Book Haul – 8 May 2021

It has been a while since I have done a Book Haul post, so I figured it was a good time to look back at some of the amazing books that I have received in the last couple of weeks.  I have actually received quite an impressive haul recently, made up of a number of exciting and intriguing books, including a few novels that I have been looking forward to for some time.  Each of the books below have a lot of potential and I am really keen to check them all out as soon as I can.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Let us start this post off big with one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, the latest volume of the incredible Usagi Yojimbo comic series by Stan Sakai, Homecoming.  I absolutely love Usagi Yojimbo and each new volume of this comic series is a major highlight of the year.  I got this latest volume a couple of days ago and I pretty much read it as soon as I got it.  I will hopefully get a review up soon, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised that it was pretty damn awesome.

Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove

Firefly Life Signs

Next up we have the latest Firefly novel by bestselling author James Lovegrove, Life SignsLife Signs is the fifth Firefly tie-in novel that has been released in the last couple of years (previous releases include Big Damn Hero, The Magnificent Nine, The Ghost Machine and Generations), with Lovegrove being the most active writer of this series.  This latest book, Life Signs, makes use of an intriguing unused storyline from the television show and sets the cast of characters on a dangerous heist into a notorious prison planet.  An outstanding read that I will review in the next few days.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

I was very intrigued to receive this copy of She Who Became the Sun, the much hyped debut novel of Australian author Shelly Parker-Chan.  She Who Became the Sun is a historical novel, apparently with some fantasy elements to it, that follows a young second daughter in China who attempts to claim a much more favorable destiny by impersonating her dead brother. I had not heard much about this book before I received a copy, but from what I understand there is a lot of buzz surrounding it.  I look forward to checking this cool sounding novel out and I have a feeling it is going to be one of the better debuts of 2021.

The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan Cover

Next on this post we have The Warsaw Orphan by Australian author Kelly Rimmer.  The Warsaw Orphan is a gripping and dark historical drama that explores the various horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as looking at two brave characters who tried to make a difference.  A powerful and captivating read, I was really happy to receive this book and I have already been blown away by its exceptional and moving narrative.

Red Wolves by Adam Hamdy

Red Wolves Cover

It looks like I am going to have a fun thriller in my future as I was luck enough to receive Red Wolves by Adam Hamdy.  Following on from his previous novel, Black 13, Red Wolves will follow protagonist Scott Pearce as he attempts to stop a deadly toxin from being unleashed.  I am very much looking forward to checking out this cool sounding read and I know that I am going to have an amazing time reading it.

Saint Death by Mark Dawson

Saint Death Cover

Another awesome sounding thriller I have received is Saint Death by intriguing author Mark Dawson.  Saint Death follows a former MI6 agent as he starts a fight with drug gangs down in Mexico.  I really like the sound of this fantastic new book and I cannot wait to see what happens in it.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond

The Paris Collaborator Cover

I also received a copy of The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond, a fantastic sounding historical thriller that forces a man to work for both the Nazis and the French Resistance to find two missing people.  This looks set to be a lot of fun and I am very keen to check it out.

#MurderFunding by Gretchen McNeil

#MurderFunding Cover

The final book on this list is #MurderFunding by Gretchen McNeil, an older book that I ordered in.  #MurderFunding is the sequel to the very fun #MurderTrending, an awesome young adult thriller that set a bunch of teens against a group of deranged, costumed killers on national television.  I really enjoyed #MurderTrending when it came out and I have been meaning to reader #MurderTrending for some time.  After reading McNeil’s exciting prequel novel, #NoEscape, earlier this year,  I thought this would be a good time to check #MurderFunding out.  I cannot wait to see where the series goes next and this should prove to be fantastica and fast-paced read.

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

Top Ten Tuesday – Books on my Autumn 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this Top Ten Tuesday, participants need to list the top releases that they are looking forward to reading in Spring (or Autumn for us down here in Australia).  This is a fun exercise that I have done for each of the preceding seasons, and it is always interesting to highlight the various cool sounding books that are coming out in the next few months.

For this list I have come up with 10 of the best novels that are coming out between 1 March 2021 and 31 May 2021.  I have decided to exclude novels that I have already read, so that took a couple of key books off the list.  Still, this left me with a rather substantial pool of cool upcoming novels that I am excited for, which I was eventually able to whittle down into a great Top Ten list (with a few honourable mentions).  I have previously discussed a number of these books before in prior Top Ten Tuesdays and Waiting on Wednesday articles and I think all of them will turn out to be some really impressive and enjoyable reads.  I am actually really excited for the next three months as there are some incredible novels coming out, several of which I already know are going to be amongst the best books of 2021.

 

Honourable Mentions:


Blackout
by Simon Scarrow – 30 March 2021

Blackout Cover

 

Crusader by Ben Kane – 27 April 2021

Crusader Cover

 

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – 4 May 2021

Project Hail Mary Cover

 

Gamora & Nebula: Sisters in Arms by Mackenzi Lee – 1 June 2021

Gamora and Nebula - Sisters in Arms Cover

 

Top Ten List:


The Councillor
by E. J. Beaton – 2 March 2021

The Councillor Cover

The first entry on this list is a rather intriguing fantasy debut from Australian author E. J. Beaton.  The Councillor looks set to contain a thrilling and clever tale about politics, murder and betrayal in a cool new fantasy realm.  This book has a lot of potential and I am rather keen to check it out.

 

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed – 4 March 2021

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

I had to include at least one Star Wars book on this list (it’s practically a tradition for me at this point), and while I was very tempted to include the new Thrawn Ascendency novel, Greater Good (especially after how much I enjoyed the previous book, Chaos Rising), I instead decided I am a little more excited for Star Wars: Victory’s Price.  Victory’s Price is the third and final entry in Alexander Freed’s excellent Alphabet Squadron series which follows a rag-tag group of New Republic pilots in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi.  The last two books, Alphabet Squadron and Shadow Fall, have been really exceptional reads, and I am very excited to see how this amazing series ends.

 

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst – 9 March 2021

The Bone Maker Cover

Last year I was lucky enough to enjoy fantasy author Sara Beth Durst’s work for the first time when I checked out her 2020 release, Race the Sands, which featured a captivating conspiracy around monster racing.  Race the Sands was an epic read that I deeply enjoyed and it ended up being one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  As a result, I have been rather keen to check out Durst’s next standalone fantasy book, The Bone Maker.  I actually started reading The Bone Maker today and have made a fair bit of progress already.  So far it has been pretty amazing and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

 

Breakout by Paul Herron – 9 March 2021

Breakout Cover

Another intriguing debut, Breakout is a fantastically fun sounding thriller which sees a mostly innocent man attempt to escape from the most secure prison in the planet, whilst it is in the process of getting flooded during a raging storm.  This has so much potential for action-packed fun and I am sure it is going to be an absolute blast to read.

 

Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove – 16 March 2021

Firefly Life Signs

Another fantastic tie-in novel that I am looking forward to reading this month is the awesome sounding Firefly: Life Signs.  I have been really loving the awesome batch of Firefly novels that have been released recently (Big Damn Hero, The Magnificent Nine, Generations and The Ghost Machine), and Life Signs sounds particularly good, especially as they revisit an interesting, unused storyline from the show.  This should be an outstanding read and I am looking forward to it.

 

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell – 30 March 2021

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Last year, Nick Martell had one of the best debuts of 2020 with The Kingdom of Liars, a clever and captivating fantasy novel, set in a world where magic steals people’s memories.  The Kingdom of Liars was an exceptionally amazing read and I have been really keen to see how the sequel turns out.  I have already heard some intriguing things about this book and I am hoping that it will be just as good, if not better, than Martell’s impressive first novel.

 

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis – 30 March 2021

A Comedy of Terrors Cover

I am always very happy when a new Lindsey Davis novel is released, and her current body of work, the Flavia Alba Roman historical fiction series, has featured some exceptional novels in recent years (check out my reviews for The Last Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death and The Grove of the Caesars).  The next book in the series, A Comedy of Terrors, has an incredible sounding story to it, with murder and treason occurring during a popular festival.  I am extremely keen to unwrap this latest historical mystery and I am hoping for another clever and entertaining read.

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Homecoming by Stan Sakai – 14 April 2021

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

It has been a long year, but my favourite comic book series, the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series by the legendary Stan Sakai, is finally releasing another volume.  The upcoming Usagi Yojimbo comic, Homecoming, is the second volume to be released completely in colour (the other being last years Bunraku and Other Stories), and has an intense sounding story and will no doubt be filled with exciting characters, impressive art work and Sakai’s trademark love for Japanese culture and heritage.  I already know that I am going to deeply love this amazing comic and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

 

The Girl and the Mountain by Mark Lawrence – 5 May 2021

The Girl and the Mountain Cover

Last year I finally got around to reading one of Mark Lawrence’s impressive fantasy novels, The Girl and the Stars, which followed a young women forced to survive in the dark and dangerous world beneath a desolate ice planet.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and I am now extremely keen to read Lawrence’s next novel, The Girl and the Mountain.  This cool sounding upcoming sequel looks set to continue the epic story started in The Girl and the Stars, and I am really excited to see what happens next.

 

Protector by Conn Iggulden – 18 May 2021

Protector Cover Final

The final book on this list is Protector, the next novel from the always incredible Conn Iggulden, who is one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today.  Protector is the sequel to last year’s awesome read The Gates of Athens and is part of a great series that will chart the rise and fall of ancient Athens.  This next book will continue to detail the war against the Persians while also highlighting some of the leading figures in the city, and I already know that this is going to be an exceptional and epic read.

 

Well that is the end of my Top Ten list.  I think it turned out pretty well and it does a good job of capturing all my most anticipated books for the next three months.  Each of the above should be pretty epic, and I cannot wait to read each of them soon.  Let me know which of the above you are most excited for and stay tuned for reviews of them in the next few months.

Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday I take a look at one of my most anticipated reads for the first half of 2021, the next volume of Stan Sakai’s epic Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Homecoming.

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

I have made it no secret that I am a huge fan of Stan Sakai’s long-running and exceptional Usagi Yojimbo series, and it easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time.  The Usagi Yojimbo comics are set in an alternate version of feudal Japan and follow the protagonist, rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi, as he adventures through a land populated by anthropomorphic animals.  This outstanding series has been going since the 1980s, and I have had an amazing time reading and rereading this cool comic over the years due to the excellent combination of compelling stories, complex characters and breathtaking artwork.  In recent years I have reviewed some of the latest volumes when they are released (including Volume 32: Mysteries, Volume 33: The Hidden and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), and I have also gone back and started reviewing the earlier entries in the series, which has proved to be a lot of fun.  My only regret about being a Usagi Yojimbo fan is that only one volume of the comic is released each year, and once I get a copy, I have to wait an entire year for the next volume.

Luckily for me, my wait is nearly over as the next volume of this series, Homecoming, is currently set for release on 27 April 2021.  Homecoming will be the 35th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series and will contain issues #8-14 of the current run of the series, which is published by IDW.  This means that the upcoming volume will be printed in colour, which is a relatively new feature that was started in the last volume, and which adds some fantastic visual detail to the story.  In this latest upcoming volume, it looks like Usagi will journey to some of the most important locations from his past and find himself once again involved in the nefarious plots of one of his most dangerous enemies.

Synopsis:

Volume Two of the new series sees Usagi return to his home province to pay his respects, but ghosts from his past have other plans.

In “Tatami,” Usagi returns to his home province only to find intrigue and betrayal! An important tea ceremony is about to take place, but what sinister plan does Lord Hikiji have for it and how are the Neko ninja clan involved?

Then, in “Mon,” long ago, Lord Hikiji defeated Usagi’s Lord Mifune to take control of the Northern Province. Usagi, now traveling through his old territories, still wears the mon (a family crest) of his former lord. But, there are those who still remember the Great Wars with bitterness and threaten to kill any samurai loyal to Mifune. What happens when they come across Usagi?

In “The Return,” Usagi is on a pilgrimage to his late lord’s gravesite, however, wearing the Mifune clan crest in Lord Hikiji’s territory has made him an enemy. Traveling through this dangerous land he has made his way to the one place he had been avoiding–the village in which he grew up. Bittersweet memories awaken with his long-time love, until the village becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate an emissary of the shogun.

Ooh, now this sounds like it is going to be a rather cool collection of connected stories, and I have a very strong feeling that I am really going to enjoy them.  People familiar with the comic will know that the Lord Hikiji mentioned above is the major overarching antagonist of Usagi Yojimbo; he not only killed both Usagi’s father and his lord in the past but has also been plotting against the Shogun and several of Usagi’s friends in the current plot line.  Hikiji’s schemes have taken a bit of a back seat in recent years, with Usagi dealing with other antagonists and dangers, although he was so well built up in the earlier entries of this series that he is always a lurking shadow in the Usagi Yojimbo universe.  As a result, I am rather intrigued to see an entire volume that is going to be dedicated to Usagi facing off against Hikiji’s minions again, especially as they are going to tie directly into the wars that made Usagi a masterless, wandering samurai.

All three of the stories mentioned in the synopsis sound really cool and I look forward to seeing how each of them turns out.  The first story, Tatami, will apparently revolve around a tea ceremony, with Hikiji and the Neko Ninja operating some elaborate scheme around it.  Sakai has presented some truly masterful depictions of the traditional tea ceremony before, and I imagine that you will see some cool artwork in this upcoming volume, which will no doubt really pop with the added colour.  It will be really interesting to see how this entire story turns out, and no doubt it will serve as the basis for the rest of the narratives contained within Homecoming.

The next story in this volume, Mon, also sounds extremely compelling, and I think it is going to be a fantastic addition to HomecomingMon will apparently see Usagi return to the battlefields of his youth, where he will encounter those who hold a grudge against Usagi’s deceased lord and his now masterless retainers, and who will have issue with Usagi wearing the crest of his lord (the three dots shaped in a triangle that have been part of Usagi’s clothes for essentially his entire run).  There are so many potentially awesome ways that this story can go, and I look forward to seeing how the wars affected other characters aside from Usagi and how running into other veterans or victims will impact him.  In particular, I look forward to seeing Usagi’s role in the battle of Adachi Plain (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), once again come to the fore of the story, and no doubt Usagi will have some issues with some of the survivors of these wars.  This entire scenario has a lot of potential to be awesome, and I cannot wait to see how Sakai revisits this integral part of Usagi’s backstory.

The final story mentioned in the synopsis is The Return (which incidentally is the name of a historical fiction book I am reading at the moment), which sees Usagi journey back to his childhood village, where yet another plot awaits.  Out of all the stories that have been mentioned for this volume, I think that The Return is the one that has the most potential for dramatic and emotionally rich moments, as Usagi has so much history waiting for him back at his village.  You have to assume that Usagi will once again encounter Mariko, the love of his life who he can never be with, and Kenichi, his old childhood rival who ended up marrying Mariko.  There is also a chance that he will once again come across Jotaro, his secret son with Mariko, who has previously travelled with Usagi as his pupil.  The two previous stories which saw Usagi return home (as seen in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles) were loaded with some incredible and heartbreaking character moments, and I imagine a lot of these issues will once again rise to the surface in this latest story.  Throw in an assassination plot and you have the basis for a truly outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story which I cannot wait to read.

I think it is pretty clear after seeing me go on about this upcoming volume that I am really going to enjoy Usagi Yojimbo: Homecoming.  All of the featured stories mentioned in the synopsis sound pretty damn epic, and I love the fact that Sakai is going to dive into some pretty heavy storylines that could have some significant impact on the overall series.  Based on how much I have loved every single other Usagi Yojimbo comic I have ever read, I know well in advance that Homecoming is probably going to get a five-star review from me and it will no doubt be one of the best things I read in 2021.

Top Ten Tuesday – Most Anticipated Release for the First Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For the first Top Ten Tuesday list of the year, participants need to list their most anticipated releases for the first half of 2021.

Despite only just starting, 2021 is already shaping up to be an epic and exciting year for books with a huge range of impressive and highly anticipated novels due for release in the next 12 months.  This includes exciting debuts, anticipated sequels and the latest entries in beloved bestselling series.  The first half of the year is looking particularly awesome, with a substantial number of incredible upcoming releases that I am deeply looking forward to.

Due to how many awesome books are currently set for release between 1 January 2021 and 30 June 2021, this ended up being a rather difficult list to pull together.  There were way too many extraordinary upcoming books that I could have included, and I ended up having to make some very tough calls and cutting several novels that have an immense amount of potential.  Despite this, I am rather happy with the eventual choices that I made, and I think that this list reflects the upcoming novels and comics I am going to have the most fun reading.  I have mentioned several of these books before in my weekly Waiting on Wednesday articles, and some of them also appeared on my recent Summer TBR list.  However, there are also some interesting new books that I am discussing for the first time here, so that should give this list a bit of variety.  So let us get to my selections and find out which upcoming novels are my most anticipated releases for the first half of 2021.

 

Honourable Mentions:

 

A Prince and a Spy by Rory Clements – 21 January 2021

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Star Wars: Doctor Aphra (2020): Volume One – Fortune and Fate by Alyssa Wong and Marika Cresta – 26 January 2021

DoctorAphra2020-1

 

Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove – 16 March 2021

Firefly Life Signs

 

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good by Timothy Zahn – 27 April 2021

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Greater Good Cover

 

Top Ten Tuesday (By Release Date):

 

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz – 26 January 2021

Prodigal Son Cover

Exciting thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz is set to return later this month with the latest entry in his awesome Orphan X series.  I have deeply enjoyed the previous two books in this series, Out of the Dark and Into the Fire, and Prodigal Son looks like it will have a fun and fantastic story to it.

 

The Three Paradises by Robert Fabbri – 2 February 2021

The Three Paradises Cover

This next novel on this list is The Three Paradises, the second entry in the Alexander’s Legacy series that examines the wars fought in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death.  The Three Paradises serves as a sequel to the excellent 2020 novel, To the Strongest, and it should turn out be a fun and entertaining read.

 

Relentless by Mark Greaney – 23 February 2021

Relentless Mark Greaney Cover

Following on from his 2020 hit, One Minute Out (which was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020), outstanding thriller author Mark Greaney returns with Relentless, the 10th entry in his Gray Man series.  In his latest novel, Greaney’s assassin protagonist will attempt to get to the bottom of a lethal conspiracy involving several missing intelligence agents.  I have extremely high hopes for this book and I think it has the potential to be one of the top books of 2021.

 

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed – 2 March 2021

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

While there are several awesome pieces of Star Wars fiction coming out in the first half of 2021, the one that I am most excited for is Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed, the third and final book in his Alphabet Squadron series.  The previous two entries in the series, Alphabet Squadron and Shadow Fall, have been some of the strongest Star Wars novels in recent years and I have deeply enjoyed this intense, character driven series.  This final entry will feature the final showdown between two rival groups of pilots and should be quite the emotional thrill ride.

 

Breakout by Paul Herron – 9 March 2021

Breakout Cover

Breakout is an intriguing thriller novel that I really like the sound of.  Breakout will follow an imprisoned former cop’s attempt to escape a flooded supermax prison filled with the most dangerous convicts in the country.  This cool sounding book has the potential to be one of the most awesome and exciting releases of the year and I am really looking forward to reading it.

 

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst – 9 March 2021

The Bone Maker Cover

I had the very great pleasure of reading Sarah Beth Durst’s standalone fantasy novel, Race the Sands, last year, which proved to be one of the best books of 2020.  Since then, I have been keeping a close eye out for any new books from this acclaimed fantasy author and I was very excited when I saw she was releasing another standalone novel in a few short months.  This upcoming book will follow a group of damaged fantasy heroes, many years after their legendary victory over a great evil.  The Bone Maker sounds like it will be an incredible, character driven epic and I am deeply excited for it.

 

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell – 30 March 2021

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

In 2020 I was blown away by Nick Martell’s impressive and clever fantasy debut, The Kingdom of Liars, which saw a fantastically flawed protagonist attempt to find the truth in a corrupt kingdom where magic costs people their memories.  This was an extremely compelling and exciting novel, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the upcoming sequel, The Two-Faced Queen, which I believe will be another outstanding read.

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai – 14 April 2021

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

It should as no surprise to anyone familiar with me that the entry I am most excited about is a Usagi Yojimbo comic.  The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily my favourite comics of all time and each year I eagerly await the one new volume that comes out.  This upcoming volume, Homecoming, will be the 35th overall volume of the series and the second volume published fully in colour (the first being 2020’s Bunraku and Other Stories).  Homecoming sounds like it is going to have some major storylines that will see Usagi return to his childhood village, where many enemies and painful memories await him.  I have no doubt whatsoever that I am going to absolutely love this latest Usagi Yojimbo comic and it is going to be one of the best things I read all year.

 

The Girl and the Mountain by Mark Lawrence – 5 May 2021

The Girl and the Mountain Cover

Last year I was lucky enough to get a copy of my first Mark Lawrence novel, The Girl and the Stars, which contained an epic and impressive fantasy storyline set deep beneath the ice of an unforgiving world.  I deeply enjoyed this novel, and I am quite excited to check out the sequel, The Girl and the Mountains, which looks set to continue the fantastic and captivating narrative from the first book.

 

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik – 29 June 2021

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The final entry on this list is The Last Graduate by bestselling author Naomi Novik.  The Last Graduate will serve as a sequel to A Deadly Education, a fun and addictive fantasy novel that was one of my favourite books of 2020.  I had an outstanding time reading A Deadly Education (I powered through it in about a day), and I cannot wait to see how Novik continues this incredible story.

 

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

 

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

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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