn’t initially realise that the person he is helping out is the same gambler who previously led a mob against him in A Kite Story, which was part of the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This leads to a great scenario where the gambler is forced to rely on Usagi for protection, while silently hoping that he will not remember who he is or what he previously did. Of course, Usagi eventually figures out who he is, thanks to the gambler’s boasting, and this results in a great end to the whole farcical tale. This issue also serves as an excellent introduction to the character of Kitsune, who goes on to become a major recurring figure within the Usagi Yojimbo stories. Sakai does a fantastic job showing off Kitsune’s personality and skills as a thief throughout this story, and I also love all the cool drawings he does of Kitsune’s various tricks with the spinning tops. Kitsune’s entire arc throughout this story is great, and I love how Usagi was able to get even with her at the very end, which is a fun prequel to all their future encounters. The combination of an entertaining plot, a great character introduction and an enjoyable call-back to a previous story helps to make Kitsune an excellent first entry in this volume, and I had an amazing time reading it.

The second story in this volume is the short entry Gaki. Gaki is quick and amusing story that follows a young Usagi back when he was a student under the tutelage of his sword master Katsuichi. After one of Katsuichi’s typical lessons, which sees Usagi receive a smack to the head, Usagi attempts to retaliate, striking a blow that seemingly kills his master and causes his ghost to start haunting Usagi. Of course, it ends up being a whole big misdirection, but it results in a fun sequence in which young Usagi is chased by a vengeful spirit, which all leads to a humorous conclusion. The highlight of this quick tale has to be the amazing drawings of the vengeful spirit and the pure terror that appears on the face of the young Usagi, all of which are way out of proportion to Gaki’s rather innocent story. All of this makes for an entertaining second inclusion in Gen’s Story, and it, together with the first story, provides readers with a fun start to this volume.

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The third story is where we start getting to the heavier narratives of this volume, as the reader is treated to the supernatural tale, Broken Ritual. This story sees Usagi walking late at night through a small village filled with an unnatural amount of fear, especially after a loud and terrifying wail breaks the silence. Talking to the townsfolk, Usagi learns that the village, which is located close to the site of the battle of Adachi Plain, is haunted by one of Usagi’s old comrades, General Tadaoka, who died following the battle in the midst of an incomplete seppuku ritual. Now, due to the shame of having a dishonourable death at the hands of an unworthy and unnamed enemy, Tadaoka’s spectre appears in the spot where he died each full moon, letting out a wail of anguish. Upon hearing this tale, Usagi decided to try and help end the suffering of his former comrade and manages to help the spirt pass peacefully by successfully performing the seppuku ritual on the ghost.

Broken Ritual is an impressive and gripping story of honour and duty which is easily one of the best inclusions in this volume. This is one of those stories that really sticks in the reader’s mind, and the whole concept of samurai honour, even from beyond the grave, is a really fascinating central plot aspect. I loved the exploration of the seppuku ritual, and the supernatural elements of this story play into this really well, as it highlights just how important an honourable death is to a samurai like Tadaoka, so much so that he came back from the grave to ensure it was done properly. Sakai’s art is in top form for this volume, and his outstanding depiction of a wartime seppuku ritual is absolutely incredible. The intense facial expressions of Tadaoka during the seppuku scenes are particularly enthralling, and Sakai does a fantastic job of showing the pain and concentration that would have been on such a person’s face. All of this leads to a deeply captivating story, and it is amazing the sort of gripping tale Sakai can spin together in single issue.

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The fourth story in this volume is the shorter story, The Tangled Skein, which is the story that was originally featured in Critters #38. This is a creepy, quick story that follows Usagi in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Adachi Plain. Fleeing from the victorious troops of Lord Hikiji, Usagi attempts to hide in a dark forest known as The Tangled Skein, which is rumoured to be filled with all manner of haunts. Naturally, Usagi runs into one of these haunts, a demon disguised as a helpful old lady, and he must try to escape her clutches with help from the most unlikely of sources. This was an awesome supernatural storyline that I quite enjoyed, especially as the story once again highlights some of the philosophies surrounding samurai honour and what duties a samurai has to his lord, and vice versa. Fast-paced, exciting and with a surprisingly poignant moral to its story, The Tangled Skein is great entry to the volume, and I am glad that Sakai included it.

The next story in this volume is simply call Gen, and it is the major storyline contained within Gen’s Story. Made up of three Usagi Yojimbo issues, this is an excellent story of revenge and obsession that also continues the theme of the last few stories by looking at samurai honour and obligation. This story also reveals the full backstory of the always amusing and enjoyable recurring side character Gen and shows how he came to be a bounty hunter. The story is broken into three separate parts by issue, with the first part called Lady Asano’s Story, the second part called Sins of the Father and the third and final part titled Lady Asano’s Revenge.

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Naturally, Gen revolves around the character Gen, who Usagi once again meets out in the wilds, and helps him claim his latest bounty. Recovering from this fight in a nearby town, Usagi shares a meal with a destitute noblewoman and her retainer. The noblewomen, Lady Asano, is on the hunt for her husband’s murderer, a former advisor who betrayed him for great reward, and her exhaustive 20-year long quest has left her poor and on her own. The story is interrupted by the arrival of Gen, who is revealed to be the son of the great General Murakami, the most revered retainer of the Asano clan, and whose family owes allegiance to Lady Asano. Gen, bitter at the years his hard and disciplined father spent dragging him and his mother around the countryside hunting the murderer, an event that led to the death of Gen’s mother and Gen becoming a bounty hunter, refuses to help Lady Asano. However, once Lady Asano and Usagi are captured by the murderous advisor, revealed to be the town’s magistrate, Gen attempts to help, leading to an emotional and violent confrontation.

This was another excellent story that had a number of fantastic elements to it. It was great to finally get Gen’s backstory revealed, as Gen promised to tell his story all the way back in the second volume, Samurai. This was actually a rather tragic backstory for Gen, and I really liked seeing it, especially as it fits in really well with Gen’s character, not only explaining why he is so eager to fight for money but also why he is so dismissive and distrustful of honourable samurai, who must remind him of his father. Sakai makes sure to wrap up Gen’s personal history rather well within this story, as Gen gets some closure with his father towards the end of the story in one of the few instances that we see a really serious and emotionally wrought Gen. I also liked how Sakai continued to explore the concept of samurai honour within this story, especially the obsession and hurt that it can cause. We got to see the negative impacts that having an extremely loyal and honourable samurai as a father had on Gen, and Sakai also focused on the obsession for revenge and redemption that existed within Lady Asano, which not only drove her into poverty but also gave her the strength to finally get her revenge. The sequence where the dying Lady Asano slowly advanced towards the target of her wrath was pretty intense, and she almost appeared demonic as she slowly moved to get her revenge. Other cool highlights of the story include the huge pitched battle that occurred between the protagonists and their opponents’ retainers in the magistrate’s compound, and the continued fun banter between Usagi and Gen, which adds some much needed humour into this heavier story. Overall, this is an impressive and addictive expanded story, that achieves a lot of fantastic character development and which serves as an excellent focus of this entire volume.

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The next story contained within this volume is another lighter story, The Return of Kitsune. In this story, Usagi, who is accompanied by Gen, once again encounters Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks of street performances and pickpocketing. This time, however, she accidently steals a valuable letter meant for a corrupt local merchant, and she is subsequently hunted through the streets until she runs into Usagi and Gen. Usagi and Gen was work together to save Kitsune from the merchant, even if they cannot agree on what the best course of action is.

The Return of Kitsune is probably one of the funniest inclusions in this volume. The highlight of this entry has to be the first meeting between the two fun side characters, Kitsune and Gen. These two characters play off each other extremely well, and you cannot help but chuckle at the exasperated expression on Usagi’s face as the Gen and Kitsune begin to flirt with each other. I also enjoyed seeing the opposing philosophies of Usagi and Gen clash throughout this story, as Usagi wants to intervene to save lives, while Gen wants to stay out of the whole thing and claims that Usagi is too nosey. This whole argument proves to be a rather entertaining part of the story, and it results in some excellent scenes towards the end of the story, especially when Usagi takes Gen’s advice about minding his own business and fails to tell his friend that Kitsune stole his purse.

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The final entry in this volume is the outstanding narrative, The Last Ino Story, which serves as the last appearance of one of the best recurring characters to appear in the earlier volumes of this series. In The Last Ino Story, Usagi and Gen are taking one of Gen’s infamous shortcuts late at night and find themselves ambushed by bandits while traversing a narrow path along the side of a cliff. Managing to outsmart their attackers, Usagi and Gen seek shelter in a nearby abandoned hut, where they find themselves confronted by a young woman who is attempting to defend her wounded husband. Able to make their way inside, they find that the woman’s husband is none other than the Zato Ino, who has settled down and abandoned his violent ways after his last encounter with Usagi and Gen. Gravely wounded by the same bandits Usagi and Gen encountered, Ino appears close to death and the two samurai must work quickly if they are to save him and ensure he gets to live the life he rightly deserves.

The Last Ino Story is an outstanding and emotionally rich story which is an amazing way to finish this entire volume off. This last entry in this volume contains a great story in its own right, especially as it serves as a fantastic conclusion to one of the best character arcs in the series, that of Zato Ino. Ino was introduced all the way back in the first volume, The Ronin, as a blind outlaw who was trying to find a quiet place to settle down and rid himself of his life of violence, but whose efforts were constantly disrupted by his large bounty and the hunters chasing him. However, as the series progressed and Usagi kept meeting him, he grew as a character, from him gaining his first true friend in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, to him finally finding a home and family after the events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. This final appearance from him (and it is indeed the last time that you see him), serves as a perfect send off to him, as Usagi and Gen, the only two people who knew his past and gave him a chance, find out that he ended up having a the peaceful life he always wanted and has even more happiness on the way. As a result, this is a perfect story for those readers who got attached to the character of Ino through the first volumes of the series, and it was great to see his story come to a satisfying end.

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I also liked Gen’s character arc throughout this story, especially once he finds out that Ino was the injured man in the barn. Gen and Ino have a complicated past, as Gen was initially trying to hunt Ino down for his bounty during their first encounter, and Ino ended up saving his life. In order to repay him, Gen dragged the injured Ino out of the castle before it exploded and told everyone, including Usagi, that Ino had died, in order to ensure that the blind pig would no longer be hunted and could settle down. In this story, Gen, upon seeing the man he saved once again dying, loses his cool and begins to take his rage out on an owl that has been stalking him throughout the course of the book, which he sees as an omen of death. Watching Gen constantly run out into the rain to chase away an owl is amusing on the surface, but it also reveals his deeper feelings that he usually keeps hidden: “The one decent thing I did was give him his peace, and you won’t take it away!” His determination to keep Ino alive because of this is a real change from his usual behaviour, and it helps underline that deep down Gen is a good character, even if he reverts to his usual gruff self the moment he knows Ino is fine. I also liked how the whole saga with the owl ended up, and it was a fun little turn around on the bird being an omen of death. Other highlights of this story include the cool battle sequence towards the front when Usagi and Gen manage to climb up the cliff and face the bandits trying to kill them. The five panels which show this fight are really cool, from the way that the grim faced Usagi and Gen are framed in the moonlight, the close-up of the bandits faces as they charge, the shot of Usagi’s bloody sword, and the way the fight is only alluded to by the sound effects that have been written in, makes for a great sequence that I really liked. All in all, The Last Ino Story is a first-rate inclusion, and it leaves the reader with a memorable and emotionally substantial ending to this volume.

The seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, is another incredible addition to this awesome and deeply enjoyable series. Each of the entries within this excellent volume are outstanding reads, containing complex characters, fantastic narrative arcs and Sakai’s impressive artwork. Gen’s Story gets another five-star review from me, and Stan Sakai has once again shown why he is one of my favourite creative minds.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Vader Down

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 19 April 2016)

Series: Crossover – Featuring Issues from Star Wars (2015) and Darth Vader (2015)

Writers: Jason Aaron (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Kieron Gillen (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Artists: Mike Deodato (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Salvador Larroca (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Colourists: Frank Martin Jr (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Edgar Delgado (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Letterers: VC’s Joe Caramagna (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Darth Vader #13 – 15) and Chris Eliopoulos (Star Wars #13-14)

Length: 152 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 this latest Throwback Thursday I go back and look at the epic and deeply enjoyable Star Wars comic book crossover extravaganza, Star Wars: Vader Down.

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Vader Down was a crossover, published in late 2015 and early 2016, of two of the best Star Wars comic series at the time, Star Wars (2015) and Darth Vader (2015). These two series ran side by side during this period and were set between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and expanded the new Disney Star Wars canon. Both of these series were extremely good in their own right, with some very impressive comics during their early run (check out my reviews for some of these earlier volumes, Skywalker Strikes, Vader and Shadows and Secrets, all three of which got five-star reviews from me). These two comics ended up converging during the events of this crossover, with both series’ creative teams pooling their efforts to tell an exciting and action-packed tale. Vader Down is made up of a single introductory issue (Star Wars: Vader Down #1), two issues of Star Wars (2015) (issues #13-14) and three issues of Darth Vader (issues #13-15)

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Darth Vader is a man on a mission. Ever since he discovered that the Rebel Alliance pilot who destroyed the Death Star was Luke Skywalker, the son he never knew he had, Vader has been scouring the galaxy for him, determined to claim Luke and use him to take control of the Empire. It finally appears that his patience has been rewarded, as his sources have revealed that Luke is visiting an abandoned Jedi temple on the planet of Vrogas Vas. However, Vader is unaware that he is falling into a trap set by one of his rivals, the Mon Calamari cyborg Commander Karbin. Instead of finding Luke by himself, he discovers an entire Rebel fleet orbiting a planet housing a secret Rebel facility. Despite being outnumbered, Vader is able to fight off the Rebel pilots trying to kill him, until Luke, in a desperate move, smashes his fighter into Vader’s ship, sending them both crashing down to the planet’s surface.

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Now on foot, Vader sets out across the desolate planet to find his wayward son and turn him to the Dark Side of the force. However, the Rebels send a significant force to Vrogas Vas to capture or kill Vader. But even surrounded and outnumbered, Vader is more than a match for anything the Rebels can throw at him, and it seems only a matter of time before he finds his son. Luke’s only hope to survive lies in his friends, as Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 all set out to save him. However, Luke is not the only one with friends on the way, as Vader’s reluctant agent, Doctor Aphra, also sets course to Vrogas Vas in order to save herself from being murdered by her employer for this debacle. By her side are three of the most dangerous beings in the galaxy, the murderous droids Triple-Zero and BT-1, and the vicious Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan.

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As the two sides engage in all-out war across the planet’s surface, neither is aware of the danger coming for both of them. Imperial forces under the command of Commander Karbin have come to Vrogas Vas in the aftermath of the conflict not only to capture Luke but to also kill Vader so that Karbin can take his place by the Emperor’s side. Can Vader and the Rebels survive the onslaught of Karbin and achieve their desires, or is this the end of all of them?

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Wow, wow and wow!! This crossover is just plain incredible as the two talented creative teams of the Star Wars and Darth Vader comic book series come together to create an action-soaked masterpiece. I absolutely loved this fantastic and inventive story, which not only contains a substantial standalone adventure but which advances both series in some rather interesting ways, especially when it comes to separating the character of Dr Aphra and moving her briefly into the Star Wars comic series. The story contained within this volume is really amazing, as it sets a rampaging Darth Vader against a swath of enemies while the great characters from both series face off in a rather entertaining battle of their own. All of this is set to some incredible artwork from the two series’ respective artistic teams, which brings the phenomenal action to life in all its destructive glory. Unsurprisingly, this comic gets a full five-star rating from me, and it is easily one of the best crossover comics that I have ever read.

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Vader Down features six separate comic book issues, including an introductory issue, three issues from the Darth Vader series and two issues from the Star Wars series. Each of these comics has been written and drawn by the creative team of their respective series, with the Star Wars issues written by Jason Aaron and featuring the art of Mike Deodato, Frank Martin Jr and Chris Eliopoulos, while the entries from the Darth Vader comics are written by Kieron Gillen and contain the art of Salvador Larroca, Edgar Delgado and Joe Caramagna. The introductory issue, Star Wars: Vader Down #1, was also written by Aaron and drawn by the Star Wars artistic team (although with Caramagna doing the lettering rather than Eliopoulos), and this allows both creative teams to contribute three separate issues to this crossover. The story is set out in an alternate fashion, with the narrative beginning in Star Wars: Vader Down #1 and then continuing in Darth Vader #13, than going to Star Wars #13 and so on and so forth all the way till the volume’s end at Darth Vader #15. This proved to be quite an interesting way to set out the volume, and I think that it really speaks to the coordination and discussions that must have occurred between the two separate creative teams.

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Like most pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction, Vader Down is naturally geared more towards those established fans of the franchise, especially those who have some history and knowledge of the extended universe. However, I would say that this is definitely a comic that can be enjoyed by casual fans of the Star Wars franchise, especially as the story is very easy to enjoy and appreciate. Readers do not need a massive amount of knowledge about the comic series that are crossing over in order to enjoy Vader Down. I myself had not read any of the Star Wars (2015) comics when I first enjoyed this volume, and I experienced no problems whatsoever following the plot. That being said, it might prove useful to read the first two volumes of the Darth Vader series first, as that serves to introduce several supporting characters in the volume, as well as the main antagonist.

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I felt that one of the biggest strengths of this comic is the way that it utilised and portrayed several iconic Star Wars characters, and I particularly loved how Darth Vader is featured in this crossover. I am a massive fan of the character of Darth Vader, and I am really enjoying how all the current pieces of Star Wars extended fiction portray him as a destructive powerhouse, perhaps as a way to rehabilitate him after the prequel films. However, Vader Down really takes this into overdrive as Vader finds himself alone on a planet surrounded by a vast army of enemies who are hunting him. While on paper it would seem that Vader is at a disadvantage, this really does not prove to be the case, as Vader tears through everyone who stands between him and Luke, often in some particularly devastating manners. Vader comes across as a massive badass in this comic, and I loved every second of it. From the way that he nearly takes out an entire fleet of Rebel fighters right at the beginning (only being stopped by a Kamikaze attack from Luke), to the continuous and effortless destruction of every Rebel he comes across (note to self: never wear grenades anywhere near a Force user), nothing seems to stop Vader, and it is pretty darn impressive.

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I also love how Vader has some of the best lines in this volume as well, from his response to a request from Aphra to run: “I am a lord of the Sith. They are the ones who should be running”, to his fun response to a Rebel leader who tells him that he is surrounded (shown in the midst of a great full double page spread, just to show how surrounded he is): “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.” However, his best line occurs later in the volume when he engages Commander Karbin in a particularly cool looking lightsaber duel. Karbin, whose enhancements make him resemble General Grievous, is gloating about how much better he is than Vader as he can wield four lightsabers to Vader’s one. However Vader, after throwing a massive statue at him simply responds with: “When you wield the power of the Dark Side one lightsaber is all you need”, which I thought was a pretty badass line, which also reveals why you never see Vader bothering with something more fancy like his Inquisitors do. Needless to say, I thought this portrayal of Vader was very epic and awesome, and it definitely is one of my favourite appearances of this character.

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In addition to the amazing use of Darth Vader in this comic, I thought that the creative teams did a great job including the supporting characters from the Darth Vader series, namely Dr Aphra, Triple-Zero, BT-1, and Black Krrsantan. These four characters are, in manner different ways, all rather fun and evil doppelgangers of some of the key characters from the original trilogy. Black Krrsantan is an ultra-violent Wookie bounty hunter, more concerned with killing and money than saving lives like Chewbacca. Triple-Zero is pretty much a snarkier version of C-3PO who delights in torture and mutilation and has the inbuilt tools to back it up. BT-1 is an astromech like R2-D2, except he is loaded up with all manner of firepower and he has a nasty habit of melting anyone he dislikes, and BT-1 dislikes pretty much everything and everyone. Finally, you have Dr Aphra, who is a notorious rogue and thief like Han Solo, except rather more successful. She is also a fully trained archaeologist who uses that ability to rob tombs for valuable artefacts, essentially making her a cross between Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Vader Down is the first time that the supporting characters from the Darth Vader series actually meet their more iconic counterparts, and the results are extremely entertaining.

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There are quite a few great moments throughout this volume where these two groups of characters come together, and they are all pretty fun. Some of my favourites include an extended brawl between the two Wookies, Chewbacca and Black Krrsantan, as they fight to achieve their opposing goals. This turned into quite a brutal matchup and it definitely does not end in the way that most people would expect. There is another cool scene where BT-1 faces off against R2-D2, who is trying to defend Luke from the evil droids. The two get into a vicious argument of beeps (apparently) and R2-D2 pulls out his built-in taser to fight off his opponents. However, BT-1 is rather better armed, and the sudden appearance of a mass of blasters, missiles, a flamethrower and other assorted weapons from BT-1’s chassis is enough to make R2 run off rather quickly, although he gets a measure of revenge later in the volume. Triple-Zero has a fun time imitating C-3PO at one point in the comic (all it takes is a coat of gold paint) and the subsequent meeting between the two protocol droids does not go well for Threepio (let us just say he gets disarmed).

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My favourite out of all these interactions between the classic Star Wars characters and the new ones established in the Darth Vader series has to be the fun meeting between Han Solo and Aphra. Aphra is probably one of my favourite new characters in the current Star Wars canon (make sure to check out my recent review for A Rogue’s End, the seventh volume of her spinoff series), and her fun sense of humour really shines through in this encounter. There is a pretty funny scene towards the front of the book, when Aphra, researching the members of the main Star Wars cast, sees Han Solo and responds with an uber sarcastic: “Han Solo. The Han Solo. Oh me, oh my. What are we going to do facing Han Solo?” When they subsequently meet, Aphra continues to be unimpressed by Solo, deflating his ego over his apparently insubstantial reputation and managing to scare him with her own name. They two share some rather good verbal barbs before the shooting starts, and I think that the writers came up with the best resolution to this fight, which can only be described as an unintentional and funny draw. Overall, I really loved seeing all these fantastic characters coming together in this volume, and it is an impressive and entertaining highlight.

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While most of the character arcs in this book lean more toward either humour or pure destruction, the writers also did a rather good emotional storyline around Princess Leia. Leia arrives on Vrogas Vas to lead the hunt for Vader, and eventually ends up coming face to face with him. As this is the first time Leia has seen Vader since he stood by and watched the destruction of Alderaan, this proves to be a rather hostile meeting, and Leia is overcome with a desire for revenge and is willing to sacrifice herself and her friends to see Vader taken out. There are some great moments throughout Leia’s scenes in the book as she presents her righteous indignation towards Vader, whose response is less than repentant: “This is not a war, Princess. Wars are for lesser men than the Emperor and myself. This is a series of executions. And yours is long overdue.” All of this gets pretty intense, and Leia actually tries to commit suicide at one point in an attempt to take Vader with her. She is eventually broken out of her mission for revenge thanks to an urgent plea for help from C-3PO, who is watching the rest of their group getting attacked and captured. All of this proved to be a rather powerful and emotional storyline within this volume, and I think its inclusion helped to enhance and elevate the entirely of the comic’s plot.

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I also must highlight how impressive the two separate artistic teams were, as both groups of artists come up with some fantastic sequences in Vader Down. As I mentioned above, the issues alternate throughout the volume, and as a result the artistic style of the comic changes with each new issue. There is a rather distinctive difference in the designs and illustrations of the two separate teams, and it proved interesting to jump between these styles each issue. I liked both unique art designs and colourations (with perhaps a slight preference towards the Darth Vader comics style), and I think that they all did an excellent job of portraying the epic story. It actually proved to be rather intriguing to see the separate teams have a go at drawing some of the characters who usually appeared in their counterparts’ comics, and it was also cool to see sequences that lasted more than one issue (such as the lightsaber duel between Vader and Karbin) go through some stylistic changes with each changing issue. There are a huge number of amazingly drawn scenes throughout this comic, although I think the best highlights had to include the extremely impressive starfighter battle in the first issue, with all the blaster bolts and explosions occurring out in space. Other cool scenes included a sudden spaceship crash in the final issue and a series of explosions and lightsaber work in the front of the volume’s second issue. I also liked how both teams of artists utilised the desert landscape of Vrogas Vas in their drawings; the constantly swirly dust really helped to enhance some of the battle scenes in this book and bring a sense of movement and a planet disturbed by violence and death. As a result, I think that both teams of artists did an outstanding job throughout the comics that made up Vader Down, and it certainly helped to enhance the epic experience I had reading this crossover volume.

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Vader Down is an immensely cool and exhilarating Star Wars comic that serves as an impressive crossover between two excellent comic book series. This combination of the Star Wars (2015) and the Darth Vader comics proved to be deeply entertaining and it is a clear example of how awesome the Star Wars extended universe can truly be. An absolute blast from start to finish, with non-stop action, eye-catching artwork and some clever character work, Star Wars: Vader Down is a must-read comic for all Star Wars fans and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Volume 7: A Rogue’s End

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume 7

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Artists: Caspar Wijngaard (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Star Wars: Empire Ascendant), Elsa Charretier (Doctor Aphra Annual #3)

Colour Artists: Lee Loughridge (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Star Wars: Empire Ascendant), Edgard Delgado and Jim Campbell (Doctor Aphra Annual #3)

Letters: VC’s Joe Caramagna (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Doctor Aphra Annual #3), Clayton Cowles (Star Wars: Empire Ascendant)

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

So I just got through with watching the latest episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and it’s put me in a Star Wars mood (well, more of a Star Wars mood than usual), so I thought I would get a review together for the seventh and final volume of the excellent 2016 Doctor Aphra series, A Rogue’s End.

The Doctor Aphra series is an outstanding comic book series that I have been really getting into over the last couple of years. Spinning off from the 2015 Darth Vader comics, this series features a witty and unique protagonist in its titular space archaeologist, Doctor Aphra, who blasts around the universe bringing chaos and disorder in her wake. This has probably been one of my favourite comic book series of the last couple of years, and it is easily my top Star Wars comic at the moment. Unfortunately, this current run of Doctor Aphra has just come to an end, although a new Doctor Aphra series is just starting up with a different creative team. Writer Simon Spurrier and his artistic team produced an incredible and satisfying conclusion to their Doctor Aphra run with A Rogue’s End, the sensation final volume that follows on from the events of the excellent sixth volume, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, and is set just before the events of The Empire Strikes Back.

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After saving the Emperor’s life from an assassination plot, archaeologist, scam artist and all-around disaster zone Doctor Chelli Aphra thought that she would finally be safe. Instead she finds herself trapped in the one place she has been running from for years, in the clutches of the most dangerous person in the galaxy, Darth Vader. Vader desperately wants Aphra dead, as she knows his darkest secret, his obsession with Rebel pilot Luke Skywalker, and it is only a matter of time before he finds an excuse to kill her.

Trapped aboard Vader’s Star Destroyer with her young companion, Vulaada, Aphra’s only chance to survive is prove her usefulness and help Vader find the location of the new Rebel base. However, Aphra is nothing if not resourceful, constantly looking for a way to game the system and extend her life. An encounter with a mysterious figure in an ancient temple seems to offer her the best chance of survival, until she finds out that it is her Jedi-obsessed father, Korin Aphra, once again causing trouble.

With the fate of everyone she loves in the balance, Aphra begins to devise another elaborate plan. With the help and hindrance of her ex-girlfriend, Captain Magna Tolvan, and the murderous droids BT-1 and Triple Zero, Aphra sets out not only to fool the entire Empire but to finally bring her affiliation with Darth Vader to an end. Can Aphra pull off the greatest con of her career, or will all her lies and deceit finally bring her the grisly end she has been running from for years?

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Well that was another damn impressive and deeply enjoyable Doctor Aphra comic. Spurrier, who has been working on this series since late 2017 (when he cowrote issue #14 with Kieron Gillen, one of the original creators of the character), brings this series to an epic and satisfying conclusion with another incredible group of stories. This seventh volume of the series contains issues #37-40 of the Doctor Aphra series, as well as the Doctor Aphra Annual #3 and material from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1. This whole volume was deeply captivating and I loved every second that I was reading through it, especially as it combines and excellent story with some fantastic artwork.

At the centre of this book is an exciting and clever story of survival, deceit and redemption. The four issues of the Doctor Aphra series (#37-40) contain an amazing storyline that follows the series protagonist as she attempts to get out of the most dangerous situation she has ever found herself in. Spurrier tackles these final four issues with the same style that he has employed for most his run, blending together a tale of deceit, double-crossing and survival in the Star Wars universe with humour, fantastic action and a deep analysis of the troubled and complex character that is Doctor Chelli Aphra. This results in an addictive overarching narrative that is not only incredibly entertaining, but which also gets quite moving and emotional at times, especially when Aphra encounters all the important people in her life, many of whom have been damaged in one way or another by her selfish actions. I have to say that I was particularly impressed with Aphra’s master plan in this comic, especially as it not only showed off her skills for deceit and manipulation but it was motivated by a genuine desire to help those she loved, which represents some significant series-wide character development for her. I also appreciated how the whole storyline has some major connections to the events of The Empire Strikes Back, and I liked how it was tied in more to the main plot of the movies.

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One of the other things that I really loved about this comic was the way that Spurrier wrapped up a ton of the storylines around some of the great supporting characters that have made this series such a treat. In particular, she manages to have some touching final meetings with her father, her ex-girlfriend, Tolvan, and her young sidekick, Vulaada, and this volume serves as a rather good conclusion to their various storylines (although I hope that they do appear in the future series). Her final meeting with Tolvan was pretty great, as the two have had a particularly chaotic and damaging love affair due to the actions of Aphra, and it was nice to see her finally prove Tolvan wrong and do the right thing for her. I also loved some of the scenes between Aphra and her father, and there is one incredible sequence where Aphra concisely recounts some of the adventures she has had throughout the series, and her father finally provides her with the advice and guidance that she has always sought from him. I really appreciated that Aphra finally gets some closure with these supporting characters, and in the three cases above she goes out of her way to protect them and bring them together to ensure that they have better lives. This is a major change in direction for Aphra, whose entire series has seen her repeatedly screw up and destroy the lives of everyone she meets, including those people close to her, something she is keenly self-aware of and deeply ashamed of. As a result, it was rather nice to see her finally step up and take responsibility for several people close to her, and to finally make what she sees as the right decision and leave them behind: “Love is letting go.” I also enjoyed the return of the two murder droids, BT-1 and Triple Zero, who have been highlights of both this series and the preceding Darth Vader series. I felt that both of them are rather well utilised in this story, and quite frankly you could not have wrapped this series up without them. It looks like both of them are going to be major features (in some form or another) of the next Doctor Aphra series, which should be fun.

Another character who Aphra gets a bit of closure within this volume is her oppressive employer, Darth Vader. Aphra and Vader have a complex and lengthy history together, dating back to the 2015 Darth Vader series where Vader forcibly recruited Aphra, and which ended with Vader believing that he had killed her, only for Aphra to trick him. Aphra has spent the subsequent run of her series constantly trying to stay off Vader’s radar, and continuously tricking him into believing that she is dead. However, after the events of Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, she is firmly in his clutches and waiting to die. I really loved the whole interaction between Aphra and Vader in this volume, as for most of it Aphra is trying to trick or convince Vader to keep her alive, while Vader is looking for an excuse to kill her. This pretty much makes Aphra the most desperate we have ever seen her, as she is still rather traumatised from the events of Vader’s first attempt to kill her, and still gets an interesting array of nightmares about them. Despite this, Aphra is eventually able to turn the tables of Vader, thanks to her cunning, knowledge about the force, pieces she has gleaned from Vader’s past and technical ability. The way she is able to take him down is pretty impressive: “Don’t pick a fight with an archaeologist in a spooky old ruin. And don’t wage war against a tech criminal if you’re half a machine.” It makes for a great sequence, especially when she uses Vader’s own scary reputation against him. This scene also allows Aphra to have a memorable heart-to-heart with Vader, and she discusses the similarities the two of them share, mostly about how they are both living with a massive amount of regret. In the end, Aphra decides against killing Vader, saying, “I’m your biggest fan,” even though she knows that Vader will come after her in the future, even more determined to kill her. She actually has a rather poignant farewell with Vader, saying, “In a funny sort of way, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” which says a whole lot about Aphra’s messed up character, but is a fun and fitting reversal of how Vader ended their partnership in his series.

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This volume features some tremendous illustrations from a truly talented team of artists. I really enjoyed the artwork that was featured within this story, and I think that it did a fantastic job of conveying and enhancing the complex and enjoyable storylines that the writer came up with. There are a number of well-drawn and well-portrayed sequences throughout this volume, although I particularly liked the one that made up the majority of issue #40, which featured Aphra facing off against Vader in a ruin filled with traps. There was also a rather good extended conflict between Aphra and Tolvan throughout a Rebel Alliance a spaceship that the drawings helped make particularly fun and chaotic, and which also did a good job of showing off the anger and complex emotions that filled their relationship. Overall, there was some fantastic artwork in this volume, and I think that the artists did an excellent job bringing the great characters and excellent story to life.

Most of what I mentioned above takes place in issues #37-40 of the Doctor Aphra series, but this volume also contains two extra stories, the Doctor Aphra Annual #3 and the parts taken from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1. Both of these inclusions were also written by Spurrier and are really tied into the narrative contained within the main plot of the volume, and I felt that these two inclusions did a lot to enhance my overall enjoyment of A Rogue’s End.

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I did quite enjoy the fun story contained with the Doctor Aphra Annual #3, which focuses on some of the great supporting characters from the Doctor Aphra series. The self-contained story in this annual issue sees Aphra try to repay her debt to the monster hunters Winloss and Nokk, who previously saved her life, by providing them with information she is privy to while aboard Vader’s star destroyer. This information leads these two hunters to the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, where another former associate of Aphra, the Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan, is in residence. This leads into a rather fun story which sees these characters and a rather slimy bartender go through all manner of trouble just for a measure of revenge. This was an excellent and compact story that contains a clever revenge plot, and it’s pretty damn hilarious. I liked how this annual followed the lead of the other stories in this volume by focusing on Aphra bringing together some of the side characters from the series, presenting the reader with a good conclusion to their association and storyline with Aphra. This story featured a different artistic team to the rest of the volume, resulting in a different and distinctive drawing style for the entire issue. I actually rather liked the style that this separate artistic team came up with, and I think that it fit the more humour-based storyline that that Spurrier came up with. Overall, this latest issue of the Doctor Aphra Annual made for an amazing entry in this volume, and I think that it worked extremely well with the other issues featured within it.

This volume also contained material from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1, which makes up a small story at the end of the book. This material focuses on the three people that Aphra saved throughout A Rogue’s End, Tolvan, her father and Vulaada. They are all on Hoth when the message that Aphra was composing in the final Doctor Aphra issue is received by the Rebel Alliance. This leads to a rather heartfelt and emotional scene in which the three of them discuss whether their lives where made better or worse by knowing Aphra, and whether she ever did anyone any good. Their musings are interrupted by one of the few other people in the Rebel Alliance who had any dealings with her, Luke Skywalker, who provides some information about a good deed she performed after the last time they saw her. I liked how Spurrier once again examine the chaotic and destructive personality of Aphra through the eyes of the people who knew her best, and it really matches the overall theme of the volume. I also liked the inclusion of Skywalker in this story, and it was a fun call back to the earlier volumes of the Star Wars (2015) series, which featured Aphra working with the main protagonists of the original trilogy. It was interesting to see Luke’s take on Aphra, and it is a bit of a crossover between the idealism of the main cast and the darker reality of the Star Wars universe that the cast of Doctor Aphra find themselves in. I had a good laugh at Tovan’s assessment of Luke as the farmboy who got bumped up to commander after one lucky shot, and I also loved their response to Luke’s glowing assessment of Aphra actually being a good person: “Should we tell him she also saved the Emperor’s life? Better not, nothing crueller than reality to a dreamer.” This short piece of material actually serves as a pretty good conclusion not only to the volume but to the Doctor Aphra series as a whole, and I think that its moving, character-driven storyline helped provide an emotional end to the entire series.

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The seventh volume of the amazing Doctor Aphra series, A Rogue’s End, is another extremely entertaining and complex Star Wars story which I deeply enjoyed. Writer Simon Spurrier and his talented artistic team once again take the reader on another exciting and powerful adventure that not only serves as a great story in its own right but which also provides fans of Doctor Aphra with a meaningful and rewarding conclusion to the entire series. This volume gets a full five stars from me, and I would strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the entire series it concludes, to anyone looking for an outstanding and fresh Star Wars adventure.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6: Circles by Stan Sakai

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Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 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 latest Throwback Thursday, after reviewing Lone Goat and Kid a couple of weeks ago, I am still in a Usagi Yojimbo mood, so I thought I would check out the sixth volume of this fantastic comic book series, Circles.

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Circles is another fun and exciting addition to this excellent series which I honestly cannot praise enough (although I have been trying very hard in my last several Throwback Thursday articles). This sixth volume once again presents the reader with several outstanding and inventive stories that chronicle the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, as he journeys around a unique version of historical Japan. This volume contains five separate stories, derived from issues #25 – 31 of the Fantagraphics Books run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as a short story taken from Critters number #50 (a comic magazine that had some early Usagi Yojimbo appearances). There are some rather amazing stories featured within this volume, and I had an incredible time reading them.

The first story contained within this sixth volume is called The Bridge, which sees Usagi encountering a demon out of Japanese folklore. During a dark a stormy night, Usagi is entering a village from across a bridge when suddenly he lashes out with his sword behind him, convinced something is sneaking up on him. When he finds nothing there, Usagi shrugs it off and enters the nearest inn, only to learn from the villagers that the bridge he just crossed has been possessed by a demon, and Usagi’s back now bears the claw marks of the demon. Awaking next morning, the villagers find a severed monstrous hand on the bridge, which Usagi appeared to have cut off the night before. Taking the hand into the inn, Usagi and villagers wait for a priest to arrive in order to perform an exorcism on the severed limb, but the demon of the bridge has other plans.

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This was a rather good supernatural story that sees Usagi go up against one of Japan’s many demons and monsters. Several significant elements from this story are taken from the story of the demon of Rashomon Gate, including the severing of the arm and the demon disguising itself as an old woman to recover its severed limb (although unlike the samurai in the legend, Usagi doesn’t fall for it). The demonic antagonist of this story is rather sinister in its drawing style and methods of attack, and it proves to be a dangerous opponent for Usagi. I love the extended fight on the bridge, and I especially enjoyed the way that the whole event ended, providing a side-character in the story their moment of vengeance. Overall, this was a tight, well-written story that was a lot of fun to read.

The next story in this volume is titled The Duel, and, as the name suggests, it features some duels between samurai. Usagi arrives in a village and is challenged to a public duel by the local champion while the watching villagers place bets with a travelling bookmaker, a duel that eventually results in Usagi’s opponent’s death. Completing the duel, Usagi meets and has lunch with a fellow unemployed samurai, Shubo, who subtly takes his measure. It is revealed that Shubo, who is a talented swordsman, is in league with the bookmaker who manipulates the odds of Shubo’s duels in order to make money off the betters. Shubo, who needs the money to provide for his wife and child, believes that he can beat Usagi, and the bookmaker inflates the odds in Usagi’s favour so that they can clean up when Shubo wins. Forcing Usagi into a duel, the two engage in a quick fight to death, with tragic results.

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This was a really clever and captivating single story that Sakai did an incredible job writing. The whole story concept is just brilliant, and Sakai sets it up and executes the plot brilliantly. There are some amazing scenes throughout The Duel, and the story features an excellent mix of comedy and tragedy which work together amazingly to produce a gripping narrative. Usagi, as the reluctant participant of this duel, is pissed at the entire affair, and his outraged reaction to the town people cheering his victory is rather good, especially as the peasants show over-the-top fake remorse in order to get him to go away so they can collect their winnings: “We are lower than the scum at the bottom of a stagnant pool!” While there is some fun and well-deserved karma coming down onto the bookkeeper who overextends himself and tries to escape, nothing quite takes away from the tragedy of Shubo’s wife and young child. The final panel of this story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it shows the wife and child waiting just outside the village for him to return. But as the light in the sky gets darker and darker, you can see the worry start to work its way onto the wife’s face, until she breaks down completely in the final panel, fully realising that her husband is dead. The wife comes across as a massively tragic character in this story, and the major impact that this final page has is a testament to how amazing Sakai’s storytelling and illustrations are.

The third story in the volume is the rather short entry, Yurei, which is the story that appeared in Critters. In this tale, Usagi, who is camping at the edge of a river, awakens to find a Yurei, a ghost, floating before him. The ghost imparts her tragic story to Usagi; she was betrayed and murdered by her husband, and she now seeks justice. Usagi then awakens and finds a woman’s hairpin on the ground next to him. Thinking his encounter with the ghost was just a dream, he travels to a nearby inn and attempts to trade the pin for a meal. What he does not realise is that the innkeeper is the murderous husband from the ghost’s tale, and his discovery of the pin leads to a series of deadly events. This was a good, fast-paced story which tells a compact and intriguing tale. I loved the supernatural elements in this story, and it was interesting to see Usagi portrayed as a tool of fate, who wonders into some ghostly revenge without even realising it. This was a fantastic short entry in this volume and was great to check out.

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The next entry in Circles is an entertaining and over-the-top tale titled My Lord’s Daughter. In this story, Usagi, who is telling a bedtime tale to children, is shown as the classic hero from Japanese legend, fighting through vast hordes of demons, monsters, and obstacles to rescue a beautiful princess from an Oni. This was a fun take on some of the traditional Japanese heroic legends, and it was cool to see Sakai draw a classic tale with Usagi as the protagonist. Sakai has some obvious fun setting the Usagi hero fearlessly against armies of demons and monsters, and he comes up with some clever fight sequences and scenes in this book, from a brutal duel with an Oni, to an underwater battle between Usagi, a shark and a giant octopus wielding several swords in its tentacles. This is an entertaining and exciting story, and I had a good laugh at the end reference to Sakai’s old comic, Groo the Wanderer.

Now let us get to the fifth story of this book, which is kind of the main event of the entire volume. This is a big story, told across four issues, titled Circles. This story follows Usagi as he returns home for the first time since the events of volume one, The Ronin. There are actually a couple of distinctive parts to this story, especially the first issue, which is somewhat separate from the rest of the story (with the exception of some build-up at the end). For this first part, Usagi, on his way back home, decides to stop at his old master’s house to pay his respects to the grave marker of Katsuichi, the man who taught him how to wield a blade. The story then shows a flashback, which serves as a continuation to part of the origin story Usagi told in the second Usagi Yojimbo volume, Samurai, about Usagi’s past. In the flashback, it is shown that Usagi’s master was ambushed and seemingly killed by members of the Dogora Fencing School after Usagi beat their students in a tournament. However, upon arriving at Katsuichi’s old house, he discovers that his master is still alive, having survived the ambush, and has taken on a new student. I liked this revisit of Usagi’s origin story with Katsuichi, although the whole death scene in the flashback comes a little bit out of nowhere. Still, it was interesting to see how much Usagi has matured since he was learning the way of the sword, and it was nice to see the teacher and student reuniting. The flashback sequence is also top quality, and Sakai illustrates up a storm in this one, showing a fierce battle and some intense emotions from Usagi, who goes from a full-on berserker rage as he gets his revenge on his master’s killer to an intense grief in just a few scenes.

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The story then continues as Usagi journeys back to his village, only to be confronted by his old childhood rival, Kenichi. It turns out that Jotaro, Kenichi’s son with Usagi’s former love, Mariko, has gone missing, and bandits are roaming the area. While Usagi and Kenichi are able to defend their town from a raiding party, the attackers reveal that Jotaro has been kidnapped by the bandits and are holding him hostage. Leading an army of local peasants against the bandit’s hideout, Kenichi and Usagi hope to rescue Jotaro and end the raids that have been plaguing them. However, what they do not realise is that the bandits are being led by the deranged and dangerous former adversary of Usagi, Jei, a mysterious and seemingly unkillable murder with a black blade, who hopes to use Jotaro to get his revenge on Usagi. But even Jei is not the most dangerous thing that lies ahead, as old resentments between Usagi and Kenichi, their shared love for Mariko and certain revelations may tear everything apart.

Wow, I have to say that the final three issues of Circles are just incredible. There is so much to unpack from them, as Sakai brings together a brilliant and powerful story. First of all, it was great to see Jei return as a villain once again. Jei, who was introduced in volume 3, The Wanderer’s Road, is an outstanding antagonist, and his continued feud with Usagi is just brilliant. The two engage in a fantastic and extended duel in this story, and Sakai did a fantastic job showing off each combatant’s skill and martial ability through his drawings. I also love the extensive battle between Kenichi’s peasant army and the bandits, which proved to be rather eye-catching. Not only is there a beautifully drawn sequence in the misty forest before the big battle in which Usagi does a great Jei impersonation to scare a bandit sentry, but Sakai illustrates a massive battle between the two forces. The massive single panel that shows the pitched battle is just impressive, and I love the detailed and entertaining scene that the author produced here.

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While all of the above is pretty amazing, what really makes this captivating story is the complex relationship between Usagi, Kenichi and Mariko. There are so many great layers plastered into this relationship. Usagi and Mariko were deeply in love when they were younger, and they still have great feelings for each other. However, Mariko ended up marrying Kenichi, and she is bound by duty, and her child, to him, no matter how she feels about Usagi. Kenichi, on the other hand, has always borne antagonism towards Usagi, which has been compounded over the years by their differences in skill and the fact that Usagi was chosen to serve Lord Mifune and left the village. However, Kenichi’s resentment towards Usagi is even greater, as he knows that Usagi is in love with his wife, and that these feelings are reciprocated by Mariko.

This leads to some outstanding scenes throughout this story, as these three try to come to terms with their complicated emotions. I particularly loved one scene in the middle of the story, where Usagi and Mariko discuss their feelings and reveal that they still both love each other, although Mariko makes it clear that they can never be together. The scene ends when Kenichi interrupts them, and while the look of heartbreak and shame on Mariko’s face is notable, what really gets me is the way that Kenichi’s usual stern/angry look is replaced with one of sad resignation in the last panel once he realises how Mariko still feels about Usagi. Despite this, Kenichi comes across in this story as a surprisingly honourable and well-intentioned character who puts aside his negative feelings for Usagi for the greater good, and it is a fantastic examination of a character who has mostly been antagonistic in the previous volumes. Sakai also drops a massive bombshell at the end of this story, when he reveals that Jotaro is actually Usagi’s son, and that Kenichi has known this and raised him as his own. Because of this, Mariko asks Usagi to leave and not try to settle down in their home village, as she fears it will put a wedge between Jotaro and Kenichi, who she sees as Jotaro’s true father. Usagi regretfully accepts this in another dramatic and captivating scene, although Mariko arranges for Usagi to see Jotaro as he leaves, and Usagi has a heartfelt time with his son, noting the similarities between them, and even suggesting Jotaro seek out Katsuichi as a teacher in later years. All of this is some first-rate storytelling and character development, and cannot praise Sakai enough for this amazing, emotional storyline. This is actually the last book that Kenichi and Mariko appear in (so far), and I think that Sakai did a fantastic job tying their love triangle together. All in all, Circles is easily my favourite story in this entire volume (The Duel comes close), and it is worth grabbing this volume just to check this key story out.

Usagi 31

It should come as no surprise to anyone considering all the praise I elicited above that I am giving this sixth volume of Usagi Yojimbo a full five star rating. This was another incredible comic book that features Sakai’s outstanding blend of powerful stories, memorable characters, intense action, fun references and depictions of traditional Japanese culture and history and some truly impressive artwork. I absolutely loved this volume, and this entire awesome series, comes highly recommended and is an unquestionable must-read.