Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 8 November 2022)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary crime fiction author, Michael Connelly, returns with another impressive and deeply enjoyable read that once again brings together two of his best protagonists for a compelling investigation, with Desert Star.

Connelly is an author who needs very little introduction, having spent the last 30 years dominating the crime fiction world.  His various outstanding works often cover several diverse subgenres of crime fiction, and his unique and captivating protagonists all exist in one shared universe, primarily set around Los Angeles.  Ever since I started properly reading crime fiction a few years ago, Connelly has been an author I have particularly enjoyed each year, and I have had a wonderful time reading several of his most recent books.  This includes the fantastic Mickey Haller legal thriller, The Law of Innocence, and the intense Jack McEvoy journalistic investigative read, Fair Warning (one of my favourite novels of 2020).  However, some of my favourite Connelly books have been the more classic police investigation novels, all of which have been part of the Ballard and Bosch subseries.

The Ballard and Bosch books are an intriguing set of recent novels that bring together Connelly’s two main police protagonists into one investigative team.  These two protagonists are female detective Renée Ballard and Connelly’s original protagonist, Harry Bosch, who has long retired from the LAPD but is still in the detective game.  These two form a fantastic team, and it is always fun to see their interesting mentor/mentee relationship as they investigate a series of cases.  There have so far been three Ballard and Bosch books, and I have had a wonderful time with each of them, including Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and The Dark Hours (one of my favourite books of 2021).  Due to how awesome these last three books have been, I was quite excited to see that Connelly had a new one coming out in 2022, and that book, Desert Star, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.

Desert Star is set a year after the events of The Dark Hours, which saw Renée Ballard quit the LAPD after encountering sexism, corruption, and obstacles to solving her cases.  Lured back after being offered a dream job, Ballard now finds herself leading an elite cold cases unit which hopes to find justice for the many unsolved murders throughout Los Angeles.  While Ballard has already pulled together an effective team, there is still one person she needs to complete it: Harry Bosch.

While angry at Ballard following their last encounter, Bosch is lured back as a volunteer investigator after Ballard offers him help on the one cold case that has haunted him for years, the slaying of the Gallagher family.  Years ago, the entire family of four was found brutally killed, their bodies buried in the desert, and Bosch has never forgotten them or the fact that he was unable to find the man he knows killed them.  In return for access to the resources of Ballard’s unit, Bosch agrees to help Ballard solve her own cold case.

To keep their unit alive and well funded, Ballard needs to solve the rape and murder of a councilman’s sister years ago.  There are few avenues for a further investigation, and Ballard hopes that Bosch’s unique views may be the key to solving it.  However, after a chance clue connects their case to another brutal murder, Ballard and Bosch find themselves taking their investigation in some very dangerous directions.  At the same time, Bosch’s obsession with finding the Gallagher family’s killer grows even more, as he finds himself determined to catch him before it’s too late.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve their crimes, or will tragedy strike right at the heart of their partnership?

This was another outstanding crime fiction read from Connelly that combines a cool series of murder mystery cases with some intense character work to create and excellent story.  Desert Star gets off to a quick start, bringing back the two main protagonists and showing what changes have gone through their lives in the last year, as well as introducing the new cold case unit.  The reader is swiftly then brought across the two central murder cases that the protagonists are investigating.  The initial focus is on the murder of councilman’s sister, which has political connotations for the cold case unit, but Bosch also spends a large amount of time examining his personal case.  After some interesting breaks in the main case, Ballard and Bosch find themselves stuck looking far closer to home than they imagined, when clues point to a serial killer with connections to the very politician who created their unit.  There are some great twists and turns towards the centre of the book as they come close to their revelations, and the identity of this killer is pretty clever, with several interesting clues in the lead-up to the big confrontation.  At the same time, Bosch starts closing in on the main suspect in his case after revisiting witnesses from his initial investigation.  This leads him down a long, dark road as he contemplates what he’s willing to risk to get justice.  Everything leads up to a heart-pounding finale, which will leave readers on the edge of their seat as you honestly have no idea how far Connelly is going to take everything.  Desert Star ends on a particularly satisfying note, and it will be interesting to see where Connelly’s narratives go next, as he has left several intriguing storylines open.

This was a pretty addictive and fast-paced read, and it really doesn’t take long to get drawn into the two intriguing cases.  I loved the focus on cold case investigation in this book, which is a classic Connelly story element, and the author presents some excellent mystery elements.  I had a lot of fun with both cases, one because it was a seemingly unsolvable case with huge political issues behind it, the other because of one protagonist’s intense obsession with cracking it.  Connelly does a good job splitting focus between the two cases, which is made easier with the use of two perspective characters, Ballard and Bosch.  Both have very different views of the investigations, and the split in perspectives helps to ratchet up the tension in several scenes extremely well.  Connelly goes for a pretty fast pace in Desert Star, and you really find yourself powering through the narrative, especially once you get caught up in the excellent investigation arcs.  I loved how both cases turned out, and Connelly puts in some great build-up for both of their powerful conclusions.  Like most of the books in this shared crime universe, Desert Star can be easily read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of either character is really required to enjoy it.  However, this latest Ballard and Bosch book is coming off a lot of emotional build-up and character development from the previous entries, so you’ll appreciate Desert Star more if you’ve checked them out first.  Connelly also throws in a ton of references to some previous novels, mainly some of Bosch’s older adventures, which established fans will really appreciate.  I loved Desert Star’s amazing story and how it was presented, as will all die-hard Connelly readers.

As always with a Connelly read, there is a noticeable and impressive focus on the central characters, with the author diving deep into his two point-of-view protagonists, Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch.  Both characters have a ton of history behind them at this point in Connelly’s joint universe, both as a team and as established, independent protagonists of their own novels.  As such, Connelly takes a little less time introducing them in Desert Star than he would previously, and instead starts highlighting their current issues and concerns, as well as re-establishing the teamwork between them.  While there is a little friction at the start of the book, mainly due to the fallout of The Dark Hours, Ballard and Bosch mostly get their investigative teamwork groove back and become an effective unit.  While Bosch does take on the mentor role in this book, it isn’t as prevalent as it has been previously, mainly because Ballard is now in control of her own unit and is the boss.  This forces her to supervise and try to control Bosch, with limited success, and this impacts their previous established dynamic.  At the same time, Ballard also relies on Bosch’s unpredictability and dislike of the rules to solve their more difficult, politically associated case, so that creates some odd friction and reliance that I rather enjoyed.

Most of the best character work in Desert Star revolved around old favourite protagonist Harry Bosch.  Bosch, who Connelly has aged up naturally over the last 30 years, is retired from the police, but he comes back to help Ballard with her case, and I loved seeing his maverick attitude reassert itself here.  However, he is primarily concerned with his own cold case, and swiftly reignites his obsession with finding the man responsible for the murder of a family.  This obsession soon starts to overwhelm him, and while he helps Ballard, he risks a lot to find his target while there is still time.  Connelly paints a powerful picture of Bosch in this book, and there are some big reveals about him that have been a long time coming.  While I won’t go into too much detail here, this is one of the more powerful and compelling Bosch narratives in a while, and Connelly does an outstanding job building up some tension around his storylines here.  Ballard also gets some interesting development in this book, and it was great to see her as a leader in this book, especially after spending so many years as the LAPD’s unwanted pariah for her attempts to report a superior for sexual harassment.  However, Ballard also encounters the darker side of leadership as she is forced to play politics and encounters various attempts to cover up the whole truth for expediency and self-gain.  This forces her to make some tough choices, and she becomes a bit more like her mentor, Bosch, with every case.  All this excellent character work really adds some impressive impact to Desert Star’s narrative, and this was one of the more significant novels for both of this amazing and iconic Connelly protagonists.

Michael Connelly continues to dominate the crime fiction scene with another epic and captivating read, Desert Star.  Bringing back two outstanding protagonists for a joint investigation, Desert Star contains a compelling and clever investigation into two fascinating murders.  Featuring a great story, some exciting pacing, and the amazing use of two complex protagonists, Desert Star was another exceptional read from Connelly that I had an awesome time reading. I can’t wait to see what Connelly writes next, and no doubt it will tie into the powerful moments raised in this incredible book.

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In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

In the Shadow of Lightning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 21 June 2022)

Series: The Glass Immortals – Book One

Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the most inventive and compelling authors of fantasy fiction, Brian McClellan, kicks off an awesome new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in The Glass Immortals series.

Few authors over the last 10 years have had more of an explosive impact on the world of fantasy fiction then Brian McClellan.  Debuting in 2013, McClellan quickly set the world ablaze with The Powder Mage trilogy, which saw chaos and destruction unravel in a new fantasy world where gunpowder-powered mages face off against an enraged god.  I had a brilliant time with the first book in the series, Promise of Blood, and McClellan followed this initial trilogy off with the sequel, Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, set in the same universe.  While I still need to finish the Powder Mage novels off, I was very excited to hear that McClellan was starting a new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in the author’s The Glass Immortals series.  This is an impressive and outstanding read that introduces readers to a distinctive new fantasy world, this time with a fascinating focus on glass magic.

Demir Grappo was once one of the most respected politicians, tacticians and glassdancers in the Ossan Empire.  A rising star in the assembly, a proven governor, and the only son of a prominent family, Demir’s promising career is suddenly shattered in the immediate aftermath of his greatest military victory when his army sacked and destroyed the entire city of Holikan, apparently on his orders.  Mentally broken by the massacre done in his name, Demir abandons his army and vanishes into the provinces, giving up his life of privilege for one of anonymity.

Now, nine years after the sacking of Holikan, Demir is a very different man, having spent the intervening time as a grifter with no true home.  However, everything changes when news reaches him that his mother was murdered, brutally beaten to death in public in an apparent political attack.  Determined to find her killers, Demir returns to the city of Ossa to reclaim his seat as the head of his family.  But not everyone is happy that he has returned, and Demir soon finds himself in the midst of several deadly conspiracies, while Ossa goes to war against its neighbour, all in the name of avenging his murdered mother.

To get to the centre of these conspiracies, Demir must find allies, including old friends and new acquaintances if he is to gain the power and influence he needs find answers, especially those hidden by the powerful guild families who rule Ossa.  However, as he searches, and soon finds a much more troubling secret: godglass, the source of magic within the world, is running out, and when it goes, chaos will reign.  The key to securing the future may lie in a device that could re-power inert pieces of godglass, and only one girl appears to have the skill to create such a device.  But as Demir fights to secure this new vital ally, he finds himself fighting against a mysterious new enemy, one that seems determined to destroy anyone who gets in their way.

McClellan impresses again with another incredible fantasy novel that had me instantly enthralled.  Presenting the reader with a multifaceted narrative that combines great characters with intriguing fantasy elements, In the Shadow of Lightning proved to be an outstanding start to McClellan’s new series and I had an exceptional time reading it.  Epic in scope, ambition and potential, In the Shadow of Lightning gets a full five-star rating from me and I am still reeling from just how good this was.

In the Shadow of Lightning is a particularly addictive novel, especially as McClellan presents the reader with an outstanding and complex narrative that pulls them in on so many levels.  Starting off with a compelling prelude that perfectly introduces central protagonist Demir Grappo and shows his dramatic and bloody fall from grace and sanity, the novel then undergoes a time skip which takes the reader into the current storyline, right as events are kicking off.  The initial focus is on Demir, who, after finding out his mother has been murdered, returns to Ossa to take over the family business and discover her murderers.  However, he soon finds that his mother was involved in complex dealings that might have led to her death, and that her assassination has been blamed on a neighbouring city Ossa is going to war with.  The story then splits as McClellan introduces three additional point-of-view characters, each other whom has their own distinctive story arc, closely related to Demir and the politics of Ossa.

These new characters include Thessa Foleer, a siliceer (godglass worker) from Ossa’s neighbour Grent, the breacher Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, an enforcer for a powerful guild-family who Demir hires to investigate his mother’s death.  Each of these new characters have their own individual storylines that tie into the plot points introduced in Demir’s initial chapters.  While these character arcs go in their own direction, their storylines are loosely connected together and form a great overarching narrative as they are dragged into war, imprisonment, political battles, conspiracies and criminal investigations.  I loved the cool blend of character-driven storylines, and everything comes together extremely well to show that something very rotten is going on within Ossa.  This is a very fast-paced story, and McClellan keeps multiple compelling plotlines running simultaneously to keep the reader’s attention, with some great reveals and amazing fight scenes scattered throughout the book.  Most of these reveals are set up and foreshadowed extremely well, with a couple of exceptions, and I didn’t see some of the twists coming, which was pretty fun.  Everything comes to a head towards the end of the novel, as all four characters find themselves in their own extremely dangerous and concerning situation.  Not only is there a massive battle for the future of Ossa but there are some shocking revelations about who is involved in the conspiracy and why.  The author leaves everything on an amazing note that not only leaves readers satisfied with the conclusion of some of the storylines but which also leaves a lot of questions unanswered and the reader wanting more.  An excellent and impressive story that dragged me in extremely quickly.

I was very impressed with how In the Shadow of Lightning’s story came together, as McClellan presented an epic and addictive offering that I snapped up extremely quickly.  I especially loved the use of four separate narrators to tell this story, and McClellan did an outstanding job of separating out their narratives.  Each narrator has their own unique story to tell, and what is really good is that they also explore a different aspect of the author’s new fantasy world, which often breaks across the associated genres.  For example, Thessa’s story focuses on the magical science behind godglass, and examines the political and social elements associated with this branch of magic.  Idrian’s tale comes across as a war tale as he is forced to participated in the deadly conflict between Ossa and Grent, where his particularly magical expertise makes him a living weapon.  Kizzie’s chapters come across as an investigation arc, as she attempts to uncover who killed Demir’s mother, and is forced to dive into the intrigues and shifting allegiances amongst the Ossan families, uncovering a deep conspiracy.  Demir serves as a bit of a joining figure; while he also has his own unique adventures, especially around Ossan politics, a lot of his arc involves interactions with the other three point of view characters.  Not only does this ensure that we get another viewpoint on the other character’s actions, as he gets involved in the godglass, espionage and the war elements that they are solely focussed on, but he helps to bring the other protagonist’s disparate storylines together into one solid and compelling narrative.

All four character-driven storylines are pretty exceptional in their own right, and this was one of those rare multi-perspective novels where you honestly can’t choose which character arc is the most intriguing or enjoyable.  I was particularly impressed with how McClellan brought these storylines together into one outstanding novel, and it makes for quite the epic read, especially as the author ensures you get the right blend of intrigue, action, magic and mystery throughout.  Despite its longer length, In the Shadow of Lightning has a pretty fast pace to it, and the readers are constantly treated to fantastic scenes that really keep your interest, either by being directly exciting, or featuring excellent examples of character development or world building.  I also really have to highlight the outstanding and amazing action sequences featured throughout this book.  McClellan has an impressive way of making these fight scenes really come to life in your mind, and it so easy to see all the epic events unfold.  These action scenes are particularly impactful when combined with the new magical features that the author has come up with, and I had so much fun seeing them unfold.  This really was an exceptional and highly entertaining read, and I loved how this entire amazing story was presented to the reader.

One of the things that most impressed me about In the Shadow of Lightning was the way in which McClellan envisioned and introduced the reader to an entirely new fantasy realm, equipped with its own distinctive magical system, all of which was substantially different from the elements featured in his previous Powder Mage novels.  While there are some similarities, namely that the Glass Immortals series also features magic, firearms, and a similar level of technology, there are quite a few differences which really make this new series stand out.  Most of the book is set in the Ossan Empire and its capital city of Ossa, which proves to be an excellent background location for the complex story.  Ossa, as well as some of the other nations mentioned reminded me of an Italian city-state, and I felt that it was an interesting change of pace to the French/English influences of Powder Mage universe.  The city is ruled by rival merchant guild families who are constantly battling for dominance, while the influence of the cities extends out to various provinces in the extended empire.  There is an intricate society set up around Ossa, and I loved the compelling interplay of industries, politics and intrigue that resulted.  McClellan examines various aspects of Ossan society, including sports, leisure, the military, and the various social levels, all of which were pretty intriguing to discover, and which painted Ossa and its people in a compelling light.  I particularly enjoyed their innate love for intrigue, contracts and business above everything else, and the fact that their national sport involves two magically enhanced people beating each other with cudgels tells you a lot about them.  Throw in some compelling snapshots of other relevant nations, as well as some sneaky hints at other mysterious beings, and the reader is given a really impressive and detailed introduction to this new world in this first book in the series, which McClellan did an outstanding job setting up.

However, the most distinctive part of this new universe is the cool magical system that forms the basis for much of the plot.  Just like with the Powder Mage novels, there are actually several different variations of magic and magic users in this series, which are connected to various forms of glass.  The first of these is the magical godglass, empowered glass items that give its users various abilities, such as strength, intelligence and enhanced senses, or which can be used to control a person.  Godglass is the most common form of magic in this series, which anyone can use, and indeed the entirety of human society in this world is based around the use of these items.  Pretty much every action a character does in this book is helped out in some way with godglass, resulting in some excellent sequences, especially during fights, and McClellan spends a lot of time exploring how it fits into his new world.  This includes multiple scenes set inside glassworks, where the godglass is forged, and you get an idea of how it is made and the significance it holds to the people of this world, including the fact that many of the characters have piercings that allow them to attach godglass to them.  Godglass actually becomes a key part of the book’s plot, once it is revealed that the supplies of magical cindersand that is used to create it is running low, resulting in an undercover war to control the remnants or finding a means of regenerating it.

The other magical elements of this new series involve the inbuilt talents of several characters, who have various degrees of sorcery in them.  The most prominent of these are the glassdancers, sorcerers who can control glass (except godglass) to an astonishing degree, and use it as a weapon.  There are multiple glassdancer characters featured throughout In the Shadow of Lightning (including the central protagonist), and you get to see multiple fights involving them, which are pretty badass.  You would never consider just how dangerous someone controlling glass could be until reading this book, and the brutal and quick ways in which they kill their opponents are pretty damn impressive.  The other major form of magical user are glazalier, who have more of a passive ability that allows them to resist the negative impacts of godglass (too much magic starts to eat away at someone) while still being able to use them.  These glazaliers are deployed as breachers, heavily armoured soldiers equipped with a ton of godglass that make them unstoppable tanks in battle, capable of killing units of men by themselves.  Acting as both a hammer and shield to their comrades, they are a lot more brutal than the subtly lethal glassdancers, and I loved the compelling contrast between the two major magical soldiers featured in this book.  McClellan does an outstanding job introducing, explaining and showcasing all these different magical elements in this first book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the many cool ways these magical abilities and the godglass could be used, especially in the book’s many awesome action sequences.  I look forward to seeing how McClellan expands on them in the future, and I am still so impressed by how much magic the author could work into glass.

Another area where McClellan really excels as a writer is with the complex and multi-layered characters he is able to create.  This was really evident in his new novel, where several great point of view protagonists and fascinating supporting characters are perfectly introduced to the reader and become exciting focal points for the brilliant plot.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist, Demir Grappo, a brilliant strategist and politician, whose entire life is shattered in the opening prologue.  Forced back into public life after the death of his mother, Demir takes control of his family and attempts to rebuild his legacy while also finding answers.  Utilising the swindling, bluff and manipulation skills he built in the decade he was away, Demir proves to be a tough political adversary and quite an interesting figure to follow.  I loved his impressive and unique storyline, and watching him regain his political skills and self-confidence was really enjoyable, especially as he acts as a deadly glass sorcerer, businessman, politician, leader and even a general.  There are great sequences that highlight his skills, and I loved how he was able to manipulate everyone in many different ways, from being an agreeable political ally, to acting like a smarmy lord who is able to bluff his way around by sheer force of personality.  While he does come across as arrogant at times, which is partially due to the fear and respect everyone gives him due to his sorcerous abilities, McClellan ensures that the protagonist is aware of it, and works to fix his character flaws as he goes.  However, the biggest character aspect of Demir involves the trauma he carries after his actions apparently led to the massacre of an entire city.  Still haunted by the scenes from that night, Demir is forced to revisit them throughout the course of the book, especially when he meets a survivor while trying to find out who was actually responsible.  His roiling emotions around these events are his one weak spot, and the author slips in some powerful and understandable scenes where he loses control.  McClellan did a great job setting up Demir in this first book, and I have no doubt his story is going to get even more complex and painful.

McClellan ensures that all his intriguing characters have their own distinctive and compelling motivations, as well as a dark history that is explored throughout the course of In the Shadow of Lightning.  This includes Thessa Foleer, whose heartbreaking narrative and past worked perfectly in concert with Demir’s, which was appropriate as their storylines were the most closely linked.  Thessa’s story is one of constant loss, especially as everyone who seems to get close to her dies or suffers in some way, and the character goes through some major grief and trauma as a result.  The author does a good job balancing the focus on her past and her feelings of loss, with the scenes depicting her work as a siliceer, and I liked how you get some of the best insights about this book’s primary fantasy elements throughout her chapters.  McClellan sets up Thessa as quite a major character in this novel, and it will interesting to see how her story progresses in the future.

The other two point-of-view characters are Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, who add a lot more excitement and fun to the story.  Idrian’s scenes are some of the most action-packed, and it is very cool to see him in battle, especially as he tends to plough through entire units of men like a human tank.  However, Idrian is one of the most caring and likeable figures in the entire novel.  Primarily concerned for the lives of his comrades, Idrian goes into the battle to protect them, and the close friendships he builds with his men help define him.  However, Idrian is also battling some inner demons, and it is clear that McClellan has some tragedy planned for him in the future.  This is a little heartbreaking, as you really cannot help but enjoy Idrian’s straightforward nature and natural integrity, and anything bad that happens to him is going to strike the reader twice as hard as a result.  Kizzie, on the other hand, is a scrappy enforcer, forced to survive the intense politics of the city’s guild families.  The bastard daughter of the Vorcien family head, Kizzie desperately seeks legitimisation and acceptance from her father, if only to protect her from vicious brother.  Dragged into Demir’s hunt for his mother’s killers, Kizzie dives into the world of political intrigue and family espionage, only to find herself conflicted by the answers she seeks.  Forced to choose between friends and family, as well as between her desires and what his right, Kizzie has some great moments in this book, and her inner conflicts add a great amount of drama to the plot.

These central protagonists are well rounded out by an impressive and enjoyable series of supporting characters, each of whom add to the plot in their own unique way.  McClellan does a great job introducing all the key supporting characters featured in the plot, and there are some amazing and distinctive characters featured here, from long-time friends of the characters, to bitter enemies with their own agendas.  My favourite supporting character would probably be Baby Montego, Demir’s adopted brother who returns to help Demir with his exploits and find out who killed their mother.  A massive brute of a man and a former cudgeling world champion, Baby is considered to be the deadliest man on the planet, even though he doesn’t have any magical abilities and can’t use godglass.  He more than lives up to this reputation throughout the book, and he has some of the most exciting and action-packed sequences in the entire novel as he casually deals out violence.  At the same time, he is also a cunning thinker, and his dry humour and complete self-confidence really make him standout.  It was fantastic to see amazing characters like Baby interact with the point-of-view characters, and you get some impressive moments as a result.  Honestly, every character featured in this book was amazing in their own way, and I cannot emphasise enough how well McClellan wrote them.

As I tend to do with most massive fantasy novels, I chose to check out In the Shadow of Lightning in its audiobook format, which proved to be pretty damn awesome.  Coming in with a runtime of just under 25 hours, this is a lengthy audiobook to listen to (it comes in at number 15 on my latest longest audiobooks I have listened to list), and it took me a decent amount of time to get through it.  However, I felt that was time well spent, as I was relentlessly entertained every single second I spent listening to In the Shadow of Lightning, and there were times I wished it was even longer.  This epic novel really came to life in the audiobook format, and I loved how impressive and cool some of the big action sequences and confrontations felt when being listened to.  While I did initially struggle to keep track of the side characters in this format (having the ability to easily go back and figure out who people were would have been helpful), I was soon able to figure out who everyone was, while also absorbing a heck of a lot more detail about the new universe and its unique elements.

I was also deeply impressed with the outstanding narration In the Shadow of Lightning featured, thanks to the work of Damian Lynch.  Lynch is a veteran audiobook narrator with several epic fantasy series under his belt and he swiftly made me a big fan with his great voice work here.  He really dove into the various characters featured in the book, and you got a great sense of their personalities, emotions and actions as he narrated them.  I had fun with several of the voices he provided in this book, and I thought that protagonists like Demir, Idrian and Baby Montego, were really good, especially as you get notes of weariness in the old veteran Idrian, and the barely contained violence that resonates off Baby every time he talks.  I particularly liked the cool European accents that Lynch gave to the various characters, which helped to reinforce the Italian city-state nature of the main location, and people from other nations or cities had subtly different accents, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All this, and more, makes for an outstanding audiobook and this is easily the best way to enjoy In the Shadow of Lightning.  I had a wonderful time with this exceptional audiobook and I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this format when it comes out.

As you can no doubt see from this lengthy review, I deeply enjoyed In the Shadow of Lightning, which was such an epic book.  Brian McClellan did a remarkable job with this new novel, and he really proved his ability to set up another distinctive and exceptional fantasy series.  Loaded with so many amazing story elements, a cool new fantasy world with unique magical elements, and some impressive and complex characters, In the Shadow of Lightning was so very addictive, and I really could not stop listening to it.  A highly recommended read, especially in its audiobook format, In the Shadow of Lightning was one of the best books of 2022 and is a must read for all fantasy fans, especially those who have enjoyed McClellan’s work in the past, and I am exceedingly excited to see how The Glass Immortals series progresses from here.

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The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

The Unbelieved Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 2 August 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Debuting author Vikki Petraitis delivers an impressive and deeply moving Australian thriller skilfully set around the powerful subject of sexual violence with The Unbelieved.  This is Petraitis’s first novel, which has been receiving a large amount of buzz, including some awards.  As such, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it had a very interesting plot, and this ended up being one of the most compelling and memorable Australian debuts of 2022.

Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has spent many years investigating terrible and destructive crimes in Melbourne.  After one case goes horribly wrong, Antigone decides to seek the quieter life and moves to her grandmother’s house in the Victorian coastal town of Deception Bay, where she was raised.  However, her attempts at finding peaceful policing quickly go up in smoke when a series of drug assisted sexual attacks occur throughout Deception Bay and the neighbouring towns.

After a sting operation at the local pub reveals a suspect who attempts to drug her, Antigone believes that they have perpetrator dead to rights.  However, they are soon forced to let him go when the male witnesses to the event refuse to cooperate and her superior attempts to brush the case under the rug.  Reaching out to the community, she finds a wall of silence and shame surrounding sexual crimes in Deception Bay, which has failed to lead to any convictions in the town.

Determined to stop the attacks no matter what, Antigone continues her investigation against her superior’s wishes, and uncovers a series of attacks across town.  Attempting to break through the fears of the women of Deception Bay, Antigone and her partner begin closing on the information they need.  However, Antigone also finds herself under threat from all corners and must work swiftly before she is shut down for good.  But can she succeed before another girl is attacked, and what happens when the darkness from her past rears its ugly head again?

Wow, I was not prepared for just how good and moving The Unbelieved was going to be.  Vikki Petraitis has really shown off her skill and talented as a writer with her first book, presenting a powerful read on an extremely relevant subject that strikes the reader hard.  Featuring an exciting and very clever mystery storyline that also intensely examines violence against women in Australia, The Unbelieved is an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At its centre The Unbelieved has an exceptional multifaceted narrative that follows detective Antigone Pollard as she finds herself investigating terrible events occurring around Deception Bay.  Detective Pollard initially attempts to stop a series of sexual attacks, but she soon becomes involved in several other cases while trying to fit in to the community, despite opposition from some of its male residents.  As her case develops and more victims come forward, Pollard also finds herself investigating a suspicious death, a historical murder-suicide, a series of domestic violence cases, and more.  These investigations are often hampered by her superior and problematic members of the community, and Pollard also finds herself being threatened or attacked as she attempts to do her duties.  At the same time, elements from her past in Melbourne are revealed through a series of well-crafted flashbacks that expand on her motivations and begin to bleed into her current cases, especially once a prior suspect is brought back into the light.

Petraitis takes the story in some interesting directions throughout the course of The Unbelieved, and I loved the fantastic combination of the compelling yet heartbreaking cases that are explored throughout.  This investigation angle is well balanced with the character development of the protagonist, as well as the emotional exploration of several interesting supporting characters, and you really get involved in the narrative and the character’s fates as The Unbelieved continues.  The story becomes more complex as the book unfolds, and the protagonist finds herself caught up in a devious local conspiracy that seeks to take her down at the same time.  There are some brilliant twists and reveals throughout the plot, and I loved how several of the storylines developed.  The entire book was very well paced out, and I found myself getting really absorbed in so many key elements of the plot, especially as the author blends compelling investigations with dark, emotional examinations of the victims.  This all leads to up to a moving, thought-provoking and extremely satisfying conclusion that will leave every reader caught up in the plot happy.  I particularly enjoyed the final twist that Petraitis left the story on, and the way it was hinted at through the rest of the novel was extremely clever.  I honestly had such a remarkable time reading this great narrative, and there are so many excellent story elements to enjoy within it.

Easily the most distinctive part of The Unbelieved is the author’s detailed and powerful examination of the current situation of sexual and domestic violence in Australia.  Most of the book’s plot revolves around the investigation and attempted conviction of multiple sexual predators, and the author does not hold back in showcasing just how dark and damaging these sorts of cases can be.  Multiple viewpoints of the impacts of these crimes are examined throughout The Unbelieved, and readers are in for some emotionally devastating moments as you see so many of the different aspects of them.  There is a particularly good and dramatic look at how police investigating sexual crimes are impacted, especially when they are unable to get justice for the victims.  More importantly, Petraitis spends a lot of time exploring how Australian society perceives sexual crimes, and the book is loaded up with characters who don’t see them as a big deal or attempt to blame the victim.  There are multiple interludes within The Unbelieved that show short transcripts of interviews with people involved with these crimes, either as a witness or the accused, and the unguarded and unsupportive comments they make are both enlightening and a little infuriating.  Throw in some comments and interviews by the author’s accurate depiction of a typical Australian radio shock jock, which really boil the blood, and you have an excellent depiction of some of the main issues and attitudes towards sexual crimes, such as victim blaming.  These issues become a key part of the book’s plot, especially when the system fails so many victims, and it leads to some extremely emotional and painful moments.  I felt that Petraitis did a spectacular job working this confronting subject into the plot of her novel, and it certainly gave The Unbelieved a powerful edge that is hard to ignore.

I also really appreciated Petraitis’s examination of regional towns in Australia, which proves to be a great setting for this compelling book.  Rural and remote settings are always an excellent feature of Australian fiction, and I think that Petraitis used it extremely well in The Unbelieved.  The transfer of a big-city cop to the small town she grew up in results in a great change of pace for the protagonist, and the change in priorities and issues helps to add to the narrative complexity of The Unbelieved.  The use of this small-town setting comes into play throughout The Unbelieved in multiple intriguing ways, from the constant spread of rumours, the lack of secrets, and the fact everyone knows each other, and I liked how this affected several aspects of the police investigation plot line.  However, the most important part of this setting is the wall of silence that springs up during the book.  Many people know about the sexual and domestic violence going in in Deception Bay, but are unwilling to talk for various reasons, often keeping secrets from the police.  This becomes a key complication in the investigation, and it was fascinating and moving to see the protagonist attempt to overcome it.  As such, I felt that this small-town setting worked extremely well for The Unbelieved’s plot, especially with its specific criminal focus, and it definitely enhanced the story for me.

The final thing that I need to highlight is the excellent protagonist that Petraitis works the story around in Detective Antigone Pollard.  Pollard is an emotionally charged badass who has returned to her hometown after a devastating case in Melbourne, and now finds herself amid all manner of dark criminal activity.  While she is raw from the impacts of her last case and there are some dramatic moments surrounding here, the author portrays her as a practical and very capable cop, who takes charge and starts to clean up Deception Bay.  I really do think that Petraitis hit the right balance of vulnerable and determined in Pollard, and you grow quite attached to her as the book continues, especially once you learn the full extent of her last case.  Combine Pollard with several other fantastic characters in The Unbelieved, such as her partner, Detective Senior Constable Warren “Wozza” Harvey, and her loyal dog, Waffles, as well as some slimy villains, and you have a great cast for The Unbelieved that really add to the overall quality of this remarkable book.

With her impressive debut novel, The Unbelieved, Vikki Petraitis has set herself up as an exceptional talent in the Australian crime fiction game and she is a major new author to watch out for.  The Unbelieved has an outstanding crime fiction narrative to it that does an amazing job balancing a compelling mystery storyline with powerful dive into a sensitive and highly relevant subject.  Thanks to its well-written plot, clever mystery, distinctive setting and great characters, The Unbelieved comes together perfectly, and it proves to be extremely hard to put down.  While this book might be best avoided by those readers triggered by depictions of sexual violence, I cannot recommend this powerful novel enough, and it stands as one of the better Australian crime fiction books and debuts of 2022 so far.

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Quick Review – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Dirt Town Cover

Publisher: Macmillian (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 359 0ages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing new author Hayley Scrivenor presents her powerful and excellent debut novel with the powerful and dramatic Australian mystery, Dirt Town.

Plot Synopsis:

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing.

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.

Ronnie’s going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can’t be gone, Ronnie won’t believe it.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.

Lewis can believe it too. But he can’t reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.

Five days later, Esther’s buried body is discovered.

What do we owe the girl who isn’t there?

Character-rich and propulsive, with a breathtakingly original use of voice and revolving points of view, Hayley Scrivenor delves under the surface, where no one can hide. With emotional depth and sensitivity, this stunning debut shows us how much each person matters in a community that is at once falling apart and coming together.

Esther will always be a Dirt Town child, as we are its children, still.


Dirt
Town was a fantastic and clever novel that contains a lot of interesting elements and moving parts to it that I had an amazing time reading.  Set in the small Australian country town of Durton in late 2001, the crux of Dirt Town’s plot revolves around the sudden disappearance of local schoolgirl Esther, who vanishes on her way home.  The subsequent search and police investigation into the disappearance soon involves several different inhabitants of Durton, including Esther’s friends, family and other connections, many of whom are dragged into the case over the course of the following days.  The investigation and the eventual reveal of what happened to Esther slowly but surely tears the town of Durton apart, as everyone’s secrets come spilling out.

The story focuses on several intriguing protagonists, including Esther’s best friend, Ronnie, who attempts to find her without really realising what is going on; their fellow schoolmate Lewis, who witnessed something relevant to the case but is unable to say anything out of fear of being outed; the various relatives to the children; the cops that come to investigate; and more.  This strong focus on these complex characters allows Scrivenor to weave together a compelling and exciting tapestry of personal stories that are altered for the worse when Esther goes missing.  All the characters react to the disappearance in different ways, and the reader gets a deep and captivating look into their lives, which often reveal long-buried secrets, fears and insecurities that the investigation brings to the light.  At the same time, the hunt for the missing child reveals other crimes going on around Durton, and everyone is moved in some way by the events of the narrative.  The eventual reveal about what happened to Esther and who was involved is very intense, and I really loved the clever, heartbreaking twist that Scrivenor utilised here.  The author layers the story with some clues, but it is still shocking to see what unfolded, and the series of events that led up to it and followed from there.  Dirt Town ends with a satisfying, if very bittersweet, conclusion, and I really appreciate the impressive debut narrative the Scrivenor produced here.

This was a pretty moving and distinctive novel, as Scrivenor blends several genres together into a single riveting tale.  While mostly framed as a mystery novel, Dirt Town also has a strong drama aspect to it, especially when it comes to examining the lives and secrets of the various townsfolk.  This ensures that you get quite a lot of unique character interactions throughout Dirt Town, and it was very moving and powerful to see how everyone was impacted by the events of the plot, often in quite substantial and painful ways.  It is also a particularly good piece of rural Australian fiction, as Scrivenor, who grew up in a small country town herself, does an amazing job portraying the tight-knit community, isolated landscape, and the feeling of decline that many of these towns experience during times of hardship.  Scrivenor added in a distinctive, disassociated chorus narrator, which is essentially the joint voice of the town, which produces some poetic and insight examinations of the impacts that the case has on the town and its people, as well as providing compelling insights into how the town is generally faring.  These separate elements blend well into a captivating and moving story, and you can find yourself getting quite drawn into Dirt Town as a result.

Overall, I felt that Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor was an outstanding and very distinctive debut novel, and one that sets Scrivenor up as an interesting rising talent in Australian fiction.  A recommended read, especially for those who love complex stories in Australia’s unmatched rural setting, Dirt Town was an outstanding book that is well worth checking out.

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The Law by Jim Butcher

The Law Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 5 July 2022)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17.5

Length: 3 hours and 22 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive back into the wild world of Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series with the latest impressive novella, The Law.

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I usually don’t go out of my way to read too many novellas or short stories and instead usually focus on full-length novels and comics.  This isn’t so much a deliberate choice as I just prefer whole books I can really sink my teeth into.  However, I had to make an exception for the latest Dresden Files novella that Jim Butcher just dropped, as I have been deeply enjoying this epic series.

The Dresden Files are a long running series of urban fantasy novels that follow protagonist Harry Dresden, a wizard who protects the people of Chicago from the magic beings and creatures they don’t even know exist.  People may remember that I first got into the Dresden Files back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry in the series, Battle Ground.  While I did enter this series late in the game, I still had an outstanding time with Battle Ground and it ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of 2020.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back and started reading the series from the beginning.  So far, I have been able to read the first four Dresden Files novels, Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, all of which have been pretty impressive and captivating reads.  This dive into the older novels, plus my lingering enjoyment of Battle Ground, ensured that I was ready and eager for any new Dresden Files content that came my way, and Butcher just delivered with his latest novella, The Law.

Set a month after the events of Battle Ground, The Law sees Harry Dresden and the city of Chicago still recovering from the invasion of the Titan Ethniu and her forces, which resulted in significant destruction.  However, Dresden is primarily mourning the tragic death of his love, Karrin Murphy, and even his new responsibilities as lord of a castle and protector of Chicago isn’t enough to keep his mind off his loss.  Determined to snap Dresden out of his funk, his friends decide to get him back to basics and introduce him to someone in need of a good investigator.

Enter Maya, a former prostitute turned tutor whose grassroots education company helps to supplement the education of Chicago’s working-class children.  Working hard, Maya has managed to turn her tutoring business into a viable, if low-profit, franchise that prioritises helping as many children as possible.  However, Maya’s past life is about to come back to haunt her in the form of her former pimp, Tripp Gregory, who initiates a bogus lawsuit against Maya’s company for a ridiculous sum.  Unable to afford a lawyer and desperate for help, Maya has no choice but to turn to Chicago’s resident miracle worker, Harry Dresden.

Deciding to the take on the case and hoping to quietly warn Tripp away from Maya, Dresden soon discovers that sometimes the most dangerous opponent is a greedy idiot concerned only for themselves.  Worse, Tripp and the case have unexpected connections to the magical world, with dangerous players taking an interest in its outcome.  Forced to deal with old and new foes of considerable power, Dresden will need all his wit and will if he is to save Maya’s business and ensure that justice is found.

Well, that has gone a long way to convincing me to check out more novellas in the future.  The Law was an epic read that took Butcher’s always outstanding Dresden File’s protagonist on a short, but extremely sweet, adventure.  Bringing Butcher’s usual flair and style, while also expanding on events from the last book, The Law was a great read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Butcher pretty much teaches a master class on how to do a short, concise and captivating story here in The Law as, despite its length, this novella had an impressive and fun narrative that I found to be utterly addictive.  Not only does it serve as a great follow up to Battle Ground but it showcases some amazing character work while presenting the protagonist with an intriguing new adventure.  The story is so much fun, and I loved how it started as seemingly non-magical job and then morphed into something more dangerous and problematic as Dresden finds that it has connections with the magical world that forces him to deal with some of Chicago’s key players, including some old enemies.  Bringing a small but enjoyable amount of legal thriller aspect to the series’ usual urban fantasy crime fiction style, The Law goes in some fantastic directions, as Dresden attempts to placate all the players while also serving his client.  There is a great bit of action, a ton of humour, some intriguing revelations, and even some pretty dark moments, which combine extremely well to create quite the impressive narrative.  I loved how Butcher wrapped the entire novella up, especially with that one conference scene near the end, and the reader comes away very satisfied and entertained with the entire affair.  I cannot emphasise how great this story was, and I was so damn enthralled by it that I nearly finished it in an entire sitting.

One of the things that I particularly liked about The Law is the way that it serves as a bridging novella between Battle Ground and any future entries in the series.  Butcher spends a lot of time in this story looking at the aftermath of the previous novel, especially as Battle Ground featured that epic battle that saw Chicago nearly levelled.  As such, Butcher packs The Law with a ton of callbacks to the events of the last book, and there is a huge focus on how the various characters are dealing with the aftermath, especially Dresden.  There is also a very fascinating look at the rebuilding that is occurring during this time, as well as the current state of the citizenry, many of whom are traumatised or damaged because of a battle most of them couldn’t even fully comprehend.  I really appreciated seeing the various figures featured in The Law remembering or trying to understand the events of Battle Ground, whether they are a magical person who lost someone, a normal person who went through hell, or even one of Dresden’s Knights of the Bean, who now bear a dark connection with the protagonist.  Some of the details that came out as a result are deeply fascinating, and there are even a few hints about where some potential future storylines might go, such as increased Government awareness of magic (you see evidence of them covering up the events of Battle Ground here), or the increased fear that might lead to humans attacking magic kind in the future.  All of these are featured heavily in The Law, and I liked how it was well utilised for the current story, while also showing fans of the series how different the landscape of Chicago will be in the future.  I would say that this focus on the aftermath of Battle Ground did make The Law a little less accessible to those readers who haven’t read the latest Dresden Files novel, however, I think that if you are interested in reading this, then you should definitely read Battle Ground first.

I also must talk about the great character work featured in The Law.  Despite its shorter length, Butcher manages to fit a decent number of characters in The Law, and there are some impressive character arcs and development that occurs as a result.  Naturally, most of this is focused on series protagonist and central point-of-view character, Harry Dresden, who puts on his usual brave face for most of this novella, bringing his usual insights and wicked humour to the new case.  However, it soon becomes very apparent that Dresden is still heavily traumatised by the events of Battle Ground, where he lost so much because of the war.  Despite his best efforts to hide it, Dresden is a wreck for much of the story, and it was quite confronting and moving to see him experience blackouts and emotional strains due to the tragedies he has experienced.  I think that Butcher covered his protagonist’s trauma and grief in a pretty realistic way, and I liked how he tried to use an old-fashioned investigatory case as a coping method for Dresden.  It was great to see Dresden going back to his roots as a private investigator after the chaotic and world-altering events of the last few books, and it was interesting to see how much the character’s powers, methods, insights and choices have changed as a result of everything he’s seen.  The Law ended up being quite an intense and fantastic look in the recovering Dresden and readers will like seeing his emotional damage, his recovery, and even some of his darker moments that are contained within this excellent novella.

Aside from Dresden, The Law features an excellent array of supporting characters, who bring a lot to the narrative.  Butcher made sure to include a combination of new faces and existing characters to fill out the cast, and I had a blast with how they were utilised throughout.  Several of the funniest and most interesting recurring figures from the series had substantial roles here, including Bob, Gentleman John Marcone, and even Mab, and each of their appearances and interactions with Dresden were entertaining and fitting with their previous appearances.  I enjoyed many of the great new characters that Butcher introduced here.  Some of them, including a devilish lawyer with a shrouded identity, may come back in the future, and it will be interesting to see how they are utilised.  I also enjoyed main antagonist, Tripp Gregory, mainly because he was so different that Dresden’s usual antagonists.  Rather than being a magical creature or a major threat, Tripp is a normal and rather idiotic criminal, who has a surprising power: he’s too stupid to believe in magic and too self-centred to avoid all the trouble Dresden is bringing his way.  Dresden’s reactions to having to deal with such a selfish and unusual opponent makes Tripp’s inclusion totally worth it, and I had fun seeing his arc unfold.  These characters, and more, were awesome inclusions to The Law, and their unique inputs added a lot the quality and entertainment value of the entire novella.

Finally, a quick note on the audiobook format, which was how I enjoyed The LawThe Law audiobook has a very short run time of just over three hours and is a relatively easy audiobook to get through.  I always find myself really getting into Butcher’s excellent stories in this audio format, and this continued here with The Law, and it really helped me enjoy all the novella’s fun and entertaining details.  Probably the biggest thing about The Law audiobook was the choice of narrator.  I was deeply, deeply shocked when I discovered that long-time Dresden Files voice actor, the legendary James Marsters, wasn’t narrating The Law, and instead Butcher himself took over and voiced the entire thing.  Surprisingly, this ended up working out rather well and Butcher turned out to be a pretty competent and enjoyable audiobook narrator.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s no James Marsters (a point Butcher makes up-front, after promising Marsters would come back for future novels), but he does a really good job considering his lack of experience.  All the characters are given good, distinctive voices that fit their personalities and showcase their emotions and reactions perfectly.  His voice for Dresden was particularly good, and Butcher captured his creation’s cocky nature and damaged inner self perfectly.  While some of the accents he did were a little iffy, this was an overall fantastic performance from Butcher, and it was fun to see him contribute to his work in this way.  The Law audiobook ended up being an excellent and impressive way to enjoy this fantastic story, and it is easy the format I would most strongly recommend.

Jim Butcher continues to expand his epic Dresden Files series in some fantastic ways with the new novella, The Law.  Containing a compact, but highly impressive story loaded with some of Butcher’s best characters, The Law proved to be extremely entertaining and a lot of fun to get through.  Serving as a perfect follow-up to the major events of the last novel, The Law was an excellent and powerful entry in this long-running series that is a must read for all Dresden Files fans.

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The Accomplice by Steve Cavanagh

The Accomplice Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 26 July 2022)

Series: Eddie Flynn – Book Seven

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The murder trial of the year is in session as brilliant legal thriller author Steve Cavanagh returns with his latest Eddie Flynn novel, The Accomplice.

Last year I had the great pleasure of reading a very fun and compelling thriller novel with The Devil’s Advocate, which was the sixth book in the Eddie Flynn series by talented author Steve Cavanagh.  I had heard of Cavanagh before last year, and indeed I already had a couple of his other books currently sitting on my to-read shelf, but this was the first real chance I had to read one of his novels.  I ended up being really impressed with The Devil’s Advocate, which pitted the series’ conman turned lawyer protagonist against a murderous southern prosecutor in a story that was wildly entertaining, extremely clever, and highly addictive.  As such, I have been rather eager to see what Cavanagh would write next, and his next book, The Accomplice, had been high on my upcoming books list for a while.  Well, I just received an advance copy of The Accomplice a couple of days ago and I immediately picked it up and started reading because it had such an awesome story idea behind it.

Carrie Miller is the most hated woman in America!  A seemingly normal and unassuming housewife, the world was shocked to discover that Carrie’s husband, Daniel Miller, was the notorious and brutal serial killer known as the Sandman.  After terrorising New York for months and killing 14 people, the Sandman suddenly vanished just as the police arrived to arrest him.  While the Sandman may have been gone, Carrie was still there, and everyone, including the police, FBI, media, and the entirety of America, believes that she knew about her husband’s crimes and helped to cover them up.

As the start of her trial begins, a desperate Carrie turns to the one defence attorney that could save her, former conman and legal genius Eddie Flynn.  Convinced of her innocence and determined to help, Flynn reluctantly takes on her case.  However, this will be the most difficult case of his life, as he must convince a jaded jury and the rest of the world that Carrie had no knowledge of her husband’s crimes and took no part in the murders.  But with Carrie already convicted by the media, and no evidence or witnesses that can back up her story, Eddie will have a real fight on his hands.

As Eddie prepares for the case, a dangerous new problem enters the picture.  After a lengthy absence, the Sandman has returned to New York, and he’s determined to save his wife from a life sentence.  Even with the police, FBI and rogue serial killer specialist Gabriel Lake on his tail, the Sandman begins a new reign of terror, targeting the prosecution’s witnesses and members of the FBI.  With the stakes higher than ever, can Eddie prove Carrie’s innocence before the killer strikes again or will he and everyone he cares about face the wrath of the Sandman?

Cavanagh hits it out of the park again, providing readers with a brilliant and intense thriller that is dark and fun at the same time.  Combining fantastic legal elements with a gripping psychological narrative about a dangerous killer, The Accomplice was another impressive read from Cavanagh that was well worth the wait.

This seventh Eddie Flynn novel has a really awesome and intense story to it that takes the reader on an impressive ride that is near impossible to stop.  Starting off with a great introduction to the case, the story quickly loops in Eddie Flynn and his team, while also bringing back the great villain in the Sandman.  Following some subsequent exposition and background to the case, Eddie gets into planning the defence, only to have a substantial shock hit him as the Sandman strikes in several different directions.  As the various characters attempt to deal with the issues surrounding the Sandman’s new attacks, Eddie is forced to defend his client in impossible circumstances as the trial starts.

Thanks to his great use of multiple character perspectives, which follows everyone including Eddie, his team, and even the Sandman himself, you get a great view of the events occurring throughout the book.  The middle of this impressive novel is filled with some excellent sequences depicting the killers’ current brutal actions, the desperate search for him that envelopes several main characters, and Flynn’s always impressive legal scenes.  I loved the awesome changes in tone and focus that occurred between these various chapters, and there is an intriguing and powerful contrast between the intensive cat-and-mouse games surrounding the killer and the more legal focused scenes.  All the perspectives come together in a big way towards the end of the book, and The Accomplice has a fantastic and wildly entertaining finale.  There are some pretty cool twists loaded up here and Cavanagh does a great job setting them up throughout the narrative.  I was kind of able to predict how one of the main ones would turn out, but I was pleasantly surprised by the other, and looking back it was cleverly set up and then hidden by the other secrets.  The author ends The Accomplice on a great note, and readers will come away wildly entertained and very impressed with how everything was so neatly wrapped up.

Cavanagh was in the zone when he was writing The Accomplice, and I deeply enjoyed how the entire story came together.  Like most of Cavanagh’s novels, the pacing in The Accomplice was spot on and the reader is never really given a chance to relax or put the novel down, which ensures that they try really hard to get through everything in one go (it worked on me).  There was an excellent blend of styles throughout The Accomplice, and Cavanagh once again did a great job of combining the darker subject matter of a disturbed killer, with the lighter scenes that focused on Eddie Flynn’s outrageous behaviour.  The scenes focused on the Sandman were particularly dark and gripping, especially as you get to see directly into his diseased mind, and the use of them throughout the novel really helped to amp up the drama and threat, while also moving the narrative along in some impressive directions.  Likewise, you get some intriguing and powerful character driven scenes from some of the other major characters, such as Flynn’s investigator Bloch and newcomer Gabriel Lake, as they get obsessed with finding the Sandman and bringing him to justice.

However, my personal favourite scenes in the book are those that deal more with the legal thriller aspects of the book.  I am always a sucker for a good legal battle in fiction, and Cavanagh, a man who knows a thing or two about the law, does a brilliant job of showcasing trials, legal prep work, and the formation of a defence case throughout his novels.  The court sequences scattered throughout the novel are very well written, and it was fascinating to see the author’s take on certain prosecution and defence strategies (some of the names for the strategies were quite amusing) as the protagonists do their darndest to blow a hole in the seemingly airtight case against their client.  I really loved how Cavanagh once again let Eddie go wild during the court case, and he uses all his knowledge and flair for the dramatic to manipulate the court in some inventive and often hilarious ways.  Most of Eddie’s appearances in the court are wildly entertaining, and his over-the-top shenanigans so much fun to behold, especially when he takes down every smug opponent and obstacle in a big way.  The author has a lot of fun setting up some of these events throughout the book, and it is really entertaining to see the protagonists coming up with their eccentric plans, as the hints about what they are going to do are left purposely vague to capture the reader’s attention.  I have so much love for Cavanagh’s ability to bring some wacky ideas into the court setting, and I can’t wait to see what convoluted and hilarious strategies the protagonist employs in any future books.

On top of the great story and distinctive sequences, Cavanagh also excels at character creation and development, which adds an extra impressive layer to the narrative.  The Accomplice features an interesting complement of characters, from the established cast of the previous books to some exceptional new figures whom the current case revolves around.  Naturally, most of the focus falls on the protagonist of Eddie Flynn, who is once again brought into an impossible case.  Flynn has another strong turn in The Accomplice and gets up to all his old tricks to win.  This results in quite a few entertaining and hilarious moments, and most of the book’s strong humour is because of Flynn’s more outrageous behaviours.  However, parts of this case do really get to Flynn and show that deep down he’s a good and flawed figure who lets his work dig into him.  Watching certain stresses and griefs take their hold on him really adds to the drama and intensity of the book, and I really appreciated how Cavanagh portrayed him throughout this latest novel.

On top of Eddie, the author brings back the central legal team, who are very strongly featured throughout this seventh book.  This includes Eddie’s mentor and advisor, Harry Ford, who continues to be a solid and calming presence for much of the book.  Harry serves as an excellent foil to the more outgoing Flynn, and they work well together as a team, especially during some scenes that see Harry have a bigger impact on the story than usual.  The other two key members of the staff are the firm’s other associate, young lawyer Kate Brooks and investigator Blotch, who are well utilised throughout The Accomplice.  Both bring something very different to the story, whether it be Kate’s relative innocence and determination to help wronged women, such as their client in this book, or Blotch’s investigative knowhow, capacity for violence, and general determination.  Both prove a good match for Flynn throughout this book, and I really liked the major impacts they have on the story, as it resulted in a much more varied and fun narrative.  There is also a great look at their strong friendship, which has lasted since childhood, and it was fun to see more examples of Blotch’s overprotective nature, especially when it comes to a thieving neighbour.

Finally, there are also some excellent new characters utilised in The Accomplice, who each bring something very different to the table.  Due to their stronger involvement with this particular case, be it suspect, perpetrator or hunter, Cavanagh does spend a bit more time introducing and developing these new characters than the existing cast, and you end up getting to know them extremely well.  This includes Flynn’s new client, Carrie Miller, the wife of the infamous Sandman, who finds herself under attack from pretty much the entire country in this book.  Carrie cuts a fascinating figure as a result, and while you are constantly wondering just how innocent she is, you get to see her at her most vulnerable as everyone she knows has turned against her.  I particularly enjoyed some of her insights (her choice of favourite film is excellent), and the journal entries that the author scatters throughout the novel really enhances her tale and gives greater context to her present actions.

In addition, Cavanagh also introduces the character of Gabriel Lake, a former FBI agent turned private investigator who specialises in catching serial killers.  A brilliant man with interesting ideas about the way to hunt killers which goes against the established theories of the FBI, Lake is an integral part of the plot, as he helps Flynn with his case in the hope of catching the Sandman.  However, there is also a deep well of anger within Lake, due to both his past and his personal connection to the Sandman case, and this becomes a major problem for the protagonists as the book goes on.  You never quite know what Lake’s motivations or intentions are, and he ends up adding an entire extra layer of complexity to an already twisty plot.

The final character I need to mention is the killer known as the Sandman.  While I won’t go into too much detail here about them to preserve some plot details, they serve as a sinister and threatening figure throughout the story, and their presence really impacts the events of the narrative.  Cavanagh goes out of his way to make the Sandman appear as deadly and deranged as possible, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into his mind, especially as he truly believes that the Sandman is his true persona.  Watching him work his deadly skills in several disconcerting point of view chapters really adds to the intensity of the narrative, and he ended up being a particularly impressive literary villain.  I really had a great time with all these amazing and complex characters, be they old and new, and Cavanagh has once again really showcased his excellent skill when it comes to writing damaged people.

Unsurprisingly, I had a wonderful time with The Accomplice and Steve Cavanagh continues to impress me as one of the more entertaining thriller authors out there today.  This latest Eddie Flynn novel has all the series trademark flair as Cavanagh presents the reader with another unique and captivating case.  I loved how The Accomplice featured a great combination of a dark killer, hilarious legal scenes, a twisty thriller plot, and some well-established characters, which result in an incredible and addictive narrative.  A deeply enjoyable read, I really must go back and check out some of the earlier Eddie Flynn novels when I get a chance.  Highly recommended!

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Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild

Blood Sugar Cover

Publisher: Trapeze (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding screenwriter Sascha Rothchild presents her debut novel with the utterly addictive Blood Sugar, an awesome and clever thriller with a sweet twist.

Ruby Simon has been a killer since she was five years old.  On a sunny day, young Ruby took an opportunity to rid herself and her sister of the school bully by helping him drown at the local Miami beach.  After managing to get away with her crime, Ruby expected to feel guilty for the life she took, but instead all she felt was relief that the boy would never hurt her sister again.  This action led to Ruby having a realisation that sometimes killing a terrible person is not necessarily a bad thing.

Twenty-five years later, Ruby appears to have it all.  A successful and driven psychologist in Miami, Ruby has killed several times over the intervening years and has never felt guilt for her actions.  However, everything she has built is about to come crumbling down when she finds herself in an interrogation room under suspicion of murder.  In front of her lie four photographs of people who she once knew and who are all now dead.

As the interrogation continues, Ruby soon discovers a significant problem: of the four victims she is accused of murdering, she has only killed three of them, and it is the death she is not responsible for that the police are most determined to bring her down for.  Can Ruby prove she is innocent of this one murder?  And even if she can, does she even deserve to be set free?

This was an impressive and compelling debut from Sascha Rothchild that I was really quite happy to get a copy of.  Not only did it have an awesome-sounding plot but I was also very intrigued by the author, as Rothchild already had some major writing creds after her work on several television shows, including GLOW, which I was a big fan of.  I ended up really loving Blood Sugar and I swiftly got drawn into its witty, humorous and powerful story set around an unlikely and extremely likeable murderer.

Blood Sugar has a distinctive and fun narrative that really grabs your attention from the beginning, starting as it does with child-on-child murder.  Told exclusively from the perspective of central character Ruby Simon, the book is an impressive, deep and occasionally humorous character study of a very unique fictional killer.  The initial narrative is split between events in the character’s present, where she is being interrogated by the police, and an extended look back at her past, as you see all the major events in her life.  These flashback sequences take up the majority of the first two thirds of the book, and they present some powerful and intriguing examinations of the protagonist and all the moments that led to her present.  In particular, they look at her key relationships, her schooling, the events that made her into the successful person she is today, as well as the moments where she decided to take a life.  These two separate narrative threads play off each other extremely well, with the character history providing some intriguing context to the character’s background and mindset, while the present-day interrogation does a good job at hinting at events that are still to be revealed in the flashbacks.  Rothchild’s excellent writing style and ability to forge interesting and compelling characters are on full display during this part of the novel, and she is effortlessly able to construct a powerful and natural life story around the very relatable protagonist, with her occasional murders cleverly worked in.  The blend of character history and justified killings really works well to keep your attention, while also making you really start to care about the protagonist and her future.  Both separate linear threads bind together perfectly as the novel progresses and leads the reader towards Blood Sugar’s awesome third and final act.

The final third of Blood Sugar takes on a completely new format as the first-person examination of the protagonist’s past is wrapped up and the book turns into an intense legal thriller.  This fantastic and powerful change of pace is quite jarring and sees the protagonist encounter all manner of personal setbacks and attacks as the police close in on her.  Thanks to all the awesome work that the author did in the first part of the novel, the reader is now incredibly invested in Ruby’s life story, and you feel incredibly sympathetic for her.  As such, it hurts a little to see her so terribly attacked, even though many of the things that they are accusing her of are true and a key part of her life.  This final part of the novel is incredibly intense, and Rothchild brings out all manner of intriguing twists and turns to shake the reader, especially as you still a little uncertain about who is responsible for one of the key events.  The author comes up with an intriguing and entertaining conclusion for the novel that really makes one of the supporting characters shine.  I really liked how everything wrapped up here, and it really did the rest of the book justice.  An overall impressive and highly addictive narrative that I powered through in very short order.

I deeply enjoyed some of the unique elements that Rothchild sprinkled throughout her novel.  While there is a natural focus on the morality of murder and the mindset of her protagonist, the author also takes the time to examine other interesting elements in her own entertaining way.  Many of these elements revolve around relationships, with the protagonist finding herself connected to multiple interesting people in a variety of complex ways, from a very close platonic friendship that experiences major highs and severe lows, to a loving relationship that tries to overcome mistrust and traumatic pasts.  The author also presents one of the most honest and powerful examinations of the relationships people have with their pets, as the protagonist becomes extremely close with several animals that she adopts.  While one of these ends quite tragically (I was legitimately heartbroken when this happened), it transitions into a very moving and accurate examination of the strong grief that people often feel for their pets, and it is one that every animal lover will understand and appreciate.  The various relationships featured in Blood Sugar form a key part of the story, and it was fascinating to see them unfold around the protagonist, especially as they brought out some unique family dynamics, and I really appreciated the clever ways that the author worked them into the wider plot.

There is also an outstanding look at the media circus that surrounds big crimes, especially once the protagonist finds their previous crimes under investigation.  Watching Ruby’s entire carefully constructed life come unravelled in the public eye is one of the more intense parts of Blood Sugar, and Rothchild pulls no punches when it comes to the savagery of the media and the isolation that accused people find themselves in.  I also appreciated the intense dive into the world of the personal psychology, as the protagonist uses her training to explore her mind as well as issues surrounding several of her clients.  This was a very intriguing part of the book’s plot, and I liked how Rothchild praised therapy, showing that it can be very beneficial to people, even trained psychologists and serial killers.  However, the most impressive story element that Rothchild worked into the novel was the in-depth examination of diabetes and the impacts it can have.  Due to a key plot point, quite a lot of the book revolves around a character’s diabetes, with their low blood sugar (yep, that is what the book is named after), become a major factor in the case against Ruby.  Rothchild has clearly done her research when it comes to the intricacies of diabetes, and I really appreciated how she was able to imagine a potential murder based around this disease.  All these distinctive elements and more are expertly utilised in the wider plot and become a key part of the protagonist’s unique and complex life.

Finally, I really must touch on Blood Sugar’s awesome protagonist of Ruby Simon, who stands out as one of the most original and surprisingly likeable literary characters of 2022.  Ruby is a very distinctive figure; she first killed at a very young age and has gone on to murder again several times through her life.  Even though she feels no guilt for these killings, Ruby is not portrayed as a psychopath or a serial killer; she is simply someone able to justify the actions she took in a very logical way.  Due to the way that the novel is set out, you see most of Ruby’s life through her eyes and you swiftly come to appreciate her point of view, especially as she appears as a mostly normal person who finds herself in some unique situations.  Each of her killings is laid out to the reader in a very logical and natural way, and you honestly have a hard time understanding and even supporting her reasons or justifications for the killings.  Due to this, as well as the extremely relatable way that Rothchild portrays her, you become strongly connected to the character, and you quickly start rooting for her to avoid being capture or prosecuted for her crimes.  I honestly cannot remember becoming as attached to a killer character as did with Ruby in Blood Sugar, and Rothchild really went out of her way to ensure that you liked her protagonist.  An excellent and memorable bit of character work.

Overall, Blood Sugar was one of the more unique and entertaining releases of 2022 so far, and I was really impressed with Sascha Rothchild’s first novel.  Featuring an extremely clever, hilarious, thrilling and addictive story, Blood Sugar was a very fun novel to dive into, especially once you become attached to the amazing main character.  Powerful, intense and very distinctive, Blood Sugar is easily one of the best debut novels of 2022 and it comes very highly recommended by the Unseen Library.

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Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch

Amongst our Weapons Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Rivers of London – Book Nine

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the leading lights in the urban fantasy genre, the exceedingly talented Ben Aaronovitch, returns with the latest epic book in his brilliant Rivers of London series, Amongst our Weapons.

For the last 10 years, the fantasy world has been exceedingly impressed by the fantastic writings of Ben Aaronovitch, who came up with a real winner with his Rivers of London series (also known as the Peter Grant series).  Aaronovitch, who already had some major nerd cred as a writer of two Doctor Who serials, debuted the first book in this series, Rivers of London, back in 2011.  This book told the story of Peter Grant, a young Metropolitan Police officer who is assigned to a specialised branch of the Met that deals with magic and supernatural incidents.  This intriguing debut combined magical elements with a classic police procedural format to create an epic and captivating read.  The author has since expanded this series out to several novels, as well as a range of novellas, short stories, and even a graphic novel series, all of which continue the story of Peter Grant and Aaronovitch’s unique magical world.  I have had a lot of fun over the last few years with this series, and I have greatly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s last two entries, Lies Sleeping and False Value.  Aaronovitch is back with another exceptional read in his ninth Rivers of London novel, Amongst our Weapons, which continues the excellent format and presents the reader with an awesome new mystery.

The London Silver Vaults are a renowned underground market for silverware in the heart of London.  They are highly secured and constantly monitored, so getting away with any sort of crime in the vaults is impossible.  So when a crazed would-be robber is brutally killed in the middle of the vaults with no witnesses or cameras catching the act, the Met are forced to call in their secret weapon, Peter Grant and his fellow detectives from the Special Assessment Unit, better known as the Folly.

Specialising in investigating magical incidents, Peter and his team are quickly able to determine that the death and the murder’s subsequent escape were a result of powerful magic.  Taking the lead on the case, Peter hopes to catch the killer quickly, but are quick to discover that their investigation is about to get far too complicated.  Ancient magics and unknown powers are loose around London, and after discovering a second body, the Folly team begin to investigate the members of a mysterious college cult from Manchester that has been inactive for years.  As more attacks occur, it becomes apparent that members of the cult are being hunted down and that their killer appears to be a vengeful, spear-wielding angel.

Determined to get to the bottom of the killings, Peter dives into the history of the cult and the mysterious artefacts they uncovered.  His investigation will lead him all over England, from the colleges of Manchester all the way to the dismal North.  But even as he begins to uncover the truth behind the killings and the being responsible, does even the full might of the Folly have the power to stop an angel and the deadly magic gifted to her?  Worse, another party has involved themselves in the case, someone that Peter knows far too well.  Can Peter solve this case before it is too late, and how will he deal with the greatest challenge of his life, becoming a father to his two magical twins?

Wow, Aaronovitch continues to massively impress me, bringing together another brilliant and unique urban fantasy read.  Once again bringing together an outstanding story that features distinctive fantasy elements with a clever mystery, Amongst our Weapons was a fantastic read that I had an incredible time reading.  This book was pretty damn awesome and gets a full five-star rating from me.

I had an absolute blast with the story contained within Amongst our Weapons as Aaronovitch has once again cleverly combined complex fantasy elements with a compelling murder mystery investigation, resulting in a deeply entertaining and addictive story.  Aaronovitch starts this latest novel off strong, with the protagonist and his team immediately thrust into an investigation of a man with a mysterious magical hole blown into his chest and no witnesses who saw what happened.  This intriguing start quickly becomes even more enticing, as a second murder is soon discovered, as well as other unusual signs and discoveries at the various crime scenes.  However, the excitement does not end there, as Aaronovitch also fits in an early encounter with the powerful murder, who appears to be an exceedingly deadly angel of vengeance, as well as the sudden reappearance of recurring antagonist Lesley May, Peter’s former partner who now acts as a magical mercenary.  Throw in some great character driven storylines about the protagonist’s family, as his river goddess wife is about to give birth, and you have quite an exceptional start to the novel.  Indeed, once all these elements were set up, I was hopelessly hooked on the story, and it proved extremely hard to put this book down at all.

The rest of the narrative flows on from here extremely strongly, as the characters launch an exhaustive and intense investigation not only into the murders but into the origins of certain magical items and the history of the college cult who appear to be targeted.  This takes the protagonist on a bit of a fieldtrip outside London, exploring Manchester and the North, and introducing the characters to some intriguing new magical elements.  While parts of the story here did get a bit bogged down when it came to exploring some of the more complex new fantasy inclusions, I flew through the second part of the book, especially as it is laced with several brilliant and imaginative confrontations between the protagonist and the book’s various antagonists.  Everything comes together extremely well in the lead-up to the conclusion, which results in a fantastic battle that helps resolve everything perfectly.  I did think that it got a little too metaphysical in places, but I still deeply enjoyed this great conclusion, which should really satisfy every reader, while also setting up some interesting storylines for the future.

Aaronovitch has such a distinctive writing style for the Rivers of London series, which is put to great use throughout Amongst our Weapons.  Like most of the Rivers of London novels, Amongst our Weapons can be read as a standalone read, with Aaronovitch doing a great job of rehashing some of the relevant continued storylines when they become relevant to the ongoing story.  This book features the usual awesome blend of magic, crime fiction and character-led storylines, wrapped up with a great sense of fun and humour, which helps to produce quite an entertaining and captivating read.  I particularly loved how the author makes his novels feel like a police procedural with magic, and this is perfectly on display in Amongst our Weapons, as the protagonists engage in elaborate investigation into several unique deaths.  It is so much fun to watch these magic-wielding protagonists do research, official police investigations, paperwork, evidence collecting and various theorising as they examine both the magical and human sides of the case, and I always love how well these elements can be fit into a seemingly typical murder mystery storyline.  Everything flows extremely well through this novel, and while I think there are some minor pacing issues towards the middle, readers will power through this entire book once they get caught up in the mystery and the magic.

I have always been really impressed with the distinctive and captivating fantasy elements contained within the Rivers of London novels, which prove to be intrinsic and outstanding parts of the book.  Rather than use classic fantasy elements, the magic and unique creatures featured within this series are a lot more abstract with a focus on energy manipulation, creatures from alternate universes and godlike beings who get their powers by being embodiments of important locations.  This really gives the novels a great, unique feel that is brilliantly enhanced by the way that the various characters treat magic in an almost scientific way, especially from a policing perspective, as the protagonists are effectively investigating and monitoring it in London.  This fantastic way of examining magic proves to be quite effective in Amongst our Weapons, as you get to see all manner of theorising, analyses and scientific conclusions drawn up as the protagonists attempt to identify and quantify the new forms of magic they are dealing with, especially when they come face to face with an unknown being of immense power.  This cool magic is also quite stunningly described throughout the novel, and I loved seeing its unique and clever use throughout the various magical confrontation sequences, and there is nothing more awesome than reading about a couple of wizards face off against an apparent angel.  I find all the cool magical elements quite fascinating to explore, and I loved seeing some of the world building that occurred throughout Amongst our Weapons, with some new groups of magical users introduced or referenced throughout.  Aaronovitch actually sets up some intriguing new world-building elements throughout Amongst our Weapons, and I look forward to seeing how this expands in some of the future novels.

Finally, I really must highlight the outstanding characters featured within Amongst our Weapons, who really help to turn this awesome story into something truly special.  This cast is headlined by the book’s main protagonist and point-of-view character, Peter Grant, who I really have a lot of fun with.  Grant is a funny and bold protagonist, who has been really growing since the first novel, not only in personality and responsibility but also in magical talent.  He serves as a brilliant protagonist for Amongst our Weapons, and his dogged and clever investigation of the unusual events moved the story along at a swift and enjoyable pace.  While his police work is a major part of the character, this latest novel also focuses again on his personal life, showing his unique marriage to a river (well, the living embodiment of a river), and the upcoming birth of his likely magical children.  This puts some major responsibility on Peter’s head, which he struggles to deal with, still taking risks with his work.  Watching him obsessively chase after the culprit while also trying to balance the upcoming birth of his children was a great part of the novel, and it really helped to make the reader feel attached to him.  However, I personally loved his outstanding sense of humour throughout this novel, as much of the book’s comedic elements are thanks to this protagonist’s funny statements and clever observations about the outrageous events he is witnessing.

Aside from this excellent and relatable protagonist, Amongst our Weapons features a large and diverse cast of figures, including a combination of new people associated with the case and a huge batch of recurring characters who have been perfectly set up before.  Most of the recurring characters are re-introduced extremely well, and even new readers should be able to follow who is who amongst this unique cast of magic users and professional police officers who work together to solve crimes.  My favourite supporting character is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, head of the Folly and the last official wizard.  A gentlemanly figure who fought in World War II, Nightingale serves as a great mentor as well as a badass magician able to throw down with the worst creatures or dark magic users.  While not featured as heavily here as in previous novels, Nightingale has some great moments throughout Amongst our Weapons, and it was awesome to see him squaring off against the winged antagonist.  Aaronovitch also sets up some interesting storylines for him in this book, and it sounds like he will have a much more altered role in the future.  The other major character I should highlight is Lesley May, who serves as a secondary antagonist throughout this book.  Lesley, who spends most of the book as a mercenary character attempting to undermine the police’s investigation, is a great addition to the plot and I am extremely glad that Aaronovitch brought her back for this novel.  Not only do you get more of the regret-filled interactions with Peter but she serves as a great foil for the protagonists, and it was really fun to see her get involved and attempt to manipulate the situation to her advantage.  All these characters, and many more, are great additions to the fantastic and complex plot of the book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the fantastic and powerful interactions between them.

The Rivers of London series continues to shine as one of the best and impressive urban fantasy series with Amongst our Weapons.  Ben Aaronovitch is such a talented author, and I deeply enjoyed distinctive and captivating stories he crafts, especially with its outstanding blend of unique fantasy and memorable murder mystery elements.  Amongst our Weapons is one of my favourite books from Aaronovitch I have read so far and it is a highly recommended for all fantasy fans.  If you aren’t exploring the Rivers of London, then you are really missing out!

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Throwback Thursday – Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair.

Identity Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2005)

Series: Identity Crisis Limited Series

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Rags Morales

Inker: Michael Bair

Letterer: Ken Lopez

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Length: 288 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

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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 this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite comic book limited series, the epic 2004 DC Comics event, Identity Crisis.  (Quick warning, there are spoilers ahead).

Identity Crisis #1

It is fair to say that the early to mid-2000s was one of my favourite periods of comic books, with some truly cool and epic ongoing and limited series being released.  This was particularly true for DC Comics, who produced some of their best work during this time, many of which rank amongst my all-time favourite comic series.  This easily includes the exceptional and brilliant crossover event, Identity Crisis, which to my mind is one of the best limited series ever written.

Made of seven issues, Identity Crisis combines the unique writing talent of thriller author Brad Meltzer with the artistic stylings of veteran DC Comics collaborators Rags Morales and Michael Bair.  This ended up being a near perfect combination of talents and skill, and I have a lot of love for the exceptional story, which absolutely hooks me every time, and its outstanding associated artwork.  I particularly impressed with the addition of Meltzer, who, despite his more literary background has written some of the absolute best and most human comics I have ever had the pleasure of reading, including Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest and the two Justice League of America storylines, The Tornado’s Path and The Lightning Saga.  However, his story in Identity Crisis is particularly powerful and thought-provoking, and it ends up being a comic that completely changes everything you knew about your favourite heroes.

For years the members of the Justice League of America have protected the world from all manner of evil and destruction, always prevailing no matter the odds.  But who can protect them when someone goes after those closest to them?  And what if they actually deserve the punishment being visited upon them?

On an unremarkable night, a mysterious attacker breaks into the home of long-serving Justice League associate, Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, and commits a terrible crime, the murder of Ralph’s beloved wife, Sue Dibny.  With no evidence about who the killer is and no idea how they breached the Dibnys’ impressive security, the superhero community rallies behind their bereaved friend and seeks to find the killer by any means necessary.

As the rest of the heroes seek answers at any potential suspect within the supervillain community, the Elongated Man and a small group his closest friends hunt for a minor villain, Dr Light, whose secret connection to the League’s darkest moment may hold the answers they seek.  However, when a second attack occurs on another publicly known relative of a superhero, Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom, it soon becomes clear that someone else is targeting the heroes and their loved ones.

Identity Crisis #1b

As Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and others attempt to get to the bottom of the case, cryptic threats to one hero’s relative reveal that whoever is targeting them knows all of the League’s secrets, including their hidden identities.  As even more tragedies befall the superhero community, dark secrets from the League’s past are brought into the light and no-one will be prepared for the terrible truth behind these brutal murders.  Can the League weather this latest attack, or is this the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest heroes?

Damn, no matter how many times I read this comic, the tragic and powerful events of Identity Crisis still really get to me.  This exceptional comic contains one of the most impressive narratives I have ever seen in a limited series, taking the reader on a captivating and emotional dive into the world of your favourite heroes.  Perfectly combing a dark, mysterious narrative with incredible character work and some truly amazing artistic inclusions, this comic gets an extremely easy five-star rating from me.

For Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer really went to the well, producing an insanely compelling and moving story that relentless drags you in and introduces you to a completely new side of your favourite heroes.  Utilising his experience as a crime thriller writer, he produces a powerful, character driven superhero narrative with detailed crime fiction elements to create an exceptional and unique story.  Identity Crisis has an amazing start to it, which not only carefully introduces several key figures but also installs some dark tragedy, as the wife of a superhero is killed off.  The subsequent investigation into her murder by the enraged superhero community is extremely compelling and intense, as the emotional heroes turn over every rock and stone, much to the horror of the villains.  However, it is soon revealed that several members of the Justice League are harbouring a devastating secret, one that could reveal the identity of the killer.  This secret becomes one of the most important parts of the first half of the series, and it leads to an epic, action-packed fight sequence against a particularly dangerous foe.

Identity Crisis #2

The story starts to go in a bit of a different direction at this point, with the above secret not really panning out regarding the investigation.  However, other superhero relatives, both public and secret, are targeted, resulting in pandemonium around the characters.  I loved the narrative’s move to a more classic investigation at this point, as the heroes start following every lead they can, while more character development and big moments are explored.  This all leads up to the defining moment when another superhero loses a loved one and the identity of the killer is seemingly revealed.  However, this turns out to be a bluff, as the real killer is still hidden.  The reveal of who did it and why are revealed pretty suddenly towards the end, with some curious and clever motivations exposed.  This leads to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion, as more secrets are revealed, dangerous lies are uncovered, and several characters leave the story more broken and destroyed than ever before.  You will be thrown through the emotional wringer as you check this comic out.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Meltzer told Identity Crisis’s excellent story, especially as it quickly and effectively engrosses the reader and ensures their undivided attention.  The author utilises a mass-character narrative that follows a substantial collection of heroes and villains, many of whom have distinctive or semi-separate storylines.  This works to tell an intriguing, rich narrative that not only has some clever dramatic components but also allows for some intriguing and compelling retcons and expansions to the already elaborate DC universe.  It is very cool how the story developed into more of a murder mystery/thriller story as the comic progressed, and this really played to Meltzer’s strengths.  The investigation is handled very well, and I liked how the superhero elements altered and enhanced it in some clever ways.  The mystery itself is complex and clever, with Meltzer adding in some great twists, false leads and compelling surprises to keep the reader guessing.  The twist about the actual killer is pretty good, and Meltzer did a great job layering in hints and clues throughout the rest of the story while also introducing a few good alternative suspects.  While the motivations and complexities surrounding the killer’s actions are great, I did think that how the protagonists worked it out was a little abrupt, and it might have been a little better if they worked it out from some earlier clues.  The use of female characters wasn’t the best either, especially as most of them are there simply to be victims in one shape or another.  Having a long-established character getting both raped and murdered in a comic as a plot device is pretty unfortunate, and some stronger female figures might have helped balance this out.  Still, this ended up being an awesome read and I deeply enjoyed how it turned out.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Identity Crisis is the interesting examinations that were included as part of the plot.  Meltzer and the artistic team obviously had a lot of fun exploring or introducing some cool aspects of the DC Universe in this series, especially when it comes to the secret or hidden lives of superheroes and supervillains.  I particularly loved the in-depth examination about how both groups are officially or unofficially organised, and there are some very intriguing views of them socialising or working together.  The inclusion of a highly organised superhero death investigation squad, made up of a range of random heroes (the Ray, the Atom, Animal Man, Mister Miracle and two of the Metal Men) is particularly clever, as is the way the various heroes organise into a vengeful posse to question potential suspects.  The deep dive into the importance of a superhero secret identity also becomes an important part of the story, especially as the loss of the secret brings pandemonium thanks to the killer stalking them.  I also loved the counterbalance look at organised villainy, and there are some excellent scenes that see the villains gathering to socialise or talk shop.  Having an organising force like the Calculator, as well as a secret space station hangout, is pretty elaborate, and the deeper look at the villains of this universe, definitely gave Identity Crisis a compelling and intricate edge.

Identity Crisis #3

However, easily the most groundbreaking and compelling new inclusion to the universe is the reveal about the unofficial league within the Justice League who have some dark secrets.  Made up of heroes Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Zatanna and Atom, as well as the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash, this group of heroes apparently operated separately of the main Justice League during their classic Silver Age adventures, acting as their clean-up crew.  This retcon by Meltzer provides an interesting explanation for why villains never remember the secret identities of the heroes they switch minds with or whose dreams they invade, namely they have their mind erased by Zatanna’s magic after being captured by this inner-League.  While this is already a dark move by these established heroes, it gets even worse when they are forced to reveal that they intentionally destroyed Dr Light’s brain to make him less of a threat.  This and other revelations, acts to make many of your favourite heroes appear much more morally grey and fallible, and it was a particularly impressive and monumental inclusion, that will have grave consequences down the line for the entire universe.

Unsurprisingly for something written by Meltzer, Identity Crisis contains some insanely complex and impressive characters who form the heart of the tale.  Due to the way the story is told, Identity Crisis follows a massive cast of comic characters, including several obscure or underappreciated figures.  Meltzer does a brilliant job of utilising all these established characters throughout his story, with nearly every major cast member getting a moment to shine in some way or another, and multiple figures who were underutilised or unappreciated before this comic were given brilliant and defining second chances here.  While the use of multiple focus characters had the potential for a scattered narrative, Meltzer was able to direct the flow of the story around all these various protagonists and antagonists perfectly, and you still get a tight and concise story, which also takes the time to dive into each of these figures and showcase them to their greatest degree.  As I mentioned before, there is a real focus on highlighting the darker side of the superhero characters throughout Identity Crisis, and you end up really seeing these fantastic figures in a whole new scary light.

Let’s start with Ralph and Sue Dibny.  I must admit that the very first time I ever read Identity Crisis, many years ago, I honestly had no idea who Elongated Man and his wife were, as they were a little obscure.  However, Meltzer really goes out of his way to feature them in this story (even adding in a few retcons) and you are given a great introduction to them at the start.  In just a few panels, you understand who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the other superheroes, as well as some unique characteristics and relationship quirks.  This excellent introduction makes you start to care about them just as Meltzer brings the hammer down and kills Sue.  The subsequent grief, rage and despair from Elongated Man is just heartbreaking, and you go through the rest of the comic seeing him attempt to recover from these terrible events.  This amazing use of characters at the start of the comic has a great flow-on effect to the rest of the story, and you become exceedingly invested in finding the killer as a result.

Identity Crisis #4

From there, a lot of the superhero focus goes to the surviving members of the Justice League who formed the league within the League I mentioned above.  There is some exceptional character work around some of these team members, especially as they come to terms with the decisions they made in the past and how they are impacting them now.  I loved seeing them attempt to justify their actions to the other heroes, even their darkest decisions, especially as you can understand why they did what they did, while also feeling disappointed in them.  You really get a sense of determination and shame from them as the story continues, and you see all of them go through a lot in both the past in the present story.  Despite multiple differences, this team are still friends and comrades, and watching them come together to brawl with some of the most dangerous characters is pretty heartwarming, even if darker elements lie just beneath the surface.

While there is a focus on these inner-Leaguers, some of them are utilised a lot more frequently than others, particularly the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen.  Green Arrow is an excellent figure in this comic and is probably the closest thing to a heroic narrator/central protagonist the story has.  His unique perspective on the events acts as a good foil to many of the other characters, such as Batman and Superman, and he proves to be a calm, if potentially vengeful figure for much of the story, organising many of the League actions and forensic investigations.  He also proves to be the voice of reason for the inner League, calmly justifying many of their actions and serving as a bridge between this existing group and the newer Flash and Green Lantern.  Despite his belief that they are doing the right thing, you can see some real emotion and regret in his face, especially when the further revelations about Dr Light and Batman come out.  I also appreciated the deeper look into his antagonistic relationship with Hawkman, which partially originated in the past events mentioned here, and it is interesting to see how the events of this comic impact future Green Arrow storylines.

Aside from Green Arrow, other members of this secret League who get an intriguing focus include the Atom, Ray Palmer, and his ex-wife, Jean Loring.  Due to his status as another public hero, Atom and Jean are also targeted throughout the story, and you end up getting a rather intense and fascinating look at both.  Watching their failed relationship rekindle is a nicer part of most of the comic, although eventual reveals and tragedies naturally ruin it and smash everything around.  Still, their complicated emotions and issues surrounding their fractured relationship make for some of the best parts of the comic.  I liked the interesting look at Zatanna throughout the comic, especially as she is largely responsible for some of the worst moments of this group of heroes, as she clearly feels guilty about her magic messing with the villain’s minds.  I also need to highlight the younger Flash, Wally West, who finds out about the actions of the other characters during the current events of the comic.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to see Wally learn that his mentor and predecessor, Barry Allen, was not as perfect as he imagined, and actually participated in some of the team’s worst events.  The distress he exhibits with every subsequent reveal is showcased through the comic’s art extremely well, and his subsequent guilt as he is forced to keep it secret from other Leaguers like Batman is quite noticeable.

Identity Crisis #5

As you can expect from any major DC Comics crossover event, members of DC’s Big Three are strongly featured throughout Identity Crisis.  While Wonder Woman only has a few intriguing scenes, in which you get to see both her ferocity and her kindness, there is much more of a focus on Superman and Batman.  Superman gets some great sequences throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team sinisterly focus on his family and friends, all of whom are potential targets.  Watching Superman slowly get frustrated with the investigation, especially when Lois is threatened, helps to enhance the seriousness of the story, and he has some powerful moments here.  I did appreciate the way in which Meltzer attempted to paint the big blue Boy Scout in a darker light, as it is revealed that even the supposedly righteous Superman is not as innocent as you’d believe.  It is subtly implied that Superman always knew what the inner League was up to (yay for super hearing), and chose to ignore it for convenience.  This brilliant and dark suggestion that even Superman isn’t infallible is a pretty weighty one that  helps to enhance the weight and power of Identity Crisis’s narrative.

Batman is a lot more involved in the story and leads his own investigation into who is behind the killing.  Even though he does not actually appear until halfway through the comic, he is a heavy presence throughout Identity Crisis, both because of his brusque, loner ways of trying to solve the crime, but because of the dark shadows of the past.  There are multiple moments that revisit his childhood and the death of his parents, which parallels some of the other losses in Identity Crisis, and you get to see the human side of grief impacting this usually stoic character.  Batman’s storyline gets even more intense when it is revealed that part of his memory was erased by his fellow Leaguers to cover up their actions surrounding Dr Light, which is a very haunting inclusion.  Meltzer makes this even more intriguing by having Green Arrow suggest, mostly out of guilt, that Batman likely has done something similar in the past, while also acknowledging that he has likely already deduced that his memories were erased.  This really makes you consider Batman’s relationship with the rest of his heroes, and it certainly has a big impact on future Batman storylines.

The Batman impact on this story is also felt through the great focus on the current Robin, Tim Drake, who plays a surprisingly big role in the events of Identity Crisis.  At the start of the comic, Tim is one of the few members of the Bat-family who still has a father, which puts him at odds with Batman and the Robin predecessors.  As his father has only just discovered his dual identity as Robin, he becomes one of the more interesting protagonists, as the comic explores the stress of the superhero lifestyle on family.  Tim’s storyline ends up being extremely tragic when his father is murdered.  Watching Robin talk to his father over the phone as he’s about to die is just damn horrific, and your heart can’t help but break during that epically drawn-out scene where he and Batman arrive too late.  The subsequent parallel between him, Bruce Wayne and previous Robin Dick Grayson during this moment is particularly poignant, and it results in a whole new chapter of this amazing incarnation of Robin.

Identity Crisis #6

While there are a few other interestingly featured heroes in Identity Crisis, I’m going to start talking about the villains, as many of them have a brilliant role in this comic.  Thanks to Meltzer’s fantastic writing, Identity Crisis proves to be just as much about the villains as the heroes, as many of them are deeply impacted by the events disclosed here.  While I won’t reveal the identity of the killer here (I’m keeping some spoilers locked up), I will say that their motivations are pretty fascinating and provide a compelling insight into the super lifestyle.  The rest of the villains in Identity Crisis are fair game for discussion, though, and I deeply loved the creative team’s excellent examination of them.

Easily the villain I need to talk about the most is Dr Light, an old school Justice League villain who had not been really utilised in recent years.  Mostly known before this comic as the Teen Titans’ punching bag, Meltzer completely revitalised the character in Identity Crisis and, with a stroke, turned him onto one of the most deranged and dangerous figures in the entire universe.  It is revealed throughout the comic that Dr Light used to be an extremely powerful villain, but after invading an empty Watch Tower and raping Sue Dibny, the League brutally took him down, erased his memory of the event and then magically lobotomised him.  This resulted in him becoming the moronic and weakened villain who was routinely taken down by the teenage heroes and other embarrassing foes.  This entire reveal is pretty damn epic and horrifying at the same time.  Not only does Dr Light seem excessively evil and deranged in the flashback scenes, but the shocking revelations of his actions immediately make you hate him.  Meltzer’s explanation for why he turned into such as pathetic creature (aside from the real reason of capricious authors) really hits home hard, and even though Dr Light is a terrible person, you can’t believe that members of the Justice League went so far.  The subsequent scenes where Dr Light regains his memories and his powers feature some of the best artwork in the comic, and while he doesn’t do much here, the scenes with him brooding and plotting hit at his returned and future malevolence.  I deeply appreciated how much Meltzer was able to morph this villain, and while the reliance on rape for antagonist purposes is a bit low, he succeeded in making him a very hateful and despicable figure.

Aside from the killer and Dr Light, several other villains hold interesting and significant roles in Identity Crisis, and I deeply enjoyed how they were portrayed.  This includes Green Arrow villain Meryln, who serves as an interesting shadow to Oliver Queen throughout the comic (more so than usual).  While Green Arrow provides the superhero community’s viewpoint on events, Merlyn’s narration examines the supervillain community and their various reactions.  I loved his fun insights into his fellow villains, and he ends up being an interesting inclusion to the cast.  The same can be said for the Calculator, a formerly silly figure who has turned himself into a non-costumed villain who acts as an anti-Oracle, providing the villain community with tech support and intelligence by charging them $1,000 per question.  I loved this interesting revamp of this minor character, especially as this suave, behind-the-scenes information broker became his default look for years.  Calculator’s conversations and business dealings offer some compelling insights into the superhero community, and I loved the occasional jokes about his old costume.  Meltzer also makes exceptional use of one of my favourite villains, Deathstroke, who once again shows why he is the DC universe’s ultimate badass.  Hired by Dr Light to protect himself from the League, Deathstroke takes on an entire team of heroes single handily and essentially spanks them.  I love how the creative team not only showcase his insane physical abilities, but also his tactical knowhow, as he expertly takes down major heroes in brilliant ways (he takes down the Atom and Hawkman with a laser pointer, true story).  His scene in the centre of the comic is the best action sequence in Identity Crisis, and it perfectly showcased this awesome villain (seriously, give this man a movie), while also hinting at some future grudges.

Identity Crisis #7

The final character I want to talk about is the lecherous and always entertaining Captain Boomerang, who has a major role in the plot.  I absolutely loved the exceptional story that Meltzer wrote around this infamous villain, and it is easily one of his most defining depictions.  Captain Boomerang has always been shown as a bit of a joke, but this comic shows him as a fat, washed up has-been, who leaches off his fellow villains and is generally looked down upon by them.  However, he gets a very intense and emotional story in this comic, as he meets his long-lost son and starts to develop a relationship with him.  The father/son moments add a rather interesting and nice edge to the main story and seem slightly disconnected from the rest of the plot.  That is until the final killing, when it is revealed that Captain Boomerang has arrived to kill Robin’s father.  The implied suggestion that Captain Boomerang of all people might be behind the killings is pretty iconic, and I loved the split panels that contrast his phone call to his son with the phone conversation between Robin and his father.  The subsequent results of the attack, as well as the reveals in the aftermath are pretty awesome, and I really appreciated the fun second chance that Meltzer and the artistic team gave to this iconic, old-school villain.

While I have gone a lot about story elements and characters, I also really need to highlight the incredible artwork featured in Identity Crisis.  The artistic team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair did an outstanding job in this limited series, producing some of the absolute best artwork from this era of DC Comics which perfectly enhances Meltzer’s epic storytelling.  There are so many impressive and memorable artistic moments and sequences throughout Identity Crisis, and I loved the various ways in which the artists convey movement, action, and emotion in their detailed and captivating panels.  There are so many brilliant action sequences in this comic, with my favourite being the Deathstroke vs Justice League fight I mentioned above, although a few others are also very cool to see.  I also loved the character designs featured throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team took the opportunity to seriously reinvent several heroes and villains.  The streamlined look of the Calculator is particularly fun, and I also loved the balding and fat version of Captain Boomerang.  While I didn’t love how a couple of characters looked (what was with the hair on Connor Hawke?), most of it was pretty exceptional, and I love how it was later reutilised by other artists.

There are multiple truly brilliant and eye-catching artistic highlights of Identity Crisis that I must highlight, including the massive and powerful funeral sequence that takes place in the early part of the series.  There is an incredibly elaborate double-page public funeral spread that shows every single emotional superhero in attendance, with the various heroes organised by team or connection to the grieving family.  The use of the multiple heroes and associates is pretty awesome, especially as there are a range of character-appropriate reactions, and I loved seeing the whole costume crowd surrounded by members of the press and public as they mourn.  You also get also some excellent and heartfelt sequences in the subsequent scenes which show the eulogies, especially when Elongated Man starts to literally deteriorate due to his grief, which is just so powerful.  Other great examples of the artist’s work include the fun flashback scenes that allowed them to draw events in various classic comic styles, that offer a little bit of simplicity compared to the darker modern spread.

I particularly loved some of the brilliant sequences that are set around Dr Light, as not only do you see him at his most dangerous in the past but you also have some outstanding scenes when he regains his memories and powers.  The excellent parallels between the Justice League’s takedown of Dr Light and their attack on Deathstroke are incredible, and the subsequent massive panel of blinding light around Dr Light’s face is perfection.  However, the absolute best-drawn sequence in Identity Crisis must be the panels leading up to the death of Robin’s father.  Watching the insane amount of emotion on Batman and Robin as they realise that Robin’s father is about to die is so damn moving, especially the anguish on Robin.  The most moving of these panels is the one that focuses on Batman’s face after Robin begs his mentor to save his father.  The look of pure dread, fear and despair on Batman’s face takes my breath away every single time I look at it, and it perfectly conveys all of Batman’s repressed feelings as he realises that history is once again going to repeat itself.  While there are some other great scenes, the above are easily the cream of the artistic crop and definitely make this comic stand out.  I have so much love for the artistic work of Morales and Bair here, and it markedly enhances the already exceptional story, turning Identity Crisis into a true epic classic.

Well, that’s pretty much everything I have to say about Identity Crisis here.  As you can no doubt guess from the excessive way I have waffled on, I have a lot of love for this exceptional comic and I’m not afraid to show it.  The brilliant creative team behind Identity Crisis did an incredible job with this comic and they really turned out something special.  Perfectly bringing together a deep and clever story with impressive artwork, amazing characters, and so much damn emotion, this comic has something for everyone and is so very highly recommended.  I deeply enjoy everything about Identity Crisis, especially how it leads to some other epic comic books (the continuation of the mindwipe stuff in Justice League of America, Green Arrow, Teen Titans and more is particularly good).  One of the most distinctive and amazing comics ever and a must read for all DC Comics fans.

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Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13: Grey Shadows by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grey Shadows Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2000)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 13

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

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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 this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another epic entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai with the 13th volume, Grey Shadows.

Usagi #23

I had a lot of fun reviewing the 12th volume, Grasscutter, last week and it set me down a bit of a reread journey which saw me revisit several other Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  As such I thought I would take the time to do another review of one of Stan Sakai’s comics, and luckily the next one on my list, Grey Shadows, is a particularly good one.

Grey Shadows takes place immediately after the massive events of Grasscutter and details several adventures that rabbit ronin protagonist Miyamoto Usagi goes on during this period.  Made up of issues #23-30 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, Grey Shadows returns to the series norm of featuring several shorter stories, each of which pit Usagi against a new threat or opponent.  Grey Shadows have several excellent stories, including some that focus on fantastic murder mystery elements while simultaneously introducing interesting new characters.

The first story in this volume is the intriguing and touching entry, My Father’s Swords.  This single-issue story first sees Usagi at the temple of his friend priest Sanshobo recovering from his deadly duel with the demonic spearman Jei at the end of Grasscutter.  Still troubled by the disappearance of Jei’s body and the sudden burden of being responsible for the legendary Grasscutter sword, Usagi journeys out from the temple to scout the surrounding area and determine if it is safe to move the divine blade.  His journeys eventually lead him to meet young wandering samurai, Donbori Chiaki, whose father was an old friend of Usagi’s who served with him under Usagi’s former lord.  While travelling with Chiaki, a chance encounter reveals secrets that will rock Usagi’s soul as a samurai.

Usagi #24

This was an interesting first story for Grey Shadows and it is one that I really appreciated.  I liked the excellent start that revisited key events of the previous volume and examined the burden that Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen now bear.  Not only does Sakai use this opportunity to inform the protagonists about some of the other events of Grasscutter that they were unaware of, but it also helps set up the future 15th volume, Grasscutter II, which will end this overall storyline.  Sakai also takes a little time to showcase Usagi dealing with the dark details of the defeat of his adversary Jei, especially after Jei’s body disappeared upon his defeat.  There is a great scene where a clearly shaken Usagi destroys Jei’s fallen black spear to convince himself that his foe is truly dead, although you can tell he doesn’t believe it.  I am rather impressed that Sakai manages to do such a comprehensive wrap up of the events of the previous volume in such a short amount of time, while also leaving room for another interesting story.

The main story of My Father’s Swords is pretty moving, as Usagi is immediately brought back to another trauma, his service to Lord Mifune and the Battle of Adachi Plain (see Volume 2: Samurai and Volume 11: Seasons).  Travelling with the son of an old comrade lets Usagi briefly relive his glory days, before the past is once again thrust upon him when it is revealed that his friend, Donbori Matsuo, is still alive, following his son anonymously as a cripple.  The reasons for Matsuo hiding his existence from his son and the burden he then places on Usagi to keep this secret for him is a little heartbreaking, and it provides more context about the samurai way of life Usagi is bound to.  The entirety of this storyline is handled perfectly, from the great introduction to Chiaki, the fun remembrances of Usagi’s past, to the final revelation about Matsuo that ends the story on a poignant note that will leave you very thoughtful and moved.  I enjoyed some of the clever artistic tricks in this story, such as the dark shade around Usagi when he deals with Jei’s spear, and the fun way in which Sakai slips in the beggar Matsuo into the background of several scenes, revealing his subtle surveillance of his son.  An excellent entry that not only references the events of Grasscutter but also features a powerful story of its own, My Father’s Swords proves to be a great start to this entire volume.

Usagi #25

Sakai follows up the moving first story of Grey Shadows with the dark second entry, The Demon’s Flute, a clever and memorable horror story.  The Demon’s Flute sees Usagi traversing some remote hills only to be drawn to a small town by the haunting melodies of a flute.  Once there, he discovers that the village is under attack by a mystical menace which kills villagers in utter darkness while the sound of a flute plays.  Believing it to be a ghostly figure of a flutist who wanders around with a white tokage (the dinosaur lizards that serve as this world’s main animals), the villagers implore Usagi to help save them.  However, the true evil attacking them proves to be more complicated and sinister than anyone of them believed.

The Demon’s Flute is a great story that shows just how haunting a Usagi Yojimbo story can be, especially when Sakai utilises some of the creepiest elements of Japanese mythology.  While some of the elements of the story are slightly predictable (Usagi has rocked up to save a lot of random villages over the years), the story has a great pace to it that sees Usagi attacked by dark forces he cannot overcome.  The various scenes where Usagi runs around the village chasing the darkness and the sound of a playing flute are extremely tense, and the sudden reveal of the story’s monster proves to be very thrilling.  I loved the great art that surrounded this part of the story, especially as Sakai makes great use of pure blackness to enhance the tension and threat of a scene, with Usagi often only illuminated by a small hand torch.  The final reveal of the monster and the reason for the haunting flute is pretty cool, and I liked the dark sense of honour and duty that drives even the evil and dead of this realm.  While parts of the story are wrapped up a little too neatly, this was still a brilliant entry which reaffirms my love for Sakai’s horror stories.

The next entry in Grey Shadows is the wholesome and enjoyable Momo-Usagi-Taro, which sees Usagi arrive at a large town.  However, he is almost immediately accosted by a group of orphan children who wrangle him into accompanying them to their orphanage, where he tells them an epic tale to keep them entertained.  This is a genuinely nice entry in this volume, which helps to break up the tension and serves as a gentle buffer between the darker stories in the volume.  While Sakai does take the time to do a little set up for the upcoming stories, most of Momo-Usagi-Taro is dedicated to Usagi’s story to the children, which is a retelling of the classic Momotarō folk story.  I always love it when Sakai tells traditional Japanese stories in his comic, especially as you get to see his artistic take on the legend (which usually results in the protagonist being altered to resemble Usagi), and it was great to see this classic tale brought to life in a new way.  Readers are in for a nice story here, and I loved the fun revelation at the end that the orphanage is the same one shown in Daisho, which is supported by the bounty hunter Stray Dog.

Usagi #26

Now we are getting to some of the main stories of Grey Shadows with The Hairpin Murders.  Set across two issues, The Hairpin Murders sees Usagi get involved in a murder mystery case in town when several prominent merchants are killed using a woman’s hairpin.  Teaming up with the brilliant detective, Inspector Ishida, Usagi helps with the investigation and is soon thrust into a long-hidden conspiracy that bind the victims together.  However, the closer they get to the truth the more resistance they encounter from Ishida’s superiors, forcing them to decide just how far they want to go to get justice.

This was an excellent and intriguing story that serves as one of the more impressive entries in this entire volume.  While still maintaining its comic style and focus, The Hairpin Murders reads just like a classic murder mystery story and sees the protagonist involved in a constricted investigation to find the truth.  Sakai sets up this mystery perfectly, and you are soon racing along to find out who is responsible and why.  There are a couple of great twists here, as well as some interesting connections to kabuki theatre, with the eventual reveal of the murderer and their motivations is handled really well.  The story ends on a pretty satisfying note, and it proves to be quite an intense and intriguing story.

Usagi #27

One of the best things about The Hairpin Murders is the introduction of new character Inspector Ishida, who serves as a supporting figure in the rest of Grey Shadow’s stories.  Based on real-life policeman Chang Apana (the inspiration for fictional detective Charlie Chan), Ishida is a hard-boiled police inspector who is tasked with investigating various crimes around his town, mostly murders.  Despite being restricted by feudal Japanese practices (he can’t do a proper investigation of a body), and the interference of his corrupt superiors, Ishida is a brilliant detective, able to solve complex crimes with the most basic of clues.  Ishida gets a great introduction in The Hairpin Murders, as not only do you see him investigating a tough case but you also learn more about his personality, dedication to justice and elements of his tragic past.  It is so fun to see him in action in this story, especially as he has that great fight scene that shows of his unconventional fighting style (which is surprising considering his small, hunched stature), as well as his excellent use of the cool jutte weapon (I love the jutte so much).  However, the real hint at just how complex and fascinating a character Ishida is occurs at the end of The Hairpin Murders when Ishida is presented with a massive dilemma of justice.  It is strongly implied that Ishida, who spends most of the story sticking to the rules, takes justice into his own hands, and I think it fits perfectly into his character arc, while also leaving some ambiguity about how far he went.  This really was one of the best character introductions of the entire Usagi Yojimbo series and it was so successful that Ishida would become a major recurring character in future volumes (such as Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden).

The other two-issue long story in Grey Shadows is the compelling and moving tale, The Courtesan.  In The Courtesan, Usagi runs into the scared young woman he has noticed multiple times in the last few stories and saves her from a group of masked attackers.  His actions lead to him gaining the attention of the town’s leading courtesan, the alluring Lady Maple, who begs Usagi to help save the life of her young son, who is the legitimate heir to the local lord.  However, dangerous forces within the lord’s court see Lady Maple kidnapped and her son in danger, with only Usagi able to help.

Usagi #28

This was another powerful story that really helps to make this volume stand out in terms of story building and character work.  The Courtesan is a particularly well-paced story that ties in well with the other entries of the Grey Shadow’s volume.  Sakai has come up with a pretty compelling narrative here, and the secret battle for control of the lord’s inheritance is played out with some awesome elements, such as a dive into the world of Japanese courtesans and including several great fight sequences.  The character of Lady Maple is particularly strong, as not only does Sakai make a lot of effort to highlight her elaborate beauty with his artwork, but he also shows the mother hidden underneath the fancy makeup and costume, one who is concerned solely for the welfare of her child.  This leads up to an epic and tense conclusion, as Usagi faces down all the conspirators, only for his victory to be marred by tragedy.  I loved the powerful ending this story contained, which, while sad, also ensures that several worthy characters get what they most wanted in life.  Easily one of the strongest tales in the entire volume, I always enjoy reading this impressive story.

The final entry in Grey Shadows is the fast-paced and action-packed single-issue story, Tameshigiri, which serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire volume.  Tameshigiri is another mystery story that sees Usagi assist Inspector Ishida to investigate some murders around town.  This time the two friends are looking into a series of random killings by mysterious masked samurai.  The attacks seem extremely random and lacking in motivation, but the two are soon drawn towards the acolytes of a failing sword testing school who may have a dark reason for dropping bodies around town.

Usagi #29

This was a pretty fun and cool final story for the volume, and it leaves an exciting end note for the reader.  Sakai pulls together a fantastic and compelling shorter story here that once again combines murder mystery elements with the traditional comic book action.  While the culprits of the murder are quite clear from the outset, it is pretty fun to see their plan unfold and the protagonist’s subsequent investigation into it.  The reasons behind the antagonists’ actions are pretty fascinating, and the author paints an outstanding picture of desperation and duty that drives them to kill.  I also quite liked the intriguing investigation into traditional sword testing, which ties into the story extremely well and proves to be a fascinating addition to Tameshigiri’s plot.  The entire story leads up to a massive action sequence that sees multiple participants on both sides engage in a deadly battle to the death.  Not only doe we get to see more of Inspector Ishida’s unique fighting style, but Usagi also shines in an awesome duel.  Throw in the amusing jokes about the events of the preceding story, where Ishida clearly knows Usagi is behind some of the mayhem, and you have a very entertaining entry that not only wraps up the Ishida-based storylines extremely well, but also ensures that the reader has some fun on the way out.

I must once again highlight Sakai’s brilliant artistic work in this cool volume, as Grey Shadows contains impressive examples of Sakai’s amazing style.  There are so many beautiful and intricately detailed drawings throughout this awesome volume, and I love how perfectly it enhances the already great storylines.  I particularly love the amount of detail that he throws into the various panel backgrounds, ensuring that the reader sees both the full breadth of Japan’s majestic natural landscape and the traditional feudal style buildings in the towns and villages Usagi visits.  Sakai also does incredible justice to the many battle sequences scattered throughout Grey Shadows, perfectly portraying the intricate deadly movements that make up the character’s sword play.  You always get an impressive sense of how the characters moved as they battled, and I deeply appreciated all the brilliant and brutal fight scenes.  This incredible artwork always pairs so perfectly with the written story, ensuring that this 13th volume was very spectacular and awesome to look at.

Usagi #30

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with Grey Shadows, and it proved to be another excellent entry in Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series.  This 13th volume features several outstanding stories, which really dive into their unique protagonists and antagonists and show the full majesty of this version of feudal Japan.  Serving as a key entry in the overall series thanks to the introduction of a cool new character, Grey Shadows is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans and it gets another five-star rating from me.

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