Waiting on Wednesday – Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out the next upcoming entry in one of my favourite historical series, Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow.

Death to the Emperor Cover

Each year I am lucky enough to get my Roman fix with an awesome novel from one of the leading historical fiction authors Simon Scarrow.  Scarrow, who has written several great historical series and standalone novels in his career (for example the World War II thriller Blackout), is best known for his Eagles of the Empire series.  Set during some of the most turbulent years of Roman history, the Eagles of the Empire series follows Prefect Cato and Centurion Marco, two elite Roman veterans as they traverse Rome’s provinces, fighting its many enemies.  I have been a major fan of this series for years, having read all the current entries (check out my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, The Emperor’s Exile and The Honour of Rome).  As such, I am always very excited when I find out about the next thrilling entry in the series, and it looks like I don’t have too much longer to wait.

The next book in the series will be the cool sounding Death to the Emperor, which is set for release in November.  The 21st entry in this long-running series, Death to the Emperor will continue storylines set up in recent novels after Cato and Marco returned once again to Britannia, the province they fought to capture in their first campaign together.  This time, the two veterans, both of whom are currently hiding out from Emperor Nero (Cato has secretly spirited away Nero’s former mistress and is hiding her), will be dragged into another deadly conflict against the tribes of Britannia.

For the synopsis below, it looks like Death to the Emperor might serve as a prelude to Boudica’s uprising, perhaps featuring the earliest salvos.  If that is the case than it will be interesting to see the war unfold from the protagonist’s eyes, especially as both Cato and Marco have a long history with Boudica.  No matter what, I already know I am going to have an amazing time with Death to the Emperor and it will no doubt be one of the more exciting and action-packed novels from the second half of 2022.

Synopsis:

 AD 60. Macro and Cato – two battle-scarred heroes of the Roman army – face tribal uprisings and battles to the death with unmatched courage in barbaric Britannia.

The hard-won province of Britannia is a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire, its tribes swift to anger, and relentless in their bloody harassment of the Roman military. Far from being a peaceful northern enclave, Britannia is a seething mass of bitter rebels and unlikely alliances against the common enemy. Corruption amongst greedy officials diverts resources from the locals who need them. For the military, it’s a never-ending fight to maintain a fragile peace.

Now it’s time to quell the most dangerous enemy tribes. Two of Rome’s finest commanders – Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro – are charged with a mission as deadly as any they have faced in their long careers. Can they win the day, or could this be the last battle?

A stunning and unforgettable story of warfare, courage and sacrifice as brave men face an enemy with nothing to lose . . .

Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 37: Crossroads by Stan Sakai

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out another awesome entry in one of my favourite comic series with the upcoming 37th volume of the always impressive Usagi Yojimbo series, Crossroads, by Stan Sakai.

Usagi Yojimbo - Crossroads Cover

I must be doing something right with my life because I have just been rewarded with an absolute treat: two Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a single year.  For ages, fans of the series have been stuck with the ungodly pain of routinely having to wait an entire year to get a new collected edition of their favourite comic.  However, it looks like we are getting a reprieve this year as not only did we already get the awesome 36th volume, Tengu War! but now we have the 37th volume, Crossroads, coming out in just a few months.

Many readers of my blog will be familiar with my own all-consuming love for the brilliant Usagi Yojimbo series by legendary writer and author Stan Sakai.  Following a rabbit ronin in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, the Usagi Yojimbo series boasts some outstanding stories, great characters, truly awesome artwork and intriguing Japanese settings, and is easily one of the best, if somewhat underappreciated, comics out there.  I have been a major fan of this series for year, and I have been having a very good time with the current run of the comics published by IDW.  This latest run, which includes the full colour volumes Bunraku and Other Stories (one of my favourite books of 2020) and Homecoming (one of my favourite books of 2021), has been pretty awesome, and I have deeply appreciated some of the cool storylines Sakai has been following.  The other volume of 2022, Tengu War! was also a ton of fun, and was honestly prepared for that to be my primary Usagi Yojimbo fix for the year.  Luckily, with Crossroads coming out soon, I do not have that much longer to wait.

Crossroads, which will contain issues #22-28 of the current run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, is currently set for release in October 2022 and looks set to feature several fantastic stories.  This time Usagi and his newly discovered cousin and fellow samurai, Yukichi, will encounter several dangerous enemies, as well as some old friends, as they continue their travels through the dangerous lands of Feudal Japan.  It looks like Sakai has set up some brilliant stories for this next volume, and I am already extremely excited for all of them.

Synopsis:

The rabbit ronin’s newest adventures continue in this fourth volume that sees Usagi and new companion Yukichi on the road! Thinking their troubles behind them, they find new ones constantly emerging.

In “Ransom,” Usagi and Yukichi meet up with Kitsune, a street performer and thief, who has stolen a ledger recording bribes to local politicians. When Kitsune’s protégé is kidnapped in return, Usagi decides that he must help and get her back. Then, in “Crossroads,” Usagi and Yukichi come upon a group of pilgrims who have been left for dead by a band of cutthroat ronin. Deciding to go after them, Usagi must head back to the province, and the danger, from which he has just escaped!

In “Ghost Story,” Usagi and Yukichi meet Shizuye praying at a shrine to a young woman murdered 50 years earlier by her married lover and who finds herself in the same predicament. They take it upon themselves to be her protectors, but not all is as it seems when a local priest warns them to beware of ghosts!

In the final story, “The Long Road,” Usagi and Yukichi come to the rescue of a famed art dealer and his assistant attacked by bandits on the road. Failing to save the art dealer, they take it upon themselves to complete the delivery, but can the assistant be trusted?

Wow, those are some awesome-sounding stories in Crossroads and I am already in love with all four of them.  Crossroads looks set to have a pretty interesting mixture of storylines, with the most fun one likely to be the Kitsune focused entry, Ransom.  Kitsune, a foxy thief with a propensity for getting into trouble, is always really good fun, especially as her thieving ways often clash with Usagi’s inherent honesty, and it has been a while since we’ve seen her.  I look forward to watching this reunion unfold, and it will be great to see how she interacts with the more naïve and inexperienced Yukichi, as he’ll never know what hit him.  The next story, Crossroads, looks like it will be a more action-orientated romp, especially as the two samurai protagonists are following a band of murderous bandits into dangerous territory.  This sort of tale is Sakai’s bread and butter, so you already know it is going to be pure excitement with a ton of awesome battles, plus it will continue some of the storylines from the last two volumes, with Usagi forced to transverse territory controlled by series antagonist Lord Hikiji.

The other two stories in Crossroads also have a ton of potential and I was very intrigued by the fantastic synopsis that featured above.  The first of these, Ghost Story, appears to be another intriguing tale of Japanese mythology and spirituality, as Usagi and Yukichi encounter a young girl at a mystical shrine.  From the synopsis, it would appear that this mysterious lady would be some incarnation of the murdered woman the shrine is dedicated to, although I have a feeling there might be a twist or two added in.  No matter what, though, Sakai is very good when it comes to the more mystical stories in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and I am sure it will be a thoughtful and thrilling piece.  The final story sees Usagi get involved in another escort mission, this time around some valuable art.  Again, this is a pretty typical sort of story for Sakai (Usagi escorts everyone and everything along the roads of Japan, including melting ice, treasures, legendary swords and even some valuable tatami mats, just to name a few examples), so I am certain that this will be another great story.  The hints about the untrustworthy assistant are interesting, and I imagine that will add some wrinkles to the story, especially if that line is a red herring.  No matter what though, I am sure it will be great, and contain all the samurai action I crave.

Look, let’s be honest here, there is no way I am going to dislike Crossroads when it comes out, mainly due to how good every other single Usagi Yojimbo comic has ever been.  All the above stories sound extremely fun, and most of them have already gotten my imagination pumping as I try to figure out how they will go.  I am particularly interested in seeing how new protagonist Yukichi turns out, and it will be fun to see what Sakai has planned for him.  With Sakai’s usual brilliant storytelling and exquisite artwork, I already know that Crossroads is easily going to be one of the best comics of 2022.  October cannot come soon enough in my opinion, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume.

Waiting on Wednesday – Master of Furies and Glacier’s Edge

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I check out some awesome upcoming novels from two of my favourite all-time fantasy authors.

Out of all the fantasy authors currently writing, there are two in particularly who I will always make time for in my reading schedule no matter how busy I am.  This is because I am a major old-school fan of these authors, as I have been reading them for decades and they were responsible for some of my first major obsession with fantasy fiction.  These two authors are Raymond E. Feist and R. A. Salvatore, both of whom are insanely talented masters of the fantasy genre who have substantial number of books under their belts.  I have so much love both authors and I have honestly read most of their respective works over the years and enjoyed every word of them.

Feist is best known for his epic Riftwar Cycle, a massive connected series that saw a classic fantasy world invaded by various beings from across a connected series of universes.  Starting off with Magician and incorporating, amongst others The Empire trilogy (cowritten by Jenny Wurst), this is an exceptional series, and one that all true fantasy fans need to check out.  Salvatore on the other hand has a bit more of a diverse writing portfolio having produced a couple of intriguing and connected series throughout his career.  While he has done some substantial work on his Corona universe, such as his recent The Coven trilogy (featuring the outstanding Child of a Mad God, Reckoning of Fallen Gods and Song of the Risen Gods), Salvatore will always be best known for his Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  Set in the Forgotten Realms shared universe, the Drizzt Do’Urden novels encompasses multiple connected trilogies and series, all focused on Salvatore’s iconic Drow protagonist and his friends, as they go on various fantasy adventures through a dangerous landscape.  Both authors have created some great works over the years and luckily for me they are both going strong and creating some intriguing new works, including two great books for later this year.

Master of Furies Cover

The first of these books is Master of the Furies by Raymond E. Feist which is currently set for release in July.  Master of the Furies is the third and final book in the Firemane Saga, an excellent series in Feist’s new fantasy universe that features some classic elements as various compelling characters find themselves thrust into a vast and mysterious conflict.  I have had a brilliant time with the first two entries in the series, King of Ashes and Queen of Storms, with both novels containing a fantastic narrative, clever world building and interesting characters.  After the fantastic and game changing events of Queen of Storms, the series will wrap up with Master of Furies, but it sounds like there is still plenty of epic adventure to come.

Synopsis:

From King of Ashes to Queen of Storms, it’s all built up to this–the thrilling conclusion to legendary New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic Firemane saga.

War has swept across Marquensas. Ruthless raiders have massacred the inhabitants of Beran’s Hill, including Gwen, the beloved wife of Declan Smith. Hollow of heart, his hopes burned to ashes, Declan swears to track down and destroy the raiders, an ambition shared by Baron Daylon Dumarch, whose family was massacred as they fled the capital.

Meanwhile Hava, whose gift for piracy has seen her acquire the treasure ship Borzon’s Black Wake and the swift Azhante sailing vessel, Queen of Storms, and won her the name of “the Sea Demon,” is closing in on the whereabouts of those who unleashed the murderous hordes.

Her husband, Hatushaly, the last remaining member of the ruling family of Ithrace, the legendary Firemanes, seeks to control the magical powers he has inherited. He is able now to visualize and even travel among the filaments of energies that power all existence: the furies. But will he be able to channel his magic in time to combat the deepest, darkest threat the world of Garn has ever faced?

This final book sounds really cool and I am highly interesting in seeing how the various storylines that Feist has set up will come together here.  The main story will probably focus on the character of Hatushaly, who has been set up as a fiery saviour for most of the trilogy, and it will be great to finally see some magic out of him.  The pirate-based adventures around Hava will also be extremely awesome, especially as Feist has some real talent with nautical combat sequences and adventures.  However, I mostly looking forward to the part of the book following Declan Smith, who has probably been my favourite character of the series so far.  A talented blacksmith who keeps finding himself in battle, Declan’s dream of a simple life was burned up very suddenly in the last book and he now looks set for a massive revenge arc against the mysterious raiders who have been targeting the various characters throughout the series.  I am really looking forward to seeing what happens to Declan, as well as the other characters, and I am very hopeful that Master of Furies will all come together into a brilliant and fun final novel.

Glacier's Edge Cover

The other book I am very excited for is Glacier’s Edge by R. A. Salvatore.  Part of Salvatore’s massive Drizzt Do’Urden connected series, Glacier’s Edge will be the second book in the current The Way of the Drow series, following on from last years release, Starlight Enclave, while also continuing some other storylines from the previous Generations trilogy (Timeless, Boundless and Relentless).  The Way of the Drow novels takes the series back to its adventuring and exploration roots as some of the key characters set out to explore a hidden Drow settlement, which ended rather badly for them.  Set for release in August, Glacier’s Edge will continue this intriguing storyline and see the rest of the series’ recurring heroes take up the fight.

Synopsis:

There’s a lot that Jarlaxle doesn’t know: is he the lone survivor of the raid on the slaad fortress, can he even find a way to get out, and beyond his immediate predicament, could he possibly escape the ice caverns and get help for his friends?

However, what Jarlaxle does know is that if he plans to come back—if Catti-brie, Entreri, and Zaknafein are to have any hope of surviving—he’s going to have to bring back far more firepower. An army of aevendrow seems unlikely, so he must go home and pull together a team with great skill and unimaginable power.

But how will he get home? Will such a collection of warriors and mages come to his aid? And even if he manages all that, will it be enough? For Jarlaxle has seen the slaadi’s power and their god in a most personal and terrifying way.

Trapped in the ice while the world is on fire, Jarlaxle is in a race against time—and burdened with a magical secret—to save a peaceful city and his companions.

And he’s running out of tricks in his bag of holding… 


Glacier’s Edge
sounds like another pretty impressive novel and I am very excited to check it out.  I love the idea of a novel mostly dedicated to the tricky Jarlaxle, one of Salvatore’s more entertaining characters.  Watching him trying to escape a frozen wasteland without any of his magic to bring back some of the other protagonists is going to be fun, and I can’t wait to see what interesting new elements are brought into the plot as a result.  I imagine that Salvatore will try and continue some of the fascinating character work that was featured in the previous novel, and I am intrigued to see how some of the series more complex protagonists further develop.  Overall, Glacier’s Edge looks set to be another epic novel and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Honestly, just based on who is writing these upcoming books, there was no way I wasn’t going to get copies of Master of Furies and Glacier’s Edge when they come out.  I already know that I will have a great time with Feist and Salvatore’s latest novels, and I really want to see how their respective series continue.  2022 is turning out to be a pretty awesome year for fantasy fiction, and these additional novels are going to keep making it even better.

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

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!

Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

Desperate Undertaking Cover 2

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

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10

Length: 398 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

Quick Review – A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

A Comedy of Terrors Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 1 April 2021)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Nine

Length: 386 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I am a big fan of several great historical fiction series currently running, but one I find to be particularly entertaining is the Flavia Albia series from bestselling author Lindsey Davis.  Davis has been dominating the ancient historical murder mystery scene for years, first with her extensive Marcus Didius Falco novels, and then with the successor Flavia Albia series, which follows the daughter of the original series’ protagonist.  While I never had the opportunity to get into the Falco novels, I have been reading the Flavia Albia books since the outset and have had a brilliant time with all of them, including The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, and The Grove of the Caesars, each of which have been excellent in their own way.  Indeed, this is such a great series that I have been pretty eager to start reading the latest novel, Desperate Undertaking, which I just got my hands on a couple of days ago.  I really want to read it next, but before I start, I absolutely must do a review of the preceding novel in the series, A Comedy of Terrors.

A Comedy of Terrors was the ninth book in the Flavia Albia series and was released this time last year.  I had initially planned to read A Comedy of Terrors when it first came out, but unfortunately, it took me a little longer to grab it than I intended.  By the time I was able to fit it into my reading schedule, I was a bit rushed off my feet with other reviews and other reading (excuses, excuses!), so I never got a chance to really write anything about it when I finished.  This was an inexcusable oversight of my behalf, and it is one that I really wanted to fix before checking out Desperate Undertaking, so here we are.

Plot Synopsis:

In Rome, 89 A.D., poisonings, murders, and a bloody gang war of retribution breaks out during the festival of Saturnalia, and when her husband, Tiberius, becomes a target, it’s time for Flavia Albia to take matters into her own hands — in Lindsey Davis’s next historical mystery, A Comedy of Terrors.

Flavia Albia, daughter and successor of private informer Marcus Didius Falco is twiddling her thumbs with no clients during the December festival of Saturnalia. But that doesn’t mean all is quiet. Her husband Tiberius and the Fourth Cohort are battling organized crime interests that are going to war over the festival nuts. A series of accidental poisonings, then bloody murders of rival nut-sellers, and finally a gruesome warning to Tiberius from the hidden criminal powers to back off.

Albia has had just about enough and combines forces with Tiberius to uncover the hidden criminal gangs trying to worm their way into the establishment at a banquet of the emperor Domitian.


A Comedy of Terrors
was another fun book from Davis that takes the reader back to ancient Rome to investigate an intriguing mystery.  In this case, the book revolves around Flavia and her family’s dangerous interaction with a criminal gang who are trying to take advantage of a religious festival and have come into conflict with Flavia’s husband Tiberius.  This results in an interesting story which sees Flavia getting involved in several conflicts, intimidation attempts, assorted mysteries and other connected events, all in the name of investigating the gang’s activities and trying to bring them down.  At the same time, Flavia is dealing with multiple personal and familial issues, as she and Tiberius now find themselves responsible for Tiberius’s semi-orphaned nephews.

I must admit that this wasn’t my absolute favourite Flavia Albia novel, and I felt that the story was lacking some of the usual flair and tight storytelling that I usually so enjoy from Davis’s novels.  A Comedy of Terrors’s narrative was a bit unfocused in places, particularly when it came to main storyline involving the ancient Roman gang.  Rather than the series’ typical attention on a central investigation, this was a bit more of a meandering affair, which, while interesting in places, did seem to go on some random tangents.  There was also a much greater examination of the protagonist’s home life, as not only did Flavia and Tiberius have their young relatives to look after, but there was also some domestic drama around their unusual household of slaves, servants and random family members.  While I enjoyed seeing the continued domestic evolution of the formerly wild Flavia and the notoriously honest Tiberius, which resulted in several rather entertaining scenes, I could see newer readers who came for the mystery getting a bit frustrated with this extra attention on family life.  Still, A Comedy of Terrors did have some great moments throughout its plot, and Davis did the usual excellent job of combining crime fiction and historical elements together into an entertaining story filled with the writer’s fantastic sense of humour.  In addition, the characters were sharply written as always, there were some intriguing historical crime fiction elements to the plot (who would have thought there was criminal opportunity in festival nuts?), and I still really enjoy the author’s inclusion of modern attitudes and reactions in this historical environment.  I particularly loved the final resolution of the case which saw a classic gangster move turned around on its user in dramatic fashion, which served as an amazing end to this fantastic book.

Overall, A Comedy of Terrors was another great addition to the Flavia Albia series by Lindsey Davis.  While it lacked some of the focus and compelling mystery of some of Davis’ most impressive reads, this was still a clever piece of historical crime fiction, and I loved seeing the continuation of her character-driven storylines.  A must read for fans of this series, I cannot wait to see what happens in the 10th book, Desperate Undertakings.

A Comedy of Terrors Cover 2

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 36: Tengu War! by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36

Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai

Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)

Colourist: Hi-Fi Design

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Usagi IDW #15

It is that amazing time of the year when I finally get my hands on the brand-new volume of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, written and drawn by the legendary Stan Sakai.  Fans of this blog will be well aware of my all-consuming love for this amazing series that follows a roaming rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he traverses an intriguing alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  Not only is this one of my favourite all-time comic book series but I have been steadily reviewing some of the older volumes as part of my Throwback Thursday series (see my recent reviews for Volume 12: Grasscutter, Volume 13: Grey Shadows and Volume 14: Demon Mask).  Unfortunately, Sakai only releases one volume of this epic series a year, so it is a very big deal when I finally get my hands on the latest volume (this latest volume has been one of my most anticipated releases for 2022 for a while now).

Usagi IDW #15b

This latest volume is Tengu War!, an intriguing and powerful comic that contains some awesome and clever new tales.  Tengu War! is the 36th overall volume in this series as well as the third volume printed by the publisher IDW (other IDW Usagi Yojimbo releases include Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories and Volume 35: Homecoming).  I have been rather enjoying these more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes from IDW as not only do they contain Stan Sakai’s usual impressive storylines, characters and artistic work but they are also packaged into a fantastic new format of booklet, which is slim and more aesthetically pleasing.  In addition, the IDW volumes are also released in colour, which is an interesting change of pace from the previous volumes, which were initially released in black and white.

Usagi IDW #16

Tengu War! ended up being another great volume that makes use of Sakai’s skill and art to tell several complex and entertaining tales.  Set immediately after the final comic of the previous volume and continuing several overarching storylines and themes, Tengu War! contains four unique new stories which were set out in issues #15-21 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series.  All four stories are fun and compelling new additions to the series that each present the reader with something different and distinctive.

Usagi IDW #16b

The first entry is the volume’s main multi-issue story that sees Usagi return to visit an old teacher only to find himself embroiled in a deadly supernatural war.  Made up of the first four issues of the volume, this entry actually consists of two stories, Sojobo and Tengu War!, which act together to tell one entire story, with Sojobo containing flashbacks to Usagi’s past, and Tengu War! featuring the current issue he and his friend are facing.  Due to how closely linked these two stories are, with Sojobo providing the background to the longer Tengu War! story, I decided to talk about them as a single entity in this article.

Usagi IDW #17

These stories are set right after the events of the last volume, and swiftly tell the story of Usagi and his mostly hidden second sword master, the tengu warrior Sojobo.  Years after his first meeting with Sojobo (see Volume 18: Travels with Jotaro) but before the events that would see him become a wandering ronin, a young Usagi returned to the tengu and convinced him to take him on as a pupil, enhancing his knowledge of the sword with Sojobo’s unique teachings.  Now, years later, Usagi returns to Sojobo’s clearing to pay his respects, only to discover his former master in grave danger.  A horde of guhin (lesser-tengu) are ravaging the mountainside, determined to claim the territory for themselves, and they have Sojobo and Usagi in their sights.  To survive, Sojobo is forced to return to from his self-exile and reclaim leadership of his clan.  But even with a tengu army at their back, can Sojobo and Usagi survive the onslaught of the guhin?

Usagi IDW #17b

These two stories were an excellent start to this volume, especially as they contain all the best elements of a great Usagi Yojimbo story, with great new characters, compelling Japanese supernatural elements, and another intriguing glance at Usagi’s complex past.  The first story, Sojobo, serves as a great introduction to the entire volume, perfectly continuing from the previous Sojobo story, and redefining the relationship between the two characters, showing their mentor-mentee bond.  This sets up the rest of the Tengu War! story extremely well, as you have a good basis for Sojobo’s and Usagi’s stakes in the narrative.  From there the story evolves into a classic Usagi Yojimbo tale, with Usagi getting involved in someone else’s fight, this time involving some unique and compelling supernatural foes.  This extended story continues some brilliant character moments as Sojobo becomes reacquainted with his wife and clan, while also showing off the intractability and intense honour of the tengu.  You also get to see the evolution of the bond between Sojobo and Usagi, and there are some great discussions as the wiser and battle-hardened Usagi discusses some recent changes in his life, such as the discovery of his son.  It was also quite fascinating to see the apparent impacts that Sojobo’s training had on Usagi’s skill as a warrior, and I found it fascinating that Usagi’s fighting style is described as a combination of mortal and tengu techniques.  The subsequent fights are pretty awesome and you get some fantastic and intense battle sequences that really highlight Sakai’s artistic skill.  This all leads up to the big conclusion which contains a great mixture of action, satisfaction, camaraderie and tragedy, as victory is achieved at great cost, and the reader is left extremely satisfied with how this story turned out.

Usagi IDW #18

I have said many times before that some of the best Usagi Yojimbo stories are those where Sakai makes brilliant use of monsters, creatures or spirits from Japanese culture or mythology, and Tengu War! is a great example of this.  This cool story provides one of the best looks at the tengu, a fantastic and unique Japanese yokai (supernatural entity), in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the cool dive into the mythology surrounding them.  This story contains multiple different types of tengu who act as either allies or enemies, depending on their caste.  This includes the main supporting characters, Sojobo and his wife, Nozomi, who are dai-tengu, with the classic long-nosed, red-faced, humanoid-appearance that most people would associate with tengu, and who act as master warriors and wise sages.  These tengu are supported by their followers, the ko-tengu, bird-like creatures who act as samurai retainers in this comic, and I loved the cool combination of corvid features and samurai garb and mannerisms.  The final group of tengu featured within this comic are the guhin, a lesser form of tengu who act as mysterious spirits of the hills and lesser peaks.  Sakai depicts the guhin in this story in the more recent style of giant dogs (they are traditionally unseen spirits, but many modern depictions give them a canine physical form), and they come across as werewolf-like creatures, determined to take their rightful place at the top of the mountain.  These different form of tengu are explored in compelling detail, and I loved seeing the awesome scenes featuring all of them, especially as it results in some excellent fight scenes between classic tengu goblins, sentient samurai crows, and giant werewolves.  I loved this brilliant exploration of this unique part of Japanese culture (especially with the author’s comprehensive summary at the end), and it helps to enhance the outstanding overall story.

Usagi IDW #18b

We next have the dark and captivating tale, The Master of Hebishima, which provides a chilling look at the evils of revenge, obsession and fear.  In The Master of Hebishima, the wandering Usagi chances across a couple of peasants who specialise in trapping and removing the local pests, the tokage lizards.  Upon meeting them, Usagi is intrigued to discover that the trappers sell most of their catch to a mysterious hermit on the island known as Hebishima (snake island), who lives amongst the local snakes.  When one of the trappers is injured, Usagi volunteers to transport the captured tokages to Hebishima for them.  However, what he finds there will shock and haunt him, as the hermit has a surprising history with Usagi, one that lies all the way back in the infamous battle of Adachi Plain.  Faced with this surprising threat from his past, Usagi is unprepared for just how dangerous his opponent is, or what they are truly capable of.

Usagi IDW #19

The Master of Hebishima is a tight and powerful one-issue comic that may be the best entry in the entirety of the Tengu War! volume.  Perfectly set up and executed, this tale is deeply interesting and powerful, especially with its unique and intense focus.  Sakai has come up with an excellent story for this entry that not only ties into one of the key moments of Usagi’s life but which also shows the full impact of someone’s obsession and desire for revenge.  The introduction of a mysterious stranger who has a connection to Usagi and the battle of Adachi Plain (which has been such a cool part of several volumes, including Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), is handled perfectly, and I loved his unique backstory and the fact that you never actually find out his name.  This villain’s entire history is tied to Usagi’s, and I liked the interesting symmetry in their loyalty, sense of honour and desire to serve their respective lords.  The horror elements around this mysterious hermit are just great, especially with that snake reveal, and he proves to be an excellent opponent for Usagi, who could potentially come back in some future comics (I’d be keen for that).  I was slightly disappointed that this story had nothing to do with distinctive Usagi Yojimbo villain Lord Hebi, a giant snake who serves as the principal lackey to the series’ main antagonist, but Sakai more than made up for this with all the other inclusions.  This was an extremely well-paced story, and Sakai manages to do a lot with a single issue, producing one of his more memorable stories in recent years.

Usagi IDW #19b

One of the most notable things about The Master of Hebishima is its exquisite art, some of which bears a slight difference to Sakai’s usual work.  Parts of this issue are drawn sharper and in a slightly different style to the rest of the Tengu War! volume.  This is particularly clear in the earlier panels of this issue, with some noticeable and intriguing stylistic changes to the characters and landscapes, which I thought looked like a well-enhanced version of Sakai’s usual drawings.  I assume that this is because of the influence of artist Randy Clute, who is credited as giving “art assist” for this issue.  Whatever the reason, I quite liked how this comic looked very early on, and it was interesting to see it change back to Sakai’s more typical style as the comic continued.  The rest of the art in the comic also really needs to be highlighted though, as there are some extremely memorable and shocking moments drawn within.  Not only do you get a notably spooky island of snakes for the main story but The Master of Hebishima also features a detailed flashback sequence that looks awesome, especially some of the battle sequences.  I particularly liked how the antagonist’s face was constantly obscured by shadow during these flashbacks, as it helped to make them seem more sinister and mysterious while also ramping up anticipation for the final reveal, the best part of this story.  This extended panel reveal is pretty damn freaky as the artists present a gruesome visage, accompanied by a Medusa-esque twist.  This shot of the face is particularly well drawn in impressive detail and ends up being one of the most haunting panels I have ever seen in a Usagi Yojimbo comic.  All this beautiful, if somewhat creepy, art really works to enhance this brilliant story, and it ensures that The Master of Hebishima really sticks in the mind and is well worth checking out.

Usagi IDW #20

The final story in the volume is the two-issue long story, Yukichi, another excellent character-driven narrative that introduces a fantastic new supporting character for the series.  In this story Usagi encounters a fellow rabbit samurai, Yukichi Yamamoto, on the road.  It is quickly revealed that, years ago, Yukichi was a disrespectful student at a prestigious sword school who insulted Usagi when the ronin attempted to meet his master.  Now a more mature warrior, Yukichi is delivering the sword of his dead master to the school’s successor and, after he apologises to Usagi, the two decide to travel together.  However, a rival school is determined to stop them delivering the sword by any means necessary, and they will use Usagi’s recent misadventures to justify their actions.

Usagi IDW #20b

Yukichi is an amazing and fantastic story that serves as a great ending to the Tengu War! volume, especially as it combines an excellent Usagi Yojimbo story with some cool new character introductions.  This story is another one with an excellent pace to it, smartly bringing in Yukichi, revealing the history between him and Usagi, before revealing the story’s villains, the members of a dishonourable sword school.  From there the story intensifies as, after an initial confrontation, the students and instructors from the rival school attempt to kill Usagi and Yukichi, while also trying to claim a bounty on Usagi (a consequence of the main story in the previous volume, Homecoming).  This results in a brilliant climatic scene where the two protagonists take on a horde of underlings before Yukichi engages their leader in an intense duel.  This duel comes across as pretty awesome in the artwork, and you get the sense it is a real battle between master swordsmen.  The conclusion of the fight, which highlights Yukichi’s naivety compared to the more jaded Usagi, is very cool, and I liked the conclusion of the story, where Yukichi is forced to make a big decision and eventually decides to travel with Usagi.

Usagi IDW #20c

While the action, artwork, and story are great, the real highlight of this comic is the introduction of new character Yukichi, who Sakai is obviously setting up to be a big supporting figure in the overall series.  Yukichi gets an excellent and comprehensive introduction here, and you swiftly get a grasp on his personality, history and relationship with Usagi.  I mostly liked this character and his design, especially as he is a good foil to Usagi, given their divergent training history and life experiences, and his fighting style is awesome as well.  His strong sense of honour, especially when faced with the poor successor to his master, was a great inclusion, and it does bring in some similarities with Usagi.  I did think that the sudden realisation that they were cousins was a tad too coincidental, and wasn’t particularly necessary, but it does bring in a certain connection between the two which will bond them for the rest of the series.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yukichi’s facial design either, especially those overly large and expressive eyes.  It kind of made him look cartoonish and somewhat undercut the seriousness of some scenes.  Still, this was my only real complaint about this new character and I am very curious to see what happens with him in the future Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  I am predicting similarities to Usagi’s previous travels with Jotaro in volumes 18 and 19, and it will be interesting to see Yukichi interact with the other supporting cast members like Gen or Kitsune.  An overall excellent and impressive end to this amazing volume that wraps everything up nicely.

Usagi IDW #21

As always, I really need to highlight the fantastic and awesome artwork featured with this incredible volume as Sakai continues to enhance his excellent stories with some gripping and powerful scenes.  I have already discussed some of the best bits of art of each respective story, especially the amazing art of The Master of Hebishima, but every panel in this comic is drawn in exquisite detail.  Not only does Sakai present some great character designs, especially around the new supernatural creatures in the Tengu War! story, but you have his always impressive setting shots that perfectly highlight the beautiful Japanese natural landscape or the historical buildings.  You also must love the excellent battle sequences scattered throughout the stories.  Sakai has always excelled at conveying movement and combat with his minimalistic style, and this is brilliantly highlighted in the various comics of Tengu War!, including in elaborate group fights or one-on-one duels.  I am also really enjoying seeing these stories in colour from the get-go as part of the IDW release.  While I will always be extremely fond of Sakai’s usual black and white style, having these adventures appear in colour is also amazing, and I feel that the colour enhances some of the art, especially in The Master of Hebishima, which came up beautifully.  All this art brilliantly combines Japanese influences with western art styles and is such a joy to behold, especially as it always makes everything about the Usagi Yojimbo comics just a little bit better.

Usagi IDW #21b

Another year, another exceptional Usagi Yojimbo volume as Stan Sakai once again produces a masterful and impressive new comic.  Tengu War! is another awesome volume that presents the reader with three excellent stories that combine brilliant character work with unique narratives and outstanding artwork.  I had so much fun reading this excellent comic, and it gets another easy five-star rating from me and comes very highly recommended.

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Gray Man – Book 11

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Epic thriller author Mark Greaney returns with the latest entry in his incredible Gray Man series with Sierra Six, an intense and captivating spy thriller that will grab your attention and refuse to let go until the final explosion.

Over the last few years, I have been absolutely hooked on the incredible thrillers of Mark Greaney, who is easily one of the best authors of spy fiction in the world today.  Not only did he cowrite a very cool military thriller, Red Metal (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), but he has continued his exceptional Gray Man series.  The Gray Man books follow Court Gentry, the titular Gray Man, an elite assassin and undercover operator who has worked both for and against the CIA.  This series has been so very cool, from the first novel The Gray Man (set to become a Netflix movie later this year), to the last three awesome entries, Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021).  Due to how impressive this series has been, I have been really excited to read the next book, Sierra Six, and it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, especially as it had a very cool plot to it.

Court Gentry, the Gray Man, is once again the world’s most wanted spy, hunted by his former employers, the CIA, and every other intelligence agency on the planet.  Looking for work, Gentry accepts an easy infiltration mission in Algeria to spy on a delegation from Pakistan.  However, the mission goes sideways when Gentry recognises one of the Pakistanis and his rookie technical officer is captured.  Chasing after the kidnappers, Gentry follows their trail to India and must relive one of the darkest moments from his past.

12 years ago, long before he became the Gray Man, Court Gentry was a talented young agent for the CIA.  Specialising in solo operations, Gentry is suddenly reassigned to Ground Branch and must work as the junior member of veteran CIA action team, Golf Sierra.  Given a new designation, Sierra Six, Gentry is forced to adapt to a new way of fighting as he and his team attempt to hunt down a dangerous terrorist leader in Pakistan.  However, their mission resulted in a high body count and a great personal loss that has haunted Gentry ever since.

Now, as Gentry works his way through Mumbai, he must face the realisation that the target of his original Sierra Six mission is still alive and active after all these years.  Determined to finish the job once and for all, Gentry works with a small team of rogue operators to find his target.  However, his old foe has initiated a bold new plan that could have devastating consequences for all of India.  Can Gentry get his revenge before it is too late, or will the ghosts of his past finally finish him off?

Greaney is in fine form with Sierra Six as he has written another excellent and intense spy thriller that I deeply enjoyed.  Containing an action-packed and multilayered narrative loaded with major set pieces, exciting spy elements and some complex characters, this was another awesome Gray Man novel from Greaney.

Sierra Six was an absolutely thrilling read and I had an outstanding time getting through the impressive and addictive narrative.  Greaney does something a little different for this book and features an excellent and intricate split timeline narrative, with the book divided between the events of the past when Gentry was part of Golf Sierra, and the current events in Mumbai which see Gentry again contending with the target of this original mission.  The narrative switches between the two timelines every chapter or two and you get a great sense of what is happening in both well-established storylines.  These two plot lines advance at a great pace throughout the entire novel and feature their own range of distinctive and fun supporting characters, some of whom appear in both the contemporary and past storylines.  I had a lot of fun with the two separate periods, and I loved how they both made excellent use of interesting characters, fantastic developments and a ton of high-octane action sequences.

The timelines support each other extremely well, with certain hints about the events of the past contained in the contemporary storyline increasing anticipation for the historical storyline, while revealed details about the villain and the young Court Gentry from 12 years ago enhance the protagonist’s current adventure.  In both cases, Gentry and his allies embark on a methodical hunt for their quarry, with a high body count accumulating as they follow various leads and respond to their opponent’s counter plays.  While primarily told from Gentry’s perspective, both timelines utilise distinctive side characters to great effect, and you see intriguing supporting perspectives, including from the antagonist, that help to widen the picture and enhance the richness of the story.  Both timelines eventually lead up to an awesome final sequence, comprised of two near-suicidal missions that the protagonist is engaged in.  This final section of the novel is extremely fast paced, especially as Greaney shortens the chapters and introduces more frequent jumps between the timelines to make everything seem even more frenetic.  Both timelines end with some incredible and awesome major set pieces, and I loved how Greaney used the end of the past storyline to set up the antagonist’s eventual return.  The novel ends on a great note, with the two separate storylines coming together perfectly, and the reader is left very satisfied, if a little moved, at the tragic ending of the events from 12 years ago.  I was extremely impressed with how this fantastic story came together, and this ended up being an addictive read with so many awesome moments in it.

Sierra Six was a particularly good entry in this already awesome series, and I loved how Greaney was able to create a book that both stands on its own as a thriller, while also serving as an amazing entry in the wider series.  This novel is structured to be very accessible to new readers, and anyone can easily pick up this book and start reading it without any knowledge of the prior entries in the series, especially as certain key elements are carefully explained when necessary.  There is also a lot for established Gray Man fans to enjoy here, as Greaney provides a bit of an origin story for his long-running protagonist.  Not only do we get to see Court Gentry do some of his earliest work for the CIA, but you also get to see his first interactions with key supporting characters, including Matthew Hanley and Zack Hightower.  I also loved a couple of fun little cameo appearances and throwaway lines that reference some of the earlier books, including the quick but enjoyable inclusion of the antagonist from the original novel.  While there is are no major continuations of some of the established storylines this is still a key and intriguing Gray Man novel, and it is one that people familiar with this series will deeply enjoy.

I was very impressed with some of the unique elements of this book, particularly those involving tradecraft, espionage work and covert combat teams.  There is a real focus on tradecraft throughout Sierra Six, and the author ensures that everything feels exceedingly realistic and gritty as the characters play their spy games.  Not only do you get to see some of the usual undercover work that Gentry excels in but you also get a great look at paramilitary combat, as the protagonist learns from scratch the rules of fighting as part of a combat team.  All this tradecraft really adds to the authenticity of the story, although it did make parts of the book a little clunky in places, especially when the narrator or the characters explain certain espionage or military elements multiple times in overly descriptive ways.

I also rather enjoyed the exciting settings of the various timelines, as Greaney takes the reader to wartime Afghanistan, Pakistan and modern-day India.  This is an interesting change of pace from most of the Gray Man novels I have read, which have been primarily set in Europe, and I liked seeing the various descriptive landscapes and unique people.  Mumbai proved to be a great setting for most of the contemporary storyline, and it was very fun to see Gentry manoeuvre his way through the crowded districts and locals.  I also really enjoyed the focus on Pakistani intelligence and the Indian underworld, which proved to be very fascinating.  For example, the fiction criminal group B-Company are clearly based on the infamous real-life D-Company, and it was quite intriguing to see them worked into the story, while also examining their origin and goals of their leadership.  All these cool tradecraft elements and intriguing settings deeply enhanced the overall story, and it made for quite a fascinating and distinctive read.

There was some rather interesting character work going on in Sierra Six as Greaney takes his fantastic protagonist to some very dark places at various points in his timeline.  I really appreciated the dive back into the period before Court Gentry became the Gray Man, and Greaney paints a compelling figure of a habitual loner with no personal attachments only at the beginning of his espionage career.  Watching Gentry join a team and try to play nice with others was a captivating part of the book, and it was fascinating to see the rookie Gentry get rattled by stuff he’ll become much more used to in the future.  Greaney also enhances Gentry’s development by including a curious, but touching, relationship in the earlier timeline, which helped to humanise Gentry a lot.  However, certain tragic elements from this help mould him into the killer we all know and love, and Greaney subtly introduced the ripples from this into the contemporary storyline.  The reader leaves Sierra Six with a much better understanding of this cool character, and I had a great time seeing more of the Gray Man’s past.

Both timelines are filled with an excellent and comprehensive cast of side characters, each of whom add a great deal to the narrative and Gentry’s development in their own way.  While there are a few recurring characters from the previous Gray Man novels, most of the focus are on newer figures, who Greaney provides with compelling and interesting backstories.  I liked how the past and modern-day storylines both featured great female side characters who helped move the story along in their own distinctive ways.  This includes the socially awkward intelligence officer Julie Marquez, from the original Golf Sierra mission, and Indian tech guru Priyanka Bandari, who Gentry is forced to work with after saving her from kidnappers.  Both female characters add to the plot a great deal, and it is fascinating to see events unfold from their eyes, especially as they have diverse life experiences and are also seeing very different versions of the protagonist.  The storylines around both women are written extremely well, and I really appreciated where both went, especially as they both included tragedy, regret and definitive action.  I also must really highlight the use of long-running supporting character Zack Hightower, who was an excellent inclusion in the historical storyline.  Zack is always a great foil to Gentry, and I really enjoyed seeing him interact with the younger, cockier version here, especially as it shows some of the earlier dynamics between them.  Watching Gentry meet his mentor and friend for the first time was great, and I really enjoyed the cool storyline that developed between them and the other members of the Golf Sierra kill team.  All these characters were extremely impressive and I had a brilliant time getting to know them throughout the course of Sierra Six.

While I did receive a paperback version of Sierra Six, I went out of my way to also get this novel on audiobook as I have had some awesome experiences with the Gray Man books in this format before.  This proved to be an excellent decision as the Sierra Six audiobook was amazing, perfectly telling the cool story while enhancing the intriguing tradecraft and action elements.  The Sierra Six audiobook has a run time just short of 16 hours and so requires a bit of a time investment to get through it, although I think this was more than worth it and dedicated listeners should be able to get through rather quickly.  I was also very happy to see that this audiobook once again featured the vocal talents of Jay Snyder, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Snyder has a gruff and distinctive voice that fits the harder spy thriller feel of this novel perfectly and drags the listener into the intense tale.  Snyder does a brilliant voice with all the characters featured within, and you get a good sense of their various emotions and feelings, especially during some of the more action-packed sequences.  I had an outstanding time listening to this audiobook and it is an excellent format for anyone interested in trying out this latest Gray Man novel.

The always impressive Mark Greaney has done it again, producing an incredible and exciting new Gray Man novel.  Sierra Six, features a bold and captivating story that cleverly utilises two distinctive timelines to tell its intense and moving tale.  Loaded with fun character, brutal action sequences, and some intriguing espionage moments, this was another outstanding book I had a brilliant time reading.  Sierra Six comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to get my hands on the next Greaney book.

Sierra Six Cover 2

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

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.

City of the Dead by Jonathan Kellerman

City of the Dead Cover 2

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 37

Length: 319 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into the excellent world of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series with the latest fantastic entry, City of the Dead.

There are some awesome crime fiction authors out there now who have some brilliant long-running series, but one I have been particularly drawn to is bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman.  Kellerman, who debuted in 1985, is an impressive murder mystery author who is best known for his Alex Delaware books.  This fantastic series follows titular protagonist psychologist Alex Delaware as he helps his police detective best friend solve some of the strangest or disturbing murders throughout Los Angeles.  I started reading this book a few years ago and have had an excellent time with the last three entries, The Wedding Guest, The Museum of Desire and Serpentine, all of which had an impressive and clever murder mystery narratives.  As such, I made a real effort to grab City of the Dead when it came out as I knew I was going to have a great time with it.  City of the Dead is the 37th Alex Delaware book and features another twisty and powerful mystery.

On a dark LA early morning, a moving truck runs over a naked body on the street.  As the police investigate this tragic accident, they discover a blood trail, which leads them to a nearby house, where the body of a murdered female is found.  Finding many of the details of this case to be unusual, LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis once again brings in his friend, psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, to consult.  While the identity of the naked male out on the street is unknown, Alex is shocked to discover that he knows the female victim from one of his custody cases.

The victim, Cordelia “Cordi” Gannett, was a fraudulent mental health practitioner who specialised in manipulating the vulnerable for her own advantage.  Concerned that her deceptive practices may have led to her death, Alex and Milo examine her past to try and discover who killed her.  But as they dig into her intriguing life, Alex and Milo quickly discover that their victim had a troubled past, filled with mistakes, betrayals and bad influences.  But the more they uncover, the more they begin to question everything they think they knew about this terrible murder.  Was Cordi the dangerous manipulator everyone believes, or was she something far more vulnerable?  And what role, if any, did the dead man on the street play in her death?  A dangerous and disturbed murderer lies behind this crime, and their reasons for killing will shock even the hardened team of Alex and Milo.

Kellerman has done it again, producing an excellent and compelling murder investigation that will quickly hook you and take you to some dark places.  I loved the brilliant narrative of City of the Dead, which combines a complex mystery with interesting characters and the author’s unique style and perspective.  The author sets the start the story perfectly, with a couple of bodies discovered in unique positions that immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  This interest is intensified once the connection between Delaware and the victim are established, which also reveals the victim’s scandalous past.  From there the story continues at a slower pace, with Alex and Milo carefully building their case and their profile of the victim through intriguing interactions with various people with connections to the victim and her past.  This helps to set the scene for the rest of the novel, and the reader gets to see how all the details of this case are collected and pulled together.  The plot picks up a notch about halfway through when certain interesting developments to key suspects occur, producing extra complexity to the case, although I question the use of a couple of outrageous figures around this point.  From there the story reaches its zenith, as the protagonists get closer to their answers and a big reveal comes to light.  I really liked the twist towards the end, although it did kind of come out of nowhere and relied a little too much on coincidence.  However, I was very impressed by how Kellerman set up the big reveal from the very beginning of the book, especially as it helped to soften the randomness factor of the sudden reveal.  The entire motivation behind the killings was pretty bonkers (in a good way), and I loved how dark the story got, as well as the intriguing connections to the protagonist’s psychology background.  While I did think the story ended a tad too abruptly after this reveal, this was still a great story and I honestly could not put this down once I started.

Kellerman has a great writing style which I think complemented this fantastic narrative perfectly.  There is a really unique feel to each of his novels, especially as the characters have a distinctive way of interacting and talking, which I feel is a little more natural, even if they sometimes go off on some odd tangents.  I definitely liked Kellerman’s sense of pacing, and he strings this story our extremely well, with the slower, investigative side of the narrative perfectly balanced with the more intense and powerful moments.  The author hits all the right notes when it came to timing and fun reveals, with every great scene or unique character receiving a great introduction that brings the reader in.  Like all of Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, I found City of the Dead to be extremely inclusive to new readers, and the reader does an excellent job of re-introducing the recurring characters, plot threads and dynamics.  City of the Dead can easily be read as a standalone novel, and people with no pre-knowledge of the series can jump in here without any problems.  I had a great time getting through this impressive story and I ended up powering through the last 200 pages in less than a day, especially after I got really invested in the outstanding mystery.

One of the main things that I love about the Alex Delaware novels is the grounded and realistic approach that Kellerman takes to investigating a murder.  The characters investigate each case, including the one in City of the Dead, with a very methodical style, assessing the facts and slowly building up the case one fact at a time.  There is a particular focus on interviews and research, with the characters talking to multiple people who might know something to gain insight into the victims or potential suspects, while also diving into their past anyway they can.  This, combined with other real-life details such as delayed lab results or overworked cops and technicians, makes for a much more accurate portrayal of a murder investigation.  I personally love this style of mystery solving, and it helps to give City of the Dead a much more unique feel than some other murder mysteries out there.  I will say that some of the jumps were a bit over-the-top in places, and certain key revelations are only gained due to coincidental interactions outside of the main investigation.  Still, this is a great crime fiction story and I have a lot of fun with how a typical Kellerman investigation unfolds.

The final thing I need to discuss are the great characters of City of Dead, especially the two protagonists, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis.  By this point at the series, Kellerman has established an excellent dynamic between these two characters, and the brilliant psychologist and the seasoned police detective play off each other perfectly.  You can really sense the close friendship they have, and their excellent and distinctive back-and-forth banter is very entertaining.  Pretty much any story involving this partnership really works, and I have a lot of fun with this great team.  I also was quite impressed with the unique character of Cordi, the main victim of the story.  While we never see the character when she’s alive, Kellerman does a deep dive into her past and personality throughout the course of the novel as the two protagonists attempt to find out everything about her.  While you initially form a negative opinion of Cordi (even though she’s a murder victim), Kellerman successfully builds some nuance around her as the investigation continues.  The resultant picture, of a neglected and damaged person who is determined to never be poor or mistreated again, is very moving, especially as it speaks to some of her notable character choices and mistakes.  This makes for a very striking and compelling figure, and it is fascinating how much you become invested in finding her killer.  The killer was also an interesting choice from Kellerman, and while I won’t reveal too much here, I liked how they connected into the narrative, and I had a lot of fun when their motivations were revealed.  An excellent group of characters who enhance a compelling and exciting narrative.

With this latest amazing novel, City of the Dead, Jonathan Kellerman continues to shine as one of the more interesting crime fiction authors currently writing.  This fantastic novel brilliantly continues the long-running Alex Delaware series and presents the reader with an entertaining and thought-provoking murder mystery narrative.  Filled with a great story, some excellent investigation elements and a fantastic cast, City of the Dead was an impressive and addictive read that comes highly recommended, especially to fans of the iconic Jonathan Kellerman.