Waiting on Wednesday – City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I look at a fantastic upcoming debut with City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita.

City Under One Roof Cover

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It has been an exceptional year for debuts in 2022, with some amazing and impressive first novels coming out, especially in the crime fiction genre.  I always love checking out someone’s first book, especially as it provides some great insights into their writing style, and it is always interesting to see what the future holds for them.  Well, it looks like 2023 is also going to be an excellent year for debut novels, and there is already one great crime fiction debut coming out early next year that has caught my eye.

That book is City Under One Roof by new author Iris Yamashita.  Yamashita, who people may already know as the Academy Award nominated author of the intriguing film Letters From Iwo Jima, is breaking into the crime fiction scene in a big way next year, and I love the sound of her first book.  City Under One Roof, which is set for release here in Australia in February 2023, has a great story that sees a determined and haunted detective attempt to solve a murder in a mysterious remote town in Alaska.  However, her investigation becomes even more complex when the town is cut-off by a blizzard, gang members arrive, and the entire town become suspects in the murder.

I love the sound of this upcoming book, and I think that it has a lot of potential to be an impressive crime fiction release.  Yamashita has definitely gone out of her way to create an elaborate sounding mystery storyline, and I am very intrigued to see how everything turns out.  I also love the idea of an isolated and mysterious setting, and I can’t wait to see how it plays into the main narrative.  Overall, City Under One Roof sounds like a particularly awesome mystery book to start next year off with and I am extremely confident that this is going to be one of the top debuts of 2023.

Plot Synopsis:

A stranded detective tries to solve a murder in a tiny Alaskan town where everyone lives in a single high-rise building, in this gripping debut by an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter.

When a local teenager discovers a severed hand and foot washed up on the shore of the small town of Point Mettier, Alaska, Cara Kennedy is on the case. A detective from Anchorage, she has her own motives for investigating the possible murder in this isolated place, which can be accessed only by a tunnel.

After a blizzard causes the tunnel to close indefinitely, Cara is stuck among the odd and suspicious residents of the town—all 205 of whom live in the same high-rise building and are as icy as the weather. Cara teams up with Point Mettier police officer Joe Barkowski, but before long the investigation is upended by fearsome gang members from a nearby native village.

Haunted by her past, Cara soon discovers that everyone in this town has something to hide. Will she be able to unravel their secrets before she unravels?”

Quick Review – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Dirt Town Cover

Publisher: Macmillian (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 359 0ages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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

Plot Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Throwback Thursday – Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks Cover

Publication: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 1 August 2003)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Five

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I highlight another excellent entry in Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series, with Death Masks.

Fans of this blog will know that I have been having a magical time (pun intended) discovering and getting into the long-running Dresden Files series by acclaimed fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Set in Chicago, the Dresden Files novels follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire and protector of the city against any supernatural threat that comes its way.  This has been Butcher’s major series for years, but I only got into it back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry, Battle Ground.  Due to its exceptional plot and the all-out magical war for Chicago that it depicted, this was a pretty epic novel that was not only one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020 but also an excellent recruiting tool for new Dresden Files fans.  It didn’t take me long after reading Battle Ground to check out some of the earlier entries in the series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, as well as the novella, The Law.  I have had such an epic time with this series that when I felt like a guaranteed five-star book, I immediately decided to check out the next book in the series, with the fifth Dresden Files entry, Death Masks.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident professional wizard, is once again thrust into the middle of far more trouble than he ever dreamed of when a television panel show introduces him to an array of people who want something from him.  Not only does he find himself forced into a duel against a powerful Red Court vampire noble but he is also hired by a Vatican priest to recover a revered stolen holy relic, the Shroud of Turin.

Determined to make the most of these new events, Dresden takes the case and begins to search for the shroud while also preparing for his upcoming fight to the death.  However, many people are interested in obtaining the shroud for their own use, and Dresden finds himself under attack by hitman, gangsters, criminals, and far, far worse.  The Denarians, an ancient and despicable group of fallen angels, have designs on the shroud, and not even Dresden’s most powerful and holy allies, the Knights of the Cross, may be enough to save him.

As Dresden attempts to recover the shroud, he finds that the Denarians and their deadly leader, Nicodemus, have a nefarious plot for the shroud that could destroy everything that Dresden holds dear.  Working with allies old and new, Dresden must overcome the Denarian threat before it is too late, while also managing to defeat the Red Court vampire gunning for him.  With everything on the line, has Dresden finally bitten off more than he can chew?  And what happens when the lost love of his life returns to town, battling her own demons?

Wow, Butcher just cannot strike out!  This is yet another book from him that I have no choice but to award a full five-star rating to.  Death Masks has a deeply addictive narrative that grabs your attention from the very first page and refuses to let go, and some complex and entertaining characters to match.

Death Masks has a pretty awesome story to it that got really addictive very quickly.  Starting off a few months after the events of Summer Knight, Death Masks contains several, great layered storylines, all of which are pretty exciting and intense in their own way and which cross over well to create a complete and powerful narrative.  The first of these immediately places Dresden in the path of several dangerous enemies and opponents as he is dragged into a new case, recovering the stolen Shroud of Turin.  Despite being warned off by his allies, the Knights of the Cross, Dresden naturally pursues, which sets him against established foes, like Chicago’s gangster king, and a powerful new cadre of enemies, who represent one of the biggest threats that Dresden has gone up against at this point in the series.  At the same time, the protagonist is forced to accept a formal duel to the death against a powerful vampire lord, as part of the ongoing storyline about his war with the Red Court, and he also helps the police investigate a disfigured corpse that seems to have been simultaneously infected by every disease known to man.  These events are further complicated by the re-emergence of Susan Rodriguez, his former love interest whose romance was crushed when she was partially turned into a vampire, and who he still holds a massive torch for.

Each of these storylines is quite interesting on its own, and Butcher writes some interesting scenes around all of them, with the primary focus being on the search for the shroud and the fight against the Denarians.  These storylines start pulling together about hallway through the book, and Butcher really raises the stakes for the protagonist, especially when he experiences some major and heartbreaking setbacks.  I really loved the unique blend of character development, fantasy and urban crime that is utilised throughout most of this story, and it is always so much fun to see the protagonist attempting to understand the complex plots arranged against him as he tries to save his friends and city.  Everything leads up to an extremely exciting final third where Dresden and his allies are thrust into a series of battles with massive stakes involved that leave them broken and nearly beaten.  I honestly could not stop listening to the final few hours of this book, and I pretty much powered through the entire second half in less than a day.  There are some epic and very moving moments featured in the big conclusion, and Butcher did a brilliant job of bringing everything together and ensuring that the reader will come back for future instalments of his work.  I particularly loved the final little twist that saw the book’s major villain get one over the protagonist, and I am extremely keen to see what happens with that storyline going forward.

I have so much love for Butcher’s writing style when it comes to the Dresden Files novels, and Death Masks was a particularly good example of this.  Like the rest of the series, Death Masks is told exclusively from the perspective of its central character, Harry Dresden, and this places you right into the midst of all the action and investigations, and you see all the steps as Harry tries to outwit his various foes.  This use of Dresden as the central figure also ensures that the reader gets quite a lot of humour in the story, and the continuous jokes and funny insights really help to make the story that much more fun to enjoy.  There is a great focus on character development and introductions in this novel that I deeply enjoyed, and this works really well with the mystery elements and established fantasy setting to create an excellent narrative.  Butcher keeps the pace of the book sharp and fast here, and all the big events quickly and effectively fall into place where needed.  I liked how the protagonist dealt with multiple problems and cases simultaneously, and Butcher did a good job of balancing and combining these initially separated storylines and threats where necessary.  I did think that Butcher did go over the top in places when it came to the romance sequences, and some of the scenes were a little questionable at times.  Still, this didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the Death Masks, and I had a blast seeing everything unfold.

Death Masks proved to be a particularly significant entry in the Dresden Files series, and it is a must-read for all fans as a result.  Butcher perfectly sets up several ongoing storylines here while also successfully continuing some established character arcs and introducing a whole new batch of great and interesting characters.  There are so many key events and interactions going on in Death Masks, many of which will be vital for the rest of the series, and I know it helped to give some additional context for some of the events in the later books I have read.  However, like most Dresden Files novels, Death Masks is extremely accessible to new readers, and Butcher always makes a point to expand on the existing storylines and characters in a way that new readers can understand and follow without boring the existing fans.  As such, this is a book with a lot of appeal to many readers, and all fantasy fans can dive in extremely easily.

Death Masks is also a major book for character work, and readers who love the impressive and exciting Dresden Files cast are in for a great time here.  I felt that Butcher presented a great balance of established and new characters in this novel, and there is an excellent focus on development and the emotional issues impacting the protagonist.  Many of the new characters will become major recurring figures in the series from now on and deeply enjoyed seeing how their story started.  Most of the character work hinged on protagonist Harry Dresden, who is the true heart and soul of the book.  I always enjoy quirky and rebellious protagonists in novels with a first-person perspective, and the Dresden Files are a great example of this.  Dresden was his usual funny and disrespectful self for the entirety of Death Masks, and it was so much fun seeing him sass every person he encountered, especially when it enrages the villains.  There is also a great emotional component to Dresden in Death Masks that I enjoyed, as he is still going through a lot of issues.  His already complicated feelings about his past failed romance come full circle here when the girl that got away (well, got turned into a vampire) returns and he is forced to finally confront his repressed feelings for her.  There are also some major moments where Dresden is forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, especially when they cost other characters, and I loved some of the interactions that occurred as a result.

One of the big returns for Death Masks is the character of Susan Rodriguez, Dresden’s love interest who has been missing for a couple of books.  Susan was partially turned into a vampire during her last appearance and left Dresden as a result.  This book sees her return, and there is a complete change of character because of her transformation, being a lot more confident as well as some more notable abilities.  I liked most of the Susan storyline in this book, not only because fans finally get some closure for the romance between her and Harry but also because she now has some mysterious connections and is working as a covert anti-vampire agent.  There are some great moments with Susan in the book, although I did find one scene to be pretty ridiculous, even though it was supposed to be the sequence that served as the climax of the Dresden/Susan romance arc.  Who knew that all you needed to cure vampiric thirst was a bondage session (I’m barely joking here, that happened).  I mostly ignored this awkward scene (try listening to it whilst on your lunch break at work) from my overall grading of Death Masks, just because it was so much of an outlier, but it was a little weird.  Still, I’m glad we got a return from Susan, and it was interesting to see how much she had changed since the last book.

I also enjoyed the use of the Knights of the Cross in Death Masks, and they served as excellent comrade characters for Dresden.  The Knights of the Cross are three modern day crusaders who wield legendary holy swords and serve as God’s fist on Earth.  We had previously met one of them in Grave Peril, Michael Carpenter, and I loved seeing him again, especially as he is essentially a badass Ned Flanders with a sword and a mission from God.  His mentorship of Harry is a key part of his character arc in the series, and it is really interesting to see him serve as a conscience to the rebellious and faithless Harry.  The two other knights introduced in this book also add a lot to the plot.  The rookie knight, Sanya, was really fun, and I liked his more refreshing take on the role and responsibilities he wields.  However, the best of them was Shiro, the elder knight who acts as the group’s guiding light and who has stood against evil for decades.  I love the depiction of this Japanese badass who literally has fallen angels quaking in their boots, and he was a wise and brilliant character that did a lot in a few short appearances.  Shiro was probably my favourite of the three in this book, and his fantastic dialogue with Harry, especially that description of how he became a Christian, was some of Butcher’s best writing.

Finally, I must talk about the villains, who added a great deal to the story.  Readers are spoiled for choice in Death Masks when it comes to villains, as there are several different groups and individuals who turned up looking to kill Dresden throughout the book.  The first of these is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who seeks to end the war between his people and the wizards of the White Council by killing Dresden in a duel.  Ortega appears to be a mostly reasonable and honourable figure despite his desire to kill Dresden, and I liked the fun banter he had with the protagonist.  I was also glad to see more of Chicago gangster Johnny Marcone, who is one of the best recurring figures in the series.  Marcone always serves as such an excellent foil to Dresden, and their constant sparring and back and forth is a lot of fun to see.  It was particularly interesting to see Marcone become even more involved in the mystical world in this novel, mainly due to the respect he has for Dresden’s abilities, and this serves as a major step towards his current incarnation later in the series.

However, the best villains in the story are probably the group known as the Denarians, a collection of fallen angels possessing desperate or evil humans.  The Denarians are some of the most dangerous beings in the entire Dresden Files, and Butcher gives them an impressive introduction in this novel, showing them as agents of chaos determined to cause as much grief as possible.  Their leader, Nicodemus, is probably one of the most intriguing and sinister figures I’ve yet see Butcher write, and he pretty much always had Dresden on the ropes.  I particularly loved his first major interaction with the protagonist, especially as he was able to completely rattle Dresden, who could barely do anything in response.  The characters were barely able to survive his machinations throughout the book, and he truly showcased how much of a threat he could and would be.  A masterful villain, I cannot wait to see more of him in some of the future books.  All these characters, and more (future superstar Butters has an interesting introduction this book), really add to the captivating story, and I loved how well Butcher developed and featured them in Death Masks.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Death Masks on audiobook, which was another excellent and impressive experience.  I really love the Dresden Files audiobooks and Death Masks was another good example of why.  Not only does the format really capture the essence of the story and help the listener become immersed in the urban fantasy world, but it also features some of the best voice work you are likely to find in an audiobook.  That is because Death Masks is narrated by actor James Marsters, who always does a spectacular job brining this series to life.  After providing narration for the first four books in the series, Marsters really knows what he is doing when he gets to Death Masks, and he swiftly dives in and gives the epic narrative everything it needs.  All the characters are voiced perfectly, with some extremely fitting and powerful voices given to them that expertly portray their personalities, ethnicities and mentalities.  Due to the great range of characters in Death Masks, Marsters is required to play a range of figures, from an evil fallen angel, three ultra-good holy knights, a gangster, multiple vampires and more, all of which come out really well.  However, the best work is saved for protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  Marsters perfectly inhabits the role of Dresden, and you get the full breadth of his complexities, inner pain, and weird sense of humour, as Marsters narrates the book through his eyes.  You really get the best understanding of Dresden through Marsters’s voice work, and that really adds to the quality of the entire read.  As such, this format comes extremely highly recommended, and you need to try Death Masks’ audiobook as soon as you can.

Another Dresden Files book down, another five-star rating from me.  Death Masks was another epic and exceptional entry in this amazing series, and I continue to be impressed by how well Jim Butcher writes these great books.  Thanks to its excellent and utterly addictive narrative and brilliant character work, Death Masks is probably one of the best Dresden Files novels I have read so far, and I had such a great time with it.  I can think of no higher compliment than to say it made me so happy, I instantly started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites, the moment I finished Death Masks.  Make sure to come back next week to check that Throwback Thursday out.

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Waiting on Wednesday – The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday, I highlight one of best novels coming out later this year with The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman.

The Bullet That Missed Cover

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Over the last couple of years, comedian and British television personality Richard Osman has branched off into a whole new avenue of entertainment, murder mystery writing.  Starting in 2020 with his debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, Osman revealed that he had quite an inventive mind when it came to unique and complex mysteries, with his impressive story about a group of retirees, who form a club to investigate murders around their retirement village.  Made up of former spy Elizabeth, retired nurse Joyce, the intellectual Ibrahim and notorious rabble rouser Ron, this mismatched group turned out to be an effective and entertaining team, utilising their experience and ability to manipulate young people to get to the bottom of their cases.  Featuring some incredibly realistic and relatable characters, a captivating investigation, fantastic humour, all wrapped up with some moving drama, The Thursday Murder Club was an extraordinary read.  I had so much fun with The Thursday Murder Club, that it ended up being one of my top books, audiobooks, and debuts of 2020.

However, Osman was far from done, as last year readers were gifted with an awesome second novel in the Thursday Murder Club series, with The Man Who Died Twice.  This second novel brought back the characters from the first novel and set them on a different case, this time around Elizabeth’s former husband who had stolen a fortune in valuable jewels from a notorious criminal.  This was an excellent and exciting sequel that I had another great time with, especially as you get even more connected with the brilliant characters.  The Man Who Died Twice also topped my end of year lists and was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021.

After enjoying the first two books as much as I did, there is no way that I am going to stop with this series now.  Luckily for me, Osman has another amazing sounding novel on the way with the third Thursday Murder Club book, The Bullet That Missed.  Set for release in mid-September 2022, The Bullet That Missed will see our intrepid protagonists return, this time with a compelling new case and a dangerous new enemy determined to take one of them out of the game permanently.

Synopsis:

It is an ordinary Thursday, and things should finally be returning to normal.

Except trouble is never far away where the Thursday Murder Club are concerned. A local news legend is on the hunt for a sensational headline, and soon the gang are hot on the trail of two murders, ten years apart.

To make matters worse, a new nemesis pays Elizabeth a visit, presenting her with a deadly mission: kill or be killed…

While Elizabeth grapples with her conscience (and a gun), the gang and their unlikely new friends (including TV stars, money launderers and ex-KGB colonels) unravel a new mystery. But can they catch the culprit and save Elizabeth before the murderer strikes again?

I love the sound of this new Thursday Murder Club novel and it looks like Osman has another captivating and fun story for The Bullet That Missed.  Not only does the new mystery sound cool, with the gang getting involved in a case that covers multiple years, but you also have the intriguing concept of someone targeting tough-as-nails Elizabeth.  Throw in the impressive character development and wacky adventures that Osman is known for and I am sure that The Bullet That Missed is going to be another awesome and addictive read.

Based on how much I enjoyed the first two Thursday Murder Club novels, there is no way that I am going to miss out on Osman’s next great novel.  The Bullet That Missed has so much potential behind it, and I can’t wait to dive into this new, captivating mystery.  Sure to feature all the best elements of the first two novels, as well as some great new developments, I have very high hopes for The Bullet That Missed, and I have no doubt this will end up being of the top books of 2022.

Nine Lives by Peter Swanson

Nine Lives Cover

Publisher: Faber (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 321 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare yourself for an engrossing and captivating mystery from the talented Peter Swanson, with the standalone read Nine Lives.

Back in 2020 I was lucky enough to receive a very cool book called Rules for Perfect Murders (also released as Eight Perfect Murders), written by a new-to-me author, Peter Swanson.  This fantastic novel focused on a bookshop owner who discovers that a blog list he wrote about the most perfect murders in crime fiction was being used as inspiration by a serial killer.  I deeply enjoyed this awesome concept, not only because it was very unique read that served as a fantastic love letter to multiple classic crime fiction authors/novels, but also because the idea of a killer using a blog post to plan their crimes appealed to me as a blogger (think of all the Star Wars themed murders you could plan if you used my lists as a basis for crime).  I ended up having a great time reading Rules for Perfect Murders and have been interested in reading more stuff from Swanson ever since.  I recently got the chance when I received a copy of his latest novel, Nine Lives, a few weeks ago, and I quickly jumped at the chance to read it, especially as it had another unique plot.

On a seemingly normal day, nine random strangers receive a mysterious envelope at their homes.  Each unmarked envelope is unremarkable except for its contents: a single sheet of paper with nine names typed upon it.  None of the recipients recognise any of the names upon the sheets, except their own, and are baffled by the seemingly random piece of mail.  Most assume it to be an advertisement scam or a silly prank and start to go about their day, forgetting about the strange letter they received.  However, one of the recipients, an old man in Maine, is brutally killed the moment he receives his letter.

As the local police and FBI agent Jessica Winslow, who herself received one of these letters, attempt to investigate and discover the connection between the names, another person on the list is killed, this time in Massachusetts.  Quickly determining that the others on the list are at risk, the FBI jumps in and tries to protect the potential victims, but they soon discover they are facing off against an extremely clever murderer capable of killing their victims in elaborate ways.  But why is he targeting these specific people?

Desperate to find the identity of the killer before everyone on the list ends up dead, the investigators and the potential victims each attempt to find the connection between themselves.  However, it appears that they have nothing in common, as they live across the country from each other and have a range of jobs and backgrounds.  The truth behind the killings lies in a dark place, and the lengths the killer will go to for their revenge will rock everyone to their core.

This was a great murder mystery novel from Swanson, who really amped up the twists and turns to create a compelling and intriguing read.  Nine Live’s story starts off with the various characters each receiving the relevant list with their names on it in several short chapters told from their relevant perspectives, and I found this interesting introduction to be good way to grab the reader’s attention.  From there you start to get to know the characters in some detail, except for a couple of people on the list who are efficiently and systematically killed off.  This serves as a pretty good basis for this story, and I loved getting to know the various characters, as well as seeing the cool and clever investigation angle that forms around it as the FBI attempt to find the killer.  Swanson sets the entire narrative/mystery up extremely well, and there are some very clever moments at the start as important clues and hints are laid down for the observant reader.

The first few kills come quick to set the rest of the characters into a panic, and once you get to the third or fourth person on the list you start to have an idea of what the killer is after.  I felt that the novel started to get really good towards its centre, as there are some big surprises as certain events really did not turn out the way I expected.  Once a particularly massive and game-changing twist occurred, I was absolutely hooked and I honestly powered through the remainder of the novel extremely quickly.  The following plot falls into place extremely well, and I loved seeing the entire mystery unfold, especially as Swanson keeps the twists coming as more of the characters you get to know are targeted by the killer.  While I was able to see elements of the solution from a distance, I was pleasantly surprised by several reveals towards the end, and I really appreciated how well Swanson set everything up throughout the novel.  The book comes to an excellent end reminiscent of a certain classic crime novel, and readers will come away very satisfied with how this standalone read turned out.  I did think that Swanson went a twist too far, as a big reveal in the last four pages was completely unnecessary and the book would have honestly been better if the author had just left it out.  Still, this was a really impressive and fun mystery, and I had an absolutely brilliant time getting through it.

There are a lot of fun elements to this book that really help enhance the story and turn Nine Lives into an excellent read.  However, my favourite is probably the way that Swanson turns it into a massive homage to a specific classic murder mystery novel.  While I won’t reveal which one, I will say that Swanson did an extremely good job of utilising its iconic elements throughout Nine Lives.  Just like he did in Rules for Perfect Murders, Swanson provides a detailed examination of this classic novel through his character’s eyes, especially once they themselves start to realise the similarities between it and their own situation.  These similarities are slightly more subtle at the start of the book, but by the time you get to the end the homages are very striking and cleverly tie into some of Nine Lives’ big moments.  These intriguing connections and clever recycling of story and writing elements from this iconic crime fiction novel worked really well in Nine Lives, and I felt that it complemented the rest of Swanson’s story perfectly, helping to turn it into a particularly great read.  Swanson also throws in some references and discussions about similar notable mystery novels at various parts of Nine Lives to throw the author around and to highlight his passion for the classics.  I love how the author takes the time to reference his personal favourites in his own works, and hardcore crime fiction fans and aficionados of classic murder mystery novels will no doubt have a blast seeing how Swanson utilises parts from a famous novel throughout Nine Lives.

I also loved the fantastic characters contained within Nine Lives, and Swanson achieves quite a lot with them.  Even though there are 10 or more point of view protagonists in a relatively short novel, Swanson ensures that each character stands out.  I felt that each protagonist was set up extremely well and they have their own quirks and back stories.  You swiftly get to know all the main characters as the book progresses, even with the quick changes between perspectives, and once you have made a good dent into the book, the reader finds themselves getting attached to several of them.  There are some great character arcs featured throughout the novel, and I liked how these distinctive characters came together and interacted.  The focus on FBI agent Jessica Winslow, herself a person on the list, works to set up the investigative angle of the novel, and her storyline goes in some very interesting directions.  I also quite enjoyed the intriguing storyline around Ethan Dart and Caroline Geddes, who meet because of the list and form a moving, if inevitably tragic, relationship.  The antagonist is also set up brilliantly throughout the novel and I found their motivations and methods to be expertly portrayed and explored as the narrative continues.  None of these characters are perfect or particularly have their life together, and it fascinating to see how a random list of names can change this for better, or more likely, for worse.  Swanson really does some great character work in Nine Lives, just don’t get too attached as your favourites may not survive.

Peter Swanson continues his entertaining and unique blend of crime fiction with the extremely clever and highly addictive Nine Lives.  Featuring a compelling, wide-ranging mystery and some brilliant references to classic murder mysteries, Nine Lives proves to be highly entertaining and memorable read, and I really had fun getting through it.  A great novel to fulfil all your murder mystery needs, Nine Lives comes highly recommended and will not disappoint.

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Warhammer 40,000: The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill

The Bookkeeper's Skull Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Warhammer Horror

Length: 4 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to dive back into the crazy and terrifying Warhammer 40,000 universe with the clever and exciting read, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by acclaimed author Justin D. Hill, which serves as a great entry in the Warhammer Horror sub-series.

Despite not being even halfway done yet, 2022 has already produced some epic new entries in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark, Reign by Nate Crowley, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Krieg by Steve Lyons, just to name a few.  After these awesome reads, there was no way I wasn’t going to check out The Bookkeeper’s Skull, especially when it had such an intriguing name.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an awesome book that forms part of a sub-series of Warhammer tie-in fiction known as Warhammer Horror.  This series unsurprisingly presents the reader with horror-based stories in its various universes and has already produced some very cool sounding reads.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is my first brush with this horror series, and I was very excited to read one, especially as it was written by Justin D. Hill, a fantastic author who has been impressing recently with several great novels, including his Cadia series.  I loved the unique and clever story that Hill came up with for The Bookkeeper’s Skull.

Throughout the Imperium of Man, many planets serve the God Emperor in different ways.  For the agri-world of Potence, its only duty is to meet the iron-firm food quotas levied upon it by Imperial hierarchy, ensuring that the armies of the Imperium are supplied with all the food they need to fight the aliens and the heretics.  The enforcers, implacable lawmen with the ability to deal out death on an arbitrary basis, roam the planet and the farms of Potence, ensuring that the populace and serfs do all there is to produce the appropriate amounts.

Rudgard Howe is a new enforcer recruit who has just reported to duty.  The son of the planet’s chief enforcer, Rudgard faces a deadly future which will eventually force him to kill his older brothers to claim his dying father’s position.  But before he faces his family, he must learn the ropes by journeying out to the farmsteads of the planet and ensuring they can meet their quotas.  Travelling with a veteran enforcer, Rudgard learns the hard truths about life in the Imperium and the necessities of justice in keeping the planet running.  However, no lessons will prepare Rudgard for the horrors awaiting the enforcers at their final destination, the far-flung farmstead of Thorsarbour.

Located out in an ancient and unknown region of the planet, Thorsarbour is a cursed settlement, with its overseers poorly led and its serfs living in terror of the strange presences they claim to feel.  Finding the settlement far behind its quotas, the enforcers attempt to whip the farm into shape, but between the unnatural feeling of the land surrounding Thorsarbour and the dangerous presence of a bloody sanguinary cult amongst the serfs, they have their work cut out for them.  Worse, a series of unexplained and brutal murders are occurring around Thorsarbour, each one accompanied by mysterious strawman placed near the body.  As Rudgard tries to uncover the cause of these mysterious deaths before they destabilise their work, the enforcers begin to discover something unnatural behind them.  Can they discover the culprit before it is too late, or will the horrors of Thorsarbour consume them all?

This was a really interesting first dive into the Warhammer Horror series for me and it is one that I am very glad that I undertook.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an excellent novel that very quickly grabbed my attention with its clever storytelling and fantastic, fast-paced plot.  Hill manages to do a lot with this story in a very short amount of time as The Bookkeeper’s Skull has a pretty short run time.  Despite this, the reader is quickly and succinctly introduced to the main character and narrator, Rudgard, and the world of Potence, in a great couple of opening chapters, before dropping them right into the horror of Thorsarbour.  Once the narrator arrives then you are quickly struck by the unnatural and freaky nature of the location, as they encounter several of the unusual issues surrounding the farmstead.  Following the initial discovery of a multitude of bodies and death, the protagonists encounter one dangerous situation after another, as they contend with religious fanatics, terrified serfs and overseers, monstrous farm animals, mysterious strawmen, a strange and prophetic girl, and a mysterious force brutally killing off everyone in the compound.  Even with so much happening, the pace of this novel never slackens, and there is a very high death count as everything goes wrong in some very brutal way.  I was pretty hooked on this novel from the very start, and I loved where the story went, even if it did get a little predictable towards the end.  I had a fairly good idea of who was going to live and die from the start, as well as who the killer was likely to be (the title is very suggestive).  I do think that the novel slightly fell apart at the very end, as Hill chooses to leave a little too much mystery behind what sort of force might be ultimately responsible for the events of the book, but this was still an amazing story that I had a lot of fun with.

The Bookkeeper’s Skull turned out to be a pretty good Warhammer 40,000 novel, and I liked how it fit into the wider universe.  This novel is closely related to one of Hill’s other novels, Cadian Honour, which is also set on the world of Potence and features an older version of the protagonist.  I love it when a novel provides an interesting connection to an author’s previous work, especially one that provides some exciting context and personal history, and this was a great example of that.  Despite this, people interested in checking out The Bookkeeper’s Skull don’t need to have any pre-knowledge of Hill’s writing or any other Warhammer 40,000 novels to enjoy this excellent book.  Indeed, this is a fantastic introduction to both Hill’s writing and the wider Warhammer universe and could be an interesting first book to readers curious about either.

I was very impressed with how the author was able to meld horror elements into this Warhammer 40,000 novel to create a unique and impressive story.  Hill did a beautiful job of creating a powerful and creepy atmosphere for this novel right off the bat, especially as the opening chapter features a sinister and freaky toy/companion that the protagonist had as a child (seriously, WTF).  This dark atmosphere only increases as the book continues, especially once the characters arrive at Thorsarbour.  Between the brutal conditions imposed upon the serfs, the unsettling atmosphere, the undercurrent of fear, the crazed religious cult of self-mutilating fanatics, the graphic murders and the haunting presence of several otherworldly characters, you have all the elements you need for a truly impressive and memorable horror tale.  The pacing of the killings is excellent, and the reader finds themselves drawn in by their cruel and bloody nature as the bodies keep dropping in even more elaborate ways.  These killings also work well with the presence of the cult and the appearance of all the strawmen and other agricultural elements, and the book ends up with vibes reminiscent of films like The Wicker Man or Children of the Corn, especially with a pale and potentially psychic child talking about a supernatural figure responsible for the killings.  This ended up being an awesome horror read, and I find myself getting really drawn into the creepy story thanks to some of the freaky elements it contained.

This proved to be a particularly good Warhammer 40,000 novel due to the distinctive setting.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull takes place on a seemingly peaceful agri-world, which gives the reader some intriguing insights into this wider universe.  I loved the cool look at the various archaic ways that this spacefaring civilisation gets food and other resources.  The entire agri-world acts in a mostly feudalistic manner, with practically enslaved serfs doing much of the work on farmsteads.  The blend of gothic science fiction with modern and ancient agriculture elements works really well and it serves as a brilliant background for this darker tale.  Indeed, many of the book’s horror elements are derived from just how bleak and harsh the Imperium of Man truly is and just how badly they treat their own citizens (and they’re the good guys, apparently).  Hill paints some truly shocking pictures of the conditions on this world, including some very gruesome depictions of a rabid self-mutilating cult and some brutal scenes of violence that the enforcers inflict upon the people.  However, the most disturbing part of this world is Gambol, a being who is revealed to be a former criminal who had their arms and legs amputated, his mind modified by technology, and then dressed as a clown to become the protagonist’s childhood toy.  This disturbing figure, equipped with his festering flesh-plugs (shudder!), is sprung on you in the first few pages of the book and really helps to set the horror mood for the reader, as well as just how dark and horrific the Imperium can get (they do this sort of thing to a lot of people).  I loved how grim and dark Hill made this Warhammer story and you really get a sense of just how messed up everything is.

I quite enjoyed the character of Rudgard, who serves as the central protagonist and narrator.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is told from Rudgard’s point of view in a chronicle format, so you get a real sense of this excellent character both as an experienced enforcer and the young rookie he is in this novel.  This version of Rudgard is a young and inexperienced man who is trying to live up to his family’s legacy, which includes a cruel father, two murderous brothers and an insane mother.  Sent out on routine mission with veteran enforcer Tarrini, Rudgard quickly learns all the terrible truths about his job as he essentially becomes an executioner.  Because of his past and the terrible events of this book, you get to see Rudgard turn into the no-nonsense figure from Hill’s previous novels, and I liked the continued change in his character.  I enjoyed the excellent mentor/mentee relationship he forms with Tarrini, as well as the narrators continued comments attempting or excusing some of his actions.  These considered and compelling notations from the older Rudgard give some interesting context to both the younger and older versions of the character, and it is interesting to see how much he has changed and developed over the years.  While I did think that parts of his backstory were wrapped up a little too quickly, this was still a fantastic examination of a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him in some of Hill’s other works.

I made sure to grab the audiobook version of The Bookkeeper’s Skull, which proved to be an incredible way to enjoy this brilliant novel.  Due to the shorter length of the story, this is a relatively quick audiobook with a rough run time of four and a half hours, which can be powered through extremely quickly.  I found that the audiobook format was highly conducive to the powerful horror mood of the novel and I personally felt that it really enhanced the tension and fear that the story produced.  A lot of the reason why I enjoyed this audiobook was the excellent voice work from narrator Matthew Hunt.  Hunt, who has lent his voice to several Warhammer audio productions in the past, had an excellent voice for this audiobook, and I felt that he captured both the main character and the overall tension of this novel extremely well.  Hunt moved this audiobook along at a swift and compelling pace that really grabs the attention and ensures that you keep listening as events get darker and darker.  Throw in some fantastic and fitting voices (Gambol’s near childlike voice is pretty damn freaky, and I loved the sly and manipulative voice given to the cult leader), and you have an outstanding audiobook that is really worth checking out.

Overall, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill is an outstanding and epic Warhammer Horror novel that I had a brilliant time reading.  Hill came up with a clever and captivating story that does an excellent job combining freaky horror elements with the expansive and fun Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I loved my first taste of the Warhammer Horror brand and I look forward to checking out more of it in the future, as well as some more exceptional writing from Hill.

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

Identity Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2005)

Series: Identity Crisis Limited Series

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Rags Morales

Inker: Michael Bair

Letterer: Ken Lopez

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Length: 288 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite comic book limited series, the epic 2004 DC Comics event, Identity Crisis.  (Quick warning, there are spoilers ahead).

Identity Crisis #1

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

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

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #1b

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #2

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #3

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #4

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #5

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #6

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

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

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

Identity Crisis #7

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

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

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

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

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

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Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Amazon

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

Usagi #34

Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

Usagi #35

The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

Usagi #37

Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

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Throwback Thursday – Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Summer Knight Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 3 September 2002)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book Four

Length: 11 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this week’s Throwback Thursday I continue to explore the incredibly fun Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher with the fourth book, Summer Knight.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my recent exploration of the epic Dresden Files series by the outstanding Jim Butcher, widely considered one of the best urban fantasy series out there.  After having an absolute blast last year with the latest book in the series, Battle Ground (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020), I have spent a bit of time this year checking out the earlier entries in the series.  I have so far had the pleasure of listening to the first three Dresden Files novels, Storm Front, Fool Moon and Grave Peril, each of which got a five-star rating from me, and when I wanted a good audiobook to check out, the next entry in the series made the most sense.  The fourth Dresden Files novel is the impressive and compelling Summer Knight, which sets the protagonist against the fairest and most vicious opponents yet.

Following the events of Grave Peril, the White Council of wizards is at war with the Red Court of the vampires, and it is all Harry Dresden’s fault.  With vampire attacks increasing and his life consumed with finding a cure for the vampirism affecting his ex-girlfriend, Dresden is once again dragged into the conflict when the White Council arrives in Chicago.  Considered by many wizards to be a dangerous maverick, Dresden will need to find a powerful bargaining chip if he is to continue receiving the protection of the council.  Unfortunately for Dresden, the perfect opportunity has been given to him; he just wishes it were anything else.

Harry has been contacted by Winter Queen Mab, the powerful leader of the Winter Court of the Faeries, who offers him a dangerous bargain: in exchange for forgiving a previous debt, and for allowing certain concessions to the warring White Council, Harry must work a case for her.  The Winter Queen desperately needs Harry to find out who murdered a seemingly normal human, and with his life entirely in the White Council’s hands, he has no choice but to comply.  However, when it is revealed that the victim was the Summer Knight, the rival Faerie Summer Court’s mortal champion, Harry begins to realise that this will be no easy case, especially as a great deal of the Summer Court’s power was stolen after the murder.

With the Summer Court and the Winter Court gearing up for war in response to the Summer Knight’s death, Harry must quickly race to find the killer before Earth’s climate is destroyed by these powerful magical forces.  However, this is no simple case, and to solve the murder Dresden is forced to confront some of the most dangerous and malicious magical beings in existence.  Worse, the Summer Court have hired their own investigator, Dresden’s first love, Elaine, the woman who broke his heart and tried to kill him.  Can Dresden solve this murder before it is too late or will the entire world tremble at the destruction of an all-out war?

Summer Knight was another impressive and wildly entertaining release from Butcher, which did a wonderful job expanding his universe in some amazing ways.  Perfectly flowing on from the events of the previous novel, Summer Knight has an incredible story, some great characters, as well as some clever new fantasy inclusions that set up multiple future novels extremely well.  I had an absolute blast listening to Summer Knight’s audiobook format, and unsurprisingly it gets another five stars from me.

Summer Knight Cover 3

This latest entry from Butcher has a pretty amazing story that is extremely easy to enjoy.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files novels, Summer Knight can be easily read as a standalone read, although there are some compelling story threads that are continued from the prior books.  The novel starts with a damaged Harry Dresden dealing with hit squads, angry vampires and his own irritated wizard brethren.  After a fun and action-packed opening scene, Dresden soon gets drawn into another dangerous case as Mab, the Winter Queen, buys Dresden’s debt to his fairy godmother and uses it and the wizards war against the Red Court to trap him into investigating a case.  The subsequent magical murder investigation proves to be pretty fantastic, as Dresden is forced to dive into the murky magical underworld of the warring Fae courts.  After some deadly attacks, fascinating internal wizard politics, and an interesting side story about neutral half-Fae teenagers, Dresden soon uncovers the reason for the victim’s death.  I liked the twist surrounding who was responsible for murder as well as the revelation of their master plan.  Butcher did a really good job of disguising the people behind it and their methods, especially as most of the clues were often cleverly in plain sight.  This all leads up to a massive and epic conclusion, where Dresden and his allies find themselves fighting through two armies of rival Fae to try and stop the end of the world.  There are some awesome moments during this part of the novel, and Butcher throws together some epic clashes, interesting revelations, and a tragic death.  I had a particularly good chuckle at the surprising way in which the big bad was taken down, and it proved to be a great way to end this novel.  I felt that Butcher once again hit the right balance of action, drama, comedy, and character development throughout Summer Knight’s narrative, and this was another exciting and addictive read.

I really enjoyed the way in which Butcher expanded out the Dresden Files’ universe in Summer Knight, with several impressive inclusions turning this fourth book into a significant entry in the series.  Not only are events and inclusions from the previous three novels fit into this book seamlessly, but it also successfully introduces some elements that were a prominent feature of the 17th book in the series.  The most significant inclusions are those surrounding the rival Winter and Summer Courts of the Fae.  Butcher utilises a mixture of Faerie lore and his own pre-existing explanations of magical creatures to create a compelling group of characters, locked in a constant and balanced war between the Summer and Winter Courts.  The author does a good job introducing the various creatures, rules, and roles of these two competing groups of Faeries, which serves as a great basis for much of the narrative.  I also loved the fascinating examination of the differences between the two rival courts, with the Summer Court shown as caring and artistic sorts, while the Winter Court are colder and darker.  Of course, with Faeries, not everything is as it seems, and it was really intriguing the way the various plot reveals around them unfolded.  There was also a great focus on the White Council, the governing body of wizards that Dresden is a member of.  While the White Council has been mentioned in the previous novels, this was the first time that we get a deep look at their inner politics, especially as the more maverick Dresden has dragged them into a war with the Red Court of the vampires (so many Courts, so little time).  There was a particularly great council meeting towards the start of the book where Dresden and his mentor are forced to navigate the politics of the White Council to keep Dresden alive, and it was an interesting part of the book.  I really appreciated the detail that Butcher put into these expansions, and I look forward to seeing how else he expands on them between the fourth and 17th book.

As always, one of the best parts of this Dresden Files novel was the outstanding and well-developed characters, all of whom continue to develop and evolve as the novel continues.  This is particularly true with central protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  When Summer Knight starts, Dresden is still reeling from the events of the previous three novels, particularly Grave Peril, where his lover partially turned into a vampire and then left him.  This has left Dresden an emotional mess, especially as he has spent the intervening time ignoring some of the other dangers coming at him while he fruitlessly searches for a cure to vampirism.  Dragged into this case against his will, Dresden soon starts to regain his old personality as he slowly overcomes his grief thanks to his friends and the intervention of some magical beings.  It was great to see Dresden start to heal as the book progresses, and I really appreciated the way in which Butcher explored the trauma surrounding his protagonist.  Even though he is a bit emotionally compromised, Dresden continues to be the main source of the novel’s comedy due to his sense of humour.  It is always fun to see Dresden’s witty take on the insane events occurring around him and I found myself cracking up several times throughout Summer Knight.

In addition to Dresden, Summer Knight contains an excellent group of side and supporting characters, including a combination of existing characters and newer inclusions that were introduced in this novel.  I liked the return of the werewolf gang, the Alphas, who were previously featured in the second novel, Fool Moon.  The Alphas, particularly their leader, Billy, serve as backup to Dresden for most of the novel, and it was really fun to see how much they have grown since their introduction, turning into mystical vigilantes, while also remaining a pack of nerds.  It was also great to see more of police lieutenant Karrin Murphy, who serves as a compelling female opposite to Dresden for most of the novel.  Murphy, who has also gone through a lot in the last few books, is showing a fair bit of trauma in this novel, and she ends up having some deep discussions with Dresden about it.  Despite her lack of magical abilities, Murphy serves as some impressive backup for Dresden, managing to take down several foes, including an ogre with a chainsaw.  There were also more signs of the growing romance between her and Dresden which becomes a big part of the series later, and I like the way in which Butcher is slowly building it up.  I also must highlight the inclusion of Dresden’s first love, Elaine Mallory, who suddenly reappears in his life, working for the Summer Court.  Elaine has been mentioned several times in the previous books and is a cause for a lot of Dresden’s mistrust and romantic failures.  It was great to finally meet her and see the full extent of her complex relationship with Dresden.  Elaine naturally brings out a lot of emotional issues with Dresden throughout the book, and she serves as an interesting supporting character, especially as you have no idea about her true loyalties.  These supporting characters, and more, really add a lot to the overall story and I had a great spending time with them.

Like I have with the rest of the Dresden Files novels, I made sure to grab the audiobook version of Summer Knight, a choice I am extremely thankful for.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are pretty damn awesome, mainly because of their excellent choice of narrator, actor James Marsters.  Marsters has an amazing voice, and he perfectly dives into the various characters featured within the novels, making these audiobooks an absolute treat to listen to.  I especially love the way he gets into the emotional head of the main protagonist, as well as the sheer enthusiasm he exhibits while yelling out spell conjurations.  I also enjoyed the fun voices that he assigns to some of the smaller pixies that appeared in this novel, as well as the very fitting voices that the rest of the cast received.  This voice work is pretty amazing and it ensures that readers can fly through the audiobook in no time at all.  Summer Knight’s run time was just over 11 hours, but it only took me a few days to get through due to how engrossed I got in the story, as well as the audiobook adaption.  As with all Dresden Files entries, Summer Knight comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I fully intend to check out the rest of the series in this same way.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher was another exceptional entry in the awesome Dresden Files series and I had an incredible time listening to it.  With a captivating story, some complex characters and some awesome new fantasy inclusions, I deeply enjoyed this novel, and it is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.  Butcher continues to shine as one of the best authors of urban fantasy and look forward to working my way through the Dresden Files in the next few years.

Summer Knight Cover 2

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The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

The Devil's Advocate Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: Eddie Flynn – Book 6

Length: 403 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling thriller author Steve Cavanagh returns with another exciting and over-the-top fun legal thriller, The Devil’s Advocate, an awesome read with a very entertaining plot.

Randal Korn is an evil man, a dangerous killer, and an unrepentant corrupting influence on everyone around him.  Unfortunately for the residents of Sunville County, Alabama, Randal Korn is also their District Attorney, who uses his skills and influence to get the legal system to commit his killings for him.  Known as the King of Death Row, Korn has sent more men to the electric chair than any other district attorney in US history, deriving great pleasure from every life his prosecutions have taken.  However, not all of Korn’s victims have been guilty, a fact that Korn knows and deeply relishes.

When a young woman, Skylar Edwards, is found brutally murdered in Buckstown, Alabama, the corrupt sheriff’s department quickly arrests the last person to see her alive, her innocent African American co-worker Andy Dubios.  After the racist cops quickly beat a confession out of him, Andy is set to stand trial with Korn prosecuting a seemingly airtight case.  With the entire town already convinced of his guilt and with no chance of a fair trial, Andy’s death looks certain, until Eddie Flynn arrives in town.

Hired after Andy’s previous lawyer goes missing, former conman turned brilliant New York lawyer Eddie Flynn heads down to Alabama with his team to try and save Andy’s life.  However, the moment he arrives, Eddie begins to understand just how stacked the deck is.  Thanks to Korn’s immense influence, the entire town is hostile to him, the police are refusing to cooperate, witnesses are threatened or arrested by the sheriff, the judge is already on the prosecutor’s side, and any potential juror will already believe that Andy is guilty.  To save his client’s life, Eddie will have to use every single trick he has to con the jury into finding Andy not guilty, but even that might not be enough.  Worse, it soon becomes apparent that the killing of Skylar Edwards was only the start.  A dangerous murderer still stalks Buckstown, killing whoever gets in their way to achieve their own sinister agenda, and their sights are now firmly set on Eddie.

This was a pretty awesome and wildly entertaining novel from the talented Steve Cavanagh.  A lawyer himself, Cavanagh burst onto the crime-fiction scene a few years ago with his debut novel, The Defence, the first book in his Eddie Flynn series.  There have since been several other Eddie Flynn books, each of which places the protagonist in a unique legal situation.  I have been meaning to read some of Cavanagh’s books for a while now due to the awesome sounding plot synopsis and I currently have a couple of his novels sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read.  Unfortunately, I have not had the chance yet, although I think I will have to make a bit of an effort after reading The Devil’s Advocate, which I was lucky enough to receive a little while ago.  The Devil’s Advocate was an outstanding and captivating novel and I swiftly got drawn into the exciting and amusing narrative.

The Devil’s Advocate has an awesome story to which is extremely addictive and enjoyable.  When I picked up this book, I initially intended only read around 50 pages in my first sitting, however, once I started I honestly could not put it down, and before I knew it I was halfway through and it was well past my bed time.  Cavanagh produces an extremely cool narrative that starts with an awesome scene that introduces the main antagonist and ensures that you will really hate him.  From then, Cavanagh quickly sets up the initial mystery, the introduction of the legal case, and the plot that brings the protagonist to Alabama.  The rest of the narrative neatly falls into place shortly after, with the full details of the case, the corruption of the main setting, and the massive injustice that is taking place, coming to light.  From there, the protagonists attempt to set up their case while facing sustained and deadly opposition from pretty much everyone.  While the initial focus is on the legal defence aspect of the thriller, the story quickly branches out into several captivating storylines, including an examination of the antagonist’s corrupting influence on the town, planned action from a white supremacist groups, attempts to run off or kill the protagonists, as well as mystery around who really killed Skylar.  All these separate storylines are really fascinating and come together with the plot’s central legal case to form an exceptionally fun and electrifying story.  The reader is constantly left guessing about what is going to happen next, especially with multiple red herrings and false reveals, and I ended up not predicting all the great twists that occurred.  While I did think that Cavanagh went a little too political with the overall message of the book, The Devil’s Advocate had an outstanding ending and I had an exceptional time getting through this thrilling story.

One of the best parts of this entire story is the outrageous and unfair legal case that the protagonists must attempt to win.  This case forms the centre of The Devil’s Advocate’s plot, with most of Eddie and his colleagues’ appearances focused on their upcoming legal battle.  Cavanagh really went out his way to create a truly unique and compelling set of legal circumstances for the protagonists to wade through, with the case so tightly sewn up against their innocent client before they even get there.  Despite this, the protagonist goes to work with a very effective, if unconventional, legal strategy that plays to the antagonist’s underhanded tactics.  The entire legal case soon devolves into crazy anarchy, with both sides doing outrageous actions to win, which Cavanagh writes up perfectly.  I found myself getting quite invested in the case, especially after witnessing several blatant examples of the prosecution’s corruption, and these terrible actions really got me rooting for the protagonist, who had some entertaining tricks of his own.  This all leads up to an excellent extended trial sequence, where the various strategies and manipulations in the first two-thirds of the novel come into play.  There are some brilliant and entertaining legal manoeuvrings featured here, with the protagonist initially focusing more on pissing off the prosecution and the judge rather than producing alternative evidence.  However, there are some great reveals and cross-examinations towards the end of the book, as Eddie has a very good go at dismantling the case.  The way it finally ends is pretty clever, and I really liked the way some of it was set up, even if it relied a little too much on a minor character’s conscience finally flaring.

Cavanagh also featured some great and entertaining characters in The Devil’s Advocate, with a combination of new characters and returning protagonists from the previous novels.  The author makes great use of multiple character perspectives throughout this novel, especially as it allows the reader to see the various sides of the battle for Buckstown’s soul.  Seeing the moves and counter-moves of the protagonists and antagonists enhances the excitement of the novel, especially as it shows the creation of several traps that could potentially destroy Eddie and his client.  Most of the characters featured in the novel are very entertaining, although I think in a few cases Cavanagh went a little over-the-top, with some of the villains being a bit cartoonish in their evilness.

The main character of this novel is series hero Eddie Flynn, the former conman who now works on impossible cases as a defence attorney.  Eddie was an awesome central protagonist, especially as his unique sense of justice and criminal background turns him into one of the most entertaining and likeable lawyers you are likely to ever meet.  I loved the very underhanded way in which he worked to win his case, and the variety of tricks and manipulations that he used were extremely fun to see in action, especially as it rattles the police antagonists and completely outrages the other lawyers and judges.  I loved his style in the courtroom scenes, especially as most of his appearances eventually end up with him thrown in jail for contempt (it is a pretty wise legal strategy).  Eddie has a very fun code in this novel, and I think that I will enjoy seeing the earlier novels in which he transitions from conman to lawyer.

Eddie is also supported by a fantastic team from his small law practice, each of whom get several chapters to themselves and who serve as great alternate characters who in some way overshadow the main protagonist.  These include his wise old mentor character, Harry; the younger lawyer, Kate; and the badass investigator, Bloch.  Each of them brings something fun and compelling to the overall story, and I liked the way that Cavanagh ensured that they all get their moment throughout The Devil’s Advocate.  I really enjoyed some of the great sub-storylines surrounding these three supporting protagonists.  Examples of this include Harry, a genuine silver fox with the ability to attract a certain type of older lady, who serves as the team’s heart and soul, although he’s not opposed to some improper legal tactics.  I also enjoyed Kate’s appearances as a secondary trial attorney, especially as she serves as a good alternate to the flashier Eddie, while also finding her feet in a murder case that has rattled her.  I personally enjoyed the gun-toting investigator Bloch the most, mainly because of her hard-assed attitude and inability to be intimidated by the various monsters lurking around town.  Bloch has some very intense and exciting scenes, and it was really entertaining to see her stare down rabid militiamen and crooked cops.  These protagonists end up forming an impressive and cohesive team, and it was a real joy to see them in action.

I also must highlight the outstanding villain of the story that was Randal Korn.  Korn is a truly evil and terrifying creation who is pretty much the direct opposite of the more heroic Eddie.  Cavanagh has clearly gone out of his way to create the most outrageously despicable antagonist he could, and it really works.  Korn, who apparently is a bit of a pastiche parody of five real-life American prosecutors who always seek the death penalty, is a man who became a lawyer solely so he would have a legal way to kill people.  The pleasure he receives from controlling people and ensuring that they die, even if they are innocent or undeserving, is terrifying, and it ensures that the character will go to extreme lengths to win his case.  The author does a fantastic job painting him as a despicable figure, including through several point of view chapter, and there are some interesting examinations about his psyche and his desires.  Having such an easily hated villain really draws the reader into the narrative, mainly because the reader cannot help but hope that he gets what is coming to him.  Despite that, I think Cavanagh went a little overboard in some places (the self-mutilation and the rotting smell are a bit much), and the whole soulless creature angle is layered on a bit too thickly.  Still, the author achieved what he wanted to with this antagonist, and I had a wonderful time hating this character from start to finish.

The final point-of-view character that I want to mention is the mysterious figure known as the Pastor.  The Pastor is another antagonist of this novel whose identity is kept hidden from the reader for much of the book.  This is mainly because he is the real killer of Skylar Edwards, whose death was part of an elaborate plan.  The Pastor is another great villain for this novel, due to his crazed personality, murderous tendencies and horrendous motivations for his crimes.  I think that Cavanagh did a great job utilising this second villain in his novel, and I liked the tandem usage he had with Korn.  I was especially impressed with the clever mystery that the author had surrounding his identity, which was kept hidden right till the very end.  It took me longer than I expected to work out who the Pastor was, thanks to some clever misdirects from the author, but the eventual reveal was extremely good and helped tie the entire story together.  Readers will have a lot of fun trying to work out who this character is, and I really enjoyed the extra villainy that they brought to the table.

The fantastic Steve Cavanagh has once again produced a captivating and intense legal thriller with The Devil’s Advocate.  This latest Eddie Flynn thriller was an amazing ball of crazy fun that I powered through in two sustained reading sessions.  With some over-the-top characters, a clever legal case, and an exciting overarching conspiracy, The Devil’s Advocate proved to be next to impossible to turn down and is really worth checking out.  I will definitely be going back and reading some of Cavanagh’s earlier books, and I look forward to seeing what insane scenarios he comes up with in the future.

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