Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Darth Vader (2015): Volume 2 – Shadows and Secrets

Darth Vader - Shadows and Secrets

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Salvador Larroca

Colourist: Edgar Delgado

Publication Date: 5 January 2016

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Darth Vader (2015) 7

For my latest Throwback Thursday, I take a look at the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. This is a superb and fantastic addition to a series which I honestly consider to be one the best overall pieces of Star Wars fiction out there, as it continues to explore the complex character that is Darth Vader.

Following the events of the first volume of this series, Vader, Darth Vader now knows that the mysterious Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star is actually his son, Luke Skywalker, and that the Emperor has been lying to him for years. This revelation, combined with the fact that the Emperor is forcing him to compete for his favour with the scientific creations of the cybernetic genius Cylo, has crystallised Vader’s rage, and he is now determined to overthrow the Emperor and rule the Empire with his son. To that end, he has commanded his new agents, the rogue archaeologist Doctor Aphra and her two murderous droids, Triple Zero and BT-1, to gather the resources needed to pursue his agendas.

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Whilst Aphra and her criminal contacts do their work for him, Vader must appear to obey the commands of his new superior officer, Grand General Tagge. His latest mission from Tagge requires him to find out who stole a massive consignment of credits that the Empire recently seized from crime lords in the Outer Rim. There is just one problem: Aphra and a small group of bounty hunters stole the credits on his behalf. Vader attempts to cover up his involvement in the crime and lead the investigation away from Aphra. However, the arrival of his new aide, the brilliant Inspector Thanoth, may prove troublesome, as Thanoth’s investigation leads him in all the right directions.

However, despite the importance of Vader’s plans within the Empire, his main concern is the search for his son. Needing to locate and corrupt Luke before the Emperor finds out who he is, he tasks Aphra with not only finding his son’s location but to also find and silence the one person who knew that Luke was actually born. As Vader does all he can to keep Thanoth from finding Aphra and incriminating himself, he finds himself walking a fine line between victory and destruction. With new rivals and both the Empire and the Rebellions seemingly against him, can even Darth Vader get what he wants?

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Well this was another fantastic bit of Star Wars fiction! The first thing that I do have to admit is that Shadows and Secrets is probably my least favourite volume in the entire 2015 Darth Vader series. However, this is only because every other volume in this series is just so incredible that this one suffers a little in comparison. That being said, I absolutely loved this second volume as it contains an excellent story, some great moments, fantastic characters and some impressive artwork. Containing issues #7-12 of the Darth Vader series, Gillen and Larroca have done an incredible job with this second volume, and I still consider it to be a five-star read.

One of the best things about Shadows and Secrets is Gillen’s outstanding story, which continues some of the tantalising threads from the first volume while also introducing some great new elements. Gillen sets out a clever, well-paced story that is filled with all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, as Vader begins his duplicitous actions within the Empire, attempting to amass the resources he needs for his projects without drawing the suspicion of either his rivals in the Imperial hierarchy or his new superior. Most of the story contained within this volume is fairly self-contained, featuring a fantastic heist sequence and the subsequent fallout from this event. This fallout mostly revolves around Vader’s investigation into his own heist, which he attempts to cover up from his new aide, Inspector Thanoth. Thanoth is a genius detective of Sherlockian talents who was quickly able to get to the truth of the matter and find the culprit of the heist, despite Vader’s vest efforts. I really enjoyed this whole investigation element to the book, especially as it was fun watching Vader routinely sabotage his own investigation, often by killing any and all potential witnesses, only to have Thanoth easily breeze through these obstacles. Thanoth turned out to be an excellent new addition to this series, and I really enjoyed the intriguing partnership he formed with Vader, especially as he plays a dangerous game by continuously hinting that he knows Vader is behind the theft. This turned out to be quite an amazing and enjoyable storyline, and I really appreciated Gillen’s perfect blend of humour and serious storylines throughout the volume.

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I also loved the continued focus on Vader’s obsessive hunt for Luke Skywalker, which has taken on a new edge now that he knows he is his son. While he was already searching for him in the first volume, now that he realises who he really is, Vader decides to protect his identity and the find out the whole truth behind his birth. This is shown in the first part of Issue #7, in which Vader and Aphra visit both the Lars Homestead and Ben Kenobi’s hovel on Tatooine, where he tries to gleam some knowledge from both houses about his son, before setting off a molecular bomb to erase all useful forensic evidence. Shortly after this, Vader than sets Aphra a task of finding and interrogating a former mortician from Naboo who prepared Padme Amidala’s body for her funeral, including setting up a hologram to make it appear that she was still pregnant. This tuned out to be an outstanding sequence, as the mortician, who has a huge amount of personal loyalty towards Amidala, at first refuses to provide any information about his work, before being tortured and confirming the existence of a child. While this admission is a betrayal of his beloved Queen that clearly costs the former mortician a lot, he is able to do one last act of service for her by not revealing any details about the second child, Leia. I thought that this scene was amazing, and I liked how it helped explain how Vader was aware of Luke’s existence and status as his child, but not that he also had a daughter. I also appreciated Gillen’s focus on the loyalty the inhabitants of Naboo had to Amidala, even in death, which was even able to move the cynical Aphra. Her subsequent mention to Vader of how Amidala must have really been something was a nice touch, as Vader’s subdued and hidden reaction hints at his continuing deep feelings towards his long-dead wife. I really liked this focus on the search for Luke, as not only does it makes sense in the context of the movies, but it also showcases the lengths Vader was willing to go to find and protect his son, and it leads to the best sequence in the entire volume.

I personally really enjoyed how the creative team continued to show off Vader as a dangerous and vicious powerhouse in this volume. While it does not contain the same level of carnage that he unleashed in the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Shadows and Secrets contains several amazing scenes depicting his destructive abilities and personality. Whether he is stuffing a crime lord into the mouth of his own exotic beast and then easily killing the distracted monster, or whether he is taking down and entire squadron of Rebel space fighters one at a time by throwing his lightsaber at them, he is shown to be pretty impressive.

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Just like in the first volume, Doctor Aphra continues to shine as the series’s main supporting character, and her entire character arc within Shadows and Secrets is very intriguing. Throughout this volume, Aphra ends up undertaking several missions for Vader, such as trying to find the location of Luke Skywalker, and has become one of his main confidants. This puts her in a terrible position, as Vader is likely to kill her to protect his secrets, especially when Thanoth gets close to capturing her. Watching the various ways that this ultimate opportunist attempts to survive against the odds, including by brazenly withholding information from Vader in order to stop him killing her, is pretty impressive, and it makes for some great reading. Shadows and Secrets also contains one of the first deeper looks at Aphra’s internal character. During the sequence I mentioned above with the mortician, she gives a lengthy monologue about the death of her mother and how it has affected her. This was a heavy scene, and while she tries to play it off as not being very important, you can see that it has impacted her, turning her into a much more cynical and self-reliant person who has no room for idealism or blind belief. The significance of this scene is also quite crucial when you consider that much of what she said is later shown in the Doctor Aphra spinoff series and ends up becoming a defining part of her character. I also like how the noticeable changes that the creative team have inserted into Aphra’s personality when she deals with Vader. For most of the volume, Aphra comes across as an ultraconfident being who is able to manipulate and control bounty hunters, murderers and crime lords with ease. However, whenever Vader appears, there is a noticeable change in her bearing and personality, which isn’t too surprising as Aphra knows Vader is going to kill her one day.

I also have to point out how much fun the two murder droids Triple Zero and BT-1 continued to be in this novel. Essentially perverted versions of C-3PO and R2-D2, Triple Zero and BT-1 are remorseless killers who delight in murdering or torturing all organic life. These two add an insane element of humour to the entire series, and they have a number of great moments in Shadows and Secrets. Watching the two of them delight in all sorts of murder and mayhem is all sorts of fun, and you’ve got to love the weird and friendly relationship the two of them have formed with each other.

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One of the best highlights of this second volume is the amazing artwork. The artistic team, helmed by Salvador Larroca, did another fantastic job bringing the amazing story contained within Shadows and Secrets to life on the page. There are so many vibrant and imaginative panels in this volume, and the volume’s artistic team produce some amazing pieces of art that showcase the wider Star Wars universe. One of the things that continues to impressive me about this series is the way that the artistic team are able to convey so much emotion from the faceless main protagonist. Despite only ever seeing Vader’s expressionless and iconic mask, I found that I was constantly able to glean the true emotions that Vader was surely feeling at the time when I looked at him, ranging from cold menace, surprise, frustration to deeper emotions, such as sadness when Amidala is mentioned. There are some truly amazingly drawn scenes throughout this entire volume, although there are two that I would bring particular attention to. The first is the very first scene in Issue #7, which shows Vader standing out the front of the Lars Homestead, staring at Tatooine’s twin suns as they set. I absolutely loved how this drawing matched the iconic scene from A New Hope where Luke stared off in the same position, and I really appreciated the symmetry. The other piece of art that really stood out to me was a quick sequence that appeared a little later in the volume within Issue #8. In this scene, Aphra has just confidently dealt with one of the bounty hunters in her employ and is looking off in the distance speaking to someone. As she talks, Vader slowly materialises out the shadows behind her, responding to her comments. Despite the fact that Aphra’s expression does not change at all there is a notable shift in the tone of the panel when Vader appears, and you cannot help but feel the threat and menace that he exudes. This was some impressive artwork, which helped to really increase how much I loved this comic.

The second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets, is a first-rate comic book that once again shows off how impressive Star Wars comics can really be. Gillen and Larroca did an incredible job following up the first volume of this epic series and I really enjoyed the complex and fun story that this second volume contained, especially when it was backed up by great characters and exceptional artwork. This is a superb addition to the series that is really worth checking out.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Hardcover – 3 December 2019)

Series: Crossroads Brotherhood – Collected Edition

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

From the mind of one of the most entertaining authors of historical fiction, Robert Fabbri, comes Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood, a superb collection of fun and exciting short stories set in the same universe as Fabbri’s bestselling Vespasian series.

Over the last couple of years, Fabbri’s Vespasian series has been one of my absolute favourite historical fiction series out there, so much so that Fabbri is now one of those authors whose works I will automatically buy, no questions asked. The Vespasian books, which ran between 2011 and 2019, examined the life story of the titular character, Vespasian, and showed the events that eventually led to him becoming emperor of Rome. Fabbri utilised a mixture of historical facts and a number of fictionalised potential adventures to tell an entertaining story which also mixed in some of the wildest and most over-the-top recorded tales of ancient Rome and its Emperors. This series featured a huge cast of figures from Roman history and it also made use of several fictional characters of Fabbri’s own design to move the story along. While the books featured several great fictional characters, the most significant of these was Magnus.

Marcus Salvius Magnus, mostly referred to as Magnus in the series, was Vespasian’s best friend, confidant and fixer throughout the series and was at his side for most of the wild adventures Vespasian found himself on. Magnus was the leader of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood, one of the major criminal gangs in ancient Rome, but he also worked for his patron, Vespasian’s uncle, Gaius Vespasius Pollo, and helped him and his nephews rise politically. Magnus appeared in all nine Vespasian books and was a major part of the series. Fabbri evidently enjoyed featuring him in his stories as he was also used as the protagonist of the Crossroads Brotherhood series of novellas, which featured six separate novellas released between 2011 and 2018.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is the first full collection of the six Crossroads Brotherhood novellas, which follow the adventures of Magnus and his brethren as they navigate the dangerous criminal underbelly of ancient Rome. Set out in chronological order across several points in the Vespasian series (which was set over the course of 40-plus years), these various short stories each feature a different criminal enterprise, including fixing a chariot race, manipulating an arms dealer, and property speculation, all whilst trying to stay on top of the city’s rival criminal organisations and surviving the crazy whims of Rome’s rulers.

This was a fun and exciting book that I really enjoyed, and I am exceptionally glad that I was able to read all these great novellas inside a single book. Fabbri has produced some truly entertaining tales which not only tie in with and close up some gaps in the Vespasian series but also provide a much more in-depth look at one of the series’ more amusing characters and the criminal undertakings he was getting up to in ancient Rome.

The featured novellas were a lot of fun to read, and I really liked the clever and fast-paced stories contained within them. Fabbri did an exceptional job of using the short story format to introduce and conclude a compelling tale as this book features some absolute rippers, each of which is around 60 pages long. The author has come up with some very intriguing scenarios for each of these short stories, all of which follow Magnus as he embarks on a new scheme or implements elaborate and at times brutal plans to gain power and wealth and address some form of threat to his criminal organisation. The sheer variety of criminal enterprises that Fabbri came up with is very impressive, and I enjoyed seeing how the author imagined Roman politics and crime would have intersected. I also liked how some of the crimes that the protagonists engaged in had a more modern flair to them, such as engaging in the lucrative opium trade. Out of all of these short stories, I think my favourite was the second one featured in this book, The Racing Factions. The Racing Factions followed Magnus as he attempted to fix a chariot race, to not only make himself and his associates a lot of money but also get revenge on a crooked bookie who foolishly tried to cheat Magnus out of his winnings. This story was filled with all manner of double-crosses, plotting, manipulations and intrigue, as Magnus put all the pieces into place for his revenge, resulting in a chaotic and entertaining story that can be quickly read in a short period of time. While The Racing Factions was my favourite short story, there were honestly no weak links in this book, and I loved every novella that was included, especially as I was able to easily read their entire stories in a single session each.

While each of the novellas can easily be enjoyed as standalone stories, there are some real benefits to reading all of them within this collected edition. The main advantage is that the reader gets to see each of the stories progress in chronological order over the course of many years. This allows us to see how Magnus slowly evolves over the years, becoming more devious as he ages, and it is interesting to see what happens to the various side characters in the novellas. While some of Magnus’s companions age with their leader and seem ready to retire with him, you also get to see the rise of Magnus’s successor, Tigran. Tigran is introduced in the first novel as a street urchin, and he rises up the ranks each story, eventually becoming a viable contender for Magnus’s throne. The slowly building tension between Magnus and the ambitious Tigran is quite intriguing, and it makes for a really fun confrontation in the final book. I also liked how having all the novellas in one place allowed Fabbri to showcase the continued street war between the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood and their rivals the West Viminal Brethren. The West Viminal Brethren make several plays for Magnus’s interests throughout the course of the books, and many of the criminal plans featured where Magnus’s destructive retaliation, which caused some real trouble for the West Viminal Brethren and their leader.

While the character of Vespasian only briefly appears in a couple of stories within Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood, this book has some major connections to the Vespasian series. While each of these novellas has their own self-contained adventures, one of the main reasons they were written was to help fill in the gaps between the various Vespasian books. As a result, some of the novellas provide background on how Vespasian or his brother came to be in some key position of power or unique place at the start of certain books within the series. There were also some examinations of how Magnus was able to readily come up with key ideas that were later used in the main books, such as how he came up with a certain inventive murder technique that was necessary to eventually eliminate one of Vespasian’s opponents. These novellas also helped explain the reasons why Magnus was often away from Rome in the company of Vespasian rather than staying in the city running his criminal brotherhood. Through short introductions that appear in front of each novella featured in this book, Fabbri explains the context of each of these and details what gaps he was trying to fill. This of course means that Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is going to hold a lot more appeal to those readers who are already familiar with the Vespasian series, especially as they will have a much better appreciation for each of these novella’s backgrounds. That being said, no knowledge of any of the Vespasian books is really required to enjoy the fun stories contained within this collected edition, and Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood would actually be a fantastic introduction to Fabbri’s excellent historical fiction series.

I quite enjoyed the intriguing snapshots of ancient Rome that Fabbri included in each of the novellas. There are some truly fascinating aspects of Roman life explored in this book, from the popularity of the chariot races for all levels of society, the various forms of law enforcement patrolling the streets, the role criminal organisations may have played and many other cool historical elements. I personally really liked how most of the stories were centred on some form of ancient Roman festival or celebration. There are some obscure and weird festivals occurring here, from one celebration that sees organised mobs from the various neighbourhoods fight over the head of a sacrificed horse, to another festival where the Rome’s dogs are brutally punished for failing to stop an ancient invasion of the city. These prove to be distinctive and interesting backdrops for several of the stories, especially as the protagonist uses several elements of these celebrations in his schemes, in often entertaining ways. As a result, this is a great read for fans of ancient Roman fiction, and I guarantee you will find some intriguing and entertaining portrays of Roman culture and society in this book.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is a fantastic new addition from the amazing Robert Fabbri, which proved to be an exceedingly entertaining book. I really loved being able to read all of these excellent novellas in one place and I deeply enjoyed every one of their exciting and captivating stories. This is a perfect companion piece to Fabbri’s outstanding Vespasian series, and there is quite a lot to love about this collection of fun novellas. Compelling pieces of fiction like this is one of the main reasons why Fabbri is one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment, and I cannot wait to get my hands on his upcoming book, To the Strongest.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

Legacy of Ash Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: Legacy trilogy – Book 1

Length: 768 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive new author Matthew Ward comes Legacy of Ash, a massive and entertaining new fantasy adventure that was amongst one of my favourite debut novels of 2019.

Legacy of Ash is set within the Tressian Republic, a powerful nation controlled by a council of nobles. The Tressian Republic is beset by many dangers, including the constant threat of invasion from the massive Hadari Empire on its border; open rebellion from the nation’s southernmost lands, the Southshires, which have been seeking independence for years; and the machinations of the dark magic-wielding criminal organisation known as the Crowmarket.

When the Hadari Empire invades the Southshires, the political ambitions and old grudges of the Tressian Council results in a muted military response. It falls to Viktor Akadra, the champion of the Tressian Republic, to lead a small force to the Southshires in order to make a stand against the invaders. However, Viktor is the last person the inhabitants of the Southshires want defending them, as years before he brutally put down their last rebellion, which resulted in the death of their beloved Duchess Katya Trelan.

In order to defeat the Hadari Empire, Viktor needs to work with the children of Katya Trelan, Josiri and Calenne, both of whom hate and fear him, and who both have different plans to ensure their future freedom. However, as fate, self-interest and the future of the Southshires forces them together, these three must find a common ground if they are to survive. But even if they manage to face the forces of the Hadari Empire, far darker threats are assailing the Tressian Republic from within and they will stop at nothing to achieve their terrible goals.

Ward is an interesting new author who is probably best known for his work with Games Workshop, where he served as a principal architect for the company on many of their properties, including Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and their The Lord of the Rings range. However, in recent years he has turned his hand to fantasy writing, creating several novellas and short stories, as well as releasing two ebooks, Shadow of the Raven and Light of the Radiant. Legacy of Ash is Ward’s first printed novel, and it is actually set in the same universe as his previous ebooks. It is also the first book in his planned Legacy trilogy, with the second book in the trilogy, Legacy of Steel, set for release later this year.

Legacy of Ash is an excellent new read which contains an exciting and elaborate story, set in a large and creative new world and featuring a substantial group of point-of-view characters. I have actually been looking forward to Legacy of Ash for a while, as it sounded like one of the more exciting new fantasy books that were set for release in 2019, and I am very glad I got a chance to read and review it. However, readers should probably be aware in advance that this book is nearly 800 pages in length, making it a pretty substantial read, and requiring a significant investment of time in finishing it off. This took me a couple of weeks to read in full, mainly because Legacy of Ash would actually come in at number 12 on my recent Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list. That being said, Legacy of Ash is well worth the time, as this was an amazing and fascinating new fantasy adventure.

Ward has come up with a large and impressive story for his first book, and there is a lot going on within it. The story actually splits up into two separate locations within the Tressian Republic, with half of it set down in the Southshires and the other half set up in the capital of the Republic, Tressia (with small parts also set in a couple of locations in between or within the Hadari Empire). The parts of the book set down in the Southshires deal with the impending invasion of the Hadari, the repression of the Southshire inhabitants by the Tressian council and the attempts by Viktor to work with both of the Trelan siblings. At the same time, the parts of the book set up in Tressia contains a lot of political intrigue, criminal undertakings, dark magical plans and gambits for control of the nation. Both sets of storylines are a lot of fun, and it was really amazing to see all the various story elements occurring at the same time in the different locations. In addition, these two storylines are strongly related to each other, with events happening in one location impacting characters down in the other part of the Republic. All of these story elements and character arcs come together to form an extremely compelling overarching narrative and I quite enjoyed how Legacy of Ash contained such a wide range of different plot points.

Legacy of Ash is populated with a multiple point-of-view characters from whose eyes we see this whole massive story unfold. The use of all these characters allows for a much richer and expansive story, especially as you get to see every side of all various character’s plots and plans as everyone attempts to come out on top of the events unfolding around them. In addition, nearly all of the point-of-view characters have some incredibly captivating and enjoyable character arcs, many of which reach their full potential within this book. There are such an interesting range of different character based stories going on throughout Legacy of Ash, from the mysterious divine magic that starts to infect the honourable knight Roslava Orova, the machinations and manipulations of Ebigail Kiradin, the chaotic adventures of Crowmarket member Apara Rann and the fun friendship that forms between old opponents Kurkas and Halvor. However, the main elements of character development occur around the book’s three central characters, Viktor Akadra, Josiri Trelan and Calenne Trelan. Due to history, resentments and circumstances, these three characters start the book with fairly distant or hostile relationships to each other. However, these barriers are slowly broken down as the book progresses, and each of these main characters slowly works to come to terms with each other and their own individual issues, such as Viktor’s hidden dark magic, or the expectations or resentments that surround Trelan siblings thanks to their long-dead mother. Overall, this is some fairly impressive character work, and Ward did an excellent job creating a fantastic cast for this novel, each of whom add a whole lot to book’s story.

While I did enjoy how this novel progressed and all the interesting story points and character inclusions that were featured, I do feel it was a perhaps a little too long. In particular, I really think that Ward would have been better off not featuring the book’s final antagonist (a long-dead magical queen), who starts to appear around two thirds of the way through the book. Instead, the author could have perhaps only hinted at her return and shaved off most of the final 100 pages. Not only would this make Legacy of Ash a bit more of a manageable read, but it would have allowed the author to expand on this antagonist’s motivations and history a lot more in the subsequent book, rather than having her introduction be somewhat rushed, like it was in this book. Still, the inclusion of this final antagonist led to some rather intriguing and emotional moments, and it also sets up some potentially fantastic story arcs for one of the main characters in the next book in the series.

I also need to say how impressed with the massive and complex new fantasy landscape that Ward created for his debut series. Ward has come up with a number of unique and enjoyable elements for this fantasy world, which really add a lot to the story. The central location of the Tressian Republic was a lot of fun, as it is filled with all manner of perils, conflicting ideals, fermenting hatreds and a hidden death-worshipping criminal organisation, while also featuring a number of external or divine groups or threats at the same time. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all of these unique elements throughout the book, and I was never too lost or confused by any of the inclusions.

I also really enjoyed the huge number of battle sequences that took place throughout this harsh fantasy landscape, especially those which were enhanced by the series’ unique fantasy inclusions. For example, one massive sequence featured two armies, one with magical constructs and the other with armoured rhinos, facing off against each other as strange and divine magics rain down chaos all around them. Other scenes include a number of different characters attempting to combat the eldritch-enhanced assassins of the mysterious Crowmarket, often resulting in some really impressive battles. I also liked how Ward utilised the multiple point-of-view characters during some of these longer conflicts, ensuring that the reader got to see both sides of the battle, as well as the various thoughts and fears of the characters involved. All of this ensured that the book was chocked full of intense and exciting fantasy action, which is always a plus in my book.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward was an extremely well-written and addictive fantasy debut, which I am very glad I made the effort to read cover-to-cover. Full of some excellent characters, a multi-faceted story and an intriguing new fantasy landscape, the first book in the Legacy trilogy was a really great read, and I had a lot of fun getting through it. Ward has a lot of potential as a fantasy author, and I am quite excited to see where this series goes next.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars Tarkin Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 9 hour and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an amazing and compelling Star Wars tie-in novel that focuses on a fascinating character from the franchise, with Star Wars: Tarkin, written by veteran tie-in author James Luceno.

Since early 2014, Disney has done an excellent job installing a new and distinctive expanded universe for the Star Wars franchise. This new expanded universe, which supplanted the existing expanded universe (which is now known as Star Wars Legends), has featured some amazing books which I have been really getting into in the last couple of years. I have read a lot of Star Wars books in 2019 and not only have I tried to stay abreast of the latest releases (for example, the latest Star Wars novel, Resistance Reborn) but I have also been checking out some of the older novels in the franchise (such as Thrawn and Death Troopers).

Tarkin was released in late 2014 and was one of the first non-movie novelisations or young reader Star Wars novels that were released in this new canon. Tarkin was written by James Luceno, an author with a huge number of Star Wars tie-in novels from the Legends canon already under his belt, such as the intriguing-sounding Darth Plagueis. I had heard good things about this book, and I was curious to see how Luceno would alter the character of Grand Moff Tarkin.

To those familiar with the Galactic Empire, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin is a legendary figure. A former admiral, adjutant general, planetary governor and war hero of the Clone Wars, Tarkin was one of the Emperor’s most dedicated and capable servants. Determined to enforce the Empire’s authority throughout the galaxy by any means necessary, Tarkin was renowned for his merciless nature and his ability to out-think any opponent on the battlefield or in the political arena. But where did this nature come from: his past as a solider or as a politician, or are there powerful lessons in Tarkin’s upbringing that constantly drive him forward?

Five years after the end of the Clone Wars, Governor Tarkin holds the rank of Imperial Moff and is tasked with overseeing one of the Empire’s most sensitive and covert projects, the construction of a massive mobile battle station which the Emperor believes will become the ultimate symbol of Imperial power in the galaxy. Determined to bring order to the post Clone War chaos, Tarkin finds his plans for the construction of the station stalled when a mysterious ship launches an innovative attack against one of his bases. In the aftermath of this attack, Tarkin is ordered to work with Darth Vader to determine who orchestrated this incursion and deal with them.

Travelling to an isolated planet, Tarkin and Vader begin their investigation into the rebellious activity plaguing that area of the Empire. But when their opponents manage to out-manoeuvre them, Tarkin must call upon all of his experiences, including as a young hunter on his home planet of Eriadu, to stop them. However, even the lessons of his past may not be enough, as his new foes are as smart and determined as Tarkin and Vader and are willing to do anything to achieve their revenge on the Empire.

Tarkin was a smart and exciting Star Wars tie-in novel that did a fantastic job exploring the life of one of the franchise’s most complex characters. I had a great time listening to this book, and it is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have enjoyed this year. I really liked the deep dive into the history and mind of Tarkin, especially as the author wraps a compelling and multi-layered narrative around the character’s story. As a result, the novel gets four and a half stars from me and was a really good read.

This story is an interesting combination of an adventure that occurred five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith (roughly 14 years before the events of A New Hope), and a series of tales from various points in Tarkin’s earlier life. Grand Moff Tarkin has always been a fascinating Star Wars character to me; despite his lack of force abilities, he appeared to wield nearly as much power as the Emperor and was even able to command Darth Vader. This book does a wonderful job of not only showing how he was able to obtain so much power within the Empire but also exploring all of the formulative events of this character’s life that made him into the man capable of achieving so much. I personally think that this was a great combination of character narratives which come together extremely well, and I think that Luceno did a fantastic job getting to the root of Tarkin’s psyche and personality.

Despite it being the shorter part of the book, I personally enjoyed the various chapters that explore various moments of Tarkin’s past the most. In particular, I thought that the author’s examination of his training as a hunter to be a truly fascinating basis for the character’s tactical ability. The various scenes depicting him hunting the large beasts of his home planet are pretty cool, and it was really interesting to see the way that he utilised lessons from hunting creatures in his later careers. For example, he is trained to instil fear into all the beasts he encounters in order to establish dominance above them and to show them the consequences of acting in way he dislikes. A later scene in the book shows him using this training to successfully end a pirate menace in a very harsh and final manner, and it also explains why he considered blowing up a planet to be a viable fear tactic against rebels. In addition to its impact on future Star Wars stories, Tarkin’s early training and hunting background are utilised to great effect throughout the entirety of Tarkin, and it was great to see how it impacts on Tarkin’s thought process and planning. I also really liked how the focus on the hunt comes full circle, as the author works in a fun confrontation back at the Tarkin hunting grounds with the main antagonist of the book that I absolutely loved and which was a fantastic conclusion to the whole story. This hunting aspect was an exceptional addition to this canon’s depiction of Tarkin, and I like how other authors have expanded on it in other pieces of Star Wars expanded fiction. For example, the third volume of Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith features Tarkin using his hunting abilities against Vader in a contest of wills.

In addition to this new origin for Tarkin’s tactical ability and mental acuity, I also enjoyed the various flashbacks to his history before and during the events of the Clone War. Luceno comes up with some great storylines that show off, for example, when Tarkin first gained the attention of the Emperor, or his thoughts on the various events that occurred during the course of the prequel movies. It was fun getting his theories on the causes of the Clone Wars or the formation of the Empire, especially as he is pretty close to the mark every time. I also liked that Luceno worked a confrontation between Tarkin and Count Dooku into one of the flashbacks, which shows why Tarkin remained loyal to the Republic during the course of the Clone Wars. All of these examinations of the character’s past, especially in the context of several key events in Star Wars history, was really fascinating and proved to be a fantastic part of the book.

While I did enjoy the examination of the character’s past, the main story itself is also compelling, as it shows the events that led to Tarkin becoming the very first Grand Moff. These parts of the book are a lot of fun and feature a unique and personal hunt for the protagonist which ties in well with the journeys to his past. I also quite enjoyed the fun team-up between Tarkin and Darth Vader, who assists him to complete his mission. Tarkin and Vader form a very effective team in this book, and it was interesting to examine the relationship between them and the mutual respect that grew between them. It was also cool to find out that Tarkin was one of the few people in the whole Empire who guessed that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person (the only other Imperial character who apparently guessed that was Grand Admiral Thrawn). This section of the book also features some intriguing looks at the early stages of the Empire, and I personally liked the examination of Imperial politics, the intelligence agencies and the ruling style of the Emperor. I also really liked the idealistic opponents that Tarkin faced off against, mainly because their leader becomes more and more aggressive the longer the fight against the Empire goes, until he starts to lack the moral high ground in this conflict.

While I really enjoyed the team-up between Tarkin and Vader, I do wonder if the author perhaps featured Vader and the Emperor a little more than he should have. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely love Darth Vader as a character and I have deeply enjoyed a number of extended universe comics or books that have featured him (such as the Darth Vader and Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, or the Dark Visions limited series). However, I think that a book called Tarkin should have focused a lot more on the exploits of the titular character and shown how he dealt with the unique problems presented in the plot on his own. Instead, he received a fair bit of help from Vader and the Emperor, which kind of undermined the book’s message that he was an unsurpassed strategist and hunter. The author might have been better off only featuring a small amount of the Emperor in this novel, and perhaps introducing Vader in a later Tarkin novel, much like Timothy Zahn did with Thrawn: Alliances. Still, it was a fantastic book, and I am never going to seriously complain about too much Darth Vader.

Tarkin proved to be a really interesting book in the current Star Wars canon, and one that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. That being said, I would say that no real knowledge of the Star Wars extended universe is required to understand the plot of the book. While it does reflect on some of the events of The Clone Wars animated series, particularly the handful of episodes that a young Tarkin appeared in, there is no urgent need to go out and watch these episodes first, as they are more passing references. It is also important to note that this book was released back in 2014, two years before the release of Rogue One. As a result, it lacks the inclusion of Director Krennic as a rival for Tarkin, which is something most of the tie-in media released after 2016 features.

Like many of the Star Wars novels I have enjoyed in the past, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Tarkin rather than read a physical copy. The Tarkin audiobook was narrated by Euan Morton and runs for roughly 9½ hours in length. I found myself absolutely breezing through the Tarkin audiobook, and I was able to listen to all of it in a few short days, as I become enthralled in the awesome story. Star Wars audiobooks are always a fun production to check out thanks to their use of the iconic music and sound effects from the movies. Tarkin also makes great use of a number of the classic scores from the movies to enhance the various scenes, most notably The Imperial March, which is used a number of times when members of the Empire are being particularly ruthless or authoritarian. I also really liked the use of the various Star Wars sound effects, such as the sound of blaster fire, spaceship engines and even the iconic sounds of Darth Vader breathing, all of which are used to help set the appropriate atmosphere for the scene. While some of the Star Wars audiobooks greatly overused these sound effects and music scores, I think that the Tarkin audiobook had the just the right amount of these elements. At no point did the music or sounds overwhelm the narration nor distract the reader from the plot; instead they did a wonderful job of helping the reader stay glued to the story.

In addition to the excellent use of Star Wars music and sound effects, Tarkin also featured a fantastic narrator in the form of Euan Morton. Morton does a commendable job of imitating the voice of the titular character and helps bring the stern, intelligent and ruthless character to life with his voice work. In addition, Morton was also able to do good imitations of several other notable Star Wars characters, including the Emperor and Darth Vader. I felt that Morton produced a good replication of their voices, and the listener is instantly able to figure out who is talking. I also liked some of the voices that Morton came up with for the various supporting characters that featured in the book, and I was impressed with the voices he attributed to some of the different alien species that were encountered. I particularly enjoyed his Mon Calamari voice, for example, and felt that he was able to add some distinguishing vocals to each of these different species. Based on this strong narration, as well as the great musical and sound inclusions, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of this Star Wars book, and I know that I intend to check out more of this franchise’s audiobooks.

Tarkin was an outstanding piece of Star Wars tie-in fiction that I personally really enjoyed. Not only did it contain a compelling and exciting story in the early days of the Empire but it also did a wonderful job exploring the background of one of the franchises most fascinating characters. I had an amazing time learning more about Grand Moff Tarkin, and I am slightly disappointed that there have not been any more Tarkin-centric novels released since 2014. As a result, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a good Star Wars tie-in novel, and I would also recommend the excellent audiobook format.

While the next Star Wars novel I read is going to be Force Collector, I am always considering what older Star Wars book to listen to in the future. I am currently weighing up between this canon’s Lords of the Sith (the Emperor and Darth Vader trapped on a planet being hunted by rebels) or the Star Wars Legends book Scoundrels (a heist novel written by Timothy Zahn). Both sound like a lot of fun, and I will probably end up listening to them both in the very near future.

Lethal Agent by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Lethal Agent Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 18

Length: 9 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a thriller rife with action, political intrigue and a killer plot with the latest book in the long-running Mitch Rapp series, Lethal Agent.

Lethal Agent is the 18th book in the Mitch Rapp series, which started back in 1999 with Transfer of Power. Initially written by Vince Flynn, since 2015 the series has been written by thriller author Kyle Mills following Flynn’s passing in 2013. I started reading the Mitch Rapp series last year, when I picked up a copy of the 17th book in the series, Red War, mainly because it had a really fascinating plot featuring a dying president of Russia going to war with the rest of the world. I ended up really enjoying Red War and I have gone out of my way to check out more military thrillers since then (this year’s Red Metal and Treason for example). In Lethal Agent, Mills takes the series back to its anti-terrorist thriller roots, as the series’ titular character, Mitch Rapp, goes up against a deadly terrorist while also having to navigate the toxic minefield that is modern American politics.

For years, legendary CIA operative Mitch Rapp has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of America’s enemies, including numerous terrorists, fanatics, criminals and operatives of hostile foreign powers. Among those he believed he killed was the intelligent and dangerous leader of ISIS, Sayid Halabi. However, Halabi secretly managed to escape Rapp’s last attempt to kill him, and has been plotting in the shadows ever since, determined to find a way to strike back at Rapp and America.

Hiding out in Yemen, Halabi is able to capture a brilliant French microbiologist who has been working on a cure for a rare and deadly respiratory disease. Using the microbiologist to make anthrax, Halabi embarks on a campaign of terror, producing slick propaganda videos to create tension and panic within the United States. However, his real plan is to create a deadly bioweapon that will wipe out large swathes of the world’s population.

Rapp is determined to hunt Halabi down and end him once and for all, but he finds himself unable to act thanks to one enemy even he cannot defeat; politics. The upcoming battle for the presidency has become extremely ugly, and the leading candidate, Christine Barnett, is using Amercia’s fear of Halabi to make the current administration and the CIA look incompetent. She also has Rapp and his boss, Irene Kennedy, in her sights, and is determined to make them suffer for defying her. Hamstrung by the political atmosphere and no longer able to make an official move, Rapp is forced to go rogue and infiltrate a dangerous Mexican cartel who have been smuggling Halabi’s anthrax and operatives into the US. However, as Rapp moves closer to finding Halabi’s location and determining the nature of the bioweapon heading towards the states, he must deal with the fallout from Barnett’s political manoeuvring, which could end his life.

This latest book in the Mitch Rapp series is another fantastic and exhilarating read that I had a wonderful time listening to. Lethal Agent contains a thrilling, fast-paced story that goes in some fun directions, such as Rapp’s violent but effective infiltration of a Mexican drug cartel. The author does an excellent job of mixing this compelling story with fast-paced action and some clever and depressingly realistic political intrigue to create an enjoyable read that did a great job of keeping my attention until the very end. While there are some strong connections to a previous novel in this series, Lethal Agent can easily be read as a standalone novel, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an exciting read.

I have to say that I was impressed by Mills’s use of several point-of-view characters to tell the overall narrative of this story. While a large amount of the plot is told from the perspective of protagonist Mitch Rapp, a lot of it is also shown through the eyes of several other characters. Even though the viewpoints of Rapp, Rapp’s allies and some of the minor characters are quite fun or interesting, I personally loved the scenes shown from the perspective of the book’s various antagonists. This includes showcasing the twisted and self-serving political agenda of presidential hopeful Christine Barnett, whose attempts to take the Oval Office through fearmongering and attacks on the country’s intelligence agencies has some interesting impacts on the hunt for Rapp’s terrorist targets. I also enjoyed seeing a few scenes from the perspective of the Cartel boss Rapp is trying to get close to, and there are some great sequences where the usually confident gangster begins to realise how out of his depth he is with an operator like Rapp.

However, I thought that the chapters shown from the perspective of the book’s main antagonist, Sayid Halabi, were some of the best parts of the whole book. Halabi is an enemy of Rapp who was thought to have been killed in Enemy of the State, although the prologue of Lethal Agent shows how he managed to stay alive. Various chapters of this book are shown from Halabi’s point of view as he attempts to find a way to defeat Rapp and America, and they serve as a thrilling counterpart to the protagonist’s subsequent hunt for him. I thought it was fascinating to see the various ways that Halabi was plotting to attack America in these chapters, especially as at times he uses fear and propaganda to scare the country into immobility, rather than launch an actual attack. It was also a little disturbing to see this terrorist mastermind attempt to manipulate America’s political system by deliberately fuelling an incompetent politician’s fear mongering strategy. The use of this split perspective format really helped create a compelling novel, and Mills did a wonderful job coming up with some great antagonists for this book.

While all the espionage and spy thriller aspects of the book are extremely compelling and entertaining, the parts of the book that I found most intriguing were the various sections of political intrigue. Mills does an incredible job imitating the politics of modern-day America in his book and showing off how destructive and noxious the current political system is, especially for those people who want to become president. The focus on a politician being more concerned with their ambitions than the safety of the country, and who is willing to hamper or ignore the concerns of intelligence agencies for their own ends is something that many people can relate to at the moment. The inclusion of fearmongering as a politician’s central political tactic is also something that can be seen in the real world, and I felt that Mills had a really good depiction of it in this book, showcasing how effective it can be, and how it can impact people. While I am sure that readers from both sides of the political spectrum will be able to see politicians they despise in the character of Christine Barnett, I think that Mills was more taking aim at the rot that is infecting the entire political system rather than a particular individual. Palpable weariness seems to come out of the page whenever the book starts to talk about the modern politics in America, and a number of characters are obviously starting to become exhausted with the entire circus. The story also contains a lot of criticism towards the politics that is reducing the effectiveness of America’s intelligence community, and the story examines the potential damage that such politics could have on the country’s safety. All of this makes for an extremely intriguing inclusion into the book, which can be fascinating, aggravating and depressing all at the same time.

As you would expect from a Mitch Rapp thriller novel, Lethal Agent is chock full of enough violence and thrills to keep any action junkie sated. Rapp, a highly feared and skilled killer, tears through a ton of enemies in this book, mostly without receiving a single scratch in return. While the near-invincible action protagonist is a little played out, I did quite enjoy the various ways he showed off his skills and abilities in this book. The sequences where he systematically takes out the cartel forces are really entertaining, and I had a good laugh at a scene where he picks a lock on a cage with the fibula of one of his jailers. There is also a pretty awesome set-piece at the end of the book, which features a mass of vehicular carnage as Rapp tries to stop a terrorist attack. I did think that the sequence when he is forced to knock out coked-up facsimiles of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez was a little weird. I understand showing two exceedingly influential but dysfunctional celebrities go insane in the same scene where the old-school Rapp reflects on the current state of America, but it was still a somewhat odd inclusion. Overall, though, if you are a fan of action-packed thrillers, then you are going to enjoy Lethal Agent.

While I enjoyed reading a physical version of Red War last year, I chose to listen to Lethal Agent on audiobook instead. This format of Lethal Agent runs for around nine hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by legendary audiobook narrator George Guidall. Despite the fact that Guidall has narrated over a thousand audiobooks in his career, this was actually the first piece of his work that I have experienced. Guidall has a fantastic voice which works very well for a high-stakes thriller novel. He also does a great job capturing the emotion of the various politicians, and there is some appropriate weariness in his voice when he describes the American political situation. If I had one criticism, it would be that most of the characters sounded very similar to each other, and it was a little hard to distinguish one person from the next. Still, I had a lot of fun listening to this book, and thanks to the intense story and short run-time, it only took me a few days to get through this book.

Lethal Agent is an excellent new addition to the Mitch Rapp series, and I loved some of the cool and intriguing directions that the author took the story. Kyle Mills has been doing a sensational job with the series since he took up the mantle of author, and I am really excited to see what sort of story he comes up with next. This is an excellent book and I would strongly recommend it to any fan of the thriller genre.

Star Wars: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Treason Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 25 July 2019)

Series: Thrawn – Book 3

Length: 333 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars extended universe novels, Timothy Zahn, returns with a third incredible book in his outstanding Thrawn series, Treason, which features the final adventure of his most iconic protagonist, Grand Admiral Thrawn, before his last appearance in Star Wars: Rebels.

While the new Disney Star Wars extended universe has produced some truly exceptional entries in the last couple years, the Thrawn series of books has been a real bright spot amongst them. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the antagonist of Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy back in the 1990s, and quickly became a fan favourite character among the Star Wars fandom. After Thrawn was introduced into the new Star Wars canon as the primary antagonist of Star Wars Rebels in seasons 3 and 4, Zahn was brought back to write a series of novels that provided an updated history for this character.

The Thrawn series has so far consisted of two books, Thrawn and Alliances. In Thrawn, we are introduced to Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, a member of the Chiss Ascendancy, a race of aliens from outside the known galaxy, who was marooned within Imperial Space. Thanks to a secret connection to Anakin Skywalker and a clear demonstration of his tactical ability, the Emperor takes Thrawn into his service and employs him as an officer in the Imperial Navy. Accompanied by a young officer, Eli Vanto, who serves as his translator, aide and student, Thrawn rises through the ranks all the way to Grand Admiral by defeating a series of rebel and pirate forces. Towards the end of the book, it is revealed that Thrawn is still in service to the Chiss Ascendancy, and his loyalty to the Empire may be conditional on the Empire not threatening his people. In addition, he has sent Vanto to the Chiss, as he believes that his tactical abilities, honed under Thrawn’s tutorage, may be of benefit to their forces. Alliances, which is set after the events of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, reveals the history between Thrawn and Anakin Skywalker, and has Thrawn work with Darth Vader to investigate mysterious events in the Unknown Regions. There the reader is introduced to the Grysk, a dangerous alien species living in the Unknown Regions who are making aggressive moves against both the Empire and the Chiss Ascendancy. Together, Thrawn and Vader are able to foil the Grysk’s immediate plans, although they remain a dangerous force.

I really enjoyed both of the previous books in the Thrawn series. Thrawn is probably the best expanded Star Wars book I have had the pleasure to read so far, while Alliances did a great job continuing the series and featured a fantastic team-up between two of my favourite Star Wars characters. I personally enjoyed the first book a lot more than the second, although this may be because I did read the series out of order, starting with Alliances and then going back to Thrawn. I have been looking forward to the third book in the series for a while now. Not only did I look at it for one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, but it also featured on my recent Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases list.

In Treason, which is set in the midst of the fourth season of Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn is forced to postpone his campaign against the Rebels on Lothal when Grand Moth Tarkin informs him that funding for his Tie Defender Program is at risk of being reappropriated by Director Krennic’s secret program, Stardust. Placed in the middle of a political battle between Tarkin and Krennic, Thrawn must ensure the security of Stardust’s supply chains in order to retain his funding. What at first appears to be a routine mission against a dangerous form of alien space vermin quickly reveals that the supply lines are actually being targeted pirates who have knowledge about the materials being sent to Project Stardust.

The subsequent arrival of a Chiss ship with his former protégé Eli Vanto serving aboard raises further problems, when they reveal that a force of Grysk ships are active deep within Imperial Space. Now Thrawn must not only find out what the Grysk’s mission is but also foil a large-scale conspiracy from within the Empire. As Thrawn engages his opponents in space, the real danger comes when his loyalty to the Empire is called into question. Can Thrawn continue to serve both the Emperor and the Chiss Ascendancy, or will the Emperor finally tire of his treason?

Treason was another outstanding outing from Zahn, who once again produces an addictive and clever entry in the Star Wars expanded universe that does an exceptional job showing off his iconic protagonist. Treason was a real pleasure to read, and I found myself unable to put it down at times, as I was so engrossed by the excellent story and the fantastic examples of action in the Star Wars universe. The end result was amazing book which wraps up Thrawn’s current storyline and ties it into his appearances in the wider Star Wars universe.

Just like the previous books in the series, my favourite aspect of Treason is the focus on the titular character of Thrawn. Thrawn is one of the most tactically minded and analytical individuals in the entire Star Wars universe and is an unsurpassed military genius, able to defeat superior forces with his tactics and intelligence. Zahn has always done a spectacular job of portraying a character like this in his books, and Treason is no exception. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn comes up with a series of tactical plans and deductions to confound his opponents and defeat their forces totally. The sheer range of different strategies and plans he comes up with are pretty ingenious, as are the ways that he is able to deduce how his opponents think, such as by analysing their artwork or their body language and movements. This results in some pretty amazing sequences throughout the book and included one extremely epic conclusion that sees Thrawn defeat a massively superior force without even being on the command deck of his ship. Instead, he leaves step-by-step instructions with his subordinate to perfectly counter and defeat his opponents. Honestly, I wish I could elaborate more because it was such an epic sequence, but that would require revealing some pretty big spoilers. I really love the focus on Thrawn and hope we get to see some more of his adventures and battles again in the future.

Despite the focus on Thrawn, much of the story is told from the perspective of some of his colleagues and subordinates, although many of these scenes also feature Thrawn’s observations on the other character’s body language and intentions. The use of all these point-of-view characters actually works really well, as it allows the reader to see Thrawn’s various tactical moves through the eyes of a normal character, thus requiring Thrawn or one of his protégés to explain in detail how he was able to come up with his actions, kind of like how Watson was used in the Sherlock Holmes novels. The characters of Eli Vanto and Commodore Faro have both served this purpose in the previous two books in the series, and it was good to see them both at it again in Treason. However, both have pretty major story arcs within this book, and it was interesting to see how their characters have evolved since first meeting Thrawn. This book also features several Chiss characters, such as Admiral Ar’alani, and it was intriguing to see their view on Thrawn’s actions and his role within the Empire. Zahn has also included a new character, Assistant Director Ronan, who has a major point-of-view role within the book. Ronan is a fairly annoying character most of the time, due to his arrogance and blind worship of his superior, Director Krennic. However, he does offer some pretty cool insights into Thrawn and the other character’s actions, and it was fun to see his respect for Thrawn reluctantly grow through the course of the book. These alternate point-of-view characters also allowed for some enjoyable speculation about Thrawn’s actual loyalties, and whether he currently serves the Emperor or the Chiss, and I felt that using all these side characters really added a whole lot to the overall story.

Like all of the other books in the Thrawn series, Zahn includes a huge number of action-packed sequences that are very exciting to read. Due to the focus on characters in the Imperial Navy, the vast majority of these battles are set within space and feature battles between the various spacecraft of the Star Wars universe. These space battle sequences are written extremely well, and they allow the reader to get an excellent idea of the cool fights that are occurring on the pages. Many of these sequences are enhanced by the various protagonists’ reliance on advanced tactics and stratagems, and as a result you get a much more complex and entertaining fight than some of the other space battles that occur in other examples of Star Wars fiction. I really enjoyed all the cool battles in this book, and the ones featured in Treason are a real highlight of the entire series.

Honestly, Treason is probably best explored by hardcore Star Wars fans. Not only does it deal with some quite obscure characters and aspects of the Star Wars universe but it is also the third book in a series with strong connections to Star Wars Rebels. I would therefore strongly recommend that readers check out the first two books in the Thrawn series first, as this will give them a more solid base to the story within Treason and provide them with some useful background into the Star Wars universe. However, for those readers who do not have any prior experience of the Thrawn books or some of the storylines explored in Star Wars Rebels, this is still an extremely accessible book, and Zahn does a good job of exploring key events of the previous stories featuring the character of Thrawn. I think that all readers, even those who only have knowledge of the franchise’s films, will also enjoy the deep dive into Star Wars lore that is featured within this book.

The entire Thrawn series so far has explored a number of aspects of the Empire before the events of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, which I have found to be exceedingly fascinating. This is continued in Treason, where the author continues to examine the running of the Imperial Navy and also looks at the creation of the Death Star, namely the supply lines heading out to the construction zone. This book also features an intriguing look at the rivalries and politics that existed at the highest echelons of the Imperial power structure. In particular, Thrawn finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Grand Moth Tarkin and Director Krenic, which was shown in the Rogue One film. This was a particularly intriguing part of the book, and it is always interesting to see Thrawn engaged in political activities, as it very much outside his wheelhouse, although the results of this political battle were extremely fun. Treason also features more details on the species that inhabit the mysterious Unknown Regions of space, in particular the Chiss Ascendancy and the Grysk. Neither has been explored too much in the current canon, and Thrawn has been the only Chiss featured so far. All these explorations of the Star Wars lore are a really interesting part of the book that I loved reading and found extremely fascinating.

Treason is set in the fourth season of the Star Wars Rebels television show. In particular, the start of the book mirrors a scene in the 10th episode, Jedi Knight, and ends with the set–up of the final two episodes of the series. Unfortunately, this probably means that Treason will be the last Thrawn book for a little while as Star Wars Rebels ended (spoilers! although it’s been over a year since the finale) with Thrawn and the protagonist of Rebels, Ezra Bridger, being transported off into an unknown area of space. While the end of the episode hinted that Ezra was still alive (and therefore Thrawn would be as well), it may be some time before we find out his eventual fate. While there are no current plans for a continuation or sequel to Star Wars Rebels, I could see them trying to do something after the release of the seventh season of the related The Clone Wars show. Zahn has also stated that he is planning to write some additional Thrawn novels, although these are tied up until the ninth Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, is finalised. Whether these Thrawn books will be tied into any future animated versions of Thrawn or be set before the end of Star Wars Rebels remains to be seen, although I personally would love to see what happens to Thrawn and some of the other supporting characters from these series.

Treason by Timothy Zahn is another exceptional entry in the Thrawn series, which once again explores one of the best characters in the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is a fantastic character, and Zahn does an exceptional job showing off his tactical prowess through a series of intense and complex battles in space. I really loved seeing how this part of Thrawn’s adventure unfolded, and Zahn has really produced a compelling story that proved exceedingly hard to stop reading. A first-rate Star Wars tie-in novel, Treason is really worth checking out. I honestly can’t think of any character I would love to see more of in the future than Grand Admiral Thrawn.