Throwback Thursday – The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

The Last Continent Cover

Publisher: Doubleday and ISIS Audiobook (1 May 1998)

Series: Discworld – Book 22

Length: 9 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is 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.  For this Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite books of all time, the incredibly funny and always enjoyable The Last Continent, by legendary author Sir Terry Pratchett.

I have never made it a secret that I absolutely love the works of the late, great, Terry Pratchett, who I consider to be one of the best authors of all time.  I love and adore every single one of Pratchett’s hilarious and captivating novels, especially the entries in the wacky and wild Discworld series, a comedy fantasy series set in an absolutely insane world of magic, monsters and outrageous personalities that lies upon a disc shaped world, borne through space on the back of four elephants, who themselves are on the back of a giant turtle.  I have so much love for this outstanding and hilarious series, and I have read each and every entry in multiple times.  Heck, even the name of my blog, The Unseen Library, is taken from a fictional institution in the Discworld series!  However, despite how much I love the series, I have so far only reviewed one Discworld novel on this blog so far (Shame! Shame! Shame!), Moving Pictures, and this is something I have been meaning to rectify for some time.

I recently did a Top Ten Tuesday list where I looked at some of the funniest books I have ever read, which included several Discworld novels, and this inspired me to do a review for another Pratchett read.  I ended up going with one of my favourite Discworld novels of all time, the incredible and wildly entertaining The Last Continent, which places one of the author’s most iconic characters into the most dangerous places imaginable, Australia.  I am reviewing this book slightly out of the order I originally planned, but I figured reviewing this one now may encourage me to get to others in the future.  I should admit that I have not read The Last Continent recently, but this is one of the many Discworld novels that I have read multiple times, either in its paperback (I’ve actually got a signed copy of this book) or its audiobook format, and at this point I have it pretty much memorised. 

So the first thing I should cover is:

“This is not a book about Australia.  No, it’s about somewhere entirely different which just happens to be, here and there, a bit…Australian.

Still…no worries, right?”

Welcome to EcksEcksEcksEcks (XXXX), the Discworld’s last continent.  Made by a rogue creator who snuck in after the rest of the Disc was created and kept hidden away from its other civilisations by a series of massive storms, XXXX is a deadly and dangerous place.  Filled with some of the most lethal and confusing creatures on the entire Disc and populated by a friendly, if occasionally murderous, group of people, XXXX is a hell of a place to live.  Unfortunately, everything in it is about to die as the water dries out and even the beer is getting hard to find.

Luckily for the people of XXXX, a hero has been found, one who is battling his way through the wastes and towns of the country, his legend growing all along.  But who is this road warrior, sheep shearer, horse wrangler, beer drinker and ballad-worthy bush ranger, and why is he apparently so determined to run away from his heroic destiny?

That man is Rincewind, the Discworld’s most cowardly and inept wizard, who has been bounced from one end of the Disc to the other and been chased by every sort of monster, maniac and seller of regional delicacies you can imagine.  All Rincewind wants to do is go home, and he is determined to avoid any new adventures as a chosen hero, no matter what the talking kangaroo stalking him tries to tell him.  Despite his best efforts, Rincewind once again finds himself caught up in the special craziness of the locals, and if he wants to survive, he needs to find a way to save everyone.  What’s the worst that could happen???

So, as you may be able to tell from the above synopsis, this is a bit of a crazy novel, but it is one that is always guaranteed to make me laugh, especially with its fantastic Australian-based humour.  The Last Continent is the 22nd overall entry in the Discworld series and the sixth book to focus on the character of Rincewind.  I personally have a lot of love for this particular Terry Pratchett novel, and it is probably one of my all-time favourite Discworld novels. 

Pratchett came up with a pretty clever and fantastic story for The Last Continent, which sees several of his established characters get involved in wackiness all around a newly discovered continent.  The main story follows Rincewind as he tracks across the wastelands of XXXX after getting sent there at the end of his previous novel, Interesting Times (there was an accident with a butterfly), and he is now primarily concerned with trying to find a way home.  However, mysterious forces soon work to turn him into the hero who will save XXXX from a thousand-year crippling drought.  Rincewind, who is more concerned with reaching the nearest port, soon gets involved with all manner of road bandits, deadly creatures, drunken locals and an annoying talking kangaroo, all of which lead him to the secrets at the heart of this lost continent.  At the same time, the wizard faculty at Unseen University are faced with a serious problem when their trusty orangutan colleague, the Librarian, falls ill, and they require his real name to work a spell to save him.  However, the only person who knows the Librarian’s real name is Rincewind, and so the faculty blunder their way through a magical portal to find him.  However, in predictable fashion, they find themselves trapped on a weird island thousands of years in the past and forced to deal with an immature and slightly beetle-obsessed god of evolution.  

I really enjoyed both story arcs contained within this book, and Pratchett did an amazing job bringing them together.  Both have some fantastic and weird elements to them and they make great use of the particular adventures and attitudes of their relevant characters.  While Rincewind is forced to run away from all manner of deadly situations you typically see here in Australia (let me tell you, the dropbears and road gangs are murder), the wizard faculty blunder their way through all manner of unique situations, mostly by ignoring what is happening to them.  Each storyline is unique and has some fantastic highlights, but the real strength is the way in which Pratchett combines them together into one cohesive narrative.  Not only are both distinctive arcs perfectly spread out and separated throughout the course of the book, but Pratchett does a fantastic job combining them together in a clever way.  This ended up serving as a great near-final adventure for Rincewind (he’s more of a supporting character in his following appearances), and I think it did a wonderful job wrapping up his main arc.  While readers should probably read some of the earlier Discworld novels featuring Rincewind (especially the preceding Interesting Times), The Last Continent can easily be read alone, and readers will have an outstanding time reading this fun and compelling comedic adventure.

In my opinion, The Last Continent is one of Pratchett’s funniest novels, although I might be somewhat biased by my own personal humour and background.  I always have an outstanding time reading this book and there are so many clever jokes and amusing references that I cannot help but laugh, no matter how many times I hear them.  This book has a lot of Pratchett’s classic humour elements to it, such as the unusual quirks of his various characters and the funny little footnotes, filled with great references and punchlines.  The author goes off on some very entertaining segues during this book, and I love some of the great jokes he came up with, especially those that make fun of Australia.

Now, despite what the author says at the front of this book, The Last Continent is clearly a parody of Australia, and Pratchett clearly enjoyed utilising every single Australian reference or cliché he could think of to craft his funny book.  The continent of XXXX is an over-the-top fantasy version of Australia, with many of the outrageous stereotypes that you would expect, as well as some more subtle choices, and it serves as a truly amusing setting for this book, especially as Rincewind perfectly plays the part of clueless tourist.  While you could potentially discount The Last Continent as merely satirising Australia, I have always seen it as something cleverer, as I think that Pratchett was more making fun of the stereotypes that outsiders came up with rather than Australia itself.  That being said, Pratchett, as a Brit, did take a few good shots, although that’s only to be expected.  As an Australian myself, I always enjoy when comedy writers try to encapsulate Australia in their works, as it is quite amusing to see what they reference.  I always thought that Pratchett did this the best with The Last Continent, as he really dived into so many aspects of Australia life, nature and culture, and there are some truly funny jokes contained within.  Australian historical or cultural icons like Mad Max, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Skippy, The Man From Snowy River, Crocodile Dundee, and Ned Kelly are utilised in this book to great effect throughout The Last Continent, and there are some truly outrageous and clever references and jokes here.

While The Last Continent is filled with many, many funny Australian jokes, a few really stick out to me.  I personally always laugh so hard when Death, wanting to learn more about the continent his elusive prey Rincewind has landed on, decides to ask his library for a list of all the deadly animals on XXXX.  However, this results in him being buried by a massive pile of reference books, including “Dangerous Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Jellyfish, Insects, Spiders, Crustaceans, Grasses, Trees, Mosses and Lichens of Terror Incognita: (Volume 29c, Part Three).  This is followed up by a request for a list of harmless creatures on the continent, and a single card appears bearing the sentence “some of the sheep”.  I love that over-the-top joke about how dangerous Australia’s wildlife is (it is honestly not that bad, although my editor was bitten by a sheep the other day), and that was one of the best ways I have seen it bought up.  I also loved the references to Australian hero worship of notorious criminals such as Ned Kelly or the jolly swagman from Waltzing Matilda.  There are some amazing jokes here, from people attempting to make catchy ballads, to the prison guards providing advice and help on last words and escape possibilities, all of which capture the rebellious Australian spirit.  I particularly liked Pratchett’s version of Waltzing Matilda, which was perfect in its rhyme, its satirical analysis of the original poem, and how it fit into The Last Continent’s narrative:

“Once a moderately jolly wizard camped by a waterhole under the shade of a tree that he was completely unable to identify.  And he swore as he hacked and hacked at a can of beer, saying ‘what kind of idiots put beer in tins?’”

Other great Australian comedic sequences for me include the scene where the Unseen University wizards attempt to design a duck by committee, resulting in the mighty platypus, an impromptu Mad Max road chase with horse-drawn carts and the constant references to a certain line in our national anthem.  All of these jokes, and more, were pretty amazing and I really enjoyed seeing some of the outrageous and over-the-top elements that British culture picks up about Australia.

While I really enjoyed all the fun references to Australia, some of Pratchett’s best jokes in The Last Continent occurred during the secondary storyline that followed the faculty of Unseen University as they go back in time and encounter the god of evolution.  The author uses this part of the book to make comedic observations about time travel, evolution and advanced biology.  Not only does include a particularly hilarious sequence in which someone tries to explain the grandfather paradox to a group of wilfully ignorant wizards, but there are some truly funny jokes about evolution and biology which cleverly reference some advanced concepts and historical basis of the science.  While I read this book years ago, it wasn’t until I took some specific biology classes that I fully grasped just how intelligent some of the jokes in this part of the book are.  I personally love a book which you can come back to time and time again and find some new joke or layer to, and this is the case with The Last Continent, which no doubt still contains elements or references I’ve missed.  All of this results in a comically brilliant read, and The Last Continent remains one of my favourite Disworld reads as a result.

I have always enjoyed the great character choices contained within this book, as Pratchett brings together some old favourites, as well as a few entertaining new ones, to tell the story.  The main character of The Last Continent is Pratchett’s original Discworld protagonist, Rincewind, the cowardly and inept hero who cannot even spell “wizard” properly, but who has served as a world-saving hero on multiple occasions.  Rincewind is always a particularly fun character to follow, not only because he constantly finds himself caught in all manner of unique situations which he heroically tries to run away from (he has become quite the expert at running away), but he has a certain realistic approach to life that allows him to see through the ridiculousness around him and address it in a funny manner.  At this point in the series, Rincewind has been bounced around from adventure to adventure against his will so much that he has developed a bit of knack for knowing when it is going to happen again, including figuring out all the signs someone gives off when they are trying to con him into being a hero.  It proves to be quite entertaining to see Rincewind try to escape from people trying to drag him into the narrative, especially as all his attempts to get out of dangerous situations generally put him in even worse trouble.  It is also really worth seeing Rincewind’s reactions to the various elements of XXXX life, especially as he soon begins to realise that everyone there has some very unusual ideas about how to live and die, most of which he is very opposed to.  I really enjoyed this more mature and somewhat resigned version of Rincewind and I have to say that this is one of my more favourite adventures of his (either this or Interesting Times).  It was definitely great to see the character get a happy ending towards the end of the book for once, which he frankly deserved after his last few adventures.

While Rincewind is tearing it up in not-Australia, Pratchett also dedicates around half of The Last Continent to the characters who form the faculty of the Disc’s premier wizard school, Unseen University.  Many wizard characters have featured in the Discworld books, but this current iteration of the faculty (with the exception of the Librarian) was originally introduced in the 10th book, Moving Pictures, and has remained pretty constant ever since.  This group includes the hunting-obsessed Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully; the quite insane Bursar; the incredibly obese Dean; the amusing team of the Senior Wrangler, the Chair of Indefinite Studies and the Lecturer in Recent Runes; the orangutan Librarian (working in a library is dangerous work); and the long-suffering Ponder Stibbons, the youngest member of the faculty and the only one with any common sense.  Pratchett had previously done an amazing job building up all of these characters in prior books, highlighting their unique quirks and issues, including the overwhelmingly stubborn, childish and traditionalist personalities of the older wizards.  This excellent blend of personality types really makes the older wizard characters really amusing and their adventures, especially when encountering strange gods and creators who they generally ignore, are extremely funny.  While an entire book about these characters would potentially be a bit overwhelming, I think that Pratchett got the balance right in The Last Continent, and they ended up serving as a fun counterpoint to Rincewind.  Stibbons was also a particularly good straight-man to his fellow wizards, and the contrast between keen intellectualism and entrenched “wisdom” is a fantastic part of the book.  I rather enjoyed Stibbons arc in this book, especially as you get to appreciate the true depth of his frustration with his fellow wizards, although he does gain a deeper appreciation for them as the book progresses.  Other amusing storylines with the wizards includes the Senior Wrangler’s obsession with housekeeper, Mrs Whitlow, which eventually gets shared with some of the other wizards, and the uncontrollable shapeshifting infecting the Librarian, which makes for some entertaining gags.  I also really enjoyed the fact that much of the book’s plot revolves around the fact that no-one actually knows the Librarian’s name, a fun feature from the previous books, and it was interesting to see the reasons why this was the case.

Aside from this fun collection of wizard characters, Pratchett makes great use of a fine selection of supporting characters, each of whom add some fantastic fun to the overall story.  This includes a very inventive group of new characters, each of whom represent various parts of XXXX life, whether they be depressed operatic chefs, police officers more concerned with getting their charges ballads and famous last stands, bushland drovers, belligerent drinkers, desert-wandering crossdressers in a princess-themed cart and even a crazed road warrior named Mad.  Despite most of them being the result of a punchline or extended joke, Pratchett sets each of these characters up really well and ensures each of them has a fun and satisfying character arc in the book.  I also quite enjoyed the return of fan favourite character, Death, who goes on a bit of a tourist phase through the book.  I really liked Death’s random appearances throughout The Last Continent, especially as he drops some amusing anecdotes about dying in XXXX, and it was also great to see his current viewpoint on Rincewind.  Whereas before he was always determined to catch and kill Rincewind, as he was the one mortal who constantly got away from him, in this book, Death, who no longer has any idea of when Rincewind is actually going to die and is now quite fascinated by him, keeps himself appraised of his progress and is generally friendly to him, even if that freaks Rincewind out.  I also loved the appearance of another member of the extended Dibbler clan, even if the XXXX version was a parody of a certain unpleasant right-wing political figure here in Australia.  The appearance of another ruthlessly mercantile hot-food dispenser with inedible food is a great continuation of a running joke Pratchett has been using for several books, and it is one that really pays dividends in The Last Continent, when Rincewind recounts all the terrible foods he’s eaten over the years from the various Dibblers he has encountered, which then runs into a fantastic diatribe about the dangers of national delicacies, especially XXXX’s meat pie floater (a real meal here in Australia, although there is no way in hell I would ever eat one).  All of these characters add so much to the book’s story, and I love the inventiveness that Pratchett puts into them.

While I have enjoyed all the Discworld novels in their physical paperback format at one point or another, my preferred way to experience a Pratchett novel these days is in its audiobook form.  All of the Discworld novels have been turned into excellent audiobooks over the years, and The Last Continent is no exception.  Narrated by the outstanding Nigel Planer, who ended up narrating over 20 Discworld novels (The Last Continent was the penultimate Discworld book he leant his voice to), and with an easily enjoyable runtime of just under 10 hours, this is a pretty fantastic audiobook that I regularly rush through in not time at all.  I find that all the awesome jokes in this book come across in the audiobook format extremely well, even the jokes traditionally contained within the book’s footnotes, and Planer’s witty voice is always pitched at the best tone to bring out the joke’s potential.  I really appreciate the way in which Planer utilised the same voices for the various recurring characters he has used in all their previous appearances, and each of the voices fit the characters very well.  I also really enjoyed the voices he came up with all the new characters, and it was exceedingly amusing to see him come up with a range of Australian voices and accents and have them belt out a variety of outlandish slang terms.  All in all, this turns out to be an excellent audiobook version of The Last Continent and it is pretty much the only way I enjoy this novel at the moment.

As you can see from the huge review I pulled together above (I have written university essays that were shorter), I really love The Last Continent.  This fantastic Australian parody is easily one of my favourite Discworld novels, and I deeply enjoy the outstanding and entertaining story that Pratchett wove around this outrageous version of my country.  Anyone who is familiar with anything Australian is going to have an incredible time reading this book, and I honestly do not think I could give this anything less than five stars.  A highly recommended read from one of the funniest authors of all time.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds

Kal Jerico - Sinner's Bounty Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 February 2020)

Series: Necromunda – Book 11

Length: 14 hours and 43 minutes.

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

After enjoying the exciting novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker last year I once again dive into the intricate Warhammer 40K expanded universe with another fantastic tie-in novel.  This time however, I check out the awesome pulse pounding Necromunda adventure, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, which reintroduces the iconic and entertaining bounty hunter Kal Jerico.

Warhammer 40K fiction is a particularly fascinating franchise built around Games Workshop’s tabletop war game of the same name, which follows armies, heroes and monsters as they fight for supremacy in a gothic far future.  While Warhammer 40K started as models and gaming, it has since evolved into a massive expanded universe, featuring comics, video games, board games, a film, an upcoming television show and a vast collection of tie-in novels written by an impressive group of science fiction authors.  This is a really fantastic universe that I have a great deal of love for as I was a major Warhammer nerd when I was younger (heck, I’ll admit it, I’m still a Warhammer nerd).  Thanks to an incredible amount of lore, history and character bios that have been created to accompany the various iterations of the tabletop game, this universe has so much potential for great fiction and stories that are a lot of fun to explore.

While my last dive into Warhammer 40K fiction focused on the wider wars of Space Marines versus aliens, this time I am looking at something very different as I check out my first Necromunda novel.  Necromunda fiction is based around the spin-off Necromunda game which was launched in the 1990s.  Set in the same universe as the rest of Warhammer 40K, this sub-franchise takes place on the industrial planet of Necromunda, a desolate husk of a world devastated by thousands of years of pollution and expansive industrial ambition.  The stories take place within and under the Hive Cities, vast multi-layered industrial hubs resembling termite mounds that reach both high into the sky and deep underground, and which are home to untold billions of inhabitants.  Broken up with the wealthy on the top spires and the poor on the bottom and below (the Underhive), control and influence of these cities is constantly fought over by powerful clans, families, and gangs, resulting in a huge range of different conflicts, which fuel both the tabletop game and the associated fiction.  With Game Workshop’s recent relaunch of the Necromunda game a couple of years ago, several new Necromunda novels have been published, including this novel which focuses on one of the most intriguing characters ever created as part of this game, Kal Jerico.

Kal Jerico, the self-proclaimed greatest bounty hunter in Necromunda, was introduced back in 1998 in the Kal Jerico comic strip, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Karl Kopinski, which appeared in the Warhammer Monthly magazine.  The Kal Jerico comic ran for 30 comic strips between 1998 and 2004, although the character subsequently appeared in three Kal Jerico novels written by Will McDermott (with Gordon Rennie co-authoring the first novel), Blood Royal, Cardinal Crimson and Lasgun Wedding.  I am a bit of a Kal Jerico fan, as I was lucky enough to receive several Warhammer Monthly magazines when I was a kid and I used to really enjoy all the cool and fantastic comics contained within.  Out of all the comics, the Kal Jerico ones were always my favourite and I absolutely loved seeing the outrageous and daring adventures of this cocky bounty hunter.  My love for this character is the main reason that I decided to check Sinner’s Bounty out, and I was really interested to see a more modern take on the character years after seeing him appear in comic book form.

In the sordid depths of Hive Primus, the biggest hive city on Necromunda, a daring crime has been committed and all hell is about to break loose in the aftermath.  The infamous and manic preacher, Desolation Zoon, led a brazen robbery on a guilder tithe-hall, stealing vast quantities of weaponry, credits, imported goods and other mysterious treasures.  Now, with his band of fanatical followers, Zoon is heading downhive in an armoured mining hauler, modified with an impressive amount of firepower.  However, these zealots are not the only ones heading downhive as they are being followed by every hired gun and killer in Hive Primus, each of whom wants a piece of the massive bounty that has been placed on Zoon’s head.

At the forefront of the rogues, killers and gangers chasing after Zoon is the infamous bounty hunter Kal Jerico.  Travelling with his faithful sidekick, Scabbs, the murderous woman he was forced to marry, Yolanda, and his cyber-mastiff, Wotan, Jerico is determined to catch up to Zoon and claim both the money and the accompanying reputation boost.  To claim their prize, this unconventional team will need to traverse some of the most dangerous locations in the Underhive and face off against giant monsters, dangerous tunnel creatures and mutant cannibals, as well as all their friendly bounty hunter colleagues.

However, as they get closer to capturing Zoon, Jerico and his cohorts will swiftly discover that is far from the simple bounty mission they thought it was.  Many powerful people, both inside and outside of Hive Primus, have a stake in Zoon’s capture, and soon Jerico will face off against some old rivals who are just as likely to settle old grudges as they are to claim Zoon’s bounty.  Worst, something dark and dangerous is rising in the deeps of the Underhive, and Kal is about to find himself in the middle of a massive fight that even his unnatural good luck may be able to save him from.

Now, that was a fun novel!  Sinner’s Bounty is an awesome read that not only successfully reintroduces a fan-favourite character but which also provides a pulse-pumping science fiction adventure for reader in the mood for an exciting and captivating story.  To tell this impressive new Kal Jerico novel, the Black Library has recruited veteran tie-in author Joshua Reynolds to continue the legacy started by authors like Renni and McDermott.  Reynolds is a talented author who is well-established in Warhammer fiction, having written a substantial amount of Warhammer 40K and Warhammer fantasy novels over the years, following a wide range of different characters and storylines.  I ended up really enjoying Reynold’s Kal Jerico novel and I was deeply impressed with the excellent combination of compelling narrative, great characters, and an iconic setting, all wrapped up with a fantastic sense humour, that helped to turn Sinner’s Bounty into such an exceptional read.

Sinner’s Bounty contains an epic tale of greed, adventure and friendship in the twisting tunnels of the Underhive that provides a ton of action and excitement.  Reynolds starts this story off with a bang (well, several bangs, a multitude of bangs if I am going to be honest), setting up first the main plot catalyst in Desolation Zoon and his mission, before introducing Jerico and his partners as they encounter their first obstacle on their hunt.  This entertaining first encounter serves as a fantastic introduction to the main protagonists, and Reynolds swiftly hurries them on their way, ensuring that they encounter more of the deadly elements of life in the Underhive, such as their lethal competitors.  At the same time, Reynolds starts introducing several additional characters who embark on the same mission of catching up with Jerico and Zoon.  These additional side characters introduce some intriguing alternate viewpoints and opinions, especially as each of them have their own agendas and motivations for being there.  These alternate viewpoints work extremely well in conjunction with the main narrative around Jerico, and Reynolds starts adding more and more in as the novel progresses, with nearly every supporting character and plot point coming together towards the end of the book.  Reynolds writes up a big conclusion with every major character in the same location forced to work together to survive in a scenario that was fantastically reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven.  At the same time, every character attempts to betray each other, resulting in some extremely entertaining and fun sequences, with the reader unsure who is going to end up on top and who is going to survive.  All of this is wrapped up perfectly, with a clever and fitting conclusion to the main story, while several open story threads set up some additional stories for the future.  All of this was deeply captivating, and while I personally got hooked on the cool story within the first few pages, there is so much intense action, clever betrayals and compelling plot points, that most readers will find themselves wanting to see how this awesome book ends as quickly as possible.

While many tie-in novels in the Warhammer 40K range have a somewhat limited audience, often requiring pre-knowledge of game lore, I felt that Sinner’s Bounty was extremely accessible and can be easily enjoyed by anyone interested in a fun science fiction adventure.  Reynolds does an exceptional job introducing all the relevant elements of Necromunda throughout the course of Sinner’s Bounty, and the reader is easily able to understand what is happening and why without any issue whatsoever.  Indeed, Reynolds makes this book so accessible that I would recommend Sinner’s Bounty as a fantastic introductory novel to anyone interested in seeing what Warhammer 40K fiction is all about, especially the Necromunda subset.  At the same time, Reynolds also ensures that Sinner’s Bounty caters for established fans, as there are a ton of references to the Necromunda game, previous Kal Jerico adventures and wider Warhammer 40K lore.  Not only do huge amounts of elements from the tabletop game make it into Sinner’s Bounty’s story, but Reynolds skilfully references events that occurred within both the Kal Jerico comics and novels, recapping them for new readers while also making some jokes about the events that occurred.  This great blend of references and detail makes Sinner’s Bounty an excellent Warhammer 40K novel for all readers and you are guaranteed to have a good time no matter how familiar you are with Kal Jerico or this fictional universe.

Without a doubt one of the best highlights of this entire novel was the incredible setting of the Underhive of Necromunda.  Reynolds goes all out throughout the course of this book to bring this grim, cavernous and incredibly deadly expanded setting to life in all its gory glory, and it is spectacular.  The reader gets a real sense of how life in the dark under a massive hive city must be like and the author has included all manner of details about crumbling façade, the unusual life forms and perilous living conditions that its many, many inhabitants must face.  Naturally, this turns out to be an outstanding setting for this action-packed storyline, and I had an amazing time seeing which horror or unique landscape would appear next.  Reynolds also loads up his novel with a huge amount of additional detail about the various gangs, families, and groups that control Hive Primus and inhabit the Underhive, which proves to be deeply fascinating.  The author really goes out of his way to provide a fantastic introduction to several factions that were featured in the tabletop game, allowing readers with limited knowledge of this universe to easily follow who these groups are and how they relate to wider story and world.  All of this proved to be extremely fascinating and readers are guaranteed to want to dive back into the depths to see more outstanding adventures here.

Another impressive part of Sinner’s Bounty was the extremely likeable and distinctive characters whose adventure the readers follow during this multi-perspective narrative.  Many of these characters were originally introduced in the previous comics and novels and Reynolds does an excellent job revitalising them and fitting them into his fantastic story.  The main protagonist of Sinner’s Bounty is the titular Kal Jerico, the Underhive’s most dashing and fashionable bounty hunter.  I really enjoyed the excellent version of Jerico that appeared in this novel, and the author has styled him as a particularly bold, resourceful, vain, and exceedingly lucky figure who moves from place to place bringing chaos and destruction.  Jerico is a very entertaining character, constantly delivering witticisms and fun one-liners to his compatriots, his enemies and himself, and you cannot help but enjoy seeing everything going wrong around him as he manages to annoy or enrage everyone he comes across.  It was particularly fun to see so many other characters get drawn into the events of this book partially out of spite towards Jerico, after being bested by him in previous adventures.  Despite his outer edge of pragmatism, greed and selfishness, Sinner’s Bounty shows that Jerico has a bit of a soul when it comes to some of the other people he encounters.  Not only is he shown to care about both his companions, despite several discussions where he implies he would sell them for his own benefit, but he also has a deeply ingrained sense of honour that drives him to do the right thing, even if it puts him in greater risk.  This makes for a fantastic and enjoyable character and I had a wonderful time seeing him scamper around in the Underhive making enemies and generally pissing everyone off.

In addition to his own vaunted self, Jerico also brought along two of his long-term associates Scabbs and Yolanda, both of whom have been part of the Kal Jerico series since the beginning (Scabbs appeared in Issue #1, while Yolanda was introduced in #2).  Both characters are heavily featured in Sinner’s Bounty and proved to be an excellent addition to the story.  The most significant inclusion is probably Scabbs, Jerico’s long-time friend and sidekick with a serious skin condition (hence the name Scabbs), who often unwillingly follows Jerico into danger.  Scabbs is a fun character who serves as a great counterpoint to Jerico’s insanity, often complaining about the terrible plans and generally looking for a more intelligent way to complete the mission.  Scabbs has a rather significant character arc within Sinner’s Bounty which forces him to examine his half-ratskin (a gang/clan in Necromunda) past, especially when he encounters Amenute, a ratskin mystic who is inexplicably drawn to him.  This forces Scabbs to re-examine his loyalties to Jerico, and it is intriguing to see this character act rashly as he faces off against powerful gangs to save his new acquaintance.

Next we have Yolanda, the dangerous and unpredictable wild woman who is currently Jerico’s wife (see the previous Kal Jerico novel, Lasgun Wedding).  Despite this marital relationship with Jerico, Yolanda is a just as likely to cut her husband’s throat as she is to help him, as she only serves her own best interest or her desires to kill as many people as possible.  Yolanda is another great character, especially as the reader is constantly left waiting for her inevitable betrayal of Jerico and Scabbs (I also had a good chuckle at an early joke about a poet trying to describe Yolanda, which does not go well for the poet!).  While Yolanda is a tad one-dimensional at times, Reynolds does a good job of trying to explore her inner psyche, showcasing some interesting parallels between her and Jerico, as both fled from a cushy life in the Spire to experience the joys of the Underhive, and there are some hints of some genuine feelings for Jerico, even though the two mockingly reference their sham marriage throughout the book.  I had a lot of fun with both these supporting characters and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to Jerico’s antics.

Aside from these three protagonists, Reynolds has also loaded up Sinner’s Bounty with a raft of side characters, each of whom has their own agenda or plan, most of which revolve around killing Jerico (the guy is very popular).  The side characters featured within this book are an intriguing combination of established Necromunda bounty hunters and power brokers (I believe several are playable characters in the tabletop game), and original characters.  As a result, the reader gets to follow a range of religious fanatics, outrageous bounty hunters, scheming gangas, deranged mutants (including an entertainingly grandiose queen) and a whole range of other intriguing figures.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, the reader gets a useful and suitable introduction to each of these characters, ensuring that they can be easily slotted into the narrative when necessary and cause their little bit of havoc.

Out of all these supporting characters, one of my favourites had to be the Adjurator (a fancy bounty hunter) Baertrum Arturos III, who serves as a major point-of-view character and secondary antagonist for this novel.  Baertrum is a slippery and treacherous hunter who is drawn into this chase not just for money but for the opportunity to one-up Jerico, who he has a deadly rivalry with.  Baertrum’s scenes are fun to read, especially as he is usually coming up with a new way to betray the other characters, and the reader has a great time hating him throughout the book.  I also liked the character of Desolation Zoon, the mad preacher whose brazen heist is the cause of all the events of this book.  Reynolds creates a particularly intriguing character in Zoon, showcasing him as a tired old preacher who, after a lifetime of piety and bloodshed, is starting to lose his faith and question his past actions.  However, this old dog still has some holy fire in him, and readers are in for a great time seeing him lay into his enemies with sword and blistering verse in equal measure.  Zoon has some particularly fantastic exchanges with Jerico in the second half of the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing this compelling figure come to life and be utilised throughout the book.  Overall, I thought that each of the characters in this exceptional novel were pretty damn fantastic and I had an exceptional time watching them attempt to survive and betray everyone they encounter.

I chose to grab Sinner’s Bounty on audiobook, which ended up being an amazing way to experience this fantastic and compelling novel.  The Sinner’s Bounty audiobook had a decent run time of just under 15 hours, which I managed to get through in about a week with a few extended listening sessions once I really got hooked on its outrageous tale.  I had a lot of fun listening to this audiobook and I found that the cool action sequences and gloriously gory setting of the Underhive were particularly awesome in this format.  A lot of this is down to the excellent narration of the talented Mark Elstob.  Elstob, who has previously narrated a small but interesting collection of audiobooks, has a lot of fun with Sinner’s Bounty as he comes up with some unique voices for this fantastic science fiction adventure.  All of the characters are gifted with a fitting and fun voice that really captures the depth of their personality, whether they be a scheming bounty hunter, a former aristocrat or a fantastical preacher, while also modulating to match their emotional state at that time.  This makes several of the battle scenes particularly fun, especially when you have characters like Desolation Zoon shouting out religious verse during a fight.  I also really appreciated the more nasal or gravelly voices the narrator came up for the various Abhuman or mutated beings featured within the book, and it was great to have some of the more different characters identified differently (I need to give a particular shoutout to one of characters, a mutant pirate captain, to whom Elstob gives a very enjoyable Scottish accent).  Overall, this was an outstanding way to enjoy Sinner’s Bounty and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this book.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty is an outstanding Warhammer 40K novel that reintroduces the epic Kal Jerico back to his adoring public after a lengthy absence.  The always impressive Joshua Reynolds has produced another outstanding Warhammer novel, containing an exciting and compelling adventure story, equipped with an incredible setting and some fantastic characters.  This results in an addictive and entertaining novel that I had an absolutely awesome time getting through and which made me so very glad that Kal Jerico is back.  Here’s hoping that we’ll get some more Kal Jerico novels in the future, especially if they feature more of Reynolds’s epic writing.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17

Length: 15 hours and 43 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the urban fantasy novel, Jim Butcher, returns with the next entry in his world-acclaimed Harry Dresden series, Battle Ground, an awesome novel that was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.

Jim Butcher is a highly acclaimed fantasy author who has been dominating the market since his debut novel in 2000.  Butcher has written a number of books throughout his career, including his Codex Alera series, the first book of his planned Cinder Spires series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass and even a Spider-Man tie-in novel, Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours.  However, the body of work that Butcher is best known for is his long-running urban fantasy series, the Dresden Files.  The Dresden Files started back in 2000 with Storm Front and follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard who works as a private investigator in Chicago, solving supernatural crimes and protecting humans from dangerous magical creatures.  This series proved to be incredibly popular and is widely considered to be the gold standard of urban fantasy novels.  The Dresden Files currently consists of 17 books, with the universe expanded out with short stories, novellas and even some graphic novels.

While I have always heard incredible things about the Dresden Files books, I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of them yet.  This is an admittedly massive gap in my fantasy reading knowledge, and it is one that I have been meaning to fill for a while.  So when I recently received a copy of the latest novel in the series, Battle Ground, I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to finally break into the series.

For years, Harry Dresden, rogue wizard and general smartass, has defended the city of Chicago from all manner of supernatural threats and each time he has managed to keep it safe, until now!  War is coming to Chicago as a being of unbelievable power, the Last Titan, Ethniu, marches towards it, determined to have her revenge.  To achieve her goal, she has assembled a vast supernatural army and is in possession of a magical superweapon of unbelievable destructive power.  With these forces at her command, Ethniu has sworn to wipe out the entirety of Chicago in one night and kill all eight million of its inhabitants.

In order to combat this terrible threat, Dresden must rally together every friend, former enemy and magical ally he can find in order to face down the opposing army and stop Ethniu.  However, this will be no easy task.  Not only must he deal with the conflicting politics of the rival magical factions but dangerous monsters are also loose in the city, determined to take advantage of the destructive circumstances.  Worse, thanks to Ethniu’s superweapon, every electronic piece of technology in Chicago has been knocked out and the entire population is now helpless and unable to flee from the oncoming chaos.

As Dresden and his allies attempt drive back the enemies coming towards them, they face an uphill battle.  Ethniu is one of the most powerful beings in existence, and not even the combined might of Chicago’s magical elite may be enough to stop her.  Throughout this night Dresden will face terrible losses and be forced to make some of the hardest decisions in his life.  But even Dresden’s most desperate tricks may not be enough to turn the tide and save the city.  One thing is clear: no matter who wins, Dresden and the entire city of Chicago will never be the same again!

Well damn, Jim Butcher really went all out with Battle Ground and has produced one heck of an impressive novel.  This was a spectacular read, filled with a lot of huge, epic moments, smart storytelling, extremely likeable characters and clever fantasy inclusions, all wrapped up with a fun sense of humour and excitement.  Battle Ground is the 17th Dresden Files book, quickly following up the 16th book, Peace Talks (where several storylines explored in the novel originated).  I had an absolute blast reading Battle Ground, and I do have to admit that I am currently feeling a lot of regret for not getting into this series a heck of a lot sooner, as this latest entry is easily one of my favourite books of 2020.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is an extremely powerful story that sees beloved series protagonist Harry Dresden attempt to save his city from all-out destruction as a magical army invades, intent on killing everyone.  This results in an intense and action-packed novel that is a bit of a change of pace from some of the previous novels in the series, which usually read more like fantasy detective fiction.  Battle Ground is a war story, with the protagonist engaged in the battle of his life throughout the entirety of the novel.  Butcher starts Battle Ground off quickly with the protagonist having to face off against a kraken, which easily draws the reader in off the bat (I know I was pretty darn impressed with that introduction).  From there he sets up the start of the war perfectly, with a number of characters introduced as their roles in the coming fight are established, as well as an exploration of the various magical political entities in the city and why they are supporting Dresden in his fight.  It does not take long for the actual war for Chicago to start, and once it does the story does not slow down again until the battle reaches its brutal climax.  There are some truly epic and captivating battle sequences throughout the course of this book as Dresden and his allies face all manner of dangers and turmoil, including a range of distinctive adversaries from the previous entries in the series.  There are so many memorable and exciting moments that featured in this part of the book and I found myself going through an emotional ringer as everything unfolded, from feeling saddened at some critical scenes, to being inspired as a beloved character led an impassioned charge against the foe.  I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to Battle Ground’s story, and it honestly did not take me long to get completely and utterly addicted to the narrative as I desperately waited to see how the story would conclude.  When it did, I found myself completely satisfied with the ending and it left me with a deep longing to see where Butcher takes the series next.  Overall, this was an incredibly well-written and wildly exciting narrative which will stick in the readers mind as they wait for the next Dresden Files book to be released.

Now, was it a mistake coming into this series on the 17th book that serves as an epic conclusion to a number of key storylines?  Potentially.  But do I have any regrets about reading this latest Dresden Files novel?  Absolutely freaking not!  I had an incredible time with Battle Ground, especially as Butcher made sure to make this novel accessible to new readers, even with the book’s huge range of characters and massive stakes.  Pretty much every major character or event that is relevant to the main narrative of Battle Ground is explained in sufficient detail so that new readers coming to the series for the first time can follow what is happening and get a decent sense of the significance of a location, event from a prior book or the personal history that Dresden has with a character.  I do have to admit there were a few things I was a tad uncertain about, mainly because they would have been covered in Peace Talks.  For example, I did find the motivations of the book’s main antagonist, Ethniu, a little vague and there was a lack of build-up around her various allies and minions.  There is also a major twist towards the end of the book which did not hit me as significantly as it would have for a long-term reader of the series, as it is tied into several overarching plot threads from the previous books.  Despite this, I was able to follow the plot extremely closely, and my lack of prior knowledge in no way stopped me enjoying all the incredible action and wonderful characters that were part of the books plot.  As with any later addition to a series, Battle Ground is definitely intended to be enjoyed by established fans; however, I will recommend this to readers unfamiliar with the series as I know they will have an amazing time reading it.

One of the key things that I enjoyed about Battle Ground was the extremely likeable and entertaining series protagonist, Harry Dresden, who serves as the narrator of the entire story.  Dresden is a very fun and unique protagonist, and for most of the series he has worked outside of the established system of magical rule as a private investigator.  However, in this book he is part of the government, serving both the White Council of Wizards and as a member of Queen Mab’s court.  Despite this, he still retains his extreme anti-authoritarian streak and is constantly infuriating those people who are higher up on the magical hierarchy with his glib attitude.  I have a strong attachment to sarcastic and infuriating protagonists and Dresden is one of the more enjoyable ones I have seen in fiction.  Butcher really goes out of his way to make Dresden as likeable and entertaining as possible and most of the book’s brilliant humour is derived from Dresden’s comedic observations and statements about the events occurring around him and the outlandish people that he meets.  I also had to have a chuckle about the various pop-culture references that Dresden brought up throughout the course of the book, even in life threatening situations, such as the way he imitated Gandalf while holding off opponents on an iconic Chicago bridge.  Despite this carefree and entertaining exterior, Dresden is actually a very deep protagonist, weighed down by the responsibilities he faces and the constant desire not to be corrupted by the forces he encounters or bargains with.  Dresden goes through a lot of emotional damage in Battle Ground as he must not only contend with the guilt of letting this destruction reign down on his beloved hometown, but also with a series of losses that he faces along the way.  Butcher expertly captures Dresden’s emotional turmoil through his use of the first-person narrative, and the reader cannot help but be entranced by some of the darker moments this usually cheerful character experiences.  This excellent combination of characteristics really helps to turn Dresden into a relatable individual and an impressive protagonist and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in the future books of the series.

In addition to Dresden, Battle Ground features a veritable smorgasbord of cool side and supporting characters who the protagonist encounters throughout the course of the novel.  Due to the high stakes of the plot, this book contains a massive cast with a huge number of characters from all the previous books and novellas appearing in cameos or significant roles.  Most of these characters are really amazing, and Butcher does a fantastic job introducing them and ensuring that the reader knows who they are, what their connection to the protagonists is, as well as key elements of their history.  Due to my lack of familiarity with the series, I really appreciated the author’s dedication to reintroducing these characters and I felt fairly confident following who the various people were and what their role in the story was.  That being said, I was probably a little less emotionally impacted with some of the resultant twists and turns involving some of these characters, and I imagine long-time readers of the story are going to get a lot more out of their actions then a newcomer to the series.  These long-term readers should be warned that Butcher takes the stakes of this book particularly seriously and several characters are going to meet some dramatic fates.

I personally enjoyed many of the characters that were featured in the plot and I felt that each of these inventive personalities either added some real emotional depth to the novel or served as an entertaining additional to the story.  Some of my favourite characters in Battle Ground included River Shoulders (full name: Strength of a River in His Shoulders), a Sasquatch magician who wears Victorian era garb and who is one of the most likeable creatures in the book.  River Shoulders has a lot of fun moments throughout the story, although I have to highlight the quick scene which saw him make a pitch to improve race relations with an improvised ventriloquist act, as it made me laugh pretty hard.  I also really enjoyed Major General Toot-Toot Minimus, a small fairy who leads an army of Little Folk in defence of Dresden, all in the name of pizza.  Toot-Toot is one of the main comic reliefs of their entire novel and it was quite entertaining to see in action, especially when he manages to overcome the bigguns in defence of Za Lord.  However, the character I enjoyed the most aside from Dresden was Waldo Butters, Knight of the Cross.  Now, despite the fact that I would constantly think about the character of Butters from South Park whenever he appeared (in fairness, they have a lot of similarities with each other), Waldo Butters is probably the character who gets the most development and use throughout the course of Battle Ground.  Butters, who only recently took on the mantle of a Knight after spending most of the series as a defenceless sidekick, really comes into his own in Battle Ground, acting in a major defence role throughout the fight for the city.  Not only does he have some very inspiration fight sequences, but he also has a series of particularly emotional scenes with Dresden and adds a lot of heart to the narrative as a result.  I also really loved some of his scenes where he squares off against Battle Ground’s big bad, and you get a real Neville Longbottom vs Voldemort feel from it.  You can clearly see that Butcher has some big plans for Butters in the future, and I am personally cannot wait to see what they are.  I am honestly only scratching the surface of the various side characters who appeared throughout Battle Ground, but needless to say that they were all pretty exceptional and it was a real treat to meet them.

Battle Ground also served as my introduction to the magical version of Chicago that serves as the setting for this fantastic series.  This proved to be an excellent setting for this great book, and I really enjoyed the way that Butcher has melded together regular Chicago with some more subtle magical elements, such as a ruling magical council, hidden enclaves of power and mysterious creatures hiding just beneath the surface.  There are a lot of cool elements to this setting, and I think that the author did an amazing job reintroducing it for the context of this latest novel.  I was particularly impressed by the way Butcher brought a number of key city landmarks to life in this book, with several iconic pieces of Chicago used to great effect throughout the book as settings for epic scenes.  Unlike any previous book in the series, the events of Battle Ground ensure that Chicago goes through some massive changes as a magical army invades.  The destruction levelled upon Chicago is substantial, and there are several emotional sequences that see the citizens attempting to deal with these forces coming to kill them.  Naturally, this is going to have some major impacts in the future entries in the series, and I look forward to seeing what the long-term impacts of this book are going to be.

I also need to mention that, aside from Battle Ground’s main story, this novel and its associated audiobook format also contains the short story, Christmas EveChristmas Eve is a relatively tiny part of the novel, only made up of 15 pages (or around 25 minutes of the audiobook), and shows Dresden encountering several people on Christmas Eve.  This short story is set after the events of Battle Ground (despite being initially written and released in 2018) and contains a rather nice and emotionally rich narrative that examines Dresden’s emotional state as a father and friend.  Christmas Eve is a much more relaxed and lower-stakes story that Battle Ground, and I personally really enjoyed reading it after all the bloodshed, sacrifice and death of the main story.

While I did receive a nice hardcover copy of Battle Ground, I ended up listening to its audiobook format instead.  The Battle Ground audiobook runs for a little under 16 hours, which I powered through in only a few short days; it did not take me long to get addicted to this novel.  I deeply enjoyed the Battle Ground audiobook and I felt that it was an awesome way to enjoy this great book.  Not only did I find myself absorbing more of the story elements and getting drawn more into the plot but I also loved the top-shelf narrator they utilised for this audiobook.  Battle Ground was narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who has also narrated all the previous books in the series as well as the short stories and other associated novels.  I am a major fan of Marsters, having watched a ton of the television shows he has appeared in, so I was very excited to listen to one of the audiobooks he narrated.  Unsurprisingly, Marsters proved to be an outstanding narrator, empowering this already impressive novel with his amazing vocal talents and moving the story along at a brisk and exciting pace.  Marsters did an awesome job providing each of the characters with their own unique and distinctive voice which fit the personality and depiction of each character perfectly.  I was also particularly impressed with how he brought the book’s protagonist to life.  Marsters really dove into the character of Harry Dresden, providing a perfect voice for the maverick wizard that effectively captured his various quirks and personality traits.  This excellent narration also explored the various raw emotions that Dresden experienced throughout the course of the novel and you get a fantastic sense of what the character is going through and how much he is struggling.  I really have to highlight the enthusiastic emphasis that Marsters utilises when reciting Dresden’s various spells and I could totally imagine the protagonist shouting out his incarnations in that way.  I also liked the humorously altered voices that were utilised for some of the supernatural creatures, such as Toot-Toot, which was not only widely entertaining but which fit the outrageous character extremely well.  All of this makes for an incredible audiobook experience and I fully intend to listen to the other entries in the series rather than seeking out a physical copy.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher is an extraordinary and epic urban fantasy novel that serves as the latest novel in Butcher’s acclaimed Dresden Files series.  Butcher has done an incredible job with Battle Ground, presenting the reader with an awesome and captivating narrative, filled with a huge array of enjoyable characters and clever fantasy elements.  The result is an outstanding and deeply impressive novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Battle Ground gets an easy five-star rating from me and it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  I cannot praise this novel enough and it certainly served as a wonderful introduction to the Dresden Files.  I am intending to go back and start reading the series from book one and I have no doubt I will love each and every entry in the series.  I am especially keen to check them out in their audiobook format because James Marsters has narrated each of them and I know I will deeply enjoy hearing these clever stories read out.  Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to see what other extraordinary stories exist within Butcher’s extensive Dresden Files.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

9781529100860

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Scholomance – Lesson One

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the most popular authors of fantasy fiction, Naomi Novik, returns with another awesome and fun read, A Deadly Education, an entertaining alternative to the classic magical school novels.

Naomi Novik is a talented author was has been writing some intriguing and fun fantasy novels since 2006, when she released the first novel in her Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon (also released as Temeraire), an intriguing fantasy based alternate history series that presents a re-imagined account of the Napoleonic War fought with dragons.  I have been meaning to check out the Temeraire books for a while now, but so far the only one of Novik’s novels that I have had the chance to read was the 2018 release, Spinning SilverSpinning Silver was a clever book that contained an interesting and compelling new take on the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.  I quite enjoyed Spinning Silver and I have been keeping an eye out for anything new from Novik for a while.  When I heard that Novik had new book coming out this year, I was quite excited, especially when I saw the cool concept that Novik was using as a basis for her story.

A Deadly Education, which forms the first book in Novik’s planned Scholomance series, is set in the Scholomance, the world’s premiere magic school.  But this is not your typical magical school!  Instead, the Scholomance is one of the most dangerous and deadly places on the planet.  There are no teachers, all the classes have a dark twist to them, and the halls are packed full of monsters, known as maleficaria, or mals, who are determined to eat each and every one of the students before they can escape.  Students must survive in there for years, learning what magic they can from the school’s unique learning devices and forming what alliances they can before they graduate, a gruelling process which sees the graduating class run through a gauntlet of the most dangerous mals in existence.  Few students survive their time in the Scholomance, especially if they do not have any friends, which is going to be a real problem for Galadriel “El” Higgens.

El is the school outcast.  Considered weird and naturally unfriendly, she seems a likely candidate to die when her year finally graduates.  However, El is hiding a massive secret: she has an unnatural affinity for extremely destructive spells and has the magical potential to level the school and everything in it, students and monsters included.  Desperate to keep control of her abilities and not succumb to her dark temptations to drain the student body of their magic and lay waste to everything she encounters, El seeks to find people who she can rely on.  And then Orion Lake bursts into her life, literally.

Orion is the school darling.  The scion of a powerful family whose magic allows him to destroy and absorb the powers of any maleficaria he encounters, Orion is worshiped in the school, especially as he has made it his mission to save as many students as possible.  But his attempted heroics have thrown a spanner in El’s carefully laid plans to survive graduation.  Now forced to accept Orion’s constant protection and company, El forms a new plan to gain allies, and even starts to make a few precious friends.  However, something even more sinister is afoot in the Scholomance.  More mals than usual are invading the school, and some surprisingly powerful creatures are finding a way in for the first time.  As Orion jumps blindly into danger, El attempts to help, determined to protect her best chance of survival.  But can she save herself and Orion with killing the rest of the students, or will a dark prophecy about her future finally come true?

A Deadly Education is an exceptional and outstanding novel from Novik that provides the reader with an exciting and deeply enjoyable fantasy story set within a unique and captivating magical school.  This proved to be an extremely fast-paced narrative that quickly sets the scene for the entire story and then sets the protagonist on a dangerous course as she tries to navigate a series of new trials and hazards within an already dangerous location.  Novik spins quite an impressive tale within this book, and I found myself hooked from the very beginning.  I loved the combination of magical learning (I’m a sucker for a good magical school story), dangerous action, the intrigue of the students’ intense jockeying for position and alliances, as well as the character growth that occurred throughout the course of the book.  All of these excellent story elements came together into one exceptional narrative that readers will quickly find themselves addicted to.  If I had one complaint about the story it would be that the ending was a little weak, with the big finale that was being built up for most of the story being resolved rather quickly, although I did like the build-up and its underlying causes.  Still, I did really enjoy where the story went, and all the details and story aspects in this book set the rest of the series up well.  Overall, I had an amazing time reading this book, and I actually managed to power through it in around a day, due to how much I liked it.  This was a truly impressive novel from Novik and I am extremely glad that I got the chance to read it.

This novel features an interesting range of different characters.  The book primarily revolves around the point-of-view character, El, and male lead, Orion Lake.  I personally really enjoyed the main protagonist, El (short for Galadriel, a fun and apt reference to The Lord of the Rings), the snarky, short-tempered and bitter character from through eyes we see the entire story unfold.  El proves to be an excellent narrator for A Deadly Education, and I liked her sarcastic and pessimistic view on the events occurring and the people she encounters, which results in most of the book’s fun humour.  El also has a lot of emotional and personal baggage weighing her down, which is very intriguing to unravel, especially as it stops her from getting close to people and gives her a vast independent streak in a location where individuals are killed off rather easily.  The most significant of these are her vast destructive powers and her ability to suck the magic and life from all those around her.  El is essentially a nuclear bomb who has the potential to destroy the entire school and spends the vast majority of the book trying to hide this fact from people.  This requires a careful balancing act from El as she attempts more mundane ways at building up her mana (exercise, knitting and so forth), while also battling the school’s attempts to cater to her affinity by providing her with destructive spells and school projects with evil potential, rather than the simpler tasks she desires.  I really appreciated this part of El’s character, and I found it fascinating to see her efforts to manage her power, especially in deadly situations.  In addition, El also has some major trust and social issues due to her childhood, as not only was El’s father killed in the school by one of the monsters but his family and the other major magical enclaves turned their back on her and her mother, due to El’s destructive potential.  This makes her hostile towards the various members of the elitist enclaves in the Scholomance, which finds her quite isolated throughout the book.  El also has a rather dark vibe to her that makes the people she encounters quite uncomfortable, and as a result she has trouble making friends.  Novik does an amazing job exploring this character throughout the novel, and El experiences some substantial development as a result.  It was great to see her grow as a person, especially as you come to really like the character, and I enjoyed seeing her finally make some much need connections and friendships.

The other major character in the novel was Orion Lake.  Orion is a powerful magical user who excels at killing mals and absorbing their energy.  At the start of the book, Orion is shown to be a typical noble hero fantasy character who is beloved by the school and appears to have a substantial following of friends and supporters.  However, Orion finds himself drawn to El, mainly due to the fact that El berates him and actually calls him out on his actions.  This results in an intriguing character dissection on Orion, as El discovers that Orion feels trapped in his role as a hero and he dislikes all the attention being levelled at him, as everyone treats him as a heroic being rather than a normal person.  I found Orion a bit flat at times, but he proved to be an entertaining addition to the narrative, and I enjoyed seeing his interactions with El, mostly because El levels all manner of hostilities towards him and he just shrugs it off, much to her frustration.

Easily the best part of A Deadly Education is the unique and impressive setting that Novik has spun together for her narrative.  Ever since my earliest days of fantasy fandom I have really enjoyed the magical school setting, and I still like seeing them in my fantasy novels, especially when they have the fun twists that the Scholomance does.  Novik did an incredible job coming up with this dark fantasy school, and I love the exceptionally creative and dangerous location that eventuated.  Every single detail of this magical school was really cool, from the teacherless classes, the somewhat sinister learning techniques which challenge the students in unique ways, the dangers that haunt the student body, the distinctive monsters that stalk the halls, and the overall layout and history of the facility.  All of this helps to create an excellent and memorable setting for the story, and I loved seeing this darker take on a typical fantasy school such as Hogwarts.  I especially liked all the imaginative ways in which the students are forced to navigate and survive the various trials and dangers they encounter as they attempt to survive and prepare for the deadly graduation that is about to occur.  I felt that Novik did an exceptional job introducing the myriad unique details of her new fantasy world to the reader, and at no point did I feel lost or confused about the elements that were key to the narrative.  I had an incredible time getting lost in this new fantasy universe and I cannot wait to see what secrets and new elements get developed in the future entries in the series.

It is very important to note that A Deadly Education is one of those books that will appeal to an extremely wide range of readers.  Due to its content and its focus on teenage characters, A Deadly Education has a lot of elements that mark it as a young adult novel, and many younger readers will have a great time reading it.  I personally think that this will be an awesome novel for teenage fantasy fans, and it is a book I think I would have really enjoyed as a younger reader.  However, A Deadly Education is not explicitly being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and there is a lot in this book for older readers to enjoy.  Fantasy fans of all ages will no doubt really appreciate the fun take on the magical school storyline and many readers, especially those who grew up on the Harry Potter novels, will have a blast seeing this more deadly and brutal British magical academy.

A Deadly Education is an exciting and impressive novel from Naomi Novik that proved to be quite an outstanding read.  This excellent fantasy book is incredibly easy to enjoy and contains a clever and amazing take on the classic magical school storyline.  A highly recommended read; you are going to fall in love with this awesome book.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

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.

Another week, another Throwback Thursday review of an early volume of one of my all-time favourite comic book series, Usagi Yojimbo, by legendary author and artist Stan Sakai.  This week I will look at the epic 10th volume in the series, The Brink of Life and Death, which proved to be another amazing and exciting five-star read.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage 15

The Brink of Life and Death continues the adventures of the rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he travels throughout the lands encountering all manner people and dangers.  This 10th volume is a fantastic addition to the series, featuring a great mixture of stories, from the tragic to the supernatural, and utilising some iconic recurring characters.  This volume is the third that has been collected by Dark Horse Books, and it features a mixture of issues from two separate publishers.  This includes the final issues of the Mirage Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, with Issues #15 and 16, as well a story taken from Issue #13 (the rest of Issue #13 was used in the last volume, Daisho).  It also contains the first six issues of the Dark Horse Books publication run of Usagi Yojimbo and serves as the starting point to Dark Horse’s lengthy connection to the series.  As a result, the volume starts off with a quick recap of the series (titled Origin Tale), containing some very broad strokes and ensuring that new readers could start on this volume if they wanted (although Sakai does make most of his comics fairly accessible to unfamiliar readers).  This volume also contains Dark Horse’s trademark story notes at the end of the volume, which proved to be a particularly intriguing companion to the excellent stories contained within The Brink of Life and Death.

The first story contained within this volume is the intriguing and exciting Kaiso.  In Kaiso, Usagi encounters a local peasant, Kichiro, while wandering on the coast, and travels with him to his village.  There, Usagi becomes familiar with Kichiro’s family and begins to learn more about the village’s main trade, seaweed (kaiso) farming.  While Usagi enjoys the seemingly simple life of the villagers, he soon finds himself involved in a feud with a neighbouring village, who Kichiro believes are poaching their seaweed fields.  However, not everything is as it seems, and Usagi manages to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to destroy his new friends.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 16

Kaiso is a fantastic and compelling story that once again highlights a traditional Japanese industry, in this case, seaweed farming.  Sakai does a fantastic job exploring seaweed farming in this story, as he introduces and portrays a number of key tools, concepts and techniques involved with the production of edible seaweed, all the way from harvesting it from the ocean to turning it into its dried form, nori.  This examination of seaweed farming serves as a surprisingly good centre for this story, and it is a testament to Sakai’s skill as a writer that he was able to produce an exciting and intrigue filled narrative around this industry in just 20 pages.  There are some great action sequences throughout this story, and it was cool to see Usagi fighting off a bunch of attackers whilst on a small fishing boat, utilising traditional farming tools as weapons.  There are also several impressive drawings throughout this story, as Sakai seeks to capture the beauty of the Japanese coastline as well as the complexities of the seaweed trade.  Kaiso proved to be an awesome first entry in this volume, and its intriguing story content and premise really helps to draw the reader in right off the bat.

The next story within The Brink of Life and Death is a great entry titled A Meeting of Strangers.  While enjoying a quiet lunch at an inn, Usagi watches as a striking swordswoman, later revealed to be called Inazuma, enters the inn.  Wary of this mysterious woman, Usagi bears witness to her skill and ferocity in combat as she takes down a band of bounty hunters who attack her, before departing into the wilds.  However, Inazuma is not the only person being hunted, and soon Usagi finds himself under attack from a group of killers who have been hired to end him.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

This is a really good story that showcases Sakai’s ability to quickly introduce an intriguing new character.  Inazuma goes on to become a major figure in the Usagi Yojimbo series for the next 14 volumes, and she gets an amazing introduction in this story, instantly coming across as something new, due to her striking appearance and her tough mannerisms.  Sakai shows early in the story that she is pretty damn dangerous, as Usagi casually reaches for his sword the moment he sees her, a completely new action from the character, which clearly identifies Inazuma as a major threat.  She quickly backs this up with her impressive swordplay, including slicing up the clothes of a local creep, and then taking out a band of bounty hunters.  She has a brutal fighting style as shown in this comic, and I loved her trademark finishing manoeuvre of completely cleaning the blood off her blade with one deft swish through the air.  In addition to the introduction of this great character, other fun elements of the story include the return of the Snitch (who was introduced in the last volume), who facilitates the hit on Usagi.  The Snitch is such a fantastic minor antagonist, and it is really entertaining seeing him running around doing his thing: “money, money, money!”  There is also a particularly impressive fight sequence in the last half of the story between Usagi and the assassins in the woods.  This scene sees Usagi take on over 20 guys in quick succession and is a real showcase of his ability.  There is a particularly fun panel in this sequence which sees Usagi kill several people at the same time, with his defeated opponents arranged in a semi-circle, all of them dying in dramatic fashion while making a different death rattle (including one guy who goes: “Trout, Trout!” for some reason).  All of this was over-the-top and helped show off just how crazy and action-packed this series can be.

The third story in this volume is the short entry Black Soul, which continues to showcase the return of series antagonist, Jei.  During a stormy night, a young girl and her grandfather have their house invaded by three bandits who steal their food and kill the grandfather.  However, the bandits are far from the only predators out that night, as the mysterious and frightening Jei appears at the door.  This was a great story that added a lot of key elements to the character of Jei in only a few pages.  Jei’s sudden appearance is suitably dramatic, and it shows off how terrifying he can be.  I loved the way that Sakai portrayed Jei’s fight against the three bandits, as all you see is several drawings of the hut’s exterior while terrified screams run out.  The story then returns to the interior of the house, where the bandits’ corpses are strewn around the house, including one guy who is hanging upside-down from the rafters, dripping blood.  Not seeing what actually happened makes the reader imagine the very worst scenario, and it really amps up the dread that this antagonist emanates.  Sakai then continues to hint at Jei’s more supernatural abilities by having him ‘consecrate’ the spear of one of his fallen opponents, with the blade visibly turning black in his hands, matching the soul of the wielder.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the young peasant girl, Keiko.  At first it appears that Jei is going to kill her; however, he stops after not sensing any evil in her.  This is the first time we have seen Jei show mercy, and it is a defining moment for the character, especially as Keiko starts following him as his companion.  Having Jei care for a young girl really adds to the complexity around Jei’s character, and in many ways it makes him seem even more evil, as he is corrupting this innocent with his dark crusade.  Overall, Dark Soul is a great and scary story which leaves the reader wanting to see more of this fantastic antagonist.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #2

Now we move on to Noodles, the only multi-issue entry in the volume which contains a powerful and impressive narrative that I really enjoyed.  In Noodles, Usagi enters a new town, only to be immediately accosted by the police, who are searching for a thief behind a recent crime wave.  Proving his innocence, Usagi swiftly finds out the source of the recent crimes is his friend Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks.  Kitsune has a new companion, a soba noodle street vendor and mute giant known only as Noodles, who assists Kitsune to hide from the police.  However, Kitsune has underestimated the deviousness and corruption of the local police administrator who puts a deadly plan into place to save his own skin.

This was an incredible entry in this volume, and I have a lot of love for Noodles’s fantastic crime narrative.  Sakai crafts together a fantastic storyline that follows Usagi as he meets up once again with the entertaining side character Kitsune and intriguing new character Noodles.  Kitsune is her usual fun self, and the introduction of the mute gentle giant Noodle adds a lot of dimensions to her character.  Up to now, Kitsune has been shown to be a generally good person, although she is motivated by greed or a sense of mischief.  However, in this story, she is given someone to care for, and she is determined to protect him no matter what.  Unfortunately, this leads to some great tragedy for her, which I found to be extremely moving, and you cannot help but feel bad for her.  Luckily, this leads to a rather good revenge plot in the second part of the story, which gives Noodles a satisfying and enjoyable ending.  This entire story was extremely well written, combining together humour, intrigue, character interactions and some genuine tragedy to produce an epic and compelling read.  I also really enjoyed Sakai’s amazing depictions of life in a larger feudal Japanese town, and it is clear that he did a lot of research to show what day-to-day life would look like, as well as examining how the criminal justice system worked during this period.  There are some really impressive drawings throughout this story, from the multiple detailed street and crowd views filled with all manner of activities and people (there is a sneaky shot of Jei and Keiko walking through town at one point), to the amazing action sequences, including a great scene where the gigantic Noodles is attacked by the police.  However, I really must highlight a particularly gruesome execution sequence that was a key part of the story.  While this scene is sad and horrifying, it is extremely well drawn, very memorable and it does its job of producing a major emotional response from the reader.  Noodles is probably the best entry in this entire volume, and I cannot praise just how amazing its clever and captivating story is.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #3

The next story within this volume is the supernatural tale, Wrath of the Tangled Skein, which sees Usagi arrive at a local inn which is experiencing some trouble.  A rich merchant’s daughter has been taken mysteriously ill, and her entourage fear that it is the work of a demon or haunt, picked up from their travels through the dangerous forest known as The Tangled Skein.  Usagi, who has previously travelled through The Tangled Skein (back in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), offers his assistance and takes command of the merchant’s ronin while they wait for a priest to arrive.  It does not take long for events to come to a head, and Usagi finds himself facing off against dangerous and malicious terrors.

I really like it when Sakai does a supernatural tale in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and this one was particularly awesome as the author expertly utilises some fascinating creatures from Japanese mythology.  There are two separate monsters contained within this story.  First you have the nue, a terrifying chimeric creature with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger, the legs of a tiger and a snake for a tail.  Needless to say, this is a particularly weird creature, and Sakai does a fantastic job drawing it and then portraying a chaotic and dangerous fight around it as Usagi attempts to defeat it.  In addition to the nue there is also a tanuki, a shape-changing racoon dog, who manages to trick Usagi and almost costs him everything.  I really loved the designs of both these creatures within the comic, and it was extremely cool to see and learn more about these facets of Japanese culture and tradition.  This story is set up extremely well, and the author has a great blend of action, supernatural intrigue and fun character moments.  Wrath of the Tangled Skein also introduces the character of Sanshobo, a Bonze priest who goes onto become a key recurring character, helping to make this a significant and important entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series.

Up next we have another short character-driven tale, The Bonze’s Story.  In this entry, Usagi travels with the Bonze priest Sanshobo after the events of the previous story.  The two quickly find camaraderie with each other, especially when Usagi realises that his companion is a former samurai.  Sanshobo then relates the tragic tale of how he gave up his warrior ways, which occurred when the young son of his lord accidently died in his care.  This forced Sanshobo’s own son to take his own life to restore his family’s honour, an event that broke Sanshobo.  This was a rather fascinating tale that does a lot to cement interest in a new side character.  The origin tale for Sanshobo is really good, and the whole story of sacrificing a son to save honour is extremely captivating and memorable.  The entire background story is drawn amazingly, and the various expressions of horror, sorrow and pride on the face of participants as they attempt to survive in a storm are quite exceptional.  This was another amazing example of what sort of impressive story Sakai can tell in only a few short pages, and The Bonze’s Story definitely sticks in the mind.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #4

Following this shorter tale, we have the fun, action-packed Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit.  In this entry, Usagi seeks shelter in an old temple, but his quiet night is ruined when several Komori Ninja arrive, seeking a specific prey.  After they leave, Usagi discovers that the person they are hunting is an injured Chizu, the leader of the Neko Ninja.  Helping her, Usagi learns that she is carrying a valuable and dangerous scroll that the Komori Ninja are desperate to obtain.  Can Usagi and Chizu keep it out of their hands, or will a powerful new weapon be unleashed upon the lands?

Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit was an exciting and entertaining entry that sees Usagi reunited with one of his potential love interests Chizu, who we last saw back in Volume 8: Shades of Death.  This is a fast-paced story that focuses on the conflict between two rival ninja clans, Chizu’s Neko Ninja and the Komori Ninja.  The Komori Ninja, giant bats with blades on their wings who had an amazing introduction back in Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid, are fantastic antagonists for this story, and it is always cool to see them in action, especially when Sakai draws them slicing through trees to get their prey.  The highlight of this story is the impressive ninja-on-ninja combat, as the more traditional ninja techniques of Chizu and the Neko Ninja go up against these flying opponents, all with Usagi in the middle.  This results in some epic fight sequences which end up being a lot of fun to see come to life.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic conclusion to this story, which not only has a great twist but which also adds a bit of tragedy to the life of Chizu, as she reflects on what constitutes duty for ninja.  An overall awesome and enjoyable story, this was another fantastic entry in this volume.

The penultimate entry in The Brink of Life and Death is the gripping story, The Chrysanthemum Pass.  After humiliating a group of thugs in a town, Usagi obtains a new travelling companion, Icho, a wandering medicine peddler.  The two become friendly as they wander around the mountains, but Icho is not what he seems.  Instead, he is secretly a member of the Koroshi, a notorious assassins’ guild, and is planning to take out a rich lord who is travelling through the Chrysanthemum Pass, and Usagi is also on his kill list.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #5

This was another outstanding story.  I loved the entire cleverly written narrative, which sees Usagi dragged into the middle of another devious plot.  Having his companion, Icho, turn out to be secretly evil was a fantastic choice by Sakai, and he sets it up perfectly, with only minor hints of his true intentions being revealed to the reader until about halfway through the story.  The rest of the story deals with Icho trying to subtly kill Usagi before his assassination mission and failing, allowing Usagi to be in the midst of the events in the pass.  This story then features a number of fantastic twists, including the fact that Usagi suspected that Icho was an assassin the entire time, implying that his reasons for travelling with him was to keep an eye on him and intervene if he was proven correct.  It was great to see the return of the Mogura Ninja, ninja moles with some really cool character designs who were introduced in the very first volume, The Ronin, and they once again proved to be surprisingly effective adversaries.  This story also serves to introduce a new group of antagonists for Usagi, with the first mention of the Koroshi assassins’ guild, whose various members tangle with Usagi multiple times throughout the rest of the series.  The Chrysanthemum Pass is therefore a fantastic and notable entry within this volume, and it ended up having quite an impressive story.

The final story in this volume is Lightning Strikes Twice, a powerful and captivating entry which provides new background for new character Inazuma.  In this story, Usagi once again runs into the mysterious Inazuma after finding several dead bodies on the road.  Encountering her within a temple, surrounded by other travellers, Usagi sits and listens to her tragic tale of love, loss and revenge as she recounts how she became so skilled with the sword, and the reasons why she is constantly being hunted throughout the lands.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #6

This was another epic story that really helps to build up Inazuma as an impressive and unique character within the series.  Her entire backstory as a girl who followed her heart and then lost everything is really emotional and humanising, adding layers of complexity to her rough exterior.  It was rather jarring to see such a strong woman stay with an abusive and uncaring partner, and it serves as an intriguing starting point for her road to exceptional warrior.  I enjoyed seeing her learning the way of the sword, and Sakai really builds her up as a natural prodigy with the blade.  Despite the humanising aspects of this story, Inazuma again comes across as a major badass within this story, thanks to the bloody fight sequence at the beginning, where she swiftly takes down a band of assassins with some very fancy moves, as well as the sequence at the end of the origin story, where she shows just how dangerous and cruel she can be.  I also absolutely loved the shocking reveal at the end of Lightning Strikes Twice where Usagi discovers that the people who have been quietly sitting through Inazuma’s story with him are all dead bounty hunters, which adds a real edge to Inazuma and her actions.  Lighting Strikes Twice proves to be a truly compelling and exciting tale, and I really liked learning more about this intriguing new character.  I also really appreciated how it tied into the previous Inazuma story and it ended up being a fantastic way to end the entire volume.

This 10th volume of the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series, The Brink of Life and Death, is another outstanding and addictive creation from Stan Sakai that features several impressive stories.  I loved this amazing combination of tales, and it was great seeing both standalone stories and entries that have deeper ties with the rest of the series.  Filled with awesome character moments, stunning artwork, and detailed depictions of feudal Japan, The Brink of Life and Death is a must read for fans of this series, and Sakai should be very proud of what he accomplished with this volume.

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst

Race the Sands Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 21 April 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 15 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Sarah Beth Durst returns with a pulse pounding and compelling new novel, Race the Sands, an excellent fantasy novel that has a really great story to it.

In the kingdom of Becar, the most important thing to a person is the state of their soul. Guided by the augurs, priests who can read people’s aura, the inhabitants of Becar do all they can to better themselves, as who you are in this life determines your future lives. The purest souls come back as humans or a great animal, while those more corrupt individuals come back as something lower, such as insects or vermin, a state that can only be redeemed after several lifetimes. However, for those truly evil beings, their punishment is to come back as a monster, as a kehok. Kehoks are chimera-like beasts who spawn out in the wilds and who live existences of pure anguish and pain. These monsters have no hope of redemption or salvation and each time they die they will come back as a different type of kehok. The only way that a kehok can break this hellish cycle of resurrection is to become grand champion of the Races, the favoured pastime of the Becaran people. The Races pit several kehoks and their riders against each other to find out not only who has the fastest kehok but which rider has the greatest mental control over their charge.

Tamra used to be an elite kehok rider, but now she scrapes a living as a professional trainer. After several setbacks, including a tragic accident at the previous year’s Races, Tamra is in need of a win, not only to get back on top but to get the prize money that will allow her to pay for her daughter’s expensive augur training. As none of the professional riders will trust her, Tamra is forced to take on and train an unknown street girl, Raia. Raia recently ran away from home to escape her terrible family and a potentially deadly arranged marriage, and she is desperate to find a way to make a living.

Together, Tamra and Raia make an unlikely pair, but with Tamra’s experience and Raia’s natural talent, they might stand a chance, especially as Tamra has managed to obtain a swift and unusual kehok. As Tamra, Raia and their new kehok all attempt to change their destinies, events from around Becar start to impact them. Chaos is engulfing the kingdom, as the former emperor’s reincarnated vessel has yet to be found. Without the vessel no new emperor can be crowned, and the kingdom is on the brink of collapse and invasion. Can this team succeed in the chaos, or will their success have unexpected consequences?

This was an extremely compelling and deeply enjoyable book from a very talented author, Sarah Beth Durst. Durst is a veteran author who has produced a number of young adult and adult fantasy fiction novels since her 2007 debut, Into the Wild. Durst is probably best known at the moment for her Queens of Renthia series, which started in 2016 with her highly acclaimed novel, The Queen of Blood. Durst is actually a new author to me, and I have not had the pleasure of reading any of her previous novels. I have to admit that checking out Race the Sands was a bit of an impulse choice for me; while I was aware that this interesting sounding book was coming out, it was not one that I was initially planning on reading. However, I heard some rather good things about it from a bunch of other reviewers and their glowing praise convinced me that it would be worth reading. I am extremely glad that I did read it, as it turned out to be an excellent read that I deeply enjoyed.

Race the Sands is a standalone fantasy novel that tells a complex and intriguing story completely separate from Durst’s previous works of fiction. Durst does an outstanding job coming up with a deeply compelling and exciting novel that combines a clever fantasy story about racing monsters with an inventive setting and a cast of great characters to create an overall fantastic read. Despite being a book primarily for the adult fantasy fiction crowd, Race the Sands reads a lot like a young adult fiction novel at times, and it has immense appeal for a huge group of different readers, no matter where your interest in fantasy fiction lies.

At the centre of Race the Sands lies an amazing story of action, intrigue and character growth, all based around the really cool concept of people racing monsters out in the desert for glory, money and redemption. This story starts off extremely strong, introducing the high-stakes world of kehok racing and the intriguing main characters, and I would have happily read a whole book based around the races. However, while all the race sequences are extremely exciting, the book ultimately morphs into a much larger narrative, that revolves around the fate of the entire kingdom of Becar. I really liked how the entire story unfolded, especially as all the political intrigue and overarching threats resulted in an epic and impressive conclusion, that was well presented and which showed the book’s protagonists in the most awesome light possible. This was a truly compelling and memorable story, and Durst does a fantastic job packing so much plot and action into a single, standalone novel.

In addition to the excellent story, I was also really impressed with the clever setting and background that Durst came up with for Race the Sands. Becar is an intriguing nation with ancient Egyptian overtones to it, and its two most distinctive features are its obsession with racing monsters and its complex system of reincarnation. I have already mentioned the kehok races above, and they are a really great highlight of Race the Sands. Durst expertly introduces the races and the key concepts behind them early on in the novel, and every single aspect about them is an extremely cool part of the story. However, I really want to emphasise the story element of the Becaran reincarnation system and soul reading that dictates how the populace acts and behaves during their lifetime. This whole system of good and bad souls, which are read by the benevolent augurs, is an important part of the narrative, and is routinely examined by all of the major character throughout the course of the book. In essence the reincarnation system sounds simple: lead a pure life and you come back in a better form in your next reincarnation; be a bad person and come back as something worse. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something rotten at the heart of the whole system, and quite a lot of the story is dedicated to exploring what is wrong and who is behind it. It leads to some real metaphysical discussions about choices, ethics and corruption, which proves to be an excellent and clever part of the book. All of this makes for a great backdrop to this story, and it was a truly fascinating to see how the author explores and utilises these elements throughout the book.

Durst also spends a good amount of time setting up several great characters, who are the heart and soul of the novel, and who each add their own unique elements to the story. There are around five main characters, each of whom serves as a point-of-view character for much of the book, as well as several significant side characters, with one or two of these also serving as lesser point-of-view characters, and each of them add their own unique perspective to the story. At the top of this list is Tamra, the tough as nails, no-nonsense kehok trainer who is haunted by her mistakes and who is eager to redeem herself by training a new racer, which will also allow her to hold onto her daughter. Despite her rough and powerful exterior, Tamra is really a caring and motherly character, who is willing to compromise her own soul and beliefs if it ensures that the people she cares about are safe and happy. Tamra is a fantastic central character, and I loved her raw determination and notable cynicism about the world she lives in. I also have to mention the awesome part she plays in the outstanding conclusion, where she comes across as an amazing badass, completely changing everything in one of my favourite parts of the entire book.

In addition to Tamra, the next major character is the racer Raia, whom Tamra takes under her wing. Raia is introduced as a flighty and scared creature, a failed augur student who is fleeing from her terrible parents and her murderous future fiancé. Despite having no experience, Raia’s only option to survive and make a living is to get involved in kehok racing, and her natural connection to the lion kehok that Tamra buys, ensures that she is taken on as a student. Due to plot circumstances, Raia is given a crash course in kehok racing, and it is through her eyes that we see a lot of details about the Races and what it takes to become a successful rider, which is an exciting part of the book. Raia is also the character who goes through the most growth throughout the course of the book, as she attempts to leave the shadow cast over her by her terrible parents, and quickly gains confidence thanks to her success as a racer, her mentorship under Tamra, some new friendships and the connection she has with her kehok. I really liked seeing Raia’s growth, and she is one of the more inspiration characters within the book.

Another great character is augur Yorbel, the friend and confidant to the heir to the throne, who sets out to find the late king’s reincarnated host in the most unlikely of places. Yorbel, who starts off as a rather naive and sheltered character due to his upbringing in the temple as an augur, finds himself involved in secrecy and intrigue as he attempts to undertake his mission. However, throughout the course of the book, Yorbel finds himself learning more and more about the dark side of humanity, and the difficulties involved with keeping a pure soul. Despite being one of the nicest and most innocent characters, Yorbel has quite a few ethical dilemmas during this book, and the conclusion of his arc was somewhat shocking and intense. I also have to mention Lady Evara, the rich, noble sponsor of Tamra and Raia. I went into Race the Sands knowing to look out for Lady Evara, as several other reviewers identified her as their favourite character. I can definitely see why, as she was easily the most entertaining character in the entire book. Coming across as a snobbish, self-serving master manipulator, it was a lot of fun to see her interact with characters like the serious Tamra or the passive Yorbel. However, Evara also has a lot of depth to her character as well as some interesting backstory, and the parts of the book that featured her were a real treat. I really enjoyed all the main characters in this book, and this great cast of protagonists helped to turn Race the Sands into a first-class read.

I chose to listen to Race the Sands’ audiobook format, and I found it to be a fantastic way to enjoy this excellent book. The audiobook has a run time of 15 hours and 45 minutes and it is narrated by the talented Emily Ellet. I absolutely blew through this audiobook in only a few days, and it became harder and harder to turn it off the more I got engrossed in the story. I thought that the audiobook format really brought all the intense race scenes to life in all their glory, and I especially loved hearing some of the epic moments from the book’s conclusion. I really liked the various voices that Ellet came up with for the books various characters, and I felt that her portrayals of characters like Tamra, Raia and Yorbel were pretty perfect and really reflected how they were written. I also enjoyed the voice that the narrator provides to all of the book’s highborn women, including Lady Evara and the female augurs, put me a bit in mind of Inara from Firefly, i.e. very posh, confident and in complete control of every situation. That being said, all the highborn women do sound very similar to each other, although I didn’t find that to be too distracting. Overall, I had an outstanding time listening to Race the Sands, and it is an amazing format for any potential readers to utilise.

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst is a deeply impressive and highly enjoyable fantasy read which comes highly recommended. This book contains an exciting and addictive narrative that makes great use of its complex characters and intriguing plot elements to tell a story full of action, adventure and brilliant character development. I had an awesome time reading this book, and it gets a full five stars from me. I am really glad that I decided to check this book out, and I will be definitely be checking out some of Durst’s other novels in the future.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6: Circles by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Circles

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 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.

For this latest Throwback Thursday, after reviewing Lone Goat and Kid a couple of weeks ago, I am still in a Usagi Yojimbo mood, so I thought I would check out the sixth volume of this fantastic comic book series, Circles.

Usagi 25

Circles is another fun and exciting addition to this excellent series which I honestly cannot praise enough (although I have been trying very hard in my last several Throwback Thursday articles). This sixth volume once again presents the reader with several outstanding and inventive stories that chronicle the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, as he journeys around a unique version of historical Japan. This volume contains five separate stories, derived from issues #25 – 31 of the Fantagraphics Books run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as a short story taken from Critters number #50 (a comic magazine that had some early Usagi Yojimbo appearances). There are some rather amazing stories featured within this volume, and I had an incredible time reading them.

The first story contained within this sixth volume is called The Bridge, which sees Usagi encountering a demon out of Japanese folklore. During a dark a stormy night, Usagi is entering a village from across a bridge when suddenly he lashes out with his sword behind him, convinced something is sneaking up on him. When he finds nothing there, Usagi shrugs it off and enters the nearest inn, only to learn from the villagers that the bridge he just crossed has been possessed by a demon, and Usagi’s back now bears the claw marks of the demon. Awaking next morning, the villagers find a severed monstrous hand on the bridge, which Usagi appeared to have cut off the night before. Taking the hand into the inn, Usagi and villagers wait for a priest to arrive in order to perform an exorcism on the severed limb, but the demon of the bridge has other plans.

Usagi 26

This was a rather good supernatural story that sees Usagi go up against one of Japan’s many demons and monsters. Several significant elements from this story are taken from the story of the demon of Rashomon Gate, including the severing of the arm and the demon disguising itself as an old woman to recover its severed limb (although unlike the samurai in the legend, Usagi doesn’t fall for it). The demonic antagonist of this story is rather sinister in its drawing style and methods of attack, and it proves to be a dangerous opponent for Usagi. I love the extended fight on the bridge, and I especially enjoyed the way that the whole event ended, providing a side-character in the story their moment of vengeance. Overall, this was a tight, well-written story that was a lot of fun to read.

The next story in this volume is titled The Duel, and, as the name suggests, it features some duels between samurai. Usagi arrives in a village and is challenged to a public duel by the local champion while the watching villagers place bets with a travelling bookmaker, a duel that eventually results in Usagi’s opponent’s death. Completing the duel, Usagi meets and has lunch with a fellow unemployed samurai, Shubo, who subtly takes his measure. It is revealed that Shubo, who is a talented swordsman, is in league with the bookmaker who manipulates the odds of Shubo’s duels in order to make money off the betters. Shubo, who needs the money to provide for his wife and child, believes that he can beat Usagi, and the bookmaker inflates the odds in Usagi’s favour so that they can clean up when Shubo wins. Forcing Usagi into a duel, the two engage in a quick fight to death, with tragic results.

Usagi 27

This was a really clever and captivating single story that Sakai did an incredible job writing. The whole story concept is just brilliant, and Sakai sets it up and executes the plot brilliantly. There are some amazing scenes throughout The Duel, and the story features an excellent mix of comedy and tragedy which work together amazingly to produce a gripping narrative. Usagi, as the reluctant participant of this duel, is pissed at the entire affair, and his outraged reaction to the town people cheering his victory is rather good, especially as the peasants show over-the-top fake remorse in order to get him to go away so they can collect their winnings: “We are lower than the scum at the bottom of a stagnant pool!” While there is some fun and well-deserved karma coming down onto the bookkeeper who overextends himself and tries to escape, nothing quite takes away from the tragedy of Shubo’s wife and young child. The final panel of this story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it shows the wife and child waiting just outside the village for him to return. But as the light in the sky gets darker and darker, you can see the worry start to work its way onto the wife’s face, until she breaks down completely in the final panel, fully realising that her husband is dead. The wife comes across as a massively tragic character in this story, and the major impact that this final page has is a testament to how amazing Sakai’s storytelling and illustrations are.

The third story in the volume is the rather short entry, Yurei, which is the story that appeared in Critters. In this tale, Usagi, who is camping at the edge of a river, awakens to find a Yurei, a ghost, floating before him. The ghost imparts her tragic story to Usagi; she was betrayed and murdered by her husband, and she now seeks justice. Usagi then awakens and finds a woman’s hairpin on the ground next to him. Thinking his encounter with the ghost was just a dream, he travels to a nearby inn and attempts to trade the pin for a meal. What he does not realise is that the innkeeper is the murderous husband from the ghost’s tale, and his discovery of the pin leads to a series of deadly events. This was a good, fast-paced story which tells a compact and intriguing tale. I loved the supernatural elements in this story, and it was interesting to see Usagi portrayed as a tool of fate, who wonders into some ghostly revenge without even realising it. This was a fantastic short entry in this volume and was great to check out.

USagi 28

The next entry in Circles is an entertaining and over-the-top tale titled My Lord’s Daughter. In this story, Usagi, who is telling a bedtime tale to children, is shown as the classic hero from Japanese legend, fighting through vast hordes of demons, monsters, and obstacles to rescue a beautiful princess from an Oni. This was a fun take on some of the traditional Japanese heroic legends, and it was cool to see Sakai draw a classic tale with Usagi as the protagonist. Sakai has some obvious fun setting the Usagi hero fearlessly against armies of demons and monsters, and he comes up with some clever fight sequences and scenes in this book, from a brutal duel with an Oni, to an underwater battle between Usagi, a shark and a giant octopus wielding several swords in its tentacles. This is an entertaining and exciting story, and I had a good laugh at the end reference to Sakai’s old comic, Groo the Wanderer.

Now let us get to the fifth story of this book, which is kind of the main event of the entire volume. This is a big story, told across four issues, titled Circles. This story follows Usagi as he returns home for the first time since the events of volume one, The Ronin. There are actually a couple of distinctive parts to this story, especially the first issue, which is somewhat separate from the rest of the story (with the exception of some build-up at the end). For this first part, Usagi, on his way back home, decides to stop at his old master’s house to pay his respects to the grave marker of Katsuichi, the man who taught him how to wield a blade. The story then shows a flashback, which serves as a continuation to part of the origin story Usagi told in the second Usagi Yojimbo volume, Samurai, about Usagi’s past. In the flashback, it is shown that Usagi’s master was ambushed and seemingly killed by members of the Dogora Fencing School after Usagi beat their students in a tournament. However, upon arriving at Katsuichi’s old house, he discovers that his master is still alive, having survived the ambush, and has taken on a new student. I liked this revisit of Usagi’s origin story with Katsuichi, although the whole death scene in the flashback comes a little bit out of nowhere. Still, it was interesting to see how much Usagi has matured since he was learning the way of the sword, and it was nice to see the teacher and student reuniting. The flashback sequence is also top quality, and Sakai illustrates up a storm in this one, showing a fierce battle and some intense emotions from Usagi, who goes from a full-on berserker rage as he gets his revenge on his master’s killer to an intense grief in just a few scenes.

Usagi 29

The story then continues as Usagi journeys back to his village, only to be confronted by his old childhood rival, Kenichi. It turns out that Jotaro, Kenichi’s son with Usagi’s former love, Mariko, has gone missing, and bandits are roaming the area. While Usagi and Kenichi are able to defend their town from a raiding party, the attackers reveal that Jotaro has been kidnapped by the bandits and are holding him hostage. Leading an army of local peasants against the bandit’s hideout, Kenichi and Usagi hope to rescue Jotaro and end the raids that have been plaguing them. However, what they do not realise is that the bandits are being led by the deranged and dangerous former adversary of Usagi, Jei, a mysterious and seemingly unkillable murder with a black blade, who hopes to use Jotaro to get his revenge on Usagi. But even Jei is not the most dangerous thing that lies ahead, as old resentments between Usagi and Kenichi, their shared love for Mariko and certain revelations may tear everything apart.

Wow, I have to say that the final three issues of Circles are just incredible. There is so much to unpack from them, as Sakai brings together a brilliant and powerful story. First of all, it was great to see Jei return as a villain once again. Jei, who was introduced in volume 3, The Wanderer’s Road, is an outstanding antagonist, and his continued feud with Usagi is just brilliant. The two engage in a fantastic and extended duel in this story, and Sakai did a fantastic job showing off each combatant’s skill and martial ability through his drawings. I also love the extensive battle between Kenichi’s peasant army and the bandits, which proved to be rather eye-catching. Not only is there a beautifully drawn sequence in the misty forest before the big battle in which Usagi does a great Jei impersonation to scare a bandit sentry, but Sakai illustrates a massive battle between the two forces. The massive single panel that shows the pitched battle is just impressive, and I love the detailed and entertaining scene that the author produced here.

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While all of the above is pretty amazing, what really makes this captivating story is the complex relationship between Usagi, Kenichi and Mariko. There are so many great layers plastered into this relationship. Usagi and Mariko were deeply in love when they were younger, and they still have great feelings for each other. However, Mariko ended up marrying Kenichi, and she is bound by duty, and her child, to him, no matter how she feels about Usagi. Kenichi, on the other hand, has always borne antagonism towards Usagi, which has been compounded over the years by their differences in skill and the fact that Usagi was chosen to serve Lord Mifune and left the village. However, Kenichi’s resentment towards Usagi is even greater, as he knows that Usagi is in love with his wife, and that these feelings are reciprocated by Mariko.

This leads to some outstanding scenes throughout this story, as these three try to come to terms with their complicated emotions. I particularly loved one scene in the middle of the story, where Usagi and Mariko discuss their feelings and reveal that they still both love each other, although Mariko makes it clear that they can never be together. The scene ends when Kenichi interrupts them, and while the look of heartbreak and shame on Mariko’s face is notable, what really gets me is the way that Kenichi’s usual stern/angry look is replaced with one of sad resignation in the last panel once he realises how Mariko still feels about Usagi. Despite this, Kenichi comes across in this story as a surprisingly honourable and well-intentioned character who puts aside his negative feelings for Usagi for the greater good, and it is a fantastic examination of a character who has mostly been antagonistic in the previous volumes. Sakai also drops a massive bombshell at the end of this story, when he reveals that Jotaro is actually Usagi’s son, and that Kenichi has known this and raised him as his own. Because of this, Mariko asks Usagi to leave and not try to settle down in their home village, as she fears it will put a wedge between Jotaro and Kenichi, who she sees as Jotaro’s true father. Usagi regretfully accepts this in another dramatic and captivating scene, although Mariko arranges for Usagi to see Jotaro as he leaves, and Usagi has a heartfelt time with his son, noting the similarities between them, and even suggesting Jotaro seek out Katsuichi as a teacher in later years. All of this is some first-rate storytelling and character development, and cannot praise Sakai enough for this amazing, emotional storyline. This is actually the last book that Kenichi and Mariko appear in (so far), and I think that Sakai did a fantastic job tying their love triangle together. All in all, Circles is easily my favourite story in this entire volume (The Duel comes close), and it is worth grabbing this volume just to check this key story out.

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It should come as no surprise to anyone considering all the praise I elicited above that I am giving this sixth volume of Usagi Yojimbo a full five star rating. This was another incredible comic book that features Sakai’s outstanding blend of powerful stories, memorable characters, intense action, fun references and depictions of traditional Japanese culture and history and some truly impressive artwork. I absolutely loved this volume, and this entire awesome series, comes highly recommended and is an unquestionable must-read.

Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

Howling Dark Cover 2