Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

Desperate Undertaking Cover 2

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10

Length: 398 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Buckle up for an intense, captivating and exceedingly memorable historical murder mystery as bestselling author Lindsey Davis unleashes the 10th entry in the deeply clever and compelling Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertaking.

It’s that awesome time when I get to gush about the newest entry in Davis’s excellent, long-running Flavia Albia series, which has been a major fixture in my reading schedule for the last several years.  The sequel series to her iconic Marcus Didius Falco novels, the Flavia Albia novels follow the daughter of Davis’s original protagonist as she solves unusual murders across ancient Rome.  Thanks to the series’ typical great combination of intriguing characters, complex mysteries, excellent historical elements and great humour, I always have an amazing time reading these novels, which usually get very high ratings from me.  Some of the more intriguing Flavia Albia novels in recent years include The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, The Grove of the Caesars (one of my favourite books of 2020) and A Comedy of Terrors.  Due to the quality and entertainment capability of this series, I eagerly keep an eye out for Davis’ new book each year and I was exceedingly chuffed when I got a copy of Davis’ latest novel, Desperate Undertaking.

Rome, 89 AD.  The year is coming towards an end and the city is ready to enter a sleepy holiday period.  Unfortunately, murderers are notoriously bad at taking breaks, and Flavia Albia, paid informer, dogged investigator and daughter of notorious busybody Marcus Didius Falco, is about to get dropped into the most disturbing case of her life.  With her parents away on holiday and her impromptu family preparing to settle in for the quiet period, Albia receives a job request she cannot refuse.  An aged actor, part of a troupe her parents travelled with in their youth, has been killed, horribly crucified in a public place.  Starting her investigation, Albia and her husband, Tiberius, are shocked to discover this is not the only murder confronting them as they suddenly discover the first victim’s widow was also murdered in terrible circumstances.  Her last words to Albia: “The undertaker did it…”.

Determined to find the person responsible for the horrific murders of her parent’s friends, Albia begins her investigation, diving into Rome’s theatre scene.  But when another actor associated with the troupe is killed in a cruelly inventive way, Albia begins to realise that these are no ordinary murders.  A twisted and determined serial killer is on the loose, bearing a terrible grudge against the actors and anyone associated with them.  Worse, their exceedingly public killings all bear striking similarities to some of the most brutal moments in classic plays, causing their victims to suffer in horrific ways.

With the bodies piling up and the city in an uproar, Albia must solve the most unusual and deadly case of her career before more of her parents’ friends end up dead.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to realise that these murders bear a strong connection to one of her father’s past cases.  Worst, Albia soon realises that her connection to the currently absent Falco has made herself and everyone she loves a target of a demented killer determined to get revenge.

Davis does it again with Desperate Undertaking, producing a wildly entertaining and exceedingly clever historical murder mystery that I had a brilliant time reading.  Perfectly bringing together a disturbing mystery with an excellent historical setting, some great characters and the author’s trademark humour, Desperate Undertakings is an outstanding read and it ended up being yet another Flavia Albia book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I must admit that I have sometimes found Davis to be a bit of an inconsistent writer; while most of her novels are extremely good, a few of them do not quite measure up in terms of substance or entertainment.  However, Desperate Undertakings is easily one of the better books in the Flavia Albia series as Davis pulled together an exceptional and dark murder mystery narrative that will leave a memorable impression on the reader.  For this latest story, Davis drops a lot of the family/household storylines that have been a significant, if slightly distracting, feature of the previous novels, and instead focuses on an intense and elaborate murder mystery that effortlessly grabbed my attention and ensured I was extremely hooked on this fantastic novel.  The book starts off extremely strong, firstly with a foreboding introductory short chapter, and then with a great series of compelling early chapters that drag the protagonist into the investigation.  These early chapters feature two dramatic (literally) and elaborate murders that really stand out due to their brutal and distinctive nature (the second one is particularly gruesome and over-the-top), as well as their connections to some of Davis’s iconic protagonists.  As such, the reader becomes really invested in the case early on, and you soon get thrust into an elaborate in clever murder inquiry storyline.  Davis sets up this investigation really well, and there are a series of great leads, potential suspects and unique theories that pan out as the novel proceeds in an excellent way.  While the novel slowed down slightly after the initial murders, the next series of killings picks the pace right up again, which the story maintains for the rest of the book.  I really enjoyed how the entire mystery came together, and there are some really clever twists and turns here, with seemingly minor characters or story elements coming back in some big ways later in the book.  Everything leads up to a big and impressive conclusion and readers will be left rocked by the elaborate and powerful nature of the plot, as well as how damn dark this novel got in places.

Desperate Undertakings is extremely well written and I loved how Davis pulled this entire novel together.  Davis once again hits the perfect blend of murder mystery, historical elements and character driven story elements in this book, as the reader is engrossed in this brilliant Roman based tale.  I did feel that this one was significantly darker in places than some of Davis’s previous novels, which I really liked, especially as it results in some particularly gruesome killings.  The story is once again told from the perspective of central character Flavia Albia as she traverses the mean streets of Rome to find her culprit.  This central focus allows for much of the books fantastic humour, as Albia’s comedic and exceedingly modern perspective of events is extremely entertaining, while also providing a Roman noir feel for the murder investigation.  Like most of the books in the Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertakings can easily be read as a standalone read, with any relevant elements from the previous novel rehashed for the new reader.  However, Desperate Undertakings also bears a strong connection to one of Davis’s older novels, the sixth book in the Falco series, the 1994 release Last Act in Palmyra.  Multiple characters and elements from this book make an appearance here, with several of them serving big roles in this book, either as supporting characters, suspects or victims.  Davis rehashes the events of this previous book extremely well, and readers who haven’t had the chance to enjoy it are still able to enjoy Desperate Undertakings without any issues, while those who have will no doubt enjoy the fun call back.  I felt that these past elements were utilised extremely well, especially as these past events also impacted the present storyline.  This entire novel came together brilliantly, and I was extremely enthralled by its great writing and powerful story the entire way through.

I always deeply enjoy how Davis portrays the historical elements in her novels and Desperate Undertakings was a particularly good example of this.  The reader is once again treated to breathtaking depictions of ancient Rome, with everything from the chaos of the streets, the culture of the people, and the slapdash take on law enforcement used to full effect throughout the course of the plot.  There are some brilliant descriptions of some of ancient Rome’s earlier sties, especially as the murders make use of some iconic locations for the sites of their crimes, and you get an excellent sense of the city thanks to Davis’s descriptive and powerful writing.  However, the best part of these historical elements is the dive into the Roman theatre scene, which is a key part of the books plot.  Davis provides an intriguing and entertaining look at the city’s theatre elements throughout the novel, and you soon become deeply engrossed in her entertaining portrayal of these eccentric and proud actors and entertainers.

Desperate Undertakings also takes quite an intriguing look at the various plays and performances put on during this period as the killer utilises some of Rome’s bloodiest and most elaborate plays as a basis for setting up their murders.  This causes the protagonist to really dive into all the plays of the period and you get a good idea of several of the more iconic and distinctive ones, especially those that have elements of death involved.  I found it really interesting to find out about this part of Roman culture, especially the deadly twists that are sometimes involved with them, and it was a great part of the plot.  I also felt that Davis did a remarkable job working these historical theatre aspects into the plot of Desperate Undertakings, and it really helped to make the murder mystery stand out.  I particularly enjoyed how the author broke the book down into sections, each one of them named after a play that corresponds to the murder that Flavia is about to discover.  This allows for a glorious bit of foreshadowing, especially for those with an interest in classics and theatre, and it was an excellent addition to the book.  I deeply appreciate how Davis utilised these historical plays as the inspiration for her murders in Desperate Undertaking and it really gave this book a very distinctive feel.  Readers are warned that some of the murders are a bit graphic thanks to how they are portrayed in these plays, and you are in for some barbaric punishment as a result.

Another strong aspect of Desperate Undertakings was the excellent and compelling characters that Davis featured throughout.  As usual, this great cast is headed up by the intrepid Flavia Albia, who serves as the main protagonist and point-of-view character for the book.  Albia is a really entertaining protagonist, especially as Davis presents her as a cynical private investigator with very specific views of the reality of life in ancient Rome.  The daughter of another cynical protagonist, Falco, Albia spends most of the book making astute and hilarious observations about the people, locations, and events around her, and much of the book’s humour results from the amusing and noticeably modern way she sees the world around her.  As such, Albia really adds a lot to this intriguing story and it is always so much fun to see her waltzing around Rome solving her elaborate cases.  It was particularly interesting to see her reactions to the murders that occur in Desperate Undertakings.  Despite her familiarity with death and Rome’s underbelly, these killings really hit her hard due to their brutal nature and the connection that the victims have to her parents.  I felt this was a really compelling and powerful change to the character, and it really helped to highlight just how dark this book got in places.

Desperate Undertaking also features a wide cast of characters, all of whom have some entertaining or intriguing moments through the book.  Davis utilises a blend of established characters, new figures and even several characters who have not appeared since the Falco series.  All these characters are utilised extremely well in this novel, and the author does a good job of introducing (or reintroducing) them throughout the course of the plot.  As usual, this includes Albia’s husband, Tiberius, who serves as a good straight man to Albia’s eccentric antics, and helps to focus the investigation in places.  Other interesting characters include a newly introduced cop who balances between competence and political expediency and serves as another excellent foil to Albia’s more unusual investigation methods.  The various actors and theatre related figures are pretty entertaining, and Davis introduces some eccentric characters, many of whom serve as potential suspects or victims as you get to know them more.  I also felt that Davis did a good job with the killer (or killers) featured in this book, as they have a unique motivation, and a compelling personality that is slowly uncovered throughout the course of the book.  Finding out just who they are and why they are doing these dreadful killings is extremely fascinating and results in some brilliant character moments.  Other supporting characters are also extremely entertaining, including a very strong butcher and two very cultured vigils, and I had a brilliant time getting to know them all.

With the extremely awesome and captivating Desperate Undertakings, the always incredible Lindsey Davis continues to reign from atop the historical murder mystery mountain.  This latest Flavia Albia novel is exceedingly epic, containing a brilliant and dark investigation story that sees the series’ outstanding protagonist encounter a truly demented killer.  With some fascinating and distinctive historical elements, especially those surrounding the bloody and memorable plays, Desperate Undertakings really stands out and was an amazing amount of fun to read.  This was one of the better and more memorable entries in this excellent long-running series, especially with its vicious murders and great character work, and it comes extremely highly recommended.

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

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

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

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

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

Usagi #14

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

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

Usagi #15

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

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

Usagi #16

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

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

Usagi #17

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

Usagi #18

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

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

Usagi #19

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

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

Usagi #20

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

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

Usagi #21

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

Usagi #22

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

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Burning Road Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 5 January 2022)

Series: Standalone/Warrior of Rome

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite historical fiction authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another epic and intense historical adventure, The Burning Road, a fun-filled, action-packed thriller.

There are some amazing historical fiction authors out there now who focus on Roman history to create some excellent and compelling novels.  However, one of the best is the extremely talented Harry Sidebottom, a historian turned author who has been producing some awesome and unique reads.  I have been a major fan of Sidebottom ever since reading his debut novel, Fire in the East (an exceptional siege novel) back in 2008.  I really enjoyed his Warrior of Rome (which followed a Germanic Roman soldier, Ballista) and Throne of the Caesars series, both of which contained some exceptional historical elements.  Sidebottom has also had a lot of success recently with some standalone novels, especially his last three books, which cleverly combined his historical knowledge with elements from thriller subgenres.  This included his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which brought back Ballista and set him on a 24-esque romp through ancient Rome; The Lost Ten, which was reminiscent of special forces thrillers; and The Return, a dark and complex murder mystery that had interesting Scandi noir overtones.  I deeply enjoyed all these previous novels, and I was very excited when I received a copy of Sidebottom’s latest book, The Burning Road, a couple of weeks ago.

Sicily, 265 AD.  Throughout the strategic volcanic island, a call of freedom has been heard as a charismatic slave starts to rally his fellow enslaved workers.  The various estates and towns are in a state of uproar as vicious slaves and captured barbarian warriors rise up to kill their masters.  As the revolution gains strength and results in greater bloodshed, the fate of the island may rest in the hands of a legendary warrior, Marcus Clodius Ballista.

After years of fighting for corrupt emperors and battling deadly Roman politics, Ballista is finally free from his responsibilities, determined to enter retirement.  Whilst travelling with his eldest son, Marcus, to his estates on Sicily, their ship hits a terrible storm, forcing it aground on the west coast of the island.  Barely surviving the rough surf and destructive storm, Ballista and Marcus are soon thrust into even greater danger when a band of armed slaves mercilessly kills the other shipwrecked survivors.

Barely escaping the rampaging slaves, Ballista leads his son inland, hoping to discover what chaos has befallen Sicily.  They soon discover that the entire island is in revolution, with any non-slave at risk at being killed or brutalised.  Determined to keep his son alive and rescue his family on the other side of the island, Ballista and Marcus attempt to cross the entirety of Sicily on foot.  Constantly harassed by marauding bands of former slaves, the two Romans must find a way to survive and reach their family before it is too late.  But can the old veteran and rash youth work together to survive and save all of Sicily, or will one of Rome’s greatest warriors finally be finished off by rampaging slaves?

Wow, now this was a fun and intense novel from Sidebottom, who once again highlights his skill as a particularly inventive author of Roman historical fiction.  I deeply enjoyed The Burning Road, especially as Sidebottom once again combines compelling historical elements with an impressive and action-packed thriller storyline.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible and extremely fast-paced narrative that Sidebottom featured in The Burning Road.  While it took me a little while to get into this book (mainly because I couldn’t find any reading time), once I started, I honestly couldn’t stop, and I ended up powering through The Burning Road in less than a day.  The Burning Road has a brilliant story that pits Sidebottom’s best protagonist, Ballista, and his teenage son right in the middle of an intense slave revolt on Sicily.  Sidebottom sets this all up perfectly, with a quick prologue to establish that the slave revolt has occurred, before focusing entirely on Ballista and Marcus, who are shipwrecked off the coast of the island.  At first, the scenario reminded me of another historical fiction novel, The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow, which featured slaves revolting on Crete.  However, Sidebottom takes this in a very different direction, with a dark and non-stop story that sees the protagonist forced to navigate across the island, encountering all manner of odd characters and a ton of enemies.  The first two-thirds of the book see the protagonists on their own, walking a hellish volcanic landscape filled with murderous slaves, which was so damn cool.  Sidebottom was clearly trying to emulate some post-apocalyptic thrillers here, and there is even a scene that is a brilliant homage to The Road.  This makes for some intense and bloody sequences, and you will find yourself glued to the pages as you wait to see what danger they will encounter next.  The final third of the book sees Sidebottom return to his original writing element as Ballista is drafted into leading the defence of a besieged city.  This leads to an amazing and unique set of siege sequences, as Ballista and a small force of civilians attempt to hold back an overwhelming army of enraged slaves, which leads to a bloody and satisfying conclusion.  I loved this brilliant combination of story elements, especially the brutal walk across Sicily, and it makes for one heck of a story.

One of the best things about The Burning Road was the compelling central characters, especially as Sidebottom used it to tell a touching an enjoyable father-son story.  The first of these is Ballista, the protagonist of the Warrior of Rome series, who returns for another gruelling adventure.  As a former Germanic prince turned Roman soldier, siege expert and noble, Ballista is an old hand at danger and once again rises to the challenge even with his advancing age.  However, this time Ballista is forced to undertake his battled filled journey with his young teenage son, Marcus (also called Isangrim).  Setting Ballista and Marcus up as the main point of view characters, Sidebottom tells a fascinating tale that not only follows their desperate journey but which dives into their relationship and personality.  Due to Ballista’s military career, these two aren’t particularly close, with Marcus slightly resenting his barbarian father.  However, over the course of the book the two slowly grow closer as they face constant ordeal.  Sidebottom paces this growth in their relationship perfectly and you soon get really invested in seeing how much they begin to trust and rely on each other.  I enjoyed seeing this paternal side of Ballista, which enhanced his already complex character, and Marcus grows to become an enjoyable companion, especially as he begins to realise everything his father has done for him and how he has tried to prepare him.  This great father-son relationship becomes a major part of the book’s plot, and it put me in mind of some other similar adventures such as The Road, or even the recent God of War game (I may have imagined Ballista speaking in Christopher Judge’s voice).  This was a brilliant and powerful heart to the entire book, and it will be fascinating to see how much Marcus is featured in any of Sidebottom’s future novels.

I was also very impressed with the interesting historical detail that Sidebottom featured throughout The Burning Road.  The author has clearly done a ton of research on the various subjects contained within and there is a comprehensive reference section at the back, including a history book written by Sidebottom himself.  As such there is an amazing sense of authenticity to the setting and figures featured within The Burning Road which really helps to drag the reader into the story.  This period of Roman history has always been a rich ground for Sidebottom’s novels, and it was fascinating to see some more detail about the politics of the time.  I loved all the awesome detail about Sicily, which proves to be an exceptional and fascinating background setting for the story.  Sidebottom, who has visited Sicily many times, does a great job of filling in the historical blanks around the island and he portrays it as it would have appeared during Roman times.  All this impressive attention to environmental detail results in some cool romps through forests, mountains and ancient towns, and I think that the author really captured the historical soul of this island.  One of the big historical elements that Sidebottom invests a lot of time exploring is slavery during the Roman era.  The author includes a fascinating examination of how slaves are treated during this period, as well as some of the philosophical thought surrounding the entire process, both from the masters and the slaves.  The subsequent slave revolt really helps to highlight the Romans’ reliance on a large population of slaves to maintain their society and having the outsider Ballista explore this provided an interesting alternate perspective to the practice.  I also deeply appreciate the desperation and anger that the various slave characters had, which helped to turn them into a sympathetic enemy, even if you want the protagonists to survive more.  All this really added a lot to the overall story, and I look forward to seeing which area or historical period Sidebottom will explore next.

The Burning Road was another exceptional and epic read from Harry Sidebottom, who continues to flourish as one of the most inventive and exciting authors of historical fiction out there.  This latest novel features an intense and unique historical fiction tale chock full of action, character growth and some fascinating bits of period detail.  I had an absolute blast getting through this amazing novel, and The Burning Road comes very highly recommended as a result.

Quick Review – Resistance by Mara Timon

Resistance Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: City of Spies – Book Two

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into the intricacies of World War II espionage with a second fantastic historical thriller from Mara Timon, Resistance.

Timon is a brilliant author who debuted in 2020 with her intriguing novel, City of Spies, which followed a British agent sent to infiltrate neutral Portugal and encounter all manner of dangers and deceit.  Timon has now followed up this impressive debut with an intriguing sequel, Resistance, which follows the protagonist of City of Spies as she is sent to German-occupied Normandy days before the Allies invade.

Synopsis:

Three women. One mission. Enemies everywhere.

May 1944. When spy Elisabeth de Mornay, code name Cécile, notices a coded transmission from an agent in the field does not bear his usual signature, she suspects his cover has been blown– something that is happening with increasing frequency. With the situation in Occupied France worsening and growing fears that the Resistance has been compromised, Cécile is ordered behind enemy lines.

Having rendezvoused with her fellow agents, Léonie and Dominique, together they have one mission: help the Resistance destabilise German operations to pave the way for the Normandy landings.

But the life of a spy is never straightforward, and the in-fighting within the Resistance makes knowing who to trust ever more difficult. With their lives on the line, all three women will have to make decisions that could cost them everything – for not all their enemies are German.


Resistance
was an impressive and clever historical spy thriller that proves to be extremely addictive and exciting.  Set several months after the events of City of Spies, Resistance sees the protagonist and point-of-view character Elisabeth sent to infiltrate occupied Normandy under a new cover identity to assist the local French Resistance as a wireless operator.  Simultaneously gathering intelligence and investigating a potential mole in the French organisation, Elisabeth works with several other female spies in the area and is forced to contend with traitors, radicals and the Gestapo.  This story gets even more intense the further it goes, not only because a figure from the protagonist’s past comes into the picture and complicates events, but because the last third of the novel features the D-Day landings at the nearby Normandy beaches.  This forces the protagonist and her friends to encounter several attacks and betrayals amid the chaos of invasion and it leads to an incredibly exciting and captivating final section that is honestly impossible to put down.  While I did think that a couple of character arcs were a bit underdeveloped and unnecessary to the plot, this was an overall epic story and I really appreciated the complex and powerful narrative that Timon came up with.

I felt that new readers could easily get into Resistance with having read the preceding novel City of Spies.  Timon does an excellent job of explaining all the key events of the first novel, and readers are quickly informed of everything that would impact that plot of this sequel.  That said, fans of City of Spies will find this to be a pretty good sequel as several intriguing storylines are continued throughout the plot of the book.  Not only do key characters make significant reappearances but you also have a continuation of the fantastic romantic arc between Elisabeth and German officer Eduard Graf, who got married in the first novel.  Despite being an unusual relationship, this was an excellent storyline to continue and it was great to see the two interesting characters continue their forbidden love in the midst of war and intrigue, especially as both have major secrets (one is a spy, the other is planning to assassinate Hitler; it’s complicated) and are trying not to expose each other to their enemies.  I will be really intrigued to see where this series goes next, especially if Elisabeth is dropped into Germany either during Operation Valkyrie or the dying days of the war

One of the things that I most liked about Resistance was how this book ended up being a particularly solid and compelling historical thriller that emphasised its gritty and realistic spy elements.  Timon strives to strongly emphasise all the historical espionage aspects of the plot, and it was fascinating to see all the cool details about spy craft and being an undercover radio operator.  There was also a great focus on the abilities of Britain’s legendary female operatives, and Timon ensured that this book felt as realistic and compelling as possible.  Throw in some cool historical characters, such as members of the SOE and key German soldiers, like Erwin Rommel, and you have a particularly good historical thriller that was a lot of fun to explore.

With her second book, Resistance, impressive author Mara Timon continues to shine as a bright new figure in the historical thriller genre.  Perfectly combining realistic espionage elements with an iconic and dangerous historical setting, Resistance serves as an excellent sequel to Timon’s debut, City of Spies, and proves to be extremely addictive and compelling.  An awesome and highly recommended read.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

The Apollo Murders Cover

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 12 October 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 15 hours and 14 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for one of the most impressive and complex debuts of 2021, with the exciting alternate history science fiction thriller, The Apollo Murders, by former astronaut Chris Hadfield.

In 1973, former test pilot turned government liaison officer Kazimieras “Kaz” Zemeckis arrives at Huston to supervise NASA’s latest voyage into space for their 18th Apollo mission.  On paper, NASA plans to send three astronauts to the moon, seemingly on a scientific expedition.  However, Kaz is also under orders to prepare the military astronauts on board for a covert operation to investigate the Russians’ recent rover mission to the moon as well as a secret spy satellite orbiting Earth that could give the Soviets an invaluable advantage in the Cold War.

As the crew prepares for their mission, tragedy strikes when a helicopter crash results in the death of one of the astronauts.  Forced to take on a new crew member at the last minute, the team launches and begins to make for their primary mission, the spy satellite.  However, the Americans are unprepared for the satellite to be manned by Russian cosmonauts determined to defend their station.  The encounter results in a terrible accident and a cosmonaut being trapped aboard the Apollo craft as it hurtles towards the moon.

As the American and Soviet governments argue over the unfortunate events, the Apollo crew attempt to undertake a moon landing with limited crew and resources.  Forced to work together with their Russian stowaway, the crew begins to descend towards the moon on an apparent joint venture.  However, back on Earth, the Soviet government is determined to turn this to their advantage by any means necessary, even if it means utilising a long-hidden intelligence asset.  Worse, it soon becomes clear that the helicopter crash that killed one of the astronauts was no accident.  Forced to contend with the knowledge that an Apollo astronaut in space might be a murderous saboteur with nothing to lose, Kaz and the flight team at Huston can only watch helplessly as events unfold and the future of space travel is changed forever.

This was a pretty impressive debut from Chris Hadfield, who really showed a lot of talent in this book.  Hadfield, a former astronaut known for his excellent rendition of ‘Space Oddity‘ filmed aboard the ISS, was able to construct a compelling and fast-paced novel with an amazing story to it.  Combining detailed science with a complex alternate history thriller, The Apollo Murders ended up being an excellent and powerful read that I deeply enjoyed.

At the heart of this novel lies a captivating and multilayered narrative surrounding a doomed mission into space.  Set in the 1970s during the golden age of spaceflight, The Apollo Murders follows a fictional 18th Apollo mission that goes very differently than intended, with fantastic espionage thriller elements combining with the science and historical fiction storyline.  Told from a huge range of different perspectives, this book initially focuses on the planning for an Apollo flight, which intends to both explore the moon and disable a Soviet spy satellite.  However, the story takes a turn when one of the astronauts is killed, and from there the story ramps up as the astronauts blast off into space while the other characters, both American and Russian, attempt to follow them while also conducting their own investigations and espionage missions.  The novel has an explosive middle, in which the American and Soviet astronauts encounter each other in space with disastrous results.  The consequences of this encounter lead into an epic second half filled with lies, deceit, sabotage and backstabbing, as two characters in space attempt to manipulate the situation to their advantage, while everyone on the ground, including Kaz, the astronauts, mission control, the Russians and a variety of other characters try to influence what is happening.  This all builds to one hell of a conclusion, with interesting consequences for several of the characters, and one surprise after another.

I really enjoyed this cool story, and I loved the fun blend of genres that Hadfield featured throughout it.  On paper, a thriller and murder mystery set around a fictional historical space flight seems a bit too complex for its own good, but Hadfield made it work, and the story is crisp and easy to follow, with none of the component parts overwhelming any of the others.  The reader is swiftly drawn into the story and it was fun to see everything unfold, especially as Hadfield ensures that you can see all the various angles and treacheries as they occur.  The author made excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and captivating story, and it was extremely fun to see how the various characters viewed the situation and reacted to certain events.  Each of the characters featured in this novel is set up extremely well, and the reader quickly get to see their unique personalities, history and motivations surrounding the events of this book, which makes them extremely relatable and easily to follow.  While the identity of the person responsible for the murder at the start of the novel was a tad obvious, Hadfield uses this to its full advantage, helping to establish the book’s main antagonist, turning him into quite an arrogant and unlikable figure whom the reader really starts to root against.  It was really fascinating to see all the various character arcs and storylines come full circle by the end of the narrative, and The Apollo Murders ended up being a brilliant and compelling self-contained novel.

Easily one of the best things about The Apollo Murders was the incredible amount of detail about space flight and the science of space featured within.  Throughout the narrative, Hadfield spends an amazing amount of time explaining all the relevant science and technology that is relevant to the plot as the protagonists encounter it.  At the same time, the author also features a ton of relevant anecdotes or discussion about the history of spaceflight up to this point, which often serves to highlight the scientific information being provided at the same time.  All of this is worked into the plot extremely well, and the reader is soon given insight into what the characters are doing and the significance of their actions.  While all this information had the potential to be extremely overwhelming, Hadfield manages to dole it out in appropriate snippets, ensuring that there is never too much science or history in one scene, only enough for the reader to follow what happens.  This information is usually very easy to follow, and Hadfield’s writing style ensures that all the relevant facts are explained appropriately as the reader requires.  As such, the reader is never left confused at any point, and it leaves them open to enjoy some of the epic scenes.  I really must highlight some of the great spaceflight sequences featured throughout this book, including some of the epic take-off and landing scenes.  Hadfield really paints a beautiful picture here with his writing, and the reader gets a detailed understanding of every element of the flight and what the astronaut characters are experiencing or attempting to do.  These spaceflight elements are extremely well written, and I really must commend Hadfield for the work he put into making them seem as realistic and accurate as possible.

I must also highlight the great historical elements featured in this novel.  I rather expected this to be one of the weaker spots of the book, especially with so much focus on the spaceflight or the thriller parts of the book.  Instead, the reader is treated to a detailed and compelling discussion about the state of the world in the 1970s, especially surrounding the Cold War and the capabilities of both America and the Soviet Union.  A lot of this history relates to space travel, which is probably why Hadfield knows so much about it, and he uses it to great effect throughout the novel, giving the story an appropriate feel.  However, Hadfield also takes the time to examine the competing nations of America and the Soviet Union, and there are some brilliant scenes set in both, especially when it comes to the covert geopolitical battle occurring between them.  Hadfield portrays this period perfectly, and I especially liked his great use of multiple real historical characters, including politicians, NASA flight crew, espionage heads and even a few famous astronauts such as Alan Shepard, all of whom played vital roles in fleshing out the espionage elements of the plot.  While a lot of this book is based on historical events and facts, it is set around a fictional 18th Apollo mission.  This alternate history element is a fun part of the book, and I really appreciated the way in which Hadfield tried to envision how the various governments would react to such as disastrous mission to the moon.  I feel that Hadfield captured the political and social elements of this period extremely well, and I really appreciated this examination into history, especially as it combined with the thriller and space faring elements of the book extremely well to produce an outstanding and compelling narrative.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Apollo Murders, I was unable to resist the audiobook version, which proved to be really impressive.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, I was able to power through this audiobook quickly, especially once I got engrossed in the cool story.  I felt that the audiobook format was very conducive to following the various scientific elements featured throughout the novel, and I had a wonderful time imagining the elaborate space manoeuvres brought to life by the narration.  However, the main reason that I wanted to listen to this book was due to its narrator, Ray Porter.  Porter is one of the best audiobook narrators in the world today, and I am a big fan of his voice work in the thrillers of Jonathan Maberry (such as Code Zero, Deep Silence, Rage, Relentless and Ink).  Porter ended up providing an excellent narration for The Apollo Murders, with each of the various characters presented with a compelling and fitting voice that fit their personalities and nationalities.  While it was a bit weird in places to hear a voice from one of the other books I have heard him narrate, Porter was able to produce an excellent flow throughout The Apollo Murders, and the story swiftly moved across at a great pace.  This ended up being an excellent way to enjoy this novel and I would strongly recommend checking out this audiobook version of The Apollo Murders.

The Apollo Murders is a brilliant and powerful literary debut from former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who blew me away with this amazing first novel.  The Apollo Murders contains a fantastic and complex story that blends several genres into an exciting and clever read that takes the reader on a wild and thrilling adventure into space.  Featuring a deeply fascinating look at historical space flights and based around a fictional 18th Apollo mission, The Apollo Murders was one of the best debuts of 2021 and I had a fantastic time listening to it.  This is a great novel to check out and I cannot wait to see what Hadfield writes next.

Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

Protector by Conn Iggulden

Protector Cover Final

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 18 May 2021)

Series: Athenian – Book Two

Length: 397 pages

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of historical fiction, the incredible Conn Iggulden, returns with the second epic book in his Athenian series, Protector.

Following the devastating battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium, the Persian army reigns supreme in Greece as King Xerxes stands triumphant in the burnt ruins of Athens.  However, despite his victories, Xerxes has not eliminated the threat of the Athenians, whose citizens have escaped by boat to the nearby island of Salamis.  Determined to wipe them out, Xerxes commits his mighty navy in an attack of the Greek fleet off Salamis, initiating one of the deadliest naval battle of all time.  Over three days of fighting, the Greeks and the Persians engage in a brutal battle, with boats destroyed and men killed in horrific numbers.  In the end, only a act of subterfuge from the sly Athenian, Themistocles, will be enough to stop the attack, although this action may damn him for all times.

Following this battle, the Athenians attempt to rebuild their once beautiful city; however, the threat of the Persians remains as a massive army lurks within Greece.  To finally cripple the Persian ambitions for Greece, famed Athenians, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus, will work to bring together an army of free Greeks.  Led by the powerful armies of Sparta, the Greeks will face the Persian army as the plains of Plataea, while their navy faces them at Mycale.  Can the Greeks overcome the superior numbers of the Persian army to survive, or will the Persian dominion of Greece continue, wiping out their fledgling democracy?  The future of Athens is written here, and the world will never again be the same.

Wow, that was another exceptional historical novel from the always impressive Iggulden.  Iggulden has been one of the leading historical authors for years, and I have deeply enjoyed several of his works, including his epic War of the Roses series and the fantastic standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  Last year, he introduced The Gates of Athens, the first novel in his new Athenian series, which will cover some of the most iconic formative years of ancient Athens.  The Gates of Athens was an excellent novel that was one of my favourite historical books of 2020.  As a result, I have been eagerly awaiting the next entry in the Athenian series, and Iggulden really did not disappoint with Protector.

Protector contains an epic and intense narrative that highlights the chaotic events following the battle of Thermopylae.  This novel has a fantastic start to it, as the story immediately shows the iconic battle of Salamis, a deadly battle of ships and men as the fate of the entire population of Athens hangs in the balance.  This first battle is pretty damn intense, and you get a real sense of the fatigue, despair and destruction that the participants and observers of the battle are feeling.  This battle lasts for a good while, and I loved that Iggulden did not waste any time getting into it, ensuring that the reader is pretty hooked for the rest of Protector.  Following Salamis, the narrative focuses on the rebuilding of Athens and the attempts to bring the Spartans into the war to face the lurking Persian army.  While not as exciting as the start of the book, this central part of Protector is deeply fascinating, and I personally enjoyed the interplay of politics and historical fact, as Iggulden expertly depicts the lead-up to the next battles against Persia.  It also perfectly sets up the epic two battles that are the defining part of Protector, Plataea and Mycale, which occurred around the same time as each other.  Both these battles are pretty intense and action packed, although the elaborate and bloody battle of Plataea is the real highlight, especially as the stakes surrounding it are extremely high.  I deeply enjoyed seeing these two amazing historical battles unfold, and Iggulden ensures that they are bloody, action-packed and compelling.  It was also really cool to see the fascinating, if occasionally tragic aftermath of these battles, and it sets up some intriguing historical storylines for future entries in this series.

I really appreciated the incredible historical detail that Iggulden brought to Protector.  The author has clearly done his research when it comes to this iconic historical battles and he does an incredible job bringing them to life.  So many key moments from the battles are fantastically captured throughout Protector, and the reader gets an amazing idea of the tactics, armaments and movements of the participants, as well as their chaotic flow and carnage.  While the battles themselves are pretty amazing, Iggulden also ensures that the underlying politics, motivations and historical figures associated with them are also detailed, ensuring that the reader gets a full view of why these events are happening and their overall impact on the people of Greece and Persia.  All of this is extremely fascinating, and I personally loved learning more about this period, especially as Iggulden presents it in a compelling and exciting manner.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about The Gates of Athens was the amazing portrayal of several major historical figures.  Iggulden continues this fantastic trend in Protector, as he once again looks at several major Greek and Persian characters.  The most prominent of these are probably the three Greek strategos, Aristides, Themistocles and Xanthippus.  Despite their political conflicts in the first novel (Themistocles orchestrated banishments for both), the three are forced to work together for the greater good of Athens and prove to be an effective team.  Iggulden does an amazing job getting into the heads of all three of these figures, and it was interesting to see how the author envisions what these great men would have been thinking or doing during these historical events.  All three have a significant part of Protector told from their perspective.  In particular, each of the three major battles featured within this novel is primarily told from one character’s perspective, with Aristides leading the Athenian force at Plataea, Xanthippus fighting at Mycale, while Themistocles unleashes his cunning during the battle for Salamis.  I really enjoyed the portrayals of all three characters, and it was interesting to see them during some of their most iconic moments.  In particular, Iggulden provides some intriguing insight to Xanthippus’s mental state after Mycale and some explanation for why he participated in several massacres.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which Iggulden portrays the tragedy of Themistocles, whose own cleverness and guile eventually catches up with him.

In addition to these three main Athenian characters, Iggulden also spends time with some younger Athenian figures, particularly Cimon and Pericles, Xanthippus’s youngest son.  This proves to be an intriguing examination of the younger Greek characters and Iggulden is setting up some new protagonists for the later entries in the series, particularly with Pericles.  There is also some significant focus on several great Spartan characters, such as the war leader, Pausanias, who also provides an excellent alternate viewpoint to the battle at Plataea, as well as an alternate way of thinking from the democratic Greeks.  I also liked the way in which several Persian characters were featured, include Xerxes and General Mardonius, especially as it allowed for another fascinating viewpoint that paints the Greek characters in a whole new light.  All these great historical figures are expertly brought to life by Iggulden, and I had a wonderful time learning about their stories and tragic fates.

In his second entry in the Athenian series, Conn Iggulden once again demonstrates his mastery of the historical fiction genre by crafting a captivating and addictive tale of war, intrigue and personal ambition from iconic moments in Greek history.  Protector is an exceptional and fast-paced novel that presents a powerful vision of the unique and world-changing battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale.  This is a clever and intense historical novel which comes highly recommended, and historical fiction fans will deeply enjoy the cool and fascinating tale within.  I look forward to the next chapter in the Athenian series and I cannot wait to see the war and politics that is yet to be unleashed on this city.

Quick Review – Crusader by Ben Kane

Crusader Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2021)

Series: Lionheart – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive historical fiction author Ben Kane returns with the second entry in his Lionheart series, Crusader, which does an amazing job of continuing the epic story of King Richard the Lionheart.

Synopsis:

KING. POLITICIAN. WARRIOR. CONQUEROR.

1189. Richard the Lionheart’s long-awaited goal comes true as he is crowned King of England. Setting his own kingdom in order, he prepares to embark on a gruelling crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.

With him on every step of the journey is Ferdia, his loyal Irish follower. Together they travel from southern France to Italy, to the kingdom of Sicily and beyond.

Finally poised to sail to the Holy Land, Richard finds a bitter two-year-long siege awaiting him. And with it, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem, Saladin.

No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s huge army shadows Richard’s every move. Conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling, and on the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers face their ultimate test…

Kane has produced another amazing novel in the Lionheart trilogy.  While Kane is best known for his incredible Roman historical novels, I have been particularly enjoying his compelling foray into medieval fiction with this outstanding series that examines the life of King Richard the Lionheart.  Told through the eyes of fictional character Ferdia, better known as Rufus, the first novel in this series, Lionheart, did a remarkable job of covering some of the most influential younger years of Richard’s life, which cumulated in him seizing the throne.  Crusader continues this epic retelling of Richard’s life by recounting the events that occurred as Richard led his forces on a bloody journey to the Holy Land.

Crusader contains a historically rich narrative that explores one of the most iconic periods of Richard’s life, the crusades.  Kane produces a very detailed story that focuses on the journey to the east as well as the battles in the Holy Land.  This includes the army’s stops in Sicily and Cyprus, where Richard was forced into conflict with other Christian rulers, before eventually arriving in the Holy Land and engaging in his legendary conflict with Saladin.  Kane attempts to cover every major battle of this Crusade, with several sieges, large-scale attacks, skirmishes and the infamous massacre at Acre.  At the same time, Rufus continues his deadly rivalry with the dishonourable knight Robert FitzAldelm, while also secretly engaging in a very risky romance.

This proves to be a very compelling story, and I very much enjoyed seeing this detailed portrayal of this legendary crusade.  Kane does a wonderful job of bringing all the dry historical facts to life throughout Crusader, and I found it fascinating to see his take on the entire journey and eventual battles with Saladin’s forces.  While the story does occasionally get a bit bogged down in medieval politics, royal disputes and petty squabbles, Kane keeps the novel going at decent pace, and the reader is treated to several epic and dangerous fight scenes.  The author can write a deeply impressive and thrilling battle sequence, and the reader is left on the edge of their seats multiple times, especially as the various characters you come to care about find themselves in utter peril.  I also enjoyed the bitter conflict that occurred between the non-fictional Rufus and his rival, FitzAldelm.  While not as prominent as in the first book, this rivalry is still a fantastic part of the book, especially as it adds an intrigue-laden edge to the main story.  While I really enjoyed this great novel, I do think that it suffered a little being the middle novel in the series, primarily because certain overarching conspiracies and plots are put on hold because of the crusade.  I also felt the first half of the novel was a little slow in places, especially when compared to the intense second part of Crusader.  Still, this was a pretty amazing story, and I loved how the author managed to ensure that his tale contained both excitement and fascinating historical fact.

Just like in the first novel in this series, Kane spends considerable time examining the complex historical figure of Richard the Lionheart.  In this book, Richard is portrayed as a multifaceted and intense being with a wide range of emotions and moods.  Most of the story focuses on the classic King Richard, the inspirational and personable figure that the protagonist Rufus eagerly vows to follow.  This includes multiple portrayals of Richard’s prowess in combat, especially in the Holy Land where he leads his troops to many great victories.  The author features several intense battles throughout the book where Richard either lead the charge or proved to be something more than human, such as fighting through a superior forces or chasing off an entire army by himself.  I initially assumed that Kane was taking a bit of artistic licence with some of these outrageous scenes, but it turns out that most were based on real historical accounts.  While I found these epic depictions of Richard to be cool, I also appreciated the way in which Kane tries to show the king’s darker side.  There are multiple scenes that portray Richard in a despondent mood, especially when faced with setbacks or betrayals, and this low mood could often transform into a dangerous anger at a drop of a hat.  This makes for a very complex and contrary portrayal, and I really appreciated the way in which Kane attempted to examine the true mind and thoughts of Richard, as seen by his closest friend.

It was also really interesting to see the continued growth of Rufus throughout Crusader, as he keeps moving away from the helpless Irish hostage he was at the start of the series, and is now a knight and close companion to the King.  Rufus goes through a lot in this novel, and it was fascinating to see how he deals with the horrors and dangers of the war around him.  I found his description and concern about the massacre of Acre to be particularly intense, and it was interesting to see him witness such an event while remaining loyal and dedicated to Richard.  Rufus’s rivalries and loves were a major focus of this novel, and it is clear that Kane is setting up something major with them for the final novel.  It was also intriguing to see the changes occurring with additional fictional character Rhys, Rufus’s squire and close confidant, who has accompanied the protagonist on all his adventures.  Rhys, after killing a vicious knight in the first book, has become a little bloodthirsty, and is constantly seeking to prove himself in combat, much to Rufus’s concern.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of these fictional characters amongst the more historically accurate tale of Richard’s campaigns, and it serves as a great narrative device, while also adding in some additional drama and conflict.  I am very curious about how Rufus and Rhys’s stories will end in the final book, although I am not expecting a happy ending.

Overall, Crusader was a pretty amazing historical novel that presented a detailed and captivating picture of King Richard’s crusades.  Loaded up with some excellent portrayals of historical events and a series of epic battles, Crusader will appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, and readers will have an outstanding time digging through Kane’s captivating text.  A clever and intriguing novel, I am very keen to read the final entry in this series next year, especially as we all know how dark the final chapters of King Richard’s story are.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond

The Paris Collaborator Cover

Publisher: Echo Publishing (Trade Paperback – 4 May 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Amazing Australian thriller author A. W. Hammond presents his first historical read with The Paris Collaborator, a clever and exciting novel set in occupied Paris.

August 1944.  With Allied forces advancing towards Paris, the Nazi occupation of the city seems to be nearly at an end.  But just because the Germans are poised to leave does not mean that the city is any less dangerous, especially for those whose loyalties are in question.  Since the Germans arrived, former teacher Auguste Duchene has taken on a whole new profession to survive: finding missing children.  With his impressive observational skills, Duchene has proven to be a keen investigator, but his talents are about to get noticed by all the wrong people.

Despite his desire to only help reunite lost families, Duchene is forced into working for a violent faction of the French Resistance after they threaten the safety of his collaborating daughter, Marienne.  Recruited to find a missing priest and the cache of stolen weapons he was hiding for them; Duchene reluctantly begins his search.  However, hours after he begins working for the Resistance, he is approached by a senior Nazi officer who blackmails him into finding a missing German soldier.

Caught between two dangerous masters, Duchene has no choice by to comply with both if he and Marienne are to survive.  With only 48 hours until both groups will deliver on their deadly threats, Duchene scours Paris for both the missing men.  However, the more he discovers, the more he begins to realise that the cases may be connected, and that he may be only able to satisfy one of his employers.  Worse, the Gestapo have taken an interest in Duchene’s investigation and are determined to interfere for their own ends.  Can Duchene find his targets before it is too late, or will everything he love be taken away from him?

This was an awesome and fantastic novel from an impressive author who I was not too familiar with before I picked up this outstanding read.  A. W. Hammond has previously written two Australian thrillers under the name Alex Hammond.  These books, 2013’s Blood Witness and 2015’s The Unbroken Line, were intriguing legal thrillers that focused on his Will Harris protagonist.  The Paris Collaborator is the author’s first foray into historical fiction, and he did an exceptional job producing a clever and addictive historical thriller.  I had an incredible time reading The Paris Collaborator and I ended up finishing it off in a few short days once I got drawn into its cool and memorable narrative.

Hammond has come up with an excellent thriller storyline for The Paris Collaborator that is exciting and clever, and which also makes great use of its historical backdrop.  This is a very fast-paced story, and it really does not take long for it to take off, as unconventional missing child investigator Duchene is drawn into the conflicting webs of radical French Resistance fighters and an influential Nazi officer.  Forced to work on both cases on a very lean timeline, the protagonist conducts a hurried investigation, trying to find hints of two different missing persons while also trying to survive in the middle of a chaotic and failing city.  With the interference of the Gestapo, Duchene is trapped in the middle of a three-way battle for his loyalties, as each of these very dangerous groups threatens to kill him and his daughter unless he complies.  This results in a very epic final third of the book, as the protagonist runs around Paris, which is in the middle of overthrowing its German occupiers, trying to find the last pieces of the puzzle with everybody trying to kill or capture him.

This was a very captivating and high-stakes story, and I loved all the thrilling intrigue, action and suspense as the protagonist jumps from one bad situation to the next.  The overall investigation had some rather intriguing twists to it, many of which took me pleasantly by surprise, although they were very well set up in hindsight.  I absolutely lost it when the final twist was revealed, as it was so outrageous and surprising that I ended up laughing for several minutes.  This reveal, while a little hilarious, did fit nicely into the dark tone of the novel, and I felt it was an outstanding way to wrap up this novel, especially as it is guaranteed to stick in the reader’s mind.  I deeply enjoyed The Paris Collaborator’s clever story, and this ended up being one of the more entertaining and unique thrillers I have read all year.

While readers will definitely remember the amazing thriller story, I also must highlight the exceptional historical setting that was featured in The Paris Collaborator.  Hammond chose to set his clever story amid the final days of the Nazi occupation of Paris, which I really enjoyed.  The author does an outstanding job of portraying this intriguing historical setting, and I loved the exploration of an occupied city on the edge, with minimal resources, a thriving black market, a near-rebelling populace, nervous soldiers starting to pull out and a dangerous resistance movement planning their next strike.  Hammond makes great use of this unique setting throughout the story, and I really appreciated the way he featured historical elements like the Resistance, the Gestapo and the German army throughout the story.  The final part of the book is set during the French uprising to free Paris from the Nazis, and I loved how the protagonist had to overcome all the obstacles this put in his way, from tanks attempting to put down dissent, to crowds determined to kill any Germans they could find.  This was an outstanding depiction of occupied Paris and I felt that Hammond perfectly utilised it throughout this amazing book.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the historical setting of The Paris Collaborator is the compelling focus on the French mentality of collaboration and resistance.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist encounters a wide range of different characters who have survived the Nazi occupation by working for, engaging with, or falling in love with German soldiers, much to the disgust of their fellow French citizens.  The protagonist himself is considered by some to be a collaborator, not only because he has helped wealthy French collaborators find their children but because he finds himself working for various Nazis throughout the course of the book.  This forces the protagonist to walk a thin line, as he must appear to be a patriotic Frenchman disgusted with the occupiers while also making sure that he does not enrage any of the Nazis who are employing him, something he does not do particularly well.  As a result, Duchene, and several supporting characters, encounters dangerous reactions from some French characters and Resistance members, and this really adds to the tension and danger that he encounters.  I think that Hammond did an excellent job examining and portraying this mentality of anti-collaboration throughout the novel, especially as it is cleverly layered into nearly every interaction the protagonist has.  Some of the actions of French characters who were actively resisting against the Germans were also pretty intriguing, including one particularly over-the-top one that is definitely going to stick in my mind.  It was also fascinating to see what some people would do to avoid being labelled as a collaborator, even if that means completely changing who they are.  I really enjoyed the author’s examination of how collaborator would have been viewed during this turbulent period of history and it ended up being an excellent and compelling addition to The Paris Collaborator’s narrative.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond is an outrageous and impressive historical thriller that comes highly recommended.  Hammond has written a fantastic fast-paced story that is heavy on action, intrigue, and amazing twists, all set amid Paris in the final days of the Nazi occupation.  I had a lot of fun getting through this awesome novel, and thanks to some outstanding reveals and exciting moments, The Paris Collaborator is really going to stick in my mind.  Readers are guaranteed a thrilling and clever time with this book and will power through it in no time at all.