The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian crime fiction sensation, Megan Goldin, returns with an impressive third novel, The Night Swim, an intense and heavy-hitting read that quickly drags the reader in with its captivating narrative that refuses to let go.

Following the success of the first season of her true crime podcast show, Guilty or Not Guilty, which set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become an overnight sensation and a beacon for people seeking justice or their freedom.  Determined to keep her momentum going, Rachel decides to set the latest season of her podcast around the most contentious trial in the country, a high-profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis.  The town’s golden boy, a famous swimmer with Olympic potential, has been accused of raping the popular granddaughter of the town’s legendary police chief.  The resultant case has divided both the town and the country, and many are eager to see how the hearing unfolds.

Arriving in Neapolis, Rachel begins her own investigation, interviewing people of interest and trying to provide an unbiased version of the case to her listeners.  But as she attempts to unwind the legal and moral complexities surrounding the case, Rachel finds herself distracted when she begins to receive a series of letters from a mysterious woman.  This woman, Hannah, is a former local who has returned to Neapolis because of the trial and is requesting Rachel’s help in getting long-overdue justice for her sister, Jenny Stills, who died 25 years earlier.

Officially, Jenny’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning and barely anyone remembers who she was or how she died.  However, Hannah’s letters reveal a far different story about a poor girl who was brutally murdered and whose memory and legacy was tarnished from beyond the grave.  As Rachel beings to investigate the death of Jenny, she soon finds parallels between this old case and the modern-day rape.  Something truly rotten occurred 25 years ago in Neapolis and now the past has come back to haunt those involved.  Can Rachel bring justice after all these years and how will her findings impact the current trial?

Now that was a powerful and compelling read from Goldin, who has once again produced an excellent and impressive read.  Megan Goldin is a talented Australian author who debuted back in 2017 with The Girl in Kellers Way.  I first became familiar with Goldin when I received a copy of her second book, The Escape Room, in 2018.  I really liked the curious synopsis of The Escape Room, and once I started it I found that I was unable to stop, resulting in me reading it entirely in one night.  As a result, I was quite eager to get my hands on Goldin’s third book, The Night Swim, and I was really glad that I got a chance to read it.  This new standalone crime fiction novel proved to be an extremely intriguing read with an outstanding story that expertly deals with some heavy and controversial issues and which takes the reader on an intense and memorable journey.

At the centre of this book is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is loaded with emotion, mystery and social commentary.  The main story follows Rachel as she arrives in Neapolis and attempts to uncover some background behind the events of the rape case she is covering.  This part of the story sees Rachel interview several key witnesses or associated individuals to get their side of the story, explores how the case is impacting the town, witnesses the details of the dramatic court case and then reports her finding and feelings in separate extended chapters made to represent a podcast episode.  Rachel also investigates the events that occurred 25 years ago to Jenny Stills.  Rachel is guided in this part of the story by Hannah’s mysterious letters, which paint a detailed picture of Hannah’s childhood and her memories of the events that occurred.  Rachel follows the clues left in the letters as well as her own investigations to attempt to uncover what really happened all those years ago and who the culprits are.

I really liked how Goldin split out the story, especially as it combined cold case elements with a modern legal thriller and investigation.  Both the present case and the historical crime had compelling, if dark, narrative threads, and I really appreciated where both storylines ended up.  Naturally both cases were connected in some way, especially as a number of key people associated with the modern-day rape, such as the police investigators, lawyers, the parents of both parties and several other characters, were in Neapolis 25 years earlier and are potential suspects in this previous crime.  While I was able to guess who the main perpetrator of the Jenny Stills case was about halfway through the story, I still found it extremely intriguing to see the rest of the story unfold and the joint conclusion of both narratives was rather satisfying.  Some of the key highlights of this story for me included the exciting and dramatic court scenes and I also enjoyed the use of the true crime podcast in the story.  Having the protagonist run a successful true crime podcast or television show is a story element that has been a little overused in recent years, but I still find it to be an intriguing inclusion, especially as Goldin utilised it well in this novel as both a plot device and a forum for the character/author’s social musings.  Overall, this was an excellent piece of crime fiction with an impressive narrative that will draw the reader in and ensure that they will stick around to see how it all unfolds.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Night Swim is Goldin’s frank and comprehensive look at sexual assault crimes.  The book’s narrative focuses on two separate but similar sexual assault cases that occurred within 25 years of each other.  Goldin not only provides details of these crimes but also dives into other elements of rape and assault, such as how victims are impacted in the aftermath, how sexual assault crimes are viewed in society and very little has changed around this in recent years.  This novel paints a particularly grim picture on the entire legal process surrounding the process for investigating and prosecuting rape cases and there are some fascinating, if horrifying, examinations of how society still has trouble coming to a consensus when it comes to these crimes, and how cases like these can divide communities and nations.  There are a number of examples contained within the plot about the public perception of the crimes, with doubt and blame being placed on rape victims who are forced to relive their assaults in different ways and who face unfair and often malicious attacks on their reputations and psyches.  It was also interesting to see the author examine some of the fear that women experience all the time at the possibility of an attack, and the protagonist’s emotional podcast posts are particularly good for exploring her experiences and thoughts on the matter.  There is also a clever and apt bit of symbolism around this in the form of a caged mockingbird at the protagonist’s hotel who is bothered by several random men for not singing, which I thought was rather striking and memorable.  Goldin does a fantastic job diving into this subject and she really pulls no punches in showing what a terrible and mentally damaging crime this is, as well as the impacts that it has on the victims.  Because of this The Night Swim is a bit of tough book to read at times and some readers may find a lot of the content quite distressing.  However, I really appreciated that Goldin spent the time exploring this subject and it proved to be a captivating and memorable addition to the story.

The small fictional town of Neapolis also proved to be a great setting for this novel, and I liked the way that Goldin utilised this location in The Night Swim.  I think that the author was able to produce an excellent approximation of classic small town America, complete with social power players, economic troubles, well-to-do former residents who have returned to face their past and old secrets and lies that are only now bubbling to the surface.  It was really intriguing to see the protagonist uncover all the secrets of the town, especially the ones told in Hannah’s cryptic letters and childhood musings.  It was also fascinating to see the impacts of family reputation and parental legacy on how crimes are investigated and covered up and this becomes a major factor in both of the cases being investigated.  I also liked how Goldin examined how a controversial sexual assault case could divide a small town like Neapolis, with all the resultant friction and disagreement obvious for an outsider like Rachel to observe.  Overall, this was a compelling setting, and I think that it really helped to enhance the intriguing narrative that Goldin produced.

With this third impressive novel, Megan Goldin has once again shown why she is such a rising star in the crime fiction genre.  The Night Swim is a powerful and captivating read that expertly examines a heavy, relevant and surprisingly divisive real-world topic and utilises it to create a clever crime fiction story set across 25 years.  This was a truly outstanding piece of fiction, and the combination of a great mystery, dramatic writing and an in-depth examination of crime and society proved to be rather compelling and memorable.  While The Night Swim is a standalone read, I think that the protagonist introduced in this novel has some potential as a repeat character, and it might be interesting to see her travel around the country, investigating crimes for her podcast.  In the meantime, The Night Swim comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what Goldin comes up with next.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean

The Bear Pit Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Damien Seeker – Book Four

Length: 410 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Destroying Angel, the third book in S. G. MacLean’s Damien Seeker series of historical murder mysteries.  I had an amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I ended up giving a full five-star rating, and I was excited when I heard that a sequel was coming out in 2019.  This sequel, The Bear Pit, had an intriguing premise and sounded like it was going to be quite an awesome read.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read it last year when it first came out, which I have been regretting for some time now.  Luckily, I recently found myself with a little bit of spare reading time, so I finally managed to check this book out.  I am really glad that I did, as The Bear Pit contained a captivating and clever story that sets MacLean’s intense protagonist on the trial of some dedicated killers.

London, 1656.  Oliver Cromwell rules England as the Lord Protector, but not everyone is happy with his reign.  Many believe that his death will end the Puritan state and lead to a return of the monarchy in exile.  In order to bring this about, three men loyal to the crown are currently plotting to kill him.  However, Cromwell is not without his protectors, and his most ardent investigator, the legendary Captain Damien Seeker, is on the case.

Seeker has only recently returned to London after a harrowing investigation in Yorkshire and he is determined to catch the potential assassins before it is too late.  However, Seeker soon finds himself on another case when he discovers the mutilated body of man while conducting a raid on a gaming house.  The victim appears to have been brutally savaged by a bear, yet all the bears in London were shot after bear baiting was declared illegal by Cromwell.  Where did the bear come from and why was it used to commit a murder?

While he continues his hunt for the assassins, Seeker employs his reluctant agent, Thomas Faithly, a former Royalist turned informer, to infiltrate the underground fighting pits in an attempt to find out if any bears remain in the city.  However, as both investigations progress it soon becomes clear that they are connected and that the murder is tied into the assassins hunting Cromwell.  As Seeker attempts to stop them before it is too late, he finds himself facing off against a talented and intelligent foe with great reason to hate Cromwell and everything Seeker stands for.  Can Seeker stop the assassins before it is too late, or has he finally come up against someone even he cannot outthink?

MacLean has come up with another fantastic and compelling historical murder mystery with The Bear Pit.  This book contains an amazing multi-character narrative that combines an intriguing murder mystery storyline with real-life political intrigue and plots, enjoyable characters and a fascinating historical backdrop, all of which comes together into an impressive overall narrative.  Despite being the fourth Damien Seeker book, The Bear Pit is very accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series, and people who are interested in a good historical murder mystery can easy dive into this book without any issues.

At the heart of this novel is an enthralling mystery and intrigue laden storyline that sees Seeker and his companions not only investigating a murder apparently done by a bear, but also trying to unravel a plot to assassinate Cromwell.  This turned into quite an enjoyable and exciting tale that was filled with all manner of twists, surprises, reveals, action-packed fights, disguised antagonists and confused loyalties.  Naturally, the murder and the assassination plot are connected, and the investigations of the protagonist and his compatriots combine together as they attempt to find out who is behind the various crimes and why they were committed.  This proved to be a very captivating storyline, and I really loved the way in which MacLean blended an inventive murder mystery with realistic political intrigue and plots.  There are several clever clues and plenty of foreshadowing throughout the book, and the end result of the mystery was rather clever and somewhat hard to predict.  I really liked how these intriguing storylines turned out, and they helped to make this story particularly addictive and hard to put down.

Another distinctive and enjoyable part of this book is the great characters contained within it.  The main character of The Bear Pit is the series’ titular protagonist Damien Seeker, the moody and serious investigator and loyal solider of Oliver Cromwell.  Seeker is a particularly hardnosed protagonist who inspires all manner of fear and worry in the various people he meets, and it proves to be rather enjoyable to watch him go about his business.  While Seeker is the main character, this novel also follows a substantial cast of characters who end up narrating substantial parts of this book.  Most of these additional point-of-view characters have appeared in previous entries in the series, and it was great to see MacLean reuse them so effectively while also successfully reintroducing them in the context of this book.  Two of the main characters who assist Seeker with his investigation are Thomas Faithly and Lawrence Ingolby, both of whom were introduced in the previous novel, Destroying Angel.  Both characters are rather interesting additions to the novel’s investigative plot, and they serve as a great counterpoint to Seeker due to their youth, their inexperience, and their own way of investigating the crimes.  While Ingolby was a great younger character who looks set to be a major protagonist in the next book in the series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Faithly and his conflicted loyalties.  Faithly is a former exile with strong ties to the royal family, but his desire to return to England sees him make a deal with Seeker to serve Cromwell as a spy.  Despite his desire to remain in England, Faithly finds himself torn between his existing friendships and his new loyalty to Seeker, and this ends up becoming a rather dramatic and compelling part of the book.  Extra drama is introduced thanks to the reappearance of Maria Ellingworth, Seeker’s former love interest.  Both Seeker and Ellingworth have a lot of unresolved feelings with each other, which only become even more confused throughout the course of The Bear Pit when they find themselves in a love triangle with another major character.  This romantic angle, as well as the continued use of his secret daughter, really helps to humanise Seeker, and I enjoyed getting a closer look under Seeker’s usual tough mask.

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, one of the best aspects of The Bear Pit, and indeed the entire Damien Seeker series, is the author’s fascinating look at life in Cromwell’s England.  This is particularly interesting part of England’s history, which saw the implementation of Puritan law across the country, while secret Royalists lay hidden across the country.  This book in particular took a look at what was going on within London, and it was fascinating to see the various aspects of life during the period, from the politics, the hidden loyalties, the impact of day-to-day activities and the removal of previously iconic parts of London life, such as the bear baiting and other blood sports.  MacLean does a really good job of examining these various aspects of life during the Cromwell era and working them into her novels, making them a vital part of the plot as well as a fascinating setting.

One of the most fascinating and impressive historical aspects that MacLean includes in The Bear Pit was the focus on the 1656 plot to kill Oliver Cromwell.  This was a real historical conspiracy that took place throughout London, as three conspirators attempted to kill Cromwell through various means.  The author really dives into the details of the plot throughout this book, and the reader gets a glimpse into the various attempts that were made on Cromwell during this period, as well as the identity and motivations of the three killers.  MacLean even shows several chapters from these killers’ viewpoints, showing all the various preparations they put into each attempt, and then presenting how and why they failed.  I really liked how the author worked these assassination attempts into the main plot of the book, utilising Seeker as a major reason why several of the attempts failed and ensuring that the antagonists were aware of him and considered him the mostly likely person to stop them.  This was a very clever story aspect as a result, and I liked the blend of creative storytelling with historical fact to create an epic and impressive storyline that really stood out.  I also liked MacLean’s compelling inclusion of a major historical Royalist figure as the mastermind of the plot and the main antagonist of the book.  This character has such a distinctive and infamous reputation, and I liked how the author hinted at their arrival and then sprung the surprise towards the end of the book.  This was such a great part of the plot and I look forward to seeing what major historical events MacLean features in the next book in the series.

Overall, The Bear Pit was an outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery that really highlighted S. G. MacLean’s writing ability and creativity.  I really enjoyed the excellent blend of murder and intrigue, set during a fascinating period of England’s history, and the author’s use of great characters and the inclusion of a particularly notable historical occurrence proved to be extremely impressive and resulted in an outstanding read.  As a result, The Bear Pit comes highly recommended by me and I really do regret taking this long to read it.  Luckily, this should ensure that the overall plot of the series is fresh in my mind when I get my hands on the next and final book in the Damien Seeker series, The House of Lamentations, which is out in a couple of weeks.  I have already put in my order for a copy of this upcoming book and I am looking forward to seeing how MacLean finishes off this series, especially after I had such an awesome time reading The Bear Pit.

Queen of Storms by Raymond E. Feist

Queen of Storms Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Hardcover – 14 July 2020)

Series: The Firemane Saga – Book Two

Length: 471 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author Raymond E. Feist returns to his new series, The Firemane Saga, with Queen of Storms, an amazing and exciting fantasy novel that takes the reader on some intriguing adventures.

I have long been a fan of Raymond E. Feist and his epic works of fantasy.  His long-running Riftwar Cycle books were amongst some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read and many of them, including the excellent Empire trilogy that he cowrote with Janny Wurts, are still some of my favourite books of all time.  After finalising the Riftwar Cycle back in 2013, Feist released King of Ashes in 2018, which was the first book in The Firemane Saga.  I really enjoyed the fun and compelling new story featured within King of Ashes, and I have been looking forward to seeing how the series continued for a while now.  This second book, Queen of Storms, continues right after the events of King of Ashes and has some intriguing new twists and turns for readers.

In the ancient and magical world of Garn, war is coming to continent of Tembria and its first blow will fall on the trading town of Bernan’s Hill.  Many people call Bernan’s Hill home, but none are more mysterious than the new owners of the town’s inn, Hatushaly and his wife Hava.  Despite their simple outward appearances, Hatu and Hava were born on the secret island of Coaltachin and both serve their continent-spanning criminal and spy network.  A series of mysterious events have been occurring throughout the kingdoms and lands of Tembria, and Hatu and Hava are tasked with observing Bernan’s Hill and reporting anything out of the ordinary.

Having befriended the town’s blacksmith, Declan, Hatu and Hava appear content in their new lives and are they are planning to be officially married during the midsummer festival.  However, even their training and information will not prepare them for the horrors that are about to be visited upon Bernan’s Hill, as a new and mysterious force attacks without warning, plunging the entire continent into war.  Separated from each other, each of these young people embarks on their own adventure.  While Hava attempts to find her lost husband, and Declan sets out to get revenge, Hatu is kidnapped by those who wish him to fulfill his fiery legacy as the secret heir to the kingdom of Ithrace.  His family, the legendary Firemanes, have long been rumoured to contain a spark of magic, and Hatu, as the last remaining Firemane, may hold the key to the survival of magic itself.  As these three young people set out to realise their destinies, they will experience horrors and tragedy as it soon becomes apparent that a whole new threat seeks to destroy all within Tembria.

Queen of Storms was a captivating and fun book which I found myself reading in only a couple of days due to how much I enjoyed it.  Feist has come up with a fantastic and impressive story within this novel, and I liked how it followed a group of excellent characters caught up in the chaos of a mysterious war.  There is all manner of action, adventure, subterfuge, character development and exploration of a new fantasy universe that comes together extremely well into a compelling overall narrative.  Readers should be forewarned that Feist makes some rather bold plot choices throughout this book, with a major event around halfway through the book really altering the course of the story in some interesting and dramatic ways.  I also liked how Queen of Storms served as a great sequel to King of Ashes, and there are a number of amazing reveals and revelations that add to the storylines established in the first book.  For example, the real antagonists of this series are revealed in more detail in this sequel after they were foreshadowed in the previous novel while the reader focused on a different antagonist, who had the potential to be the main villain.  This bait-and-switch came together well in Queen of Storms, and I enjoyed uncovering more about these antagonists and their motives.

Queen of Storms contains a multi-character narrative which follows several key protagonists as they explore this new world from Feist and get involved in the politics and battles of the world.  The majority of the story is told from the perspective of the novel’s three major characters, Hatu, Hava and Declan.  Each of these characters gets some substantial focus throughout the course of this novel, with some interesting storylines.  For the first part of the book their various storylines are very closely intertwined, as all three are based in the town of Bernan’s Hill in various capacities.  However, after the novel’s major event around halfway through, these three characters are separated and each of them embarks on their own exciting and enjoyable adventure.  Hatu’s story is a classic tale of a chosen one finding his destiny, which sees him journey off into the unknown to learn more about his past and his secret abilities.  As Hatu is the most central protagonist, this storyline got a lot of focus, and it was interesting to learn more about his role in the world and about how his life is bonded to the world’s magic.  Declan’s story becomes an interesting one about a young man learning to become a solider to avenge the death of his loved ones.  Declan had some life events occur throughout this book and while it was a little sad to see some of the things he fought for in the first novel go up in smoke, it does serve as a good motivation for his character and it looks like Feist has some interesting plans for him in the future.  Out of the three, I think I ended up enjoying Hava’s storyline the most.  Hava attempts to find out what happened to Hatu and gets captured by slavers.  She ends up using her abilities to free herself and her fellow slaves and becomes a successful ship’s captain, chasing after her husband while also exploring the lands outside the continent of Tembria.  All three of these main character arcs are really enjoyable and together they form a fantastic heart for Queen of Storms, allowing for a rich and powerful narrative.

In addition to these main characters, Feist also utilises several minor point-of-view characters who add in some extra narrative threads to the book.  For example, Donte, Hatu and Hava’s childhood friend who was captured by sea witches in King of Ashes, returns and a small part of the book is dedicated to his attempts to find Hatu and kill him.  You also get several parts of the book told from some of the key players in fight for the continent, such as Baron of Marquensas Daylon Dumarch, the sinister adviser Bernardo Delnocio, as well as a handful of other characters.  Each of these minor point-of-view characters provide their own insights and priorities to the mix and their various storylines and actions add a lot to the narrative and provide some interesting support to the main storylines.  I also liked some of the supporting characters who rounded out the cast of Queen of Storms and several of them proved to be quite enjoyable and likable, even if they have a greater chance of getting killed off.  Overall, Feist continues to write some great characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing where each of these intriguing protagonists end up next.

The author also did a good job of continuing to expand on the amazing new fantasy world that the series is set in.  While a substantial part of the novel is set around Brenan’s Hill, which was introduced in the prior book, the story eventually starts to examine some other parts of the world.  In particular, several storylines are set around the islands and continents on the other side of the planet, none of which have been explored by any of the point-of-view characters.  These new additions to the story proved to be quite intriguing, especially as the character’s various explorations revealed some shocking truths about the world, as well as some troubling revelations about the series’ main antagonists.  It looks like the next book is set to feature some new areas of the world and should provide some more fascinating expansions down the line, which will no doubt provide some interesting backdrops and settings from the narrative.

While I did really enjoy Queen of Storms, I did find that some of the elements within it might be a little hard to follow if you had not read the first novel in the series.  Feist does do a good job of recapping the major events of the first book throughout the course of the story, but there were a few moments in the story when the significance of certain characters, locations and events were not as highlighted as they could have been, and new readers might get a little lost at this point.  There were even a few points at which I lost track of who a new character was, mainly because of the two-year gap between reading King of Ashes and Queen of Storms.  Still, I was usually able to remember who the character was after some prompting, and it worked out fine.  While this lack of certainty might occasionally impact the flow of the story for new readers, I think they can generally follow without too much difficulty.

Queen of Storms was an outstanding and exciting second entry in this fantastic new series from one of my favourite authors of all time, Raymond E. Feist.  This was an amazing and enjoyable novel, filled with adventure, great characters, and a compelling narrative.  I had an awesome time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Feist continues The Firemane Saga in the next book.  A must-read for fans of fantasy fiction; this one is really worth checking out.

Queen of Storms Cover 2

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 23 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Strap in and prepare yourself for some intense combat out in the black of space, as Alexander Freed returns with another exciting and compelling Star Wars novel, Star Wars: Shadow Fall.

In the wake of the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, the once mighty Galactic Empire is on its last legs as they face a determined and continuous assault from the forces of the New Republic.  Amongst the New Republic troops fighting to end the tyranny of the Empire are the ragtag fighter group known as Alphabet Squadron.  Formed by New Republic Intelligence and serving under legendary Rebel General Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron’s mission is to hunt down and destroy the elite TIE fighter pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, known as Shadow Wing, who have been terrorising the galaxy and are one of the greatest threats to the New Republic’s success.

Following their recent victory, which saw Shadow Wing’s base destroyed and their commanding officer killed, Alphabet Squadron are assisting with the lengthy siege of the Imperial system of Cerberon.  Led by former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, herself a deserter from Shadow Wing, the five pilots of Alphabet Squadron are finally starting to work together as a team.  However, while they are happy to help Syndulla with her latest vital campaign, the squadron is still determined to finish off the remaining members of Shadow Wing before they cause more chaos and destruction.  Working with their New Republic Intelligence handler, Caern Adan, Quell believes she may have come up with a plan to trap her former Imperial comrades.  However, Quell has severely underestimated just how ruthless Shadow Wing has become.

Quell’s former mentor and commanding officer, Imperial fighter ace Soran Keize, has returned and taken control of Shadow Wing.  Determined to keep his people alive while inflicting as much damage as possible to the New Republic, he launches an attack against the Cerberon system that manages to bypass the trap laid for him.  Scattered, the members of Alphabet Squadron must each fight their own battles throughout Cerberon as they all attempt to survive and strike back.  However, as they face their greatest challenge to date Alphabet Squadron soon begins to realise that their most dangerous threat may not be the pilots of Shadow Wing, but the terrible secrets their own leader is keeping.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall is a fantastic and impressive Star Wars novel that examines the immediate aftermath of the original Star Wars trilogy while focusing a group of complex and damaged characters.  Shadow Fall is the fifth Star Wars novel from science fiction author Alexander Freed, and it serves as the second book in his Alphabet Squadron trilogy, which started last year with Star Wars: Alphabet SquadronAlphabet Squadron was an excellent first novel in this series, thanks to its exciting story which did an amazing job introducing the reader to each of the main characters of the titular Alphabet Squadron (so called because each member flies a different model of Rebel ship, i.e. one X-Wing, one Y-Wing and so on).  Freed’s latest novel is an outstanding sequel to Alphabet Squadron which continues the amazing character arcs and war-based narrative, while also adding in some excellent new elements.  While I really enjoyed the prior novel from Freed, I personally felt that Shadow Fall was a stronger book than Alphabet Squadron and I ended up really getting into this powerful and action-packed story.

This latest book from Freed contains an epic and enjoyable character-driven war story that follows the pilots of Alphabet Squadron as they attempt to subdue the Empire once and for all.  This proves to be a rather elaborate and multifaceted narrative as Freed utilises the key members of Alphabet Squadron as point-of-view characters.  While Shadow Fall initially has all the squadron members together, each of them goes on their own adventures throughout the book, breaking it up into several distinctive storylines.  Each of these storylines is rather intriguing and emotionally charged, especially as all the characters go through their own voyages of discovery.  These storylines are all confined to the same star system and each has its own take on the war occurring throughout Cerberon, especially as Freed also features a number of chapters from the point-of-view of the novel’s main antagonist, which allows the reader to see the plans and issues surrounding Shadow Wing.  All of this helps to create a compelling and exhilarating read, particularly as Shadow Fall contains a number of exciting and well written action sequences, including a series of amazing and impressive ship to ship combat scenes.  The characters get into some unique and deadly battles throughout the course of this book, and I really loved seeing all the intense fighting out in space.  Overall, this was a fantastic story and it ended up being quite a remarkable and addictive read.

One of the big things that I liked about Shadow Fall was the way that it continued to explore the turbulent period of Star Wars history that follows in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Emperor.  This period within the Star Wars universe has so much potential for great fiction and I feel that Freed does an outstanding job utilising it within his novels and showing off the battles that occurred.  There is a real gritty and dark feeling to this book, as both sides are involved in a lengthy and bitter conflict.  I really liked the darker and more desperate conflict that Freed portrays throughout this book, as both sides get pushed into some corners as they battle throughout the system.  This turned out to be an excellent setting and I really found it fascinating to see this vision of the post Return of the Jedi universe, especially as there was no instant victory for the Rebels as the movies suggest.  I look forward to seeing more of the war as the Alphabet Squadron series progresses and it will be interesting to see what battles and scenarios occur in the final book.

Readers interested in checking this series out do not need to have too much knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe; a general knowledge of the movie franchise should suffice.  However, like all pieces of tie-in fiction, those readers who are familiar with the more obscure bits of the fandom’s lore and history will get a lot more out of these books than casual readers.  I would also strongly suggest that people who want to read Shadow Fall should go back first and try Alphabet Squadron, as this will allow readers to get a better idea of the various characters and their histories and ensure that their actions have greater impact.  However, if you are determined to start here, I felt that Freed made Shadow Fall pretty accessible, summarising certain key events from the prior book and also providing some wider background information about the Star Wars universe during the period the novel is set.

One of the reasons that this story is so impactful and enjoyable is that Freed has anchored his narrative on the memorable and flawed characters that are Alphabet Squadron.  Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, the reader gets an in-depth understanding of all the key characters and their various story arcs and development.  A large amount of the book’s plot continues to focus on the leader of Alphabet Squadron and X-Wing pilot, Yrica Quell.  Quell is a former Imperial pilot and member of Shadow Wing, who defected after the end of the war, claiming that she attempted to stop her squadron from implementing Operation Cinder, a series of genocides ordered by the Emperor in the event of his death.  However, it was revealed at the end of Alphabet Squadron that she was actually a willing participant in Operation Cinder and only defected because her commanding officer, Soran Keize, ordered her to leave.  Quell is still haunted by her actions and is attempting to find redemption by working for the New Republic to hunt down her old squadron, while at the same time being blackmailed by her handler, Caern Adan, who is keeping the information about her crimes secret.  There are several great scenes throughout this book that deal with Quell’s guilt and fear of being found out as she attempts to come to terms with all she has done and tries to become the good person everyone believes she is.  However, chaotic events towards the middle of the book undo some of her progress and force her to really look deep into herself.  Quell easily has the best character arc entire book and her entire dramatic storyline is extremely well-written and emotionally rich.  It looks like Freed is taking this character in some interesting directions and it will get see what happens next.  I also enjoyed certain LGBT+ inclusions surrounding Quell (and some other characters), and it always great to see more of that added into the Star Wars universe.

Several other members of Alphabet Squadron get their own fascinating storylines and character arcs.  First up you have Wyl Lark, the team’s young A-wing fighter pilot, who is still shaken after his encounters with Shadow Wing during the first book.  Lark is a complicated character within this novel, as due to the past trauma he has started to experience some real weariness at all the fighting.  He also bears some inner conflict thanks to his past interaction with an unnamed member of Shadow Wing, who he knows only as Blink (due to the condition of their TIE fighter in the first book), which has made him believe that the Imperials are more human than most New Republic fighters believe.  This makes him act out in some odd ways, potentially endangering himself and others.  Regardless, Lark also takes on a big leadership role within this book as he finds himself in charge of a mixed force of New Republic soldiers and pilots who he must rally together to stop the machinations of Shadow Wing.  This forces him to make some tough decisions and results in some excellent character development, which is probably going to become a key part of the next entry in the series.

The book also focuses on Chass na Chadic, the pilot of the squadron’s B-Wing.  Chass is also an emotional mess throughout the book, which causes her to act out in an aggressive and reckless manner.  However, Chass’s difficulties are a result of her own addiction to combat and danger and her worries about what she is going to do after the war.  Chass also has a rather intriguing storyline that sees her forced to seek shelter with a growing cult after she is shot down.  This only adds to her emotional confusion as, while this organisation has some very valid points about the war, Chass has her own problematic history with cults which severely colours her opinions.  A fourth member of Alphabet Squadron who also gets a fair bit of attention is Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent.  Nath gets a little less use than Quell, Lark and Chass in this book, and rather than getting his own individual storyline he ends up being more of a supporting character to the other members of Alphabet Squadron.  I liked how Nath, after getting the revenge he desired in the first book, started taking on more of a mentor role within the team and he ends up being the glue that keeps them somewhat together.  His experience, easygoing manner and ability to socialise with everyone really helps to balance out the team, and I think it was good decision from Freed to have at least one point-of-view protagonist not be an emotional wreck.  I have to admit that I really liked seeing all of these complex and damaged protagonists and their various storylines and development became a powerful part of the book’s story.

Aside from these main four members, Shadow Fall also features several other great New Republic characters.  This includes the fifth and final member of Alphabet Squadron, Kairos, the mysterious scarred alien pilot of the team’s U-Wing.  Kairos does not get a lot of use throughout this book and is barely seen or mentioned after the first 100 pages.  Despite this, there are a few minor reveals about her shrouded past, and I can only hope that we find out a lot more about her in the final book.  There is actually a lot more of a focus on the supporting character of Caern Adan, the New Republic Intelligence officer who has been leading the hunt for Shadow Wing, as well as his companion, IT-O, a former Imperial torture droid turned therapist.  I found Caern’s use within Shadow Fall to be rather compelling, especially after he was portrayed as such a despicable and self-serving character in the first novel.  Freed dives into this Caern’s background in this novel and shows how he became the harsh, calculating person you met in Alphabet Squadron, as well as exploring his history with IT-O and Kairos.  This examination into his past, as well as his present-day adventures with Quell, helps generate a bit of sympathy for him and he ends up becoming a bit of a tragic character as a result.  I was also really glad to see more of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, who fans would know as one of the main protagonists of the Star Wars Rebels animated television show.  Hera was a great character on the show and in recent years she has been featured as a key Rebel commander in the expanded fiction (with her ship, Ghost, having brief cameos in two separate live action Star Wars movies).  I am always happy to learn more about Hera’s story post-Star Wars Rebels, especially as she has a great role as the wise overall commander throughout this book, and Star Wars Rebels fans will get sad in one or two places, such as when she wistfully asks if anyone has a Jedi hidden away.  Overall, these were some great supporting characters and I enjoyed Freed’s focus on them.

In addition to all the members of the Alphabet Squadron and the various New Republic supporting characters, Shadow Fall is also a tale of Imperial pilot Soran Keize.  After spending most of the first book trying to forget his past and exploring the post Imperial galaxy, Soran returns to claim his place as leader of Shadow Wing.  Soran is another compelling character who ends up serving as an alternate point-of-view character for roughly a third of the book.  I always love it when authors show the story from the antagonist’s perspective, and this ended up working incredibly well in this novel.  Not only do we get to see Soran’s complex motivations for returning to his wing and restarting the fight with the New Republic, but through his eyes we also get a better idea of how the Imperial remnant is fighting and surviving at this point of the war.  Freed adds some real desperation to the Imperial characters as they start to deal with the fact that they are going to lose the war, and there are some interesting discussions about the Imperial pilots having to change tactics, as they no longer have access to the vast resources they were previously used to.  Despite his at times merciless tactics, Soran’s viewpoint really helps to humanise the Imperial antagonists and, in many ways, they are mirrors to the New Republic characters, as both teams are fighting for their ideals and beliefs.  That being said, none of the Imperial characters aside from Soran popped out to me, and I had a hard time really caring about them in any way or remembering who they were.  Still, it was great to get more of an Imperial viewpoint in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed is another outstanding and enjoyable Star Wars novel that serves as an exceptional sequel to last year’s Alphabet SquadronShadow Fall is an extremely captivating and addictive read, especially as Freed features an amazing action-packed story, fun Star Wars elements and some incredibly complex and compelling characters whose damaged personalities and scarred pasts really stick in the reader’s minds.  I had an awesome time reading Shadow Fall and I cannot wait to see how Freed finishes off this darker Star Wars series.

Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham

Finding Eadie Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Caroline Beecham is back with another moving and compelling World War II historical drama with Finding Eadie.

London, 1943.  As the war rages across the world, there is a demand for new books to not only distract the public from the grim realities of the war but to also entertain the troops as they fight.  However, despite this increased need for books, the London branch of the Partridge Press publishing house is struggling due to wartime restrictions on resources and the damage done to their former offices.  In order to survive, Partridge Press need a new bestseller and young staff member, Alice Cotton, has an idea for a book that will both appeal to the public and help lift their spirits.  But before work can begin on this project, Alice suddenly leaves.

Alice’s absence is due to her secret pregnancy to an unnamed father.  Determined to keep the baby, Eadie, Alice comes up with a plan to give birth in secret and then raise the baby with her mother, pretending it is a wartime orphan.  However, Alice is unprepared for the ultimate betrayal by her mother, who steals the baby from her and gives it away in order to save her daughter’s reputation.  Devastated, Alice searches for her daughter, and soon finds out that her mother gave the baby to baby farmers, people who make a semi-legal profit by taking unwanted babies and selling them to the highest bidder.  Desperate to get Eadie back no matter the cost, Alice returns to Partridge Press and uses her book as a cover to get more information on the baby farmers.  At the same time, she finds solace in an American, Theo Booth, who has been sent from the American office of Partridge to help salvage the failing British office.  Can Alice find her daughter before it is too late, or will she lose Eadie forever?

Beecham is a talented and impressive author who is making a real impact on the historical drama scene due to her touching storylines that focus on fascinating aspects of the World War II experience.  For example, her 2016 debut novel, Maggie’s Kitchen, focused on the struggles of opening a restaurant during the blitz, while her second novel, 2018’s Eleanor’s Secret focused on a young woman who was employed by the War Artist Advisory Committee.  Finding Eadie is another powerful war drama that focuses on some intriguing aspects of the war.

At the centre of this book is an excellent dramatic storyline that focuses on two people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.  This story employs two separate point-of-view characters, Alice Cotton and Theo Booth, each of whom have their own intriguing and dramatic storylines.  While Theo’s narrative of a young, conflicted, book-loving man who finds his true calling in war-torn London is very enjoyable, I really have to highlight the excellent story surrounding the character of Alice.  At the start of the book, Alice has her baby, the titular Eadie, stolen from her by her mother and she spends the rest of the novel trying to find her.  This is an incredibly powerful and emotional story thread which I found to be extremely moving.  Beecham does an incredible job portraying Alice’s pain and distress throughout the course of the novel and the resultant raw emotion is heartbreaking and mesmerising in equal measures.  This search for Eadie has a number of notable elements to it, including emotional confrontations between Alice and her mother, the continued strain impacting the protagonist the longer she is separated from Eadie, a compelling investigative narrative, and a dangerous dive into London’s criminal underbelly.  The reader gets really drawn into the story as a result, as they eagerly wait to see if Alice will get a happy ending or if she will become another victim of the tragic circumstances surrounding the war.

On top of this compelling and dramatic storyline there is also a well-written, if somewhat understated, romantic angle between Alice and Theo.  While it is quite obvious that the two are going to end up together (it is a historical drama with a male and female as the main characters, of course they are going to end up together), Beecham builds it up rather well, and while there are significant obstacles to their romance, such as Theo’s engagement to another woman and the fact that Alice is rightly more concerned with finding her baby, the two slowly realise their feelings for each other.  Overall, the entire story comes together extremely well, and I found myself quite drawn to this excellent narrative which allowed me to read this book in remarkably short order.

While this book has an amazing story, I also really enjoyed Beecham’s examination of certain unique aspects of life during the war, which proves to be rather fascinating.  I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the publishing world during the war, and this goes on to become a major and compelling part of the book’s plot.  Beecham does a fantastic job highlighting what was going on during the publishing industry during the period in both England and America.  This includes an impressive deep dive into the industry, exploring the importance of books during the period, the troubles involved with publishing during a war such as the lack of supplies, as well as also examining the sort of books that were popular at the time.  I absolutely loved all this amazing detail about publishing during the war, and it was an outstanding highlight of the book.  I also liked how well it tied into the rest of the book’s narrative as their love of books was not only a key element of both Alice and Theo’s personal storylines but also a major part of the characters, and it was something that made both of them more relatable and likeable to the reader, ensuring that they are more emotionally invested in the story.

In addition to the focus on the publishing world Beecham also explores other intriguing aspects of London during the war.  Probably the most important one relating to the plot was the shocking practice of baby farming, where babies were bought and sold for profit.  This was a remarkably horrifying aspect of history that I wasn’t too familiar with, but Beecham does a great job explaining it throughout her story, going into the history, the impacts, the surrounding social issues and the sort of the people that were involved.  While most aspects of this are a tad disturbing, especially as it is based on some true historical stories, I found this entire inclusion to be really fascinating and it proved to be a compelling story element.  I also quite liked Beecham’s examination of the London Zoo and how it survived during the war, and it was intriguing to see this small bubble of normality amongst the chaos of the blitz and the rest of the story.  All of these incredible historical elements were really interesting parts of Finding Eadie’s story, and I had an amazing time learning more about London life during the war.

Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham is a great and compelling historical drama that proved to be an excellent read.  Containing a strong, emotional charged story, and featuring a clever look at some unique historical elements, this is a very easy book to enjoy which is worth checking out.

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

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage 15

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 16

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #2

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #3

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #4

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #5

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #6

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

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

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

Fair Warning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 26 May 2020)

Series: Jack McEvoy – Book Three

Length: 404 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for another incredible murder mystery from leading crime fiction author, Michael Connelly, as he brings back one of his more intriguing protagonists, reporter Jack McEvoy, for another fantastic novel, Fair Warning.

Following several of his past misadventures, veteran reporter Jack McEvoy is now working for the independent reporting website, Fair Warning, investigating scams and consumer issues. However, McEvoy’s true passion is the murder beat, which he once again finds himself dragged into when LAPD detectives accost him one night, asking him questions about a woman he had a one-night stand with several months ago. The woman has been murdered in a particularly brutal manner, and McEvoy is seen as a key suspect in the case.

Against the wishes of the police and his editor, McEvoy begins to dissect the case on his own, and discovers that several women across the country have died in a similar manner. Investigating each of these deaths, he manages to find a unique connection between the victims that points to a serial killer that has been operating unnoticed for years and who has a disturbing way of finding his next kill.

Determined to hunt down this murderer and bring him to justice, McEvoy recruits his old flame, former FBI agent Rachel Walling, to help his investigation. However, this is no ordinary killer they are hunting. Calling himself the Shrike, their prey is brilliant, meticulous and utterly devoid of any compassion. Can McEvoy and Walling bring him to justice, or have they just painted a target on their back?

Wow, Connelly really knocks it out of the park again with Fair Warning, another excellent and captivating piece of crime fiction. I have been really getting into Connelly’s books over the last couple of years, ever since I read his 2018 release, Dark Sacred Night, which was followed up by one of my favourite books of 2019, The Night Fire. Fair Warning is the 34th book in Connelly’s shared universe of crime fiction (which includes his Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller novels), and it is the third book to feature Jack McEvoy as a protagonist. This latest release proved to be an exceptional read, and I was able to power through it in a short period of time. I loved the fantastic mystery that was featured within it, and Connelly has included several unique features that make it stand out from his main police investigation novels, resulting in an amazing and enjoyable read.

At the heart of this amazing novel lies an impressive and clever murder mystery storyline that proved to be a lot of fun to explore. The book focuses on a hunt for a wicked and terrifying serial killer who has been hunting women across the country and getting away with it. The subsequent investigation into the killer is a compelling and multilayered affair, as the protagonist becomes obsessed with solving the case. The entire mystery storyline is an epic and intriguing affair, and Connelly lays it out in a methodical manner that helps to draw the reader right into the middle of the investigation. I really liked where the investigation goes, and it contains some interesting leads, opposition from law enforcement agencies who do not want a report snooping around and several other unique challenges. Just like with the other Jack McEvoy books, Connelly has come up with a distinctive and driven serial killer for the protagonist to pursue. This killer is a ruthless and intelligent hunter with a terrifying method of eliminating his prey, which he parlays into his disturbing but apt moniker the Shrike. He serves as a worthy antagonist for this excellent mystery, and it proved to be really intriguing to fully investigate and unwind all his actions and intent, although there is still some mystery around this antagonist towards the end of the book. I personally liked the occasional glimpse into the killer’s mind that Connelly provided, as there were a few short chapters told from his perspective, which proved to be rather intriguing. An additional chapter from a third character’s point-of-view also introduced the reader to a couple of witnesses, who, while not directly involved with the killings, had their hands in their case in an interesting but messed up way, which added compelling wrinkles to the entire mystery, and also ensured that the reader had additional villains to wish some comeuppance upon. Overall, this was an excellent and enjoyable murder mystery storyline, and I had an amazing time following it from one end to the next.

Connelly has the rare ability to keep coming up with great and distinctive protagonists for his crime novels, and Jack McEvoy is one of his more intriguing characters. McEvoy is a bit of an autobiographical character for Connelly, as both the author and his creation were crime journalists for the Las Angeles Times. He has been utilised as the main character of two previous novels, The Poet and The Scarecrow, and has also had appearances in some other Connelly books, such as A Darkness More Than Night and The Brass verdict. Long-term fans of Connelly’s writing will enjoy learning about how his life has progressed in the intervening years, and about his current journalistic endeavours. It was great to see him once again involved in a murder investigation, especially another one where he has an emotional attachment to the case, having briefly known the first victim. McEvoy is portrayed as a somewhat reckless and impassioned investigator throughout the book, and he ends up riding some moral lines as he attempts to work out what is more important, the story or catching the killer. It was also great to see the return of Rachel Walling, who has served as the main supporting character and love interest of the previous Jack McEvoy books. McEvoy and Walling’s complex relationship is once again a central piece of this story, and the two of them struggle to work together with their romantic entanglements and complicated past. After all this time the reader cannot help but hope that the two of them will end up together, although there are significant barriers to this happening, such as McEvoy’s suspicious and cynical personality, and their often-opposing viewpoints. Both characters are fantastic additions to the story, and their personal issues serve as pleasant emotional backdrop to the murder mystery angles of the book. I really liked their complicated partnership and it looks like Connelly may have some plans for them in the future.

I was also a big fan of the reporting angle that Fair Warning had. The protagonist is not cop, instead he is a reporter who finds himself involved with the story. As a result, while the protagonist does want to bring the killer to justice, he is also interested in writing the story behind it. This leads to several distinctive differences between this investigation and the more traditional police inquiry, including different ways of obtaining information, being less bound by legal procedures and a different way of dealing with potential witnesses or sources. The book also features several faux journalistic articles (which must have brought Connelly back to his reporting days) that cover key events of the book, and there are some great discussions about the techniques behind writing a newspaper article.

One of the most interesting parts of this reporting element, is the fact that the McEvoy is employed at the reporting website, Fair Warning. Fair Warning is an actual real-life website that provides independent watchdog reporting on consumer issues, which features Connelly as a member of the website’s board of directors. The website’s real-life founder and editor, Myron Levin, appears as a character within the book, and I think that it was a fun inclusion from Connelly that did a great job of showing the current state of journalism in the world today. This is the first Jack McEvoy book written in the era of ‘fake news’, and Connelly spends some time exploring how traditional newspapers are suffering and how the role and status of reporters is changing. This proves to be an intriguing background element to the story, and I am glad that Connelly spent the time raising it within the novel, as well as highlighting the importance of an impartial and observant journalists. Other great parts of the reporting aspect of the book include several fun reporting anecdotes (I really, really hope that the story about one of Levin’s articles distressing a grifter so much that he sued the paper claiming the article caused him rectal bleeding, is true), as well as the examination of other parts of other parts of journalism, such as the emergence of podcasts as a source of media.

Another fantastic element to the story was the author’s examination of the massive industry that has formed around DNA testing for criminal, scientific and personal reasons. Through the course of his investigation, McEvoy discovers that the connection between several of the victims is due to DNA testing. This prompts him to investigate the DNA testing from a consumer watchdog perspective, which allows Connelly to examine a number of potential issues behind the current craze of DNA testing, and he shows it to be an extremely unregulated industry where a lot of unethical actions and behaviours can occur. This proves to be an extremely fascinating part of the book’s plot, especially as Connelly puts forth several different ways that such an industry could be abused for personal or criminal purposes, some of which are rather disturbing in their implications. Connelly did an amazing job exploring the downsides of DNA testing in this book, and it was both extremely fascinating and little scary (it made me glad that I’ve never sent my DNA in for testing, that’s all I’m saying), especially in the way that it was tied into Fair Warning’s mystery.

Michael Connelly has once again showed why he is one of the world’s preeminent authors of crime fiction as he has written another outstanding and highly addictive novel. Fair Warning contains an excellent and captivating story that I could not get enough of. I had an incredible time reading this amazing and clever novel and it comes highly recommended. It has also got me extremely excited for Connelly’s next novel, The Law of Innocence, which comes out later this year.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.

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

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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