Relentless by Jonathan Maberry

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book Two / Joe Ledger – Book 12

Length: 18 hours and 29 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of my absolute favourite series returns with an absolute bang as Jonathan Maberry produces another incredible, intense and thrilling Joe Ledger novel with Relentless, the second novel in the Rogue Team International series.

Readers of my blog will be well aware of how much I love Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series.  This science fiction thriller series, which follows the titular protagonist and his team of elite soldiers as they fight all manner of crazy scientific and supernatural threats, is so much fun and is one of my favourite series.  After reading one of these fantastic books a few years ago, I sat down and listened to the entire series, from Patient Zero, all the way to the final entry, Deep Silence.  It also led me to some of Maberry’s other novels, including last year’s excellent horror novel, Ink, which was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020.  The author also started the Rogue Team International series in 2019 as a sequel series to the original Joe Ledger books, featuring the same characters and universe.  The first entry in this sequel series, Rage, got a five-star rating from me and was one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Due to Rage’s epic conclusion, as well as how much I enjoy Maberry’s writing, I have been eagerly awaiting Relentless for some time now and I ended up being blown away by how awesome it was.

During Rogue Team International’s (RTI) first mission, Joe Ledger and his team faced off against the dangerous pairing of criminal mastermind Kuga and his fearsome enforcer Rafael Santoro, barely managing to stop their insidious, world-changing plot.  However, their victory came at a terrible price, as Santoro delivered fiery vengeance on his foe by killing every member of Ledger’s family in a revenge attack at Christmas.  Santoro and Kuga hoped that their destructive blow would mentally destroy their hated enemy forever; instead, it unleashed their worst nightmare.

After returning to the field, Ledger leads an RTI team to an advanced laboratory where terrible genetic, biological and cybernetic experiments are being performed.  While the mission begins as a textbook RTI operation, everything changes when Ledger comes across a room full of deformed lab subjects and their cruel tormentors.  With his already fragile psyche pushed to the limit by the death of his family, Ledger finally snaps and lets something dark and dangerous from deep within take control.  With blood and bodies trailing in his wake, Ledger abandons his team and goes truly rogue.

Accompanied only by his loyal combat dog, Ghost, Ledger rampages across Europe, killing and destroying anything related to Kuga’s operation and questioning anyone who knows where he and Santoro are.  Even more concerning for the villains, Ledger is also beginning to get close to their next major operation.  Utilising cutting edge technology, Kuga’s group have developed biologically enhanced super soldiers, equipped with some of the most destructive weapons available.  Their next plan will unleash a devastating attack within America that will change the political and social landscape for generations to come.  However, not even their most advanced troops may be enough to stop the dark thing that Ledger has become, and Kuga is soon forced to make a Faustian deal with someone, or something, whose evil eclipses Ledger’s insanity.  Can Ledger defeat his hated foes and save his own soul at the same time, or will he finally be overwhelmed by his own inner darkness?

Once again Maberry shows why he is one of the most exciting and impressive thriller writers out there as Relentless was another epic and wildly captivating novel.  This latest Rogue Team International novel contains a complex and thrilling narrative that sets its already complex main character into a horrific quest for vengeance and redemption.  Throw in an incredible amount of action, a very clever and well-written story, and some memorable characters, and you have an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

In Relentless, Maberry produces an extremely intense and fast-paced novel that is both character driven and loaded with some of the best action you will ever read.  Following up from the dramatic conclusion of Rage, Relentless is one of the darker and more inventive books in the Joe Ledger franchise, presenting the reader with a brutal revenge story as the protagonist puts the rogue in Rogue Team International to kill anyone associated with his foes.  Maberry once again makes great use of the unique writing style that has been such a hallmark of this series, with the novel made up of shorter chapters told from a vast number of different perspectives, including several interludes set in the past, to produce a more complex and multifaceted tale and showcase the elaborate plans of the antagonists.

However, the author also tries something new in this book, with a noticeable change of focus away from the protagonist for a good portion of the early novel to highlight some major character developments.  This results in a bit less humour during the first part of the book, but this is more than made up for with a darker and more powerful storyline.  The story focus does eventually revert to the series’ usual form about halfway through the novel, just in time for the protagonist to find himself with information about a complex and intriguing evil plot that only he can stop.  This leads to a pretty epic conclusion with some fun twists and several major moments of worry and surprise, especially as you get some massive concurrent scenes as Ledger and his allies battle the enemy in several destructive and dangerous battles.  The action throughout Relentless is typical Maberry, with some very detailed and graphic depictions of the techniques and damage done, and it is near impossible not to get sucked in the combat as the powerful scenes unfold.  Readers should be warned that parts of this novel can get a little dark and gruesome as Maberry pulls no punches, but it is very much worth sticking through the blood and guts to see the captivating narrative unfold.  I quickly became sucked into his awesome story, and I loved every second of it, managing to finish it off in extremely short order.  It looks like Maberry has some intriguing plans for the future of this series, and I for one am extremely excited for that.

Like most of the Joe Ledger/Rogue Team International novels, Maberry has made Relentless extremely accessible to new readers.  While I personally would suggest reading Rage first, due to the tragic ending that plays into the events of this novel, people unfamiliar with the preceding books can jump in here and still have an excellent time reading this book.  Maberry does an amazing job recapping all the key events of the prior novels, including character bios, descriptions of technology and summaries of various cases.  As a result, the reader is never left in the dark about what is happening and who is being talked about, although the certain significance of some characters or revelations might be slightly tempered until the protagonist describes them.  One thing I would note after having read all the Joe Ledger books in the last couple of years is that Maberry tends to reuse the same phrases and terms when it comes to describing certain characters or events.  While this was fine the first few times, by book 12 in the overall series, it is very noticeable and slightly detrimental to the flow of the story.  However, this was an overall incredible novel with more than enough unique features to make it really stand out from the rest of the books in the series.

One of the best parts of any of Maberry’s novels are the complex and likeable characters featured within them.  Over the years Maberry has produced some truly great and memorable characters for the Joe Ledger novels, and it was great to see so many of them return for Relentless, especially as most of them go through some major development.  The most prominent of these is titular protagonist Joe Ledger, who has one of his most significant roles here in Relentless.  Ledger has always been an extremely troubled and damaged protagonist, which has grown more and more apparent as the series progressed as he is forced to deal with additional traumas.  However, this is the book where he truly snaps, as he is dealing with the brutal death of every member of his family.  While Ledger starts the book mostly fine (by his already low standards), it doesn’t take him long to lose the plot.  Fans of this series will understand Ledger’s mind is already broken up into three distinct personalities, the Cop, the Modern Man, and the Killer, which together form his mostly balanced psyche.  However, the events of Rage have resulted in a fourth personality, the Darkness, which subverts Ledger’s mind and leads him to commit acts of terrible violence and destruction while massively freaking everyone out.  The Darkness completely takes over Ledger, ensuring that you don’t see into his head for a good portion of the novel, which is an interesting change considering that Ledger is the only character in the series with a first-person perspective.  While this really changes the tone of this novel, it perfectly highlights just how far-gone Ledger is.  Even when he regains control of his mind and becomes a prominent point-of-view character again, the Darkness is still there, and he has to fight hard to control it.  All this makes for quite a fantastic and deep read, and it was captivating to see the protagonist deal with the traumatic events of a previous novel in such a dramatic and destructive manner.  Maberry really amps up how dangerous Ledger can be in this novel, and there are some truly disturbing and concerning scenes when the Darkness takes over.  It will be really interesting to see how Ledger comes back from the events of this book in the future, and I am extremely curious to see what happens to the character next.

In addition to the outstanding central protagonist, Maberry fills up Relentless with great supporting characters, most of whom have been introduced in previous Joe Ledger novels.  Maberry really likes a wide spread of characters throughout his novels, resulting in an interesting group of perspectives as the various supporting characters and minor inclusions experience the events of the narrative.  It was great to see many long-running side characters return in Relentless, especially as they are severely impacted by Ledger’s walk on the dark side.  While a couple of usually major characters only have a couple of scenes in this book, the usual DMS/RTI mainstays are all there.  Ledger’s squad mates, Top and Bunny, have a particularly intriguing storyline in this novel, which sees them go undercover to infiltrate Kuga’s operation while being conflicted about Ledger’s actions.  It was also great to see more of mysterious RTI leader, Mr Church, the guy who totally isn’t some sort of avenging angel or benevolent god (those are my two top guesses at this point).  While Church doesn’t get as much focus as he has in previous books, he is still a major presence, and there some more hints at his past with one of the antagonists.  There are also a couple of fun new unique characters introduced who Ledger meets up with as he pursues his quest for vengeance.  Several of them are cool, and I look forward to seeing if they show up again.

Out of all the many supporting characters, there are two that I particularly want to focus on as they had some very strong arcs within this book.  The first is Alexander Chismer, better known as Toys, the former villain who is seeking redemption and is now a close friend of Ledger’s partner Junie.  Toys goes back into the field to find Ledger, even though they really dislike each other.  Toys is a pretty smooth operator, and it was fun to see him go back to his criminal roots, even though it was for a good cause.  When he eventually catches up to Ledger, their meeting doesn’t go amazingly well (someone gets shot), but they do end up having a rather fantastic and entertaining heart-to-heart.  The comparison between their respective paths to redemption is rather deep and fascinating, and it was very intriguing to finally see these two characters interact in an extended way.  The other character I absolutely must talk about is Ledger’s dog, Ghost, the bestest boy in all of fiction.  Ghost has a pretty rough time in this novel, as he is Ledger’s only companion during his master’s dark spells and ends up getting into some very violent confrontations.  Maberry is extremely good at writing canine characters, and most readers will find it next to impossible not to fall in love with this savage, sassy cuddle monster.  Due to the many bad circumstances that Ledger and Ghost finds themselves in, I found myself feeling a lot of worry for Ghost, especially as Ledger seemed crazy enough to hurt him at times.  The fact that I felt strongly anxious for a fictional dog should tell you all you need to know about Maberry’s ability to write likeable characters, and readers should be warned that they will be experiencing feels in this novel.

It wouldn’t be a Maberry book without some impressive and complex antagonists, and this novel is chock full of villains with an intriguing master plan.  The main antagonists of Relentless are the same as Rage, with the fun combination of Kuga and Rafael Santoro.  Both Kuga and Santoro are recurring Joe Ledger antagonists (Kuga was the main villain of Kill Switch under a different name, while Santoro was a significant antagonist in The King of Plagues).  As a result, they have an amazing amount of history with Ledger and the RTI, which makes them quite dangerous foes.  Both are a bit more unhinged in this novel, especially once it becomes clear that a deranged Ledger is on their tail, and it was great to see them slowly become a little more desperate.  Despite this, they have a pretty intense and detailed plot to make a large amount of money through the sale of their advanced weapons, technology and enhanced mercenaries.  Their master plan for destruction and manipulation is very clever and takes a while to fully become apparent to the protagonist and the reader.  Maberry lays the groundwork for this plan perfectly throughout his narrative and the eventual reveal of what they are hoping for is pretty cool and leads to several amazing scenes that play off current events really well.

In addition to the antagonists that appeared in Rage, Relentless also features one of Maberry’s most mysterious and sinister villains.  Going by the name of Mr Sunday in this book (which I assume is a fun little nod to Mr Church’s fake name), this antagonist is a very creepy and dangerous being who has had some impressive appearances before (Assassins Code, Predator One and Dogs of War for example).  The moment he appeared in this book, I knew that I was going to be in for a good time, as this character is essentially the devil incarnate (there is a strong chance he is the devil).  Maberry does an incredible job building him up once again in this novel, and he ends up terrifying his potential allies just as much as his enemies.  This character’s appearance has some major implications for Ledger and Mr Church, and it is highly implied that his appearance is causing some of Ledger’s instability.  While he is mostly just coasting off Kuga and Santoro’s plans in this book, he also has his own sinister plans which come into fruition perfectly.  As a result, he is a pretty fantastic addition to the plot, and I loved the entertaining interludes that featured his elaborate sales presentations.  It looks like Maberry has some big plans for this character in the future, and I am very excited to see what chaos he has in stall for the world next.

Aside from the main villains I mentioned above, Maberry also utilises some great supporting antagonists who act as assassins and henchmen.  This includes the deranged Eve, who was introduced in Rage and who lost her partner and lover, Adam, to Ledger.  This loss has driven her even more insane, and there are several crazy chapters shown from her perspective, and she represents the typical sexual degenerate antagonist that Maberry likes.  There is also a new henchman character in Michael Augustus Stafford, a hired gun considered one of the best assassins in the world and is often referred to as the anti-Ledger due to his similar appearance to the protagonist.  Stafford leads Kuga’s hunt for Ledger throughout Europe and America and is a dogged tail for much of the book.  There are some very intense cat-and-mouse scenes occurring between the two as they attempt to get the upper hand on each other.  I really appreciated the way in which the author took the time to building up these less prominent antagonists throughout the novel, and you get a great sense of their personalities and abilities.  I would say that they don’t live up to their full potential at the end of the novel, but it was still fantastic to see their entire storyline unfold.

Another hallmark of a great Maberry book is some of cool technology featured in the story, especially as it results in some excellent and over-the-top fight scenes.  The villains get some impressive and over-the-top toys in this novel, including biological enhancements, advanced body armour that has a lethal kick to it and massive armoured exoskeletons loaded with giant guns.  Maberry has some fun building up the capability of these devices through several of the interludes, and they do not disappoint, causing all manner of chaos and destruction around the world.  That ensures that when the protagonists encounter them they are in for a real fight, as it gives their enemies an edge against RTI agents who usually have the most advanced tech.  It was really cool to see this technology in action, and Maberry dreams up some outstanding scenes around them.  All the fight sequences featuring them in Relentless are ultra-impressive, and readers are in for some great scenes, especially as many of them involve the less destructive and sleeker RTI technology versus the purely destructive Kuga weapons.  I really enjoyed seeing these advanced weapons in use, and it helps to give some of the action scenes a major boost.

Just like I have with every other Jonathan Maberry book I have enjoyed, I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Relentless.  I have a lot of love for the Maberry audiobooks, and in my opinion it is the best way to enjoy these cool novels.  The main reason for this is the amazing recurring narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of nearly every single one of Maberry’s novels.  Porter is one of my absolute favourite narrators, and if he is voicing something, I know I am going to love it.  This narrator always manages to deftly drag the listener in and keep their complete attention throughout the entire production.  He really dives into the various characters, ensuring every one of them has an appropriate voice, with cool accents and relevant speech patterns.  He is also extremely good at portraying emotion, and he always goes out of his way to highlight a character’s feelings in their speech patterns, whether it be excitement, grief, anger, or something darker.  This is particularly noticeable with protagonist Joe Ledger.  I have noted before at how effortlessly Porter inhabits the role of this complex character, ensuring that the reader gets his full range of feelings, including his boundless rage and outrageous sense of humour (he really gets Ledger’s sarcasm).  Porter does another amazing job in Relentless, and it was really cool to hear his take on the more unhinged Ledger, and he really helps to add an extra sense of menace and anger during the scenes where Ledger is out of control.  Each of the voices used in this book are extremely good (I would critique the voice of one Australian character, but it’s a fairly minor role), and it was an absolute joy to once again listen to his narration.  With a run time of just under 18 and a half hours, this is a rather long Joe Ledger novel, although I powered through it in less than a week due to how much fun I was having.  This version of Relentless comes highly recommended, and it is already one of the best audiobooks I have listened to all year.

Well, that was a damn impressive novel.  As you can see from my rather long and happy review above, I had an outstanding time reading Relentless by Jonathan Maberry, and I found it to be an incredible read.  The Rogue Team International series continues to be one of the most thrilling series out there, and I loved the complex damaged characters and intense storyline this latest novel contained.  Easily one of my favourite books of the year, Relentless gets a five-star rating from me and is highly recommended to anyone wanting guaranteed action, fun and comprehensive darkness.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is that time of the year again when I absolutely gush about the latest volume of the epic and outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic series by the infinity talented Stan Sakai.  This time I look at the 35th volume in this incredible long-running series, Homecoming, which presents the reader with a rich and emotional tale of regret and loyalty as Usagi returns home.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading my blog will already know of my deep love for the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series.  Following the adventures of the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, this series is set in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, and features incredible stories about samurais and honour.  Homecoming, which contains issues #8-14 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, is the second volume printed completely in colour, and features the work of colourist Tom Luth in addition to Sakai’s writing and drawing.  This latest volume follows on shortly after the events of previous volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, and continues three intense and powerful unique stories.

The first story in this volume is the two-issue entry TatamiTatami sees Usagi return to the lands of his former master, the late Lord Mifune, now ruled over by nefarious series villain, Lord Hikiji.  Journeying through a now hostile countryside, Usagi finds himself following an armed procession who are transporting high-quality tatami mats to the castle of one of Lord Hikiji’s rivals.  Usagi finds the caravan under attack by the Neko Ninja, who are determined to destroy the tatami.  When Usagi’s long-time ally and former Neko Ninja head, Chizu, appears, it soon becomes apparent that Hikiji has dispatched the ninja to destroy the tatami in order to damage his rival’s reputation.  Determined to defy Hikiji, Usagi and Chizu travel with the caravan to help guard the tatami from attack.  However, Chizu soon comes into conflict with her rival, Kagemaru, as they fight for leadership of their clan.  Can Usagi and Chizu disrupt the plans of Hikiji and Kagemaru, or will the dark lord continue to reign supreme?

Anyone who thinks it impossible to write a compelling story with death, politics and ninja around tatami mats has clearly never had the joy of reading one of Sakai’s stories before.  Throughout the Usagi Yojimbo series, Sakai has written some thrilling and intense stories around unique elements of Japanese culture, including seaweed farming, pottery making, sake brewing, and giant kite making, just to name a few.  This latest example, Tatami, is no exception to this, as Sakai crafts together a fascinating story that not only highlights the importance and prestige of tatami mats but which also perfectly ties into the wider Usagi Yojimbo universe.  Tatami starts strong, with a fantastic and exquisitely drawn sequence that shows the crafting process behind the tatami, from harvesting the reeds, to the lengthy weaving process.  The story then introduces Usagi to the narrative, also providing some key background for the main storyline in the Homecoming volume.  The action swiftly follows with the tatami caravan under attack from cunning ninja, and Usagi is convinced to help guard the tatami with the help of Chizu.  This all leads up to an epic night fight as Usagi and his allies face off against a horde of ninja.  This fight scene is particularly well drawn and features some great examples of sword play, a beautiful scene of fire and intensity as Usagi appears to stand alone in front of a swarm of ninja, and several massive explosions as the ninjas detonate black powder bombs.  This all leads up to a rather poignant finale, as Usagi suffers from a rare and moving defeat and people he respects are called upon to sacrifice everything for their samurai sense of honour.

In addition to the main story surrounding the tatami, there is also a rather interesting side-plot surrounding Chizu and her battle with Kagemaru for control of the Neko Ninja.  This has been a long-running conflict going back all the way to 11th volume, Seasons, and it was great to see some more progress on it, especially as it ties Tatami into some of the wider Usagi Yojimbo storylines.  This subplot proves to be pretty damn cool, as Chizu works to manipulate Kagemaru and her former followers, using the catspaw of Usagi and the other tatami guards.  This ends up in a fun ninja duel, as Chizu faces off against Kagemaru and another ninja, Kimi, above the plain where Usagi is fighting.  This is a fast-paced and deadly fight which makes use of several different ninja tricks and weapons, and which proves to be an exciting and cool addition to the plot.  There are a couple of intriguing, if slightly predictable, developments within this narrative, although it does hint that we are getting closer to a conclusion of this long-running Neko Ninja plot line.

The real highlight of the Chizu subplot, and indeed the entire story, is the outstanding epilogue where Kagemaru meets with Lord Hikiji’s main advisor, the giant serpent Lord Hebi.  While Kagemaru is initially expecting praise for his actions, it becomes apparent that Hebi and Hikiji are displeased that Chizu continues to disrupt their plans when Kagemaru is offered unique sake, brewed using poisonous serpents.  There is an incredible amount of menace in this entire sequence, especially once Hebi pours out the dead serpent from the sake, and then proceeds to eat in front of Kagemaru (nothing is more intimidating that some light cannibalism).  Hebi’s simple warning: “Do not ever fail us, Kagemaru,” is an amazing way to end this scene, and the mighty ninja leader is left absolutely shaken as he leaves Hebi’s presence.  This epilogue was perfectly written and drawn, and it proves to be an outstanding way to end this story arc, while also hinting that the Chizu-Kagemaru rivalry is about to heat up.  I absolutely loved this great first story, and Tatami proves to be an exceptional start to the entire volume.

The next story in this volume is the moving and intriguing Mon, which also follows Usagi’s travels through the land of his former lord, Mifune.  However, Usagi soon encounters much fear and resentment from the people he encounters, many of whom try to avoid his attention.  He soon discovers that they are shunning him because he still wears the mon (crest) of his former lord on his clothes, reminding people of the costly war that Mifune fought and lost against Lord Hikiji.  The tense situation gets even worse for Usagi when several Hikiji soldiers notice him and attempt to take their anger and resentment out on him, which does not go well for them.  Further, when a desperate innkeeper and former Mifune soldier works out who Usagi truly was, various ambitious Hikiji soldiers gather to claim the substantial bounty of Usagi’s head.

This was another fantastic entry, and one that proves to be rather touching and dramatic.  Sakai does a wonderful job setting up the main story around the Mifune mon and why it is currently feared and hated throughout his former lands.  The impeccably loyal Usagi is forced to deal with unexpected hatred and concern from those he encounters, which once again makes him think about the past with great regret and concern, especially as he continues to battle with his own conflicted loyalties about whether he should continue to serve a dead master.  There are several fantastic references to Usagi’s role in the war’s final battle, as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was interesting that there is still fallout after all these years.  It was also great to learn more about mons and the importance that they can have to the people wearing them.  This is explored to a degree within the story itself, but Sakai also includes a detailed author note at the end of Mon which describes the history behind mons in general and their current role in Japanese society, while also discussing Usagi and the Sakai family mons.  I particularly liked the story surrounding the innkeeper, who, after years of desperation, finally loses his loyalty to the Mifune cause by informing on Usagi.  The final encounter between Usagi, the Hikiji troops and the bartender is also amazingly drawn, and the dramatic cliffhanger helps turn this into a pretty impressive story.

The final story in Homecoming is the powerful tale, The Return, which finds Usagi in the one place he has been trying to avoid the most, his old home village.  After the conclusion of Mon, Usagi washes up in his village and soon finds himself in the care of the love of his life, Mariko, and her husband, Kenichi.  As the usual feelings of regret, anger and resentment quickly grow between the childhood friends once more, Usagi finds himself forced into a far more serious conflict.  A cadre of former Mifune samurai have arrived in town and captured all the villagers.  Led by the fanatical Kato, these samurai seek vengeance for their lord and plan to destroy Hikiji’s influence and power by attacking an emissary of the Shogun as he travels through the village.  Torn between loyalty to his dead lord and the survival of his village, Usagi must work with Kenichi if there is any chance to save the people they love most in the world.

The Return is an exceptional and moving story which serves as the centrepiece and main entry of the Homecoming volume.  There is a lot going on in this final story, and Sakai manages to craft together an outstanding narrative that continues the dramatic and touching arc surrounding the failed love between Usagi and Mariko and the multiple complications accompanying it, and which also places Usagi and everyone he loves in great danger.  The Return continues immediately after the events of Mon, and Usagi is quickly engulfed in both the drama surrounding Mariko and Kenichi and the overall danger of the former Mifune samurai.  This soon results in a conflicted Usagi forced to bluff his way through the encounter in order to try and save his village from the samurai’s deadly revenge plot.  Working together with Mariko and Kenichi, Usagi’s plan eventually results in a bloody, extended battle against the invading samurai.  This proves to be a pretty epic and intense narrative, and Sakai really amped up the action and the stakes of the entire story by setting Usagi up against some of his former comrades.  There are so many great elements to this story, although you have to love the extended battle sequence at the end, especially once recurring characters Katsuichi and Jotaro make their appearance.  The final parts of this entire story are pretty touching, as the various characters say their goodbyes, and Sakai leaves this entire volume on an intriguing note, as for the first time it hints at another fencing master Usagi trained after, and which makes me eager for the next volume in this series.

The most intriguing elements of the entire story are the complex antagonists that are former comrades of Usagi who are willing to commit atrocities in the name of their dead lord.  For years, the former followers of the late Lord Mifune are seen in a bit of a tragic light, with most of them, especially Usagi, portrayed as extremely honourable men, much in the vein of their deceased lord.  As a result, it is extremely jarring to see former Mifune samurai engage in such vile actions, especially as they justify as part of their oaths to their lord: “A samurai cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord!”  There are some clear 47 Ronin inspirations here, with former samurai gathering after many years to achieve a final vengeance, even if this story is a little darker than the classic Japanese tale.  There are also some deep and compelling discussions about honour and loyalty throughout The Return, especially as Usagi is forced to balance his loyalty to his late lord against his own personal honour, feelings about his childhood village, and his own memories about Lord Mifune’s character.  The inevitable confrontation between Usagi and his former comrades is pretty harsh, and it was interesting to see a fight between two different groups of Mifune supporters who believe that their way is the right way.  I felt that the use of colour was particularly effective in The Return, as it made the final battle sequence really pop.  It was also very memorable to see Usagi face off against samurai dressed in the same Mifune clothes and colours that Usagi has worn in every comic.  Seeing a group of similarly coloured and clothed characters facing off against Usagi makes for a very different battle sequence, and it was really interesting to see.

Easily the thing I was most looking forward to in this volume was the emotional fireworks that would occur when Usagi eventually returned to his home village.  This has previously happened in two separate occasions, in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles, both of which proved to be utterly heartbreaking.  Much of this revolves around the complicated love triangle between Usagi, who is still deeply in love with Mariko, who is married to his old rival, Kenichi.  While Mariko still has great feelings for Usagi, she is bound to Kenichi by her honour, and will not leave them, especially as it will shatter her whole family.  At the same time, Kenichi, who has always resented Usagi for his talent and luck, knows that Usagi and Mariko have feelings for each other, which breaks his heart, as he has also always loved Mariko.  All this is further complicated by the fact that Mariko and Kenichi’s son, Jotaro, is really Usagi’s child, who Kenichi willingly raised as his own son.  This has resulted in much conflict and despair amongst the three in the past, and it honestly does not take long for the anger and resentment to build up once more in The Return, especially as Kenichi is angry that Usagi encouraged Jotaro to seek out his old fencing master rather than go to the school Kenichi learned from.  While there are several great sequences where Usagi and Mariko once again display their unspoken love, much of the focus of The Return revolves around the intense rivalry between Usagi and Kenichi.  The story starts with their usual resentment and anger towards each other, but the two eventually start to work on their differences, especially as they prepare to save their villages.  There are several fun flashbacks to some of their adventures as children, which showed their early rivalries, as well as the two of them achieving great things together.  This comes to the fore as the story progresses, and the two are once again able to set aside their differences for the greater good.  This was an amazing thing to see, especially as they have been mostly antagonistic to each other throughout the entire series, and I liked how Sakai worked to resolve their conflict.  There were also several touching scenes between Jotaro and both of his fathers, which really represented one of the most important things the two former rivals have in common, and I loved that Sakai included Jotaro in this story.

There were some amazing moments in The Return, and I was deeply impressed with the incredible story that Sakai used as the centrepiece of this volume.  I really liked how Sakai successfully blended together so much action and intrigue with a powerful character-driven narrative, and I loved the cool examinations of honour and loyalty as a formerly bitter rivalry started to come to an end.  This final entry really delivered on all the potential of Homecoming and Sakai has done an exceptional job here crafting this story together.  I also really appreciated the way in which the other stories within Homecoming served as prequels to The Return, with key plot elements introduced in the earlier entries in the volume.  This was some extremely clever storytelling, and it really helps Homecoming to stand out as an exceptional and fantastic volume in this epic series.

As usual, the art of this Usagi Yojimbo comic was absolutely exquisite, and Sakai has worked his typical visual magic, creating several striking and powerful sequences throughout the entire volume.  In addition to some of the impressive action sequences and scenes I have mentioned above, Sakai produces some outstanding shots of the iconic Japanese landscape, with some incredible drawings of forests, mountains, towns and plains.  Each of these is pretty breathtaking, especially now that they are in colour, as the recently introduced colour work of Tom Luth really adds some new depth to the already awesome drawings.  I absolutely love the way in which Sakai matches his simple yet beautiful drawings with the complex storylines contained within Homecoming, and readers are in for a fantastic visual treat when they check this volume out.

Even after 35 outstanding volumes of the Usagi Yojimbo series, the amazing Stan Sakai continues to show why he is one of the best comic creators in the business with the incredible Homecoming.  Featuring several touching and powerful stories, which are backed up with some exceptional character work and stunning artwork, Homecoming is another superb collection of Usagi Yojimbo tales.  Fans of this long-running series are going to have an absolute blast reading this latest volume and it is very much worth checking out.

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

The Two-Faced Queen Cover 2

The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2021)

Series: Standalone/sequel to The Things We Cannot Say

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to have your heart broken again and again as Australian author Kelly Rimmer presents a captivating, powerful and dark historical drama, The Warsaw Orphan.

Warsaw, 1942.  The Nazis have a firm control over all of Poland and have moved the entire Jewish population into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.  Vastly overcrowded and with limited supplies, life is extremely hard in the Ghetto, and many have given up all hope.  For Jewish teen Roman Gorka, all he can do is try to survive and earn enough to keep his family alive.  However, when rumours spread through the Ghetto about the Nazi plans to transport them to “work camps” out in the forest, Roman knows that it is time to act.  Knowing that the lives of himself and his parents are already forfeit, Roman attempts to find a way to save his younger siblings.

At the same time, a young woman, Elzbieta Rabinek, has just arrived in the city and appears to be a typical Polish girl living with her family.  However, Elzbieta is hiding a dangerous secret: her real name is Emilia, and she is the younger sister of an executed Jewish sympathiser.  Fleeing her village with her new family, Emilia is kept hidden from any potential pursuers.  But when Emilia discovers the truth about the Ghetto, she becomes determined to help and joins an underground group of women working to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

As Emilia becomes more involved with the secret work of her organisation, she soon encounters Roman.  Working together to save Roman’s younger sister, the two grow close and soon their fates are inevitably tied together.  But when a terrible tragedy strikes, both Roman and Emilia will be thrown into disarray.  As Warsaw becomes overwhelmed with fire and despair, can these two young people survive with hope, or will they be washed away in a flood of righteous anger?

Wow, just wow.  This was an incredibly touching historical drama that has really impressed me thanks to its moving story and striking portrayals of life in World War II Warsaw.  The Warsaw Orphan is the latest novel from Australian author Kelly Rimmer, who has previously produced moving novels such as Truths I Never Told You and Before I Let You GoThe Warsaw Orphan is actually a sequel to Rimmer’s previous book, The Things We Cannot Say, with some of the supporting characters from the previous novel appearing in more prominence in this latest novel.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Warsaw Orphan a few weeks ago and thought it sounded like an intriguing novel, especially as it was from a new-to-me Australian author.  Based on the synopsis for the book, I knew going in that this would be a dark and emotionally rich novel, but I was very surprised with how compelling and poignant the narrative it contained would be.  Using the perspectives of the two narrators, Roman and Emilia, Rimmer paints a grim and powerful picture of the situation in Warsaw which the two protagonists find themselves in at the start of the book.  Both story arcs progress on their own separate way for a while, and it is intriguing to see the different experiences of two people living only a few streets away from each other in Warsaw.  It does not take long for the protagonists to encounter each other, combining the narrative together.  While the initial joining of their character arcs brings some hope to the story, Rimmer makes sure to quickly crush that with despair and heartbreak as both protagonists experiences tragedy after tragedy, as a series of different historical catastrophes engulf Warsaw and its people.  Every time the two central characters appear to be close to some sort of happiness, some new danger or disaster seems to befall them, and the reader is forced to sit back and watch as they endure their latest hardship.  While this novel is emotionally tough to read at times, Rimmer’s excellent storytelling ensures that you keep moving forward, especially as you become really invested in the lives of her two protagonists and the struggles of the various peoples of Warsaw.  While you may be left emotionally ragged and drained by the end of this book, readers will come away from this story extremely satisfied and with a little bit of hope.

I must really highlight the author’s outstanding and powerful depiction of historical events and places throughout The Warsaw Orphan.  Rimmer has clearly done her research on the subject and utilises a lot of fascinating and horrifying historical elements to great effect throughout the narrative.  For example, much of the story surrounding Emilia and the organisation she joins that helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto is based on real life Polish hero Irena Sendler, with various features of Sendler’s work and personality imparted on some supporting characters.  The portrayal of occupied Warsaw is also extremely impressive, and you get a real sense of life in the city.  This is especially true of the Ghetto, as the author spends a significant amount of time exploring what happened within.  Rimmer pulls no punches when it comes to the horrors of the Ghetto and the brutalities the Nazi regime imparted on the Jewish population.  The various descriptions of the Ghetto are extremely harrowing, but through them the reader gets a sense of what the people within would have experienced.  I particularly appreciated the way in which she tried to capture the uncertainty that many of the characters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had about the Nazis’ plans and you get a real sense of the fear and confusion in the lead up to the deportations.  Rimmer ends up covering all the key events that occurred in Warsaw between 1942 and 1947, and readers get some powerful and detailed views of the forced deportations to the camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the German retreat and the subsequent Soviet occupation.  The author shows every dark aspect of these historical events as her point-of-view characters find themselves involved in them, often to their great detriment.  All these powerful and remarkable historical events and locations serve as a great backdrop to this dramatic tale, and I found it fascinating to learn more about some of these events.

Rimmer has come up with an incredible pair of young point-of-view characters for this book, Roman and Emilia.  Roman is a Jewish teen living in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family.  Through his eyes you get to see many of the horrors of the Ghetto, starvation, Nazi oppression and the constant fear and death.  Rimmer does an impressive job of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of someone caught up in these terrible events, and I really appreciated the strong sense of survival and desperation you get from him.  This quickly morphs in anger, righteousness and revenge when Roman experiences one tragedy too many, and he becomes in a number of dangerous fights against his oppressors.  Not only does this result in a number of brutal war sequences, but Rimmer paints a picture of a rebellious soul whose anger and moral outrage overwhelm his senses and force him to do darker and more dangerous deeds.  This depiction of anger and rage is quite powerful, and definitely fits an individual who loses everything and does not know what to do.

Emilia, on the other hand, is a somewhat more innocent figure, who, despite not being Jewish, has her own experiences with oppression after witnessing her brother dying in The Things We Cannot Say.  Due to the events of this previous book, she has fled to Warsaw with her adoptive parents, hiding under an assumed name.  Despite the troubles she is running from, Emilia chafes under the rules her guardians put in place, especially once she learns what is happening in the Ghetto.  Despite her fear, uncertainty and loyalty to her guardians’ wishes, Emilia soon becomes involved in the smuggling of children.  I really liked how Rimmer decided to utilise her previous character in this novel, and the author does a great job of revisiting parts of her story so that new readers can appreciate what has happened in her past.  Emilia proves to be a really interesting character throughout the book, and I loved the contrast in views between her views of Warsaw and Roman’s darker experiences.  Watching a non-Jewish citizen experience the horrors of the Ghetto for the first time is pretty moving, and the reader feels a certain kinship to her as they are also witnesses to the various tragedies.  I loved the storyline surrounding Emilia joining the movement to save Jewish children, and the author utilises her to tell this group’s very unique tale extremely well. 

Both Roman and Emilia have some fantastic storylines in The Warsaw Orphan, and I really liked the way their two separate character arcs come together.  These two characters experience an immense amount of grief, regret, violence and despair throughout the book, and their connection is one of the few things to keep them going.  Rimmer sets up both characters extremely well throughout The Warsaw Orphan and readers will quickly become obsessed with their unique tales and harrowing experiences.  I think both character storylines worked extremely well on their own, but together they tell an even more tragic story, as these two fall in love amongst the worst moments of human history.  Seeing the various tragedies and poor decisions that impact their relationship is pretty heartbreaking, and the reader is left in hope that they both survive in the end.  I think that Rimmer did an exceptional job creating and developing these two characters, and it is a mark of her writing ability that I ended up caring so much for them both. 

The Warsaw Orphan by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is an exceptional and incredible historical drama that comes highly recommended.  Rimmer has produced a first-rate story that perfectly utilises two tragic protagonists, an extremely dark and atrocious historical period and an addictive, if tragic, story of love, loss and survival.  The Warsaw Orphan is a powerful and compelling book that will stick in your mind long after you finish its final harrowing page.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7: Gen’s Story by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Gen's Story

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1996)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Seven

Length: 187 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I once again dive into the wonderful world of Usagi Yojimbo and review the seventh volume of this incredible ongoing comic series, Gen’s Story. I have been really enjoying going back and reviewing the older volumes of this fantastic comic by legendary writer and artist Stan Sakai, and this seventh volume is another excellent addition to the series that I always have a terrific time reading.

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Gen’s Story is an amazing example of a Usagi Yojimbo volume, which contains several short stories, each of which shows a unique tale set within the series’ clever version of feudal Japan populated with anthropomorphised animals. Each of the individual stories in this volume is rather good, and together they form a fantastic volume that not only introduces a recurring side-character but which also explores the backstory of another key character and serves as a perfect end note for one of the series’ best character arcs. This volume is made up of issues #32-38 of the Fantagraphics Books run on Usagi Yojimbo, as well as a story from Critters #38, which makes Gen’s Story a tad longer than a typical volume. All of these issues make for an awesome read, and Gen’s Story is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series.

The first story contained within this volume is the fun and enjoyable tale, Kitsune. In this story Usagi encounters a talented street performer, Kitsune, who entertains the crowd with the tricks she can perform with her koma (spinning tops). However, Kitsune is much more than a simple entertainer; she is also an extremely skilled thief and pickpocket who manages to take Usagi’s purse without him realising it. This forces Usagi to stay late at an inn, washing dishes to pay for his meal, which results in him witnessing and intervening in an altercation between a notorious gambler and some local gangsters. Deciding to help the gambler under the mistaken belief that he is an innocent merchant, Usagi attempts to escort him out of town, where the two encounter Kitsune again just before the gangsters attack, leading to a fight in the streets.

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Kitsune is an entertaining story that works well as a suitably light-hearted start to the entire volume (get a fun story in before the feels start). The whole of this story is really amusing from the very start, and it contains some great comedy elements, from Usagi getting taken advantage of by Kitsune and the way he doesn’t initially realise that the person he is helping out is the same gambler who previously led a mob against him in A Kite Story, which was part of the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This leads to a great scenario where the gambler is forced to rely on Usagi for protection, while silently hoping that he will not remember who he is or what he previously did. Of course, Usagi eventually figures out who he is, thanks to the gambler’s boasting, and this results in a great end to the whole farcical tale. This issue also serves as an excellent introduction to the character of Kitsune, who goes on to become a major recurring figure within the Usagi Yojimbo stories. Sakai does a fantastic job showing off Kitsune’s personality and skills as a thief throughout this story, and I also love all the cool drawings he does of Kitsune’s various tricks with the spinning tops. Kitsune’s entire arc throughout this story is great, and I love how Usagi was able to get even with her at the very end, which is a fun prequel to all their future encounters. The combination of an entertaining plot, a great character introduction and an enjoyable call-back to a previous story helps to make Kitsune an excellent first entry in this volume, and I had an amazing time reading it.

The second story in this volume is the short entry Gaki. Gaki is quick and amusing story that follows a young Usagi back when he was a student under the tutelage of his sword master Katsuichi. After one of Katsuichi’s typical lessons, which sees Usagi receive a smack to the head, Usagi attempts to retaliate, striking a blow that seemingly kills his master and causes his ghost to start haunting Usagi. Of course, it ends up being a whole big misdirection, but it results in a fun sequence in which young Usagi is chased by a vengeful spirit, which all leads to a humorous conclusion. The highlight of this quick tale has to be the amazing drawings of the vengeful spirit and the pure terror that appears on the face of the young Usagi, all of which are way out of proportion to Gaki’s rather innocent story. All of this makes for an entertaining second inclusion in Gen’s Story, and it, together with the first story, provides readers with a fun start to this volume.

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The third story is where we start getting to the heavier narratives of this volume, as the reader is treated to the supernatural tale, Broken Ritual. This story sees Usagi walking late at night through a small village filled with an unnatural amount of fear, especially after a loud and terrifying wail breaks the silence. Talking to the townsfolk, Usagi learns that the village, which is located close to the site of the battle of Adachi Plain, is haunted by one of Usagi’s old comrades, General Tadaoka, who died following the battle in the midst of an incomplete seppuku ritual. Now, due to the shame of having a dishonourable death at the hands of an unworthy and unnamed enemy, Tadaoka’s spectre appears in the spot where he died each full moon, letting out a wail of anguish. Upon hearing this tale, Usagi decided to try and help end the suffering of his former comrade and manages to help the spirt pass peacefully by successfully performing the seppuku ritual on the ghost.

Broken Ritual is an impressive and gripping story of honour and duty which is easily one of the best inclusions in this volume. This is one of those stories that really sticks in the reader’s mind, and the whole concept of samurai honour, even from beyond the grave, is a really fascinating central plot aspect. I loved the exploration of the seppuku ritual, and the supernatural elements of this story play into this really well, as it highlights just how important an honourable death is to a samurai like Tadaoka, so much so that he came back from the grave to ensure it was done properly. Sakai’s art is in top form for this volume, and his outstanding depiction of a wartime seppuku ritual is absolutely incredible. The intense facial expressions of Tadaoka during the seppuku scenes are particularly enthralling, and Sakai does a fantastic job of showing the pain and concentration that would have been on such a person’s face. All of this leads to a deeply captivating story, and it is amazing the sort of gripping tale Sakai can spin together in single issue.

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The fourth story in this volume is the shorter story, The Tangled Skein, which is the story that was originally featured in Critters #38. This is a creepy, quick story that follows Usagi in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Adachi Plain. Fleeing from the victorious troops of Lord Hikiji, Usagi attempts to hide in a dark forest known as The Tangled Skein, which is rumoured to be filled with all manner of haunts. Naturally, Usagi runs into one of these haunts, a demon disguised as a helpful old lady, and he must try to escape her clutches with help from the most unlikely of sources. This was an awesome supernatural storyline that I quite enjoyed, especially as the story once again highlights some of the philosophies surrounding samurai honour and what duties a samurai has to his lord, and vice versa. Fast-paced, exciting and with a surprisingly poignant moral to its story, The Tangled Skein is great entry to the volume, and I am glad that Sakai included it.

The next story in this volume is simply call Gen, and it is the major storyline contained within Gen’s Story. Made up of three Usagi Yojimbo issues, this is an excellent story of revenge and obsession that also continues the theme of the last few stories by looking at samurai honour and obligation. This story also reveals the full backstory of the always amusing and enjoyable recurring side character Gen and shows how he came to be a bounty hunter. The story is broken into three separate parts by issue, with the first part called Lady Asano’s Story, the second part called Sins of the Father and the third and final part titled Lady Asano’s Revenge.

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Naturally, Gen revolves around the character Gen, who Usagi once again meets out in the wilds, and helps him claim his latest bounty. Recovering from this fight in a nearby town, Usagi shares a meal with a destitute noblewoman and her retainer. The noblewomen, Lady Asano, is on the hunt for her husband’s murderer, a former advisor who betrayed him for great reward, and her exhaustive 20-year long quest has left her poor and on her own. The story is interrupted by the arrival of Gen, who is revealed to be the son of the great General Murakami, the most revered retainer of the Asano clan, and whose family owes allegiance to Lady Asano. Gen, bitter at the years his hard and disciplined father spent dragging him and his mother around the countryside hunting the murderer, an event that led to the death of Gen’s mother and Gen becoming a bounty hunter, refuses to help Lady Asano. However, once Lady Asano and Usagi are captured by the murderous advisor, revealed to be the town’s magistrate, Gen attempts to help, leading to an emotional and violent confrontation.

This was another excellent story that had a number of fantastic elements to it. It was great to finally get Gen’s backstory revealed, as Gen promised to tell his story all the way back in the second volume, Samurai. This was actually a rather tragic backstory for Gen, and I really liked seeing it, especially as it fits in really well with Gen’s character, not only explaining why he is so eager to fight for money but also why he is so dismissive and distrustful of honourable samurai, who must remind him of his father. Sakai makes sure to wrap up Gen’s personal history rather well within this story, as Gen gets some closure with his father towards the end of the story in one of the few instances that we see a really serious and emotionally wrought Gen. I also liked how Sakai continued to explore the concept of samurai honour within this story, especially the obsession and hurt that it can cause. We got to see the negative impacts that having an extremely loyal and honourable samurai as a father had on Gen, and Sakai also focused on the obsession for revenge and redemption that existed within Lady Asano, which not only drove her into poverty but also gave her the strength to finally get her revenge. The sequence where the dying Lady Asano slowly advanced towards the target of her wrath was pretty intense, and she almost appeared demonic as she slowly moved to get her revenge. Other cool highlights of the story include the huge pitched battle that occurred between the protagonists and their opponents’ retainers in the magistrate’s compound, and the continued fun banter between Usagi and Gen, which adds some much needed humour into this heavier story. Overall, this is an impressive and addictive expanded story, that achieves a lot of fantastic character development and which serves as an excellent focus of this entire volume.

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The next story contained within this volume is another lighter story, The Return of Kitsune. In this story, Usagi, who is accompanied by Gen, once again encounters Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks of street performances and pickpocketing. This time, however, she accidently steals a valuable letter meant for a corrupt local merchant, and she is subsequently hunted through the streets until she runs into Usagi and Gen. Usagi and Gen was work together to save Kitsune from the merchant, even if they cannot agree on what the best course of action is.

The Return of Kitsune is probably one of the funniest inclusions in this volume. The highlight of this entry has to be the first meeting between the two fun side characters, Kitsune and Gen. These two characters play off each other extremely well, and you cannot help but chuckle at the exasperated expression on Usagi’s face as the Gen and Kitsune begin to flirt with each other. I also enjoyed seeing the opposing philosophies of Usagi and Gen clash throughout this story, as Usagi wants to intervene to save lives, while Gen wants to stay out of the whole thing and claims that Usagi is too nosey. This whole argument proves to be a rather entertaining part of the story, and it results in some excellent scenes towards the end of the story, especially when Usagi takes Gen’s advice about minding his own business and fails to tell his friend that Kitsune stole his purse.

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The final entry in this volume is the outstanding narrative, The Last Ino Story, which serves as the last appearance of one of the best recurring characters to appear in the earlier volumes of this series. In The Last Ino Story, Usagi and Gen are taking one of Gen’s infamous shortcuts late at night and find themselves ambushed by bandits while traversing a narrow path along the side of a cliff. Managing to outsmart their attackers, Usagi and Gen seek shelter in a nearby abandoned hut, where they find themselves confronted by a young woman who is attempting to defend her wounded husband. Able to make their way inside, they find that the woman’s husband is none other than the Zato Ino, who has settled down and abandoned his violent ways after his last encounter with Usagi and Gen. Gravely wounded by the same bandits Usagi and Gen encountered, Ino appears close to death and the two samurai must work quickly if they are to save him and ensure he gets to live the life he rightly deserves.

The Last Ino Story is an outstanding and emotionally rich story which is an amazing way to finish this entire volume off. This last entry in this volume contains a great story in its own right, especially as it serves as a fantastic conclusion to one of the best character arcs in the series, that of Zato Ino. Ino was introduced all the way back in the first volume, The Ronin, as a blind outlaw who was trying to find a quiet place to settle down and rid himself of his life of violence, but whose efforts were constantly disrupted by his large bounty and the hunters chasing him. However, as the series progressed and Usagi kept meeting him, he grew as a character, from him gaining his first true friend in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, to him finally finding a home and family after the events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. This final appearance from him (and it is indeed the last time that you see him), serves as a perfect send off to him, as Usagi and Gen, the only two people who knew his past and gave him a chance, find out that he ended up having a the peaceful life he always wanted and has even more happiness on the way. As a result, this is a perfect story for those readers who got attached to the character of Ino through the first volumes of the series, and it was great to see his story come to a satisfying end.

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I also liked Gen’s character arc throughout this story, especially once he finds out that Ino was the injured man in the barn. Gen and Ino have a complicated past, as Gen was initially trying to hunt Ino down for his bounty during their first encounter, and Ino ended up saving his life. In order to repay him, Gen dragged the injured Ino out of the castle before it exploded and told everyone, including Usagi, that Ino had died, in order to ensure that the blind pig would no longer be hunted and could settle down. In this story, Gen, upon seeing the man he saved once again dying, loses his cool and begins to take his rage out on an owl that has been stalking him throughout the course of the book, which he sees as an omen of death. Watching Gen constantly run out into the rain to chase away an owl is amusing on the surface, but it also reveals his deeper feelings that he usually keeps hidden: “The one decent thing I did was give him his peace, and you won’t take it away!” His determination to keep Ino alive because of this is a real change from his usual behaviour, and it helps underline that deep down Gen is a good character, even if he reverts to his usual gruff self the moment he knows Ino is fine. I also liked how the whole saga with the owl ended up, and it was a fun little turn around on the bird being an omen of death. Other highlights of this story include the cool battle sequence towards the front when Usagi and Gen manage to climb up the cliff and face the bandits trying to kill them. The five panels which show this fight are really cool, from the way that the grim faced Usagi and Gen are framed in the moonlight, the close-up of the bandits faces as they charge, the shot of Usagi’s bloody sword, and the way the fight is only alluded to by the sound effects that have been written in, makes for a great sequence that I really liked. All in all, The Last Ino Story is a first-rate inclusion, and it leaves the reader with a memorable and emotionally substantial ending to this volume.

The seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, is another incredible addition to this awesome and deeply enjoyable series. Each of the entries within this excellent volume are outstanding reads, containing complex characters, fantastic narrative arcs and Sakai’s impressive artwork. Gen’s Story gets another five-star review from me, and Stan Sakai has once again shown why he is one of my favourite creative minds.

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies

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Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 25 February 2020)

English Edition Translated by Lucy Van Cleef

Length: 331 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out 5 stars

Get ready for an exciting fantasy adventure from acclaimed German author, Bernd Perplies, with Black Leviathan, an extremely fun and inventive novel that is essentially Moby Dick with dragons.

Bernd Perplies is a best-selling German fantasy and science fiction writer who debuted in 2008 with his first book, Son of the Curse Bringer. He has since authored several different series, including the Star Trek Prometheus trilogy, which he co-wrote with Christian Humberg and which were the first Star Trek books licensed to be written outside of the United States. Black Leviathan was initially released back in 2017 in Germany under the title The Dragon Hunter, and it is the first book in his Sea of Clouds series. This is the first one of Perplies’s solo books to be released in English (his Star Trek books got an English releases), and it was translated by Lucy Van Cleef.

Welcome to the Cloudmere, a floating expanse of thick cloud, mists, floating islands and mountain tops high above the ground. Thanks to the magical kyrillian crystals, which allow anything holding them to float in the air, airships now also fly through the Cloudmere attempting to harvest the useful resources available in this harsh landscape. The most valuable of resources come from the dragons, the ferocious beasts that soar amongst the clouds and mountains. Various species of dragons exist, each with their own special talents and defences, and each of which are valuable in their own way. However, hunting dragons is a dangerous occupation, and only the bravest, the most skilled or the extremely desperate set out into the Cloudmere as a drachenjäger, a dragon hunter.

Lian is a young man living in the floating city of Skargakar. The city’s entire economy revolves around the hunting and processing of dragons, and Lian himself makes a small earning carving kyrillian crystals. Lian also looks after his father, Lonjar Draksmasher, a famed drachenjäger of yesteryear whose injuries have driven him to drink. But when Lonjar is murdered in front of him, Lian instinctively gets revenge on the criminal who killed him, and now needs to get out of town quickly or face the wrath of his victim’s father, the most dangerous crime lord in the city. Taking up his father’s magical hunting spear and accompanied by his best friend, Canzo, Lian seeks work aboard one of the many drachenjäger ships leaving the city. The only one willing to take them on is the infamous Carryola.

Boarding the Carryola they find themselves working with an eclectic and effective crew of drachenjägers, and Lian believes that he has reached relative safety. However, the captain of the Carryola, Adaron, has an obsession that may prove to be the doom of Lian and the rest of the crew. Adaron is determined to hunt down and kill the Firstborn Gargantuan, a rare Black Leviathan dragon, a creature out of legends and one of the most destructive beings lurking in the Cloudmere. Now caught between a powerful dragon and a crazed captain, Lian must find a way to survive, but he quickly learns that death is always lying just around the corner in the Cloudmere.

This turned out to be a fantastic and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure novel which I had an absolute blast reading. Black Leviathan features a fast-paced and action-packed story of a group of dragon hunters flying around in the sky chasing after a mythical and gigantic dragon, and what’s not to love about that? Perplies introduces a ship full of distinctive and compelling characters (most of whom you shouldn’t get too attached to), including an obsessive and ruthless captain, and sets them up against a powerful foe. This results in quite a fun and exciting novel, and I enjoyed some of the intriguing directions that Perplies took the story. While some elements of the story are a little bit typical of action adventure novels, such as characters whose death is a foregone conclusion the moment you meet them, this was an excellent story that is extremely easy to enjoy, and very hard to put down.

One of the best parts of Black Leviathan is the clever and inventive new world that Perplies has created as a backdrop for his fun story. The author did an outstanding job producing a unique fantasy world up in the clouds, filled with all manner of sentient races, exotic locations and intriguing magical technologies, all of which prove to be really fascinating to explore throughout the course of the story. The Cloudmere is an amazing location for a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed seeing an entire book spent up in the clouds, either in floating cities or aboard magically powered airships. However, the highlight of this new world has to be the various species of dragons that roam the Cloudmere and dragon hunters that chase after them. Black Leviathan features a world where dragon hunting is a vast and profitable industry, and it is really quite interesting to see the various aspects of dragon hunting and its subsequent applications within this novel. There are some obvious similarities between this fictional dragon hunting industry and the real-life historical whale hunting industry and was really cool to see Perplies reinvent this iconic historical trade with fantasy creatures, floating ships and a sea of clouds.

The dragon hunting aspect of the book also results in some pretty incredible action sequences. There are some really exciting and fun dragon hunting scenes featured throughout Black Leviathan and watching the crew of an airship attempt to take down a dragon in mid-air was easily some of my favourite parts of the entire book. Perplies came up with some very clever hunting techniques for his drachenjäger, and it was very cool to see all of them unfold, especially as many require the protagonist to jump onto the back of the targeted dragon and kill them while riding on their back. This fantasy world also has many different types of dragon with a variety of different abilities (some breath fire, some have sword-like tails), each of which results a different sort of hunt with its own range of difficulties. Of course, the biggest hunt of all is when they catch up with Gargantuan, the titular Black Leviathan, the largest and most powerful dragon in the Cloudmere. That hunt goes about as well as expected, and it was extremely exciting to see the crew attempt to use their tried-and-tested techniques against this beast.

I mentioned at the start of this review that Black Leviathan was a bit like Moby Dick. That is because it features a captain who is obsessed with killing a specific rare beast who wronged him years ago, in this case a black dragon rather than a white whale. The entirety of this feud is actually shown in this book, as the first two chapters deal with Adaron’s first ship getting destroyed by Gargantuan, with nearly all his friends dying, including his fiancé, whose hand he was holding when she was eaten (with Adaron left holding her severed arm). As a result, the Adaron we see in the present is a much harder man who bears a great hatred for all dragons and is determined to find and kill Gargantuan no matter the cost. This results in a great story of obsession and hatred as Adaron scours the Cloudmere for his prey, while also attempting to kill any other dragon he comes across. The author has done a great job showing Adaron as an eccentric and damaged character from the first time the protagonist meets him. Not only does he order his own whipping every time a member of his crew gets killed by a dragon but he also keeps the skeletal hand of his fiancé in his cabin as a constant reminder of his mission to kill his prey. However, as the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that his obsession with finding Gargantuan has driven him insane. Not only does Adaron sacrifice his crew’s safety to locate the dragon but he ignores the concerns of the people serving under them and he even utilises dark practices to find his prey. This all results in a great final showdown with Gargantuan at the end of the book, and I think that the author did an amazing job concluding this captivating story arc.

Black Leviathan by Bernd Perplies is an excellent and deeply enjoyable fantasy adventure that combines a great central story with an extremely creative fantasy world to create a compelling and fun read. This book is filled to the brim with action and adventure and is guaranteed to get any fantasy lover’s pulse racing. I really loved this book, and I look forward to any future English releases of Perplies work. I do note that Perplies released a second book in this series in 2018, The World Finder, and hopefully we’ll get to see that in English in the next year or so.

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Throwback Thursday: Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge by Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins

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Publisher: DC Comics

Publication Date – 28 July 2009

 

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

In the midst of the 2008 DC Comic crossover event Final Crisis lies this often overlooked and foolishly underappreciated miniseries, Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge, which focuses on the Flash’s most enduring villains, the Rogues.

Final Crisis was the big DC comic event of 2008, and is memorable for a number of key events, such as the apparent death of Batman, the death of the Martian Manhunter and the return of the original Flash, Barry Allen.  In addition to this main series, DC also released a number of miniseries and one-shots that served as tie-ins to the main Final Crisis storyline and which are often forgotten in light of Final Crisis big events.  I have to admit that I have never been a particularly big fan of the Final Crisis series, mainly because of the over-the-top and unnecessarily complicated storyline (you know, typical Grant Morrison writing).  However, I did really enjoy the tie-in miniseries, including the dark comic Revelations, which focuses on the Spectre and contains the horrifying image of Dr Light being turned into a candle, and the massive Legion of 3 Worlds miniseries, which saw the return of two great characters.  However, my favourite of all these miniseries has to be the subject of this review, Rogues’ Revenge, by iconic The Flash contributors Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins.
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The Rogues are a group of iconic dangerous criminals in the twin cities of Central City and Keystone City who have banded together in opposition to the Flash.  Different from the usual supervillains that inhabit the DC Universe, the Rogues have a sense of honour and mostly commit thefts rather than seeking world domination or pointless destruction.  Usually led by Captain Cold, the Rogues have featured most of the Flash’s villains at one point or another, including Heatwave, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, the Trickster, Weather Wizard and even Gorilla Grodd.  These characters have been recurring villains of the Flash for over 60 years and continue to be regular features of the various The Flash comics.  The Rogues are also very well represented in other media, appearing in several animated shows and movies.  One member, Captain Boomerang, appeared in the 2016 movie Suicide Squad, while the rest of the characters, especially Captain Cold and Heatwave, are major fixtures of the Arrowverse television series.

In Rogues’ Revenge, the core remaining Rogues, Captain Cold, Heatwave, Weather Wizard and the second Mirror Master, have been having one hell of a year after breaking their number one rule: never kill a speedster.  Tricked by the young psychopathic speedster Inertia, the Rogues attacked the Flash when he lost his powers and actually managed to kill him, which they never wanted to do.  Worst, the Flash that they killed was only a kid, Bart Allen, the former Impulse and Kid Flash, who had been aged up by his time in the Speed Force.  As the most wanted criminals in the world, the Rogues have spent the year being hunted by as fugitives by the collected superheroes.  Briefly imprisoned on an alien planet with the rest of the world’s supervillains, the Rogues escaped and have returned to Keystone City, once again fugitives.

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The Rogues are planning to permanently retire after their terrible mistake.  However, when Inertia escapes from his imprisonment, the Rogues decide to go on one last mission and seek revenge for Inertia’s trickery.  Joining forces with the new young and immature Trickster, the Rogues set out to break their number one rule just one more time.

However, their revenge is going to get far more complicated than they anticipated.  The supervillain prophet, Libra, is uniting the other villains for the Final Crisis and wants the Rogues by his side in his new Secret Society.  Their emphatic refusal does not go down well, and Libra sets about recruiting them by any means necessary, even if that means killing every member of the Rogues’ family to get their attention.  The former Rogue, Pied Piper, is also hunting down his former cohorts, determined to repent for the role he played in Bart Allen’s death, while powerful anti-speedster Zoom has taken Inertia under his protection and tutelage.  Against all these forces, this misfit group of killers and thieves seem incredibly outmatched, but never count the Rogues out of the fight.  Can the Rogues get their revenge, and how will they react to the return of their greatest foe, the original Flash, Barry Allen?

This fantastic miniseries is the brainchild of legendary DC writer Geoff Johns and artist Scott Kolins, who previously did a joint run in The Flash Vol 2Rogues’ Revenge is collected in a single volume and consists of the miniseries’ three issues, as well as two issues from Johns and Kolins’s run on The Flash Vol 2 issues #182 and #197, which focus on the origins of Captain Cold and Zoom respectfully.  Rogues’ Revenge is an excellent series that puts the focus onto an incredibly intriguing and very different group of villains.  Containing a superb story, some amazing artwork and some subtle, but interesting tie-ins to Final Crisis and other parts of the DC Universe, this is a really fun miniseries that is worth checking out.

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One of the things that I like the most about this miniseries is the way that Johns and Kolins really dive into their complex main characters and show what set them apart from all the other supervillains.  The reader is given a look into the psyche of each of the Rogues, and shows the deep and dark troubles that hide within their minds.  Alone, they are incredibly damaged individuals with advanced weapons, but together they are a functioning unit able to hang with the most powerful godlike beings in the universe.  Each of the Rogues is a complex and intriguing character, and the creative team do a great job highlighting this succinctly in the miniseries.  Heatwave is a pyromaniac whose life has been consumed by fire, Weather Wizard is still haunted by the fact that he murdered his brother, Mirror Master is fighting his baser instincts and his drug habit, while Trickster is a young punk who is desperately trying to join up with the other Rogues he idolises.

Captain Cold is the most complex of them all, and his life is shown in both the miniseries and in one of the issues of The Flash Vol 2, which I have to give the producers of this volume props for including.  Captain Cold is the team’s leader and the definer of their moral code.  Because of him, the Rogues try to avoid killing where possible, do not touch drugs and have a high standard when it comes to its members, which is why they have yet to fully accept Trickster into their ranks.  Throughout Rogues’ Revenge, Captain Cold is able to control and anticipate the moods and needs of his team.  At the same time, he is able to lean on his team when it comes to his intense personal matters and the history with his family.  Issue #182 of The Flash Vol 2 does an amazing job of humanizing this character further, especially after you see him in action in the three issues of the Rogues’ Revenge miniseries.  Overall, the creative team are able showcase the close relationship the Rogues have with each other, as well as how strong they are together.

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I also enjoyed how Johnson explores the complex relationship that the Rogues have with the Flash.  Despite him being the main superhero who has been opposing them for years, the Rogues make it quite clear that they never actually wanted to kill him, mainly because they knew how much trouble they would be in if they ever succeeded in finishing him off.  The anger at how they were duped into attacking the Flash without his powers is pretty clear early in the miniseries, and there is a certain sense of regret as they describe how their attacks usually would not have killed a speedster.  They also show some remorse that the Flash that they killed was so young, as they did not realise they were really attacking Kid Flash.  While this initial examination of their relationship with the Flash is fascinating, the discussion that occurs at the end of the third Rogues’ Revenge issue is particularly interesting, as they talk about their relationship with the original Flash, Barry Allen, and how he was different from all the other Flashes.  It is a great tie-in to the other comics focusing on this character’s return, and it also brings the Rogues’ story full circle as they decide to postpone their retirement in light of the relentless pursuit that they know is coming from their original Flash.  You have also got to love the present they send to the returning Flash in order to appease his wrath for their role in Bart Allen’s death.

 Rogues’ Revenge has an impressive and well-written story that is not only a lot of fun to read but ties in nicely with the major Final Crisis crossover event that was occurring at the same time.  The central story of the tired and weary Rogues as they plan to engage in one last mission before their retirement is amazing as it allows for a deeper look at their methods, equipment and skills at defeating speedsters.  The tie-ins with Final Crisis aren’t too over-the-top and mostly relate to the return of Barry Allen and Libra’s attempts at creating a new society of supervillains.  Libra’s scheme to bring the Rogues on board is particularly fun, as he sends the team of knock-off Rogues to face them, utilising stolen copies of their weaponry.  This is a great battle scene which helps show off how the Rogues are so much more than the weapons that they wield, as they utilise their skills and experience to eliminate their opponents in short order.  The devastating and inventive uses of their weapons are very impressive, from Captain Cold’s wide beam cold field, to Weather Wizard growing a tornado inside of one of his opponents.  The Rogues’ extreme violence in this scene is explained as the characters protecting their reputation, as there have been many copycats before, which fits these old veterans perfectly.  I also really liked the reasons the Rogues give to refuse Libra’s request for them to join the Secret Society, having been burned by joining them before, and it was fun to see them predict exactly how the new Secret Society was going to come crashing down.
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The artwork within this miniseries is very impressive, and it was great to see Kolins back in The Flash saddle.  I was really impressed by the character designs Kolins used during this miniseries, as the four veteran Rogues all have their iconic costumes, but there is a beat-up and ragged look to them.  This perfectly encapsulates the terrible year the characters have been happening, and each of these characters have a tired and weary look to them after so many years of fighting.  I also cannot speak highly enough of the impressive fight sequences throughout the miniseries.  The full and at times gruesome effects of the Rogues’ weapons are in full display throughout Rogues’ Revenge, as the titular characters unleash fire, ice, weather, tricks and mirror insanity on their opponents.  The duelling walls of fire that occur between Heatwave and newcomer Burn are just gorgeous, and Weather Wizard’s various creations, such as lighting and fog, are drawn amazingly well.  I also cannot get past how impressively well Captain Cold’s ice devastation is drawn, especially when it comes to the effect the freeze ray has the human body.  This is an amazing bit of work from Kolins and the rest of the miniseries’ artistic team, and the art really helps to turn Rogues’ Revenge into a first-rate graphic novel.

Overall, Rogues’ Revenge is an outstanding tie-in miniseries that does so much to stand out from its overarching crossover event.  The focus on the Rogues, who make up one of DC’s most complex group of supervillains, is a compelling choice from the creative team, who do an incredible job showcasing these amazing characters.  Featuring an intriguing storyline and some first-rate artwork, this is a fantastic miniseries to check out, and one of my favourite underappreciated gems in the DC Universe.

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Chaos of Now by Erin Lange

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Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

From one of the most intriguing authors of modern young adult fiction comes this powerful story about bullying in the modern cyber world and the potential impacts our choices can have on those around us.

One year ago, a student at Haver High, Jordan Bishop, walked into the school cafeteria and committed suicide by setting himself on fire, a reaction to the relentless online bullying he was experiencing.  Since that event, life at Haver High has not been the same.  Not only do the scars of Jordan’s actions remain but radical legislation brought in to combat cyberbullying ensure that students’ online lives are openly monitored by federal cybersnoops.

Eli Bennett is a young hacker who is desperate to graduate and leave town in order escape his father and his father’s new girlfriend, Misty.  Eli is happy enough at school with his only friend, Zach, although he wouldn’t mind getting to know the beautiful Isabel.  But when he is approached by fellow hackers Seth and Mouse, he finds himself drawn into an entirely new challenge.  Seth and Mouse were Jordan’s friends, but have had to keep their relationship with him a secret to avoid backlash from the other students.  Desperate to get some sort of justice for their fallen comrade, they are seeking a way to get back at those students who drove Jordan to kill himself.  Their idea is to create a website where Jordan’s bullies can be publicly shamed, and they need Eli to make it untraceable to the authorities.  Despite being haunted by a previous hacking mistake, Eli agrees to help, interested in the potential of this sort of website.

Calling the website ‘Friends of Bishop’, the site provides the students of Haver High with an anonymous forum to post videos about bad behaviour in the school.  With the help of a few bombshell videos, the site becomes a hit, and Eli and his friends believe they are making some real changes.  With the cybersnoops desperately try to shut down the site, the hidden Friends of Bishop revel in their notoriety and the praise of many of their classmates.  But when their quest for justice takes a nasty turn, Eli finds himself facing the real-world consequences of his actions and must try and work out what the right thing to do is.

The Chaos of Now is the fourth book from the talented and at times controversial young adult author, Erin Lange.  Lange is probably best known for her 2012 debut novel, Butter, which focused on a bullied obese boy’s plan to eat himself to death on a live internet broadcast.  Her next two books, Dead Ends and Rebel, Bully, Geek, Pariah also looked at the lives of socially isolated high school students, as well as the consequences of bullying behaviour.  The Chaos of Now takes a deeper focus on extreme cyberbullying and the potential impacts it can have.  I absolutely enjoyed The Chaos of Now and powered through it in less than a day as I became absorbed in its fantastic narrative, its emotional and moral heart and its very intriguing elements and warnings.

This book contains a poignant and well-thought-out story that takes its protagonist on a captivating adventure as he is faced with a series of moral dilemmas and explores the resultant consequences of his decisions on himself and those around him.  There are some incredible emotional scenes as the main characters examine their anger, grief, guilt and internal moral compasses when they look back at what they did or what they failed to do.  There is also a heartrending plot twist towards the end of the book which paints the entire narrative in a completely new light while also upping the stakes for the protagonist and his friends.

At the centre of this incredible book lies a powerful message about the modern epidemic of cyberbullying and the dangers of our modern computer based world.  Within the context of the story, the protagonist is drawn into a quest for justice after a young man who is bullied online commits suicide.  The architects of this revenge are the victim’s friends, who feel guilty for not standing up for their friend and not coming forward after his death.  As part of their quest, they create an anonymous website where embarrassing and incriminating videos can be posted about the people who drove Jordan to commit suicide, as well as videos about any other bullies or people the protagonists believe need to be taken down a peg.  Lange does an incredible job exploring all the aspect of this cyberbullying, from an examination of the events that led up to Jacob’s suicide to the impacts of the posted videos on the people they are shaming.  Lange does not try to shape this as a black and white issue; instead, everything that occurs has the potential for negative consequences.  For example, throughout the course of the book, the protagonists post several videos, each of which appears to have different levels of embarrassing or incriminating footage.  While the potential impacts of some of these videos appear to be minor, some are later revealed to have major consequences for the people involved.  At the same time, the more explicit videos have huge, life-altering consequences for the people involved.  Through the course of her narrative, Lange shows the full effect of these videos, whether they are extreme or seemingly innocuous, and shows how the people’s lives are affected and how other people treat them because of what is revealed.  Often these outcomes are quite devastating, and the protagonists, having become cyberbullies themselves, are left examining whether their victims actually deserved to have their lives ruined in this way, and if their actions can truly be considered justice.  The final message of this book, that cyberbullying or any form of negative online actions can have severe and often unforeseen consequences, is quite powerful, and I thought that Lange did an incredible job highlighting this throughout her novel.

Another intriguing part of this book is the extreme way the government attempts to deal with the problem of cyberbullying.  In this book, following the extreme suicide of Jordan, the government introduces harsh and controlling rules about internet privacy for students and gives government officers known as cybersnoops the ability to monitor everything young people do on the internet.  This is a thought-provoking reaction, and one that could potentially be used in the real world to address the problem of cyberbullying.  Readers will be interested to see Lange’s thoughts on such a program being introduced and how the youth impacted by it may react.  The resultant story comes across as a cautionary tale.  While more needs to be done to combat the issues of cyberbullying, Lange’s stories suggests that certain approaches could be just as problematic, as many of the protagonist’s actions are as a result of the restrictions imposed upon them.

I really enjoyed the coding aspects of this book, and it was fascinating to see the various computer and coding terms included throughout the story.  Lange’s ensures that these technical aspects are explained to the reader in a clear and concise manner so that even technical luddites like this reviewer are able to have a good understanding of what is going on in the story.  Readers of The Chaos of Now should also take note of the various ways in which the internet or someone’s personal electronic devices can be used against them, and is definitely an informative inclusion.

Lange’s focus on her protagonist’s personal relationships is another great part of this book, and provides an invaluable social heart to this novel.  At the start of the book, Eli only has one friend, Zach, a fellow coder who serves as Eli’s social and hacking conscience.  When Eli makes friends with Seth and Mouse, he is happy to have new friends and works with them on their website.  But, as the book progresses, Eli’s relationship with Zach suffers as he constantly hides his dodgy actions with the Friends of Bishop website.  It is interesting to see how Eli is forced to assume the more moral and cautious role with Seth and Mouse, who are much more obsessed with revenge than Eli is.  Having assumed this role, Eli feels a lot more guilt for the group’s actions, as he knows he should do more to curtail their more reckless actions.  This is further compounded when Eli gets angry and momentarily abandons his moral position, and the resultant actions cause significant harm.  The later part of the relationship with Seth and Mouse is very intense and contains one hell of a climactic scene.  The Chaos of Now also contains the heart-warming story of the growing relationship between Eli and his father’s girlfriend, Misty, who becomes one of the most likable characters in the entire book.  I also enjoyed the relationship between Eli and the bully Malcolm who Eli has several negative encounters with at the start of the book.  While Eli at first wants to destroy him like the other bullies at Haver High, his discovery of Malcolm’s deeper problems and the future awaiting him makes Eli rethink his position.  This focus on the protagonist’s relationships is an extraordinary part of the book, which weaves into the story very well and plays a big part in the protagonist’s decisions and actions.

The Chaos of Now is a great piece of young adult fiction that provides an amazing insight into one of the key issues affecting the youth of today.  With some mature themes, this book is definitely intended for the slightly older teen audience and is probably most appropriate for high school students who are a similar age to the characters of this book.  As this book provides an intriguing and powerful insight into the modern day issue of cyberbullying and presents a look at the extreme consequences that could result from these actions, I would strongly recommend it to these students, as they would be most interested in the message and story that it contains.  While not intended for older readers, the content of this book is instantly relatable for anyone who has ever been to high school and is aware of the current issues surrounding cyberbullying and problems with the internet.

Lange has created a terrific book which I felt covered some of the issues around cyberbullying perfectly.  Featuring a heartfelt and at times crushing story that tries to understand the different sides of this complex problem, this is another superb and memorable release from an incredible young adult fiction author.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars