Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

The Evening and the Morning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 15 September 2020)

Series: Kingsbridge – Book 0

Length: 819 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following three long years of waiting, one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today (and one of my all-time favourite authors), Ken Follett, returns with another historical epic, The Evening and the Morning.

Follett is a highly acclaimed author who has written a number of impressive bestsellers over his 45+ year writing career.  After starting off with thriller novels, Follett really hit his literary stride when he moved on to massive historical fiction novels.  After experiencing great success with the iconic The Pillars of the Earth, he has gone on to produce several other epic books, including two sequels to The Pillars of the Earth and the outstanding The Century trilogy.  I have been a major fan of Follett for years ever since I had the great pleasure of reading The Century trilogy.  This was followed up with the second sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, A Column of Fire, which was easily one of my favourite books of 2017.  Thanks to how overwhelmingly compelling each of these previous novels were, I have been eagerly waiting to read his latest novel, The Evening and the Morning, for a while now, and it has been one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020.

The Evening and the Morning is a character driven historical fiction novel that is set near the end of the Dark Ages of England.  The novel actually serves as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth and is part of Follett’s Kingsbridge series.  The Kingsbridge novels are all set within the fictional town of Kingsbridge, which each novel exploring a different period of English history (for example The Pillars of the Earth is set between 1123 CE and 1174 CE, while its sequel, World Without End, starts in 1327 CE).  This prequel is once again set in the same area, with the novel running between 997 CE and 1007 CE.

At the end of the 10th century, England is far from settled and faces attack from external threats.  One particularly vicious Viking raid causes untold damage at the town of Combe, near the city of Shiring, and sets off a chain of events that will change the area forever.

Following the raid, one of the survivors, a young boat builder named Edgar is forced to abandon his home and follow his family to the small hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry.  Living amongst the unwelcoming locals and corrupt landlord, the brilliant Edgar chafes and tries to find a new way to provide for his family.  At the same time, a Norman noblewoman, Ragna, falls in love with the ealdorman of Shiring and travels to England to marry him.  However, she soon discovers herself engulfed in a brutal battle for power with her husband’s family, and any misstep could cost her everything.  These characters are joined by Aldred, a young and ambitious monk who wishes to turn the abbey at Stirling into an academic hub.  However, his strong sense of right and wrong gets him into trouble as he searches for justice in all the wrong places.

As all three of these characters try to survive the troubles of the location, they find themselves drawn into each other’s lives.  Together they have the power to solve each of their problems and prosper together.  However, each of them has run afoul of the area’s corrupt Bishop, who is determined to gain power and influence no matter the cost.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this new novel from Follett, who has once again composed an outstanding historical epic.  The Evening and the Morning is another exceptional book that takes the reader on a powerful and captivating ride through an exciting period of English history with an addictive story told through the eyes of several great characters.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and despite its length (at 800+ pages, it is one of the longest novels I have ever read), I powered through this book in relatively short order as I found the compelling narrative that Follett produced to be deeply addictive and hard to put down.  This was a fantastic read, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Evening and the Morning contains an impressive and addictive character driven narrative that sees three distinctive protagonists attempt to change their destiny and the destiny of the people they love over a period of 10 years.  Set during a turbulent period of England’s history, The Evening and the Morning follows these characters as they attempt to survive Vikings, hunger, bandits and the machinations of a dangerous bishop.  The scope of this book’s story is truly epic as Follett ensures that his protagonists are forced to contend with all manner of challenges and tragedies, from political intrigue, direct attacks, imprisonment and so much more.  The resulting story is deeply compelling, extremely intelligent and wildly entertaining, especially as Follett comes up with a ton of unique and intriguing scenarios for his characters to work around.  I had an incredible time reading The Evening and the Morning’s story and it proved extremely hard to put down.

As I mentioned above, The Evening and the Morning is part of the Kingsbridge series and serves as a prequel to the first book in the series, The Pillars of the Earth.  Despite this, I would say that readers really do not need to have any prior knowledge of the rest of the Kingsbridge books to enjoy The Evening and the Morning.  This latest novel from Follett is extremely accessible, and as it is set more than 100 years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth, readers really should consider this a standalone novel that any historical fiction fan can easily enjoy (that is true for every entry in this series).  That being said, long-term fans of Follett and the Kingsbridge series will no doubt really appreciate seeing this early version of this iconic fiction setting, especially as the author includes a number of clever connections to the future novels in the series.  I particularly liked seeing how the titular Kingsbridge of the series was created, and you also get more of a look at how important the clergy were to the early inhabitants of the town, which is fascinating if you consider how the relationship between the church and the townspeople changes over the course of the series.  As a result, I would say that The Evening and the Morning is a book that most readers will be able to enjoy, while also serving as an intriguing entry in the Kingsbridge series.

The Evening and the Morning’s story follows three major point-of-view characters, Edgar, Ragna and Aldred, and shows the reader 10 key years of their lives.  These three characters form the heart of this story, and it does not take long for you to get really drawn into their individual stories.  Each of these characters has their own intriguing and emotionally charged story arcs, such as the creative Edgar’s attempts to rebuild his life in a hostile new village after experiencing a series of terrible losses, Ragna’s marriage and the subsequent battle to gain power and influence, and Aldred’s bid for justice and knowledge.  I really enjoyed each of these character’s individual arcs, but their real strength lies in the way that their stories and lives tie into one and other.  All three major characters becoming incredibly entwined as the book continues, as they form a strong friendship between themselves and attempt to help each other come the various struggles they encounter.  These separate character storylines come together extremely well into one powerful and cohesive narrative which sees the reader become deeply engrossed in all their lives.  You really grow to care for all three of these characters as the story progresses, becoming deeply invested in their wellbeing and happiness.  While this is evidence of some outstanding writing on Follett’s behalf, it is a little unfortunate as a lot of bad things happen to each of these characters (especially Ragna), and it makes for some emotionally hard reading at times.  There is also a rather intriguing love triangle between these three characters with some interesting LGTB+ elements attached, which adds an additional level of drama to the story.  I ended up being quite satisfied with how these character arcs unfolded, and readers are going to have an incredible time seeing how they turn out.

In addition to the main three characters, there is also another major point-of-view character, Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring.  Wynstan is the book’s main antagonist, a cunning and ruthless manipulator who is desperate to gain power and influence at the expense of others.  Wynstan is the half-brother of Ragna’s husband, who uses his familiar connections and his corrupted followers to control much of Shiring and the surrounding area.  Follett has created an extremely despicable and aggravating villain with Wynstan, who comes into conflict with all three major protagonists, as each of them cross him in some way or another.  Wynstan is an extremely vengeful and dangerous opponent, who manages to do some fairly evil deeds throughout the book, while avoiding too many repercussions.  I found myself really growing to hate Wynstan and his followers as the book progressed, becoming fairly aggravated whenever he managed to weasel his way out of trouble.  This emotional response to Wynstan is exactly what you want when you write an antagonistic character, and I think that he helped add a lot to the overall narrative.

Follett has also loaded up his story with a ton of side characters who the point-of-view characters interact with throughout their lives.  There are quite a substantial number of side characters in this book, but thanks to Follett’s excellent writing the reader is able to keep track of each of them; at no point during this book did I become lost working out who someone was.  Many of these supporting characters have their own minor story arcs throughout the book, and it is interesting to see how they evolve and change over the years.  While quite a few of them are fairly despicable (indeed, at times it seems like the three main characters are the only decent or sensible people in the story), you do grow attached to them and become wrapped up in what happens to them.  That being said, readers are advised not to get too attached to them, as they have a much higher mortality rate, although there are a few happy endings in there which are guaranteed to satisfy.  Overall, Follett does an exceptional job with all the characters in this novel, and watching their lives unfold was a real emotional rollercoaster.

I also quite enjoyed the author’s fascinating depiction of England (with a bit of Normandy thrown in for good measure) during the late 10th and early 11th century.  While the setting of this book, Shiring and its surrounding environs, are fictional, they come across as period-appropriate settlements and the reader gets a real sense of what life in the various villages and towns would have been like.  Due to the broad scope of the story and what the characters witness, the reader gets a look at a huge range of different people who would have existed during this period, including the nobility, the various members of the clergy, the common people and even slaves.  Follett does an amazing job of highlighting how these various characters would have lived, what their professions or stations were like and the problems they would have typically experienced.  The author really replicates the hard nature of the times, allowing the reader a fascinating glimpse into the harsh and dangerous lives of our ancestors.  Follett also works in some broader historical elements, such as the increased attacks from the Vikings and the political situation at the time.  A lot of these historical inclusions, such as having King Ethelred the Unready appear as a minor character, proved to be really intriguing, and I loved how the author dived back into history to enhance his tale.

With The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett has once again shown why he is one of the top historical fiction authors in the world today.  This latest novel presents the reader with an exceptional and captivating tale of love, connection and triumph over adversity at the end of England’s dark ages.  Serving as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth, The Evening and the Morning contains an amazing story that follows some driven and likeable protagonists during this dark period.  The end result is an epic and incredibly addictive read that comes highly recommended and is easily one of the best books of 2020.  There is a reason why Follett is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I cannot wait to see what elaborate novel he comes up with next time.

Execution by S. J. Parris

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 24 July 2020)

Series: Giordano Bruno – Book Six

Length: 484 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Conspiracy, betrayal and treason.  The heretic monk Giordano Bruno returns for another outstanding and exciting historical murder mystery with Execution, the latest impressive release from S. J. Parris.

England, 1586.  Queen Elizabeth I rules England as a protestant queen, but not everyone is enamoured with her rule.  Many people throughout the world, including the hidden Catholic population of England, wish her gone and replaced by her cousin, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.  Into this hotbed of English conspiracy and treason returns Giordano Bruno, former monk turned heretic and occasional spy for Elizabeth.

Bruno has obtained troubling information about a potential conspiracy and travels to London to deliver it to the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.  His information confirms that a group of Catholic Englishmen are planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and liberate Mary.  However, rather than being shocked by the news, Walsingham reveals that he is aware of the plot and is hoping to use it to obtain proof of Mary’s treason, allowing for the removal of the greatest threat to Elizabeth’s rule.

Brought into this piece of espionage, Bruno is tasked with infiltrating the conspirators under the guise of a Spanish agent and ensuring that their attempted plot proceeds the way Walsingham desires.  However, Bruno’s mission becomes complicated when another one of Walsingham’s agents, a young woman, is brutally murdered, apparently due to her connection to the conspirators.  Was the victim’s murder related to the assassination plot that Bruno now finds himself in the middle of or are more sinister forces at play?  Can Bruno solve the murder before his cover is blown and will his actions save Queen Elizabeth from the assassin’s blade?  Either way, a queen will die!

Now this was an extremely enjoyable and incredible piece of historical murder mystery fiction.  Execution is the sixth novel in the awesome Giordano Bruno series which is written by S. J. Parris, the pseudonym of Stephanie Merritt.  This fantastic series follows the adventures of the titular Giordano Bruno, a real-life Italian monk, academic and heretical thinker, who roamed around Europe during this period and who did act as a spy for the English under the employ of Walsingham.  I have been a major fan of Parris’s series for a while now and I have really enjoyed several of the preceding novels in the series which deal with some fascinating and compelling conspiracies and murders that Bruno finds himself involved with.  As a result, I have been looking forward to this new novel for a while and I knew that I would have an awesome time reading Execution when it came out.

It turns out that my patience was well worth it as Execution proved to be an incredible novel that presented the reader with an exceedingly compelling and addictive historical murder mystery/thriller.  The story follows Bruno as he not only infiltrates a group of conspirators but also investigates the murder of a young woman.  These separate story points are strongly linked and Bruno’s success as a spy is tied into the result of the murder investigation, as the murderer may have the ability to blow Bruno’s cover or reveal to the conspirator.  I absolutely loved the resultant story as Parris produced a complex tale of betrayal, double dealing, espionage, political intrigue and murder.  Parris ensures that there are a huge number of twists and surprise reveals throughout the course of the book, and the eventual conclusion of the story is very well established and extremely compelling.  This all results in a powerful and thrilling narrative that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat as the protagonist is drawn deeper into the conspiracy and gets closer to revealing the villain’s true identity.  I loved the final reveal about the overall antagonist and their motivations, as it was both excellently foreshadowed and hard to predict with the story having the potential to go in several other intriguing directions.  This was a truly amazing story and I had a wonderful time working my way through it in order to see how it turned out.

I was also really impressed with the historical setting that Parris utilised for her story: Elizabethan London on edge as the plots to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne come to fruition.  I felt that the author did a fantastic job bringing this historical and dangerous version of London to life, and the protagonist ends up exploring several key areas of the city.  This included the notorious entertainment area of Southwark, which proved to be a significant area for the story and which is shown in all its sleazy glory.  I also liked how Parris was able to cleverly work her mystery and espionage story around a historical and well-documented plot to assassinate the Queen.  The author comes up with some great ways for the events of the real conspiracy to impact on the overall story while also doing a fantastic job of examining key elements of the plot, such as who the key players were, what they were up to and how Sir Francis Walsingham had spies in their midst the entire time.  I felt that Parris’s narrative synced up perfectly with this real-life conspiracy and I liked seeing the various interactions between Bruno and the various historical figures that he encounters, including Walsingham, his spies and the various conspirators.  This fantastic attention to historical detail really helped to make Execution a first-rate story and I look forward to seeing which events or conspiracies Parris bases her next Giordano Bruno novel around.

Perhaps it is because it has been a few years since the previous entry in the Giordano Bruno series, but I was particularly happy to read Bruno’s point of view.  Bruno is an excellent protagonist whose fictional adventures are only slightly more unrealistic then his chaotic real life.  The author once again does a great job exploring Bruno’s unique life experiences, including by expanding on his view on Catholicism and religion, as well as his unique obsession with the art of memory and other philosophical practices.  Parris has so far cleverly worked the series around the events of Bruno’s life, including his time in England, and this novel ties into Bruno’s work as an agent for Walsingham.  I liked the author’s portrayal of the character as a reluctant spy and misunderstood intellectual, and it was great to see his attempts to go undercover and infiltrate a band of fanatical Catholics, especially thanks to his own lapsed views on religion.  The story makes a number of references to Bruno’s past adventures and also reintroduces several friends and antagonists from the prior novels.  Despite this, you do not really need to have read any of Parris’s previous Giordano Bruno novels as the author makes Execution extremely accessible, with the reader receiving all the relevant details about the referenced adventures or characters.  It was, however, great to see these existing story elements continue throughout Execution, including the return of Bruno’s slippery and mysterious love interest, Sophia, and I cannot wait to see more of this character in the future.  Bruno has a lot of very interesting life events coming up in his future, so this serious has a lot of potential to continue in the future, something for which I am really grateful for.

Overall, Execution by S. J. Parris was an outstanding and captivating novel that serves as a fantastic sixth entry in the amazing Giordano Bruno series.  This novel contains an intelligent and truly addictive historical mystery narrative that works a compelling murder mystery into the chaotic politics and insidious conspiracies of the era.  This book is worth checking out as once you start trying to unwrap Execution’s intriguing mystery you won’t be able to stop reading it until the very end.  A highly recommended read, I really hope that the next Giordano Bruno novel comes out soon.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9: Daisho by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

It has been another good week of reading and reviewing for me, so I thought I would reward myself by doing a Throwback Thursday review of Daisho, the ninth volume in the outstanding, long-running Usagi Yojimbo series from one of my favourite authors, Stan Sakai.

Daisho is an impressive and exciting entry in the series, which unsurprisingly gets a five star rating out of me (full disclosure, every volume of this series is going to get five stars from me, it is just that damn good). This volume contains Issues #7-14 of the second run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, which was originally published by Mirage Comics (Issues #7 and #8 are only partially represented in Daisho as some stories from these issues were used in the prior volume, while a story from Issue #13 appears in the tenth volume that I will review next), and which has been collected into this volume by Dark Horse Books. This ninth Usagi Yojimbo volume is filled with several fantastic and creative stories that follow Usagi as he journeys across the land, getting into all manner of trouble and misadventures in this version of feudal Japan populated solely by anthropomorphic animals. Daisho serves as a significant inclusion in the overarching series, due to its connections to previous stories, and its introduction or resurrection of several key characters.

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This volume starts off with an inspiring and tragic story, The Music of Heavens, which once again sees Usagi traversing the wilderness. His solitude is broken when he encounters the pack of Tokage lizards who he unwittingly befriended in a previous story, The Lizards’ Tale (which was featured in Volume 8: Shades of Death). While Usagi is less than thrilled to see the Tokages, they end up leading him towards another traveller who is making their camp in the woods. The traveller, Omori Kazan, is a mendicant Buddhist priest and skilled musician, who invites Usagi into his camp and talks to him about the various forms of music he studies. However, someone is stalking their camp, determined to get revenge and unafraid to kill an innocent bystander to get it.

I really liked The Music of Heavens and it proved to be a compelling first entry in this volume. The story is based on Usagi’s encounter with a new character, Omori Kazan. Kazan is an intriguing person due to his position as a komuso monk (the monks of emptiness) of a particular sect of Buddhism, which lends him a very distinctive look thanks to the woven basket hat (tengai) he wears on his head disguising his features. Kazan has an amazing arc that delivers a lot in a short while, as he introduces himself to Usagi and the reader, discusses music and religion, and then simultaneously meets his end while also experiencing the divine for the first time. This entire character arc is both beautiful and tragic at the same time, and it provides both Usagi and the reader with some significant emotional moments, especially when it comes to Usagi’s farewell to the Tokages. I also liked how Sakai utilises an antagonist from a previous story, and the fight between Usagi and this character was swift and well-drawn. This was an excellent introductory entry for this volume, and it is a story that I really enjoyed.

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The second story in Daisho is the entertaining and clever entry, The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin. This story reintroduces the gambler from the previous story, The Duel (featured in Volume 6: Circles), who is up to his old tricks of organising deadly sword duels and cashing in on the bets of the local townsfolk. After the death of his previous samurai accomplice, Shubo, during a duel with Usagi, the gambler has been forced to find a new partner, the brutish and less skilled swordsman, Kedamono. However, Kedamono’s greed has convinced the gambler that it is time to end their partnership, and he quickly finds the ideal solution when Usagi arrives in town. However, as the gambler plots, he fails to realise that he is being stalked by Shubo’s widow, who is determined to get her revenge for the role he played in her husband’s death.

This was another amazing story that serves as a fantastic follow-up to a great prior Usagi Yojimbo story. I always get a real western vibe out of The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin, due to its title and the premise around a duel, it proves to be an excellent entry in this volume. Usagi is once again drawn into the plots of the gambler, and thanks to his humility, honour and good manners, which are mistaken as a weakness, both Kedamono and the local villagers are convinced that Usagi is a poor swordsman. However, the gambler, who has seen Usagi in action before, manipulates the odds so that he wins all the money when Usagi defeats his opponent, in a fun reversal of the events of The Duel. This was an incredibly entertaining scene as Usagi is again forced to deal with a bloodthirsty crowd, while the gambler feigns being saddened by the loss of his companion, despite being secretly delighted. However, the gambler ends up getting his comeuppance, and the widow, whose sad final scene was so memorable in The Duel, finally gets a small measure of justice. This was a very clever and enjoyable story, and I really loved how Sakai dived back to a prior standalone story to provide some closure and a fun continuation.

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The next story is called Slavers, and it is a longer entry made up of two separate issues. In Slavers, Usagi encounters a young boy being pursued by bandits. Usagi defeats them and learns that the boy was attempting to get help for his village, which has been taken over by a gang of bandits who have enslaved the villagers as part of a destructive scam to steal their harvest and make a small fortune. Deciding to help the villagers, Usagi infiltrates the gang and attempts to rally the villagers to his cause. However, the gang’s leader, the villainous General Fujii, discovers the deception and captures Usagi, planning to kill all the villagers to make good his escape. Slavers is an amazing story that is not only intriguing in its own right but which also expertly sets up the series of follow-up stories that make up most of this volume. While the standalone narrative of Slavers gets a bit dark at times, due to an extended capture scene surrounding Usagi, it is a rather compelling story filled with action, deception and struggles against adversity.

Slavers is quickly followed up by three separate but distinct stories that can be combined together with Slavers into one large narrative that wraps up all the loose ends from the initial entry. The first one of these stories, Daisho Part One, sees Usagi in hot pursuit of General Fujii, who is in possession of Usagi’s precious swords. Due to the brutal actions of Fujii, Usagi loses his quarry and is forced into an extended hunt for him, eventually coming to a ransacked village. It turns out that the village had recently been raided by Fujii’s new gang, and Usagi must make a hard choice between recovering his soul or helping those in need.

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I have a lot of love for Daisho Part One; it is probably one of my favourite entries in this entire volume. The story starts out with a magnificent and beautifully drawn sequence that shows the various elaborate processes by which a samurai’s swords are created. This impressive opening sequence is one of my favourite pieces of Usagi Yojimbo art from the entire series, and its creation highlights not only Sakai’s skill as an artist but his ability to research and portray intriguing parts of Japan’s unique culture and heritage. This sequence also shows the important a samurai’s swords to their wielder, as they are reflections of that warrior’s soul. This key concept is then brought to life in the main story, as it sees a somewhat unhinged Usagi risking everything to reclaim his swords from Fujii. Sakai does an outstanding job showing off how frustrated and enraged Usagi is at having his swords stolen from him, and he comes across as being quite frightening several times through the story. Usagi’s anger comes to a head when he reaches the village and his initial decision is to abandon the villagers and immediately follow Fujii and his men. However, a local village girl is able to shame him into thinking of others, and the old Usagi returns, providing aid to the villagers. This was an extremely compelling story that does a wonderful job combining a powerful, character driven narrative, with some exquisite artwork and some intriguing aspects of history, into an exceptional entry in this volume.

The next story in this volume is Mongrels, a quick story about a recurring Usagi Yojimbo side character, the bounty hunter Gen, which occurs around the same time as Daisho Part One. In this story, Gen enters a village and starts asking questions about his current bounty, General Fujii. However, he is not the only bounty hunter in town, as he soon encounters the notorious hunter Stray Dog, who is also hunting for Fujii. After a tense conversation, the two-part ways; however, both are determined to capture Fujii and outsmart their competition. This was a fun story that not only brings Gen into this multi-issue narrative but also introduces a couple of great recurring characters. Stray Dog is a fantastic character in the Usagi Yojimbo universe, and he often appears as a compelling rival (and sometime partner) to Gen (such as in the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories). This story serves as a swift and clever introduction to the character, and it was fun to see the rivalry between Gen and Stray Dog form so quickly. Mongrels also introduces the extremely entertaining side character, the Snitch (also called Toady), a sneaky, greedy character who provides information to the highest bidder. While the Snitch has only a short appearance in this story, he is going to start appearing in a lot of follow up volumes, and it is always fun to see where a character starts out. Overall, this was a great story that fits a lot of significant introductions and events into a few short pages.

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The final story in this arc surrounding General Fujii is Daisho Part Two, in which Usagi and his guide meet up with Gen and Stray Dog right at the end of Mongrels. The three samurai decide to team up to raid General Fujii’s lair, and they engage in an all-out fight for money and honour. However, not everyone on the team is keen to work together, and betrayal is afoot. This was an excellent conclusion to the entire storyline, which I really enjoyed. This is a story chocked full of action, as the entire narrative sets up a massive fight between multiple combatants within an abandoned temple. There is some great character work within this story, not only from the protagonists, who bicker and fight amongst themselves, but also with the major antagonist, General Fujii. There some intriguing scenes that show Fujii’s efforts to lead and control a gang of bandits and cutthroats, and I also liked how Sakai shows him being haunted by thoughts of Usagi, whose swords he is holding onto. Usagi and Fujii finally get their showdown in this story, and it served as a fantastic end to this whole extended narrative. There are also some compelling moments surrounding Stray Dog, as he seeks to cheat the others out of the reward money for Fujii. While this initially paints him in a bad light, the source of his need for money is quickly shown, and it highlights just how complex and multifaceted this new side character is. I really liked how this entire story narrative ends, and Daisho Part Two is an excellent part of this volume.

The next story in this volume is the two-part entry, Runaways. In Runaways, Usagi journeys through a small town, when he finds himself in the path of a procession of the local noble lady. Hearing the lady’s name, Usagi is thrown back into the past as he remembers an adventure that occurred many years prior, when he was in the service of Lord Mifune. After finding out that the love of his life, Mariko, has married another man, Usagi is given a seemingly simple mission as a distraction. His task, to escort the young Princess Kinuko to the lands of her future husband, becomes infinitely more complicated, when their party is ambushed by a horde of Neko Ninja. Escaping with the princess, Usagi disguises Kinuko as a peasant in an attempt to hide her from their pursuers. However, the more time that Usagi and Kinuko spend together, the closer they become, until the lines of duty, honour and station become extremely blurred.

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This was another exceptional story within the volume, and I liked how it flashed back to an adventure during his pre-ronin life. Set during the period when Usagi served Lord Mifune (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai), Runaways contains a powerful and emotional narrative that is actually based on Roman Holiday (Sakai is a massive Audrey Hepburn fan), which sees a princess run away with a strong male protagonist and grow close to him, despite her responsibilities and their differences in station. This proves to be a fun, if extremely loose adaption of the movie, and Sakai builds up a complex relationship between Usagi and Kinuko, as the two characters, both tragic victims of circumstances when it comes to love, grow closer to each other. However, despite their feelings, this relationship is fated to never be, and it ends in heartbreak, with the memories of it haunting both Usagi and Kinuko years later. I really liked how this story played out, and it was interesting to see aspects of samurai honour folded into the narrative from Roman Holiday. Other fantastic highlights of this story include the multitude of impressive fight scenes between Usagi and the Neko Ninja, starting with a major battle between two large groups of samurai and ninja. I also liked the exploration of the traditional Tanabata Matsuri festival that the two characters find themselves attending, especially as Kinuko has fun experiencing local customs, foods and activities that someone of her station will never get to enjoy. It was also cool to see an early adventure from Usagi, especially as this entry foreshadows events that have occurred in other volumes, including the return of several now-dead characters, such as Shingen (future leader of the Neko Ninja, who was introduced in Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road, and died in Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy). An overall exciting and impressive story, Runaways is an amazing highlight of this volume.

The final entry is the short story, The Nature of the Viper. In this tale, a local fisherman finds the badly injured body of Usagi’s recurring foe, Jei, after he was thrown from a cliff during the climatic events of Circles. Bringing him back to his hut, the fisherman tends to Jei and manages to save his life. When Jei awakens, he shows his gratitude to the farmer be recounting a tale of viper and a peasant (a version of the classic fable, The Farmer and the Viper), before killing him and resuming his hunt for Usagi. This is a good, short entry that shows the fate of Jei after his last appearance. Jei comes across just as villainous and creepy as ever, and it was fun seeing the fisherman slowly realise just how much trouble he is in as the story progresses. While having a villain recount The Farmer and the Viper as justification for why they are killing a person is somewhat cliched at this point (although to be fair, this story was written back in the 90s), it was still a fantastic sequence. I think that this was an excellent way to end the volume, especially as the reader is left knowing that Jei has returned and that Usagi will be encountering him once again in the future.

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Sakai has once again knocked it out of the park with the ninth volume in his series. Daisho contains several outstanding and memorable stories that are all wildly entertaining and contain some clever links to past and future entries in this series. I had an absolute blast reading this volume, and it is an extremely strong addition to the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series that comes highly recommend.