Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 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.

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

Usagi-Yojimbo-Book-11-Seasons-Print-

Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

The Emperor's Exile Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 19

Length: 434 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with the latest exciting novel in his Eagles of the Empire series, The Emperor’s Exile.

Rome, 57 A.D.  Following their adventures in Parthia, Legionary veterans Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco return to Rome with the remnants of their Praetorian Cohort.  Thanks to the ever-shifting politics of Rome and the fickleness of Emperor Nero’s court, Cato faces a hostile reception from some of Nero’s advisors, who hold him responsible for the military disasters experienced in the Parthian campaign.  Soon Cato has his command taken away from him, while Marco decides to resign from the Legions in protest, determined to live out his retirement in Britain.

Isolated in Rome, Cato is forced by one of Nero’s advisors to take on a new and dangerous mission.  Nero’s mistress, the beautiful Claudia Acte, has risen too high too quickly, and Nero’s political enemies have manipulated him into sending her into exile.  Travelling with a select group of Praetorian officers and his new advisor, the spy Apollonius, Cato must escort Claudia to the location of her exile, the island province of Sardinia, where he has another mission to accomplish.

Sardinia has long been plagued by tribes of bandits living wild in the centre of the island.  These proud decedents of the original inhabitants of Sardinia have been causing problems in recent months, raiding the local villages and ambushes caravans.  Taking command of Sardinia’s entire garrison, Cato begins to work out a strategy to defeat the locals and regain his position in Rome.  However, this proves harder than originally anticipated as Cato needs to contend with a disorganised military force, a dangerous plague that is beginning to overwhelm the island and a surprisingly competent group of bandits with unparalleled knowledge of the local landscape.  Worse, Cato begins to have dangerous feelings for Claudia, feelings which his enemies will exploit and which could set the entirety of Rome against him.  Can Cato pacify Sardinia before his entire force is decimated, or have his adventures finally come to an end?

This was another fantastic and highly enjoyable historical fiction novel from one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow, who has produced an impressive new entry in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books are easily among the best Roman historical fiction series out there at the moment, and I have had an amazing time reading every single entry in this series, including the last two novels, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of RomeThe Emperor’s Exile is the 19th Eagles of the Empire book and the author has produced another impressive story, featuring great historical elements and some fantastic character work.  I had an awesome time reading this book and it is definitely worth checking out.

The Emperor’s Exile contains an extremely fun and captivating narrative which follows Cato work to defeat a new enemy in a new historical setting.  Scarrow sets up an exciting and fast-paced story for this latest book, with the protagonist forced to deal with all manner of politics, intrigue and various forms of deadly peril in rather quick succession as he is assigned his mission and attempts to complete it.  This naturally results in all manner of impressive action sequences which are a lot of fun to watch unfold, including one particularly good extended siege sequence.  It is not all action, adventure and historical undertakings, however, as the book also has an intriguing focus on its central protagonist, Cato.  Cato, who has been evolving as a character over the last 18 books, continues to develop in The Emperor’s Exile in several dramatic and emotionally rich ways.  Not only does he have to adapt to a major change in his personal circumstances with the retirement of a great friend but he continues to question his role in the Roman army and whether he wants to remain a brutal killer.  Throw in an ill-conceived romance, his continued regrets about his past actions and his disastrous first marriage, as well as a certain major change in his appearance for the future, and this becomes quite a substantial novel for Cato which also opens up some intriguing storylines in the future.  I had a wonderful time reading this book and, once I got wrapped up in the story, I was able to power through the book extremely quickly.

In addition to having a great story, The Emperor’s Exile also serves as a key entry in this impressive, long-running series.  While readers who want to check out this book do not particularly need to have read any of the previous Eagles of the Empire books, mainly because Scarrow does an excellent job of revisiting story aspects and characters from prior novels, those established fans of the series are going to find this book particularly significant and memorable.  This is because one of the main protagonists of this series, Centurion Marco, who has been a major part of all 18 previous novels, retires from the Legions 100 or so pages into the book then subsequently disappears off to Britain, leaving Cato to his own adventure in Sardinia.  Scarrow has been telegraphing Marco’s plans to retire for the last couple of books, and it is a natural consequence of the author realistically aging his characters (15 years have elapsed within the series at this point).  While it was somewhat expected, it was still weird and a bit sad not to have Marco fighting along Cato in this latest adventure, especially as their comradeship is one of the defining aspects of this series.  That being said, Cato has grown a lot over the last 18 books and the natural progression of Cato and Marco’s dynamic as characters did necessitate them splitting off at some point.  It will be interesting to see how Scarrow features Marco in the future, especially if he plans to continue the Eagles of the Empire series for several more books (I personally would love it if he goes all the way into The Year of the Four Emperors, as it would wrap up the Vitellius and Vespasian storylines from the earlier books quite nicely).  Based upon how The Emperor’s Exile ends, it looks like Marco is going to appear in the next book, but it is uncertain whether he will continue on as a central protagonist, become an occasional character or go down in a final blaze of glory.  I personally think that Scarrow is planning to permanently retire Marco as a character soon, potentially replacing him with new character, Apollonius.  Apollonius is the dangerous and insightful spy who Cato teamed up with during the previous novel, and who followed Cato back to Rome in this book.  Apollonius served as Cato’s aide, scout and confident during The Emperor’s Exile in place of Marco, and it looks like he will be a major character in the next book as well.  I quite liked Apollonius as a character and it will be interesting if he ends up as Marco’s replacement, especially as he shares a very different dynamic with Cato than Marco did.  All of this makes The Emperor’s Exile quite an intriguing entry in the overall series and I am extremely curious to see what is going to happen to these amazing protagonists next year in the 20th book in the series.

As always, this novel is chock full of fantastic historical detail and storytelling as the author sets his story in some intriguing parts of Roman history.  Not only does the reader get a great view of Rome under the control of Emperor Nero (whose chaotic rule as described in this novel has some interesting modern parallels) but the main story takes place in the island province of Sardinia, off the Italian coast.  Sardinia is a fascinating province that I personally have never seen used before in Roman historical fiction novels and which proved to be a fantastic setting for most of this book’s story.  Scarrow really dives into the history, culture and geography of the island, explaining how it became a Roman province, examining some of the key towns and ports and highlighting the difference between the locals and the Roman settlers.  There is a particularly compelling focus on the tribes who controlled the centre of the island and it was rather interesting to see how a group of rebellious barbarians managed to survive so close to Italy during this period.  Scarrow also provides the reader with his usual focus on the Roman legions/auxiliaries, providing impressive details and depictions of how the Roman war machine operated and what their usual tactics and strategies are.  All of this really helps to enhance the novel and I had an amazing time exploring Sardinia with the Roman protagonists.

Another intriguing aspect of The Emperor’s Exile was the plague storyline that saw the inhabitants of Sardinia, including Cato and his soldiers, have to contend with a deadly infectious sickness.  This plague added an excellent edge to the storyline, serving as a hindrance to the protagonists and ensuring that they constantly have to change their plans while dealing with their enemy.  Not only does this serve as a clever handicap for the Romans but readers cannot help but make some comparisons to modern day events.  While I could potentially be reading a little too much into this and it is possible that Scarrow always intended to feature a plague in this book, I cannot help but think that this was a deliberate choice by the author.  Either way, it proved to be an extremely fascinating part of the book and it was fun to compare the reactions of these historical characters to the actions of people in the real-world.  While this story inclusion may potentially prove to be a little tiring for readers sick of any mentions of disease, infection and quarantine in their day-to-day lives, I thought it was a great addition to the novel, especially as it raised the dangerous stakes of this exciting novel.

With his latest novel, The Emperor’s Exile, Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as a key entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series and it takes the reader on an outstanding, action-packed adventure, loaded with some great character moments and some impressive historical settings.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Scarrow continues this epic series next year.  Luckily, I only have to wait a few more months for my next dose of this author’s work as his World War II crime fiction novel, Blackout, is set for release next March.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

River of Gold Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardback – 6 August 2020)

Series: Empire – Book 11

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Anthony Riches, comes River of Gold, the action-packed and epic 11th entry in his bestselling Empire series.

Aegyptus, 187 AD.  Under the command of Tribune Scaurus, decorated Centurion and former fugitive, Marcus Valerius Aquila, serves with several elite veteran officers, each of whom has displeased the Imperial hierarchy in some way.  These Roman soldiers now find themselves part of an informal troubleshooter unit, destined to die if they should ever fail one of their impossible tasks.  The Roman Empire is once again in danger as a mysterious army advances from the south of Africa, killing a major garrison and conquering a key port city at the southernmost border of the empire.  In order to solve this problem, the Emperor’s corrupt advisor sends Centurion Marcus and his comrades on another dangerous mission.

Arriving in Alexandria, Marcus and his comrades discover a rich province riddled with corruption and with a much reduced military presence.  Taking command of the local legion, Scaurus marches what soldiers he can down to the site of the massacre to find a new grim reality waiting for them.  After centuries of peace, the mysterious kingdom of Kush has once again declared war on Rome, determined to claim what is rightfully theirs from the weakened Romans.  In order to stop them, Scaurus leads his force deep into enemy territory to recapture an abandoned fortress and hold it against impossible odds.  Their mission is borderline suicidal and only has a slim chance of success, but if anyone can pull of this impossible task, it is Marcus and his friends.

This was another fun and exciting historical novel from Riches which proved to be a fantastic new entry in his Empire series.  Riches is a prolific and talented author who has been writing since 2009, when he debuted the first Empire novel, Wounds of Honour.  Since then he has gone to write an additional 10 novels in this series, as well as writing his separate series, The Centurions.  I have previously read a few of Riches’s books, including the first three entries in the Empire series when they were released.  While these first three books were extremely enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels, I missed the chance to read a couple of entries in the series and fell too far behind to catch up.  However, I recently got a copy of this latest book and, as I was in the mood for a visit back to ancient Rome, I tried out River of Gold to see how it would turn out.

This proved to be a good decision on my behalf as River of Gold ended up being a fantastic and compelling read.  Riches sets up an excellent character-driven story that sets a group of unique Roman officers against a dangerous new foe.  The author does a good job setting the story up, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the series or the historical era to easily jump in, and then sets the characters toward their goals.  This results in a captivating narrative that has a good blend of action, character development and cool historical features, as the protagonists embark on a madcap plan to win the war.  This leads to a number of awesome battle scenes, including an extended siege sequence which was a lot of fun to read, and the various characters find themselves in sufficient danger throughout.  The story ends a tad suddenly, although Riches does a good job of setting up the overall conclusion to the main storyline.  This story also felt a bit short, and I think it could have benefited from another 50 pages or so, perhaps extending out the siege sequence and adding in some more action and peril there.  However, this was still an overall excellent narrative which I was able to get through in only a few short days.

Riches spends a good part of River of Gold focusing on the various characters he has introduced and developed over the course of his long-running series, and this proves to be an entertaining group of protagonists.  In order to examine these characters Riches utilises a detailed, in-narrative character introduction near the start of the book, in which a newcomer reads off personnel files about each of the recurring characters.  While this was rather forced and inelegant way to introduce the characters and their history, it does the job and allows the readers to get an idea of who these protagonists are and their various quirks.  I found this particularly useful after having skipped several books in the series, and new readers will definitely appreciate the background.  Most of these characters get some intriguing arcs throughout the book.  For example, Marcus is once again the lead character of the novel as he tends to get the most important missions and ends up in the most danger, including a particularly close look at the Kush and their society.  Marcus is a fairly typical Roman historical fiction protagonist who has gone from raw recruit to hardened veteran throughout the course of the series, and it was interesting to see the various developments that have occurred since the last Empire novel I read.  Tribune Scaurus also gets a fair bit of attention as the leader of the Roman force and the mastermind behind their attack.  Scaurus is a good leader character, providing the rest of the characters with backbone and fortitude, and I liked his rather unique command style that relates to the dangerous political situation he finds himself in.  The other major character arc that I liked revolved around Cotta, the group’s veteran centurion and Marcus’s mentor, who reluctantly returns to Aegyptus for the first time after assassinating a Roman general who sought to rebel against the Emperor.  Cotta’s interesting subplot revolved around him reminiscing about his past mistakes while he attempts to hide his identity from the legion they have taken over, as they suffered as a result of his actions.  All of these recurring characters provided a great base for the story and some major moments that occurred will definitely rock readers, especially those long-term fans of the series.

While the recurring characters are good, I really have to highlight some of the new characters that Riches created for this novel, one of whom in particular outshines the rest.  This new character is Demetrius, a Christian who accompanies the army down south as part of his holy mission.  Demetrius is a complex and enjoyable character mainly due to his past as a vicious Christian-hunting Roman soldier.  After a series of brutalities, Demetrius sought redemption by joining the Christian cult, and now he fights against the invaders, believing that this fight is a holy war.  Riches focuses a good amount of the plot on Demetrius, and he proves to be a captivating and central figure, offering words of wisdom and defending his newfound Christian beliefs.  I found the author’s portrayal of this character to be really intriguing and I liked the close relationship he formed with some of the recurring characters, especially Marcus, despite that fact that none of them are Christians.  The other new character I liked was Ptolemy, an Imperial secretary and scribe assigned to the group, who provides them with relevant information and history to assist with their mission.  Ptolemy is essentially a walking piece of exposition, and a large amount of the book’s historical information is revealed thanks to him.  Despite this, he was a rather entertaining character, mainly due to the odd-couple friendship he formed with Dubnus.  The two characters are pretty much opposites in every way and end up bickering on a number of subjects, while also building up a mutual respect for each other.  This fun discourse between the two resulted in some great moments throughout the book and he was an interesting addition to the plot.

In addition to the fun story and great range of characters, Riches also invests a significant amount of time and effort in bringing the historical aspects of this novel to life.  The author has obviously done some serious research on the subject of Roman military history as he does a wonderful job showcasing various elements of the Roman legions and soldiers to life, including gear, unit makeup and tactics.  This also translates incredibly across into the various combat scenes throughout the novel, as you get a real feel for how a Roman solider would have felt in combat, especially at the Centurion level, although Riches mostly focuses on unique fight situations in this book.  The book also contains a number of detailed descriptions of the historical landscapes that the protagonists traverse through, such as Alexandria and the rest of historical Egypt.  This proved to be quite a fascinating inclusion in the story and I always enjoy seeing an author’s depiction of historical settings.  However, the most fascinating part of this novel has to be the inclusion of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, with whom our protagonists face off against.  The Kushites were a powerful and advanced civilization, who, until recently, have been somewhat overlooked by historians and archaeologists.  Riches does an incredible job working them into his novel and setting them up as a rival kingdom to Rome.  Not only does he feature a number of detailed depictions of their culture and military make up during the events of the book, but he also spends time exploring the history of Kush, including their origins as a civilization, their prior history throughout Aegyptus and their conflicts with the Romans.  This was easily one of the most interesting and compelling elements of River of Gold, and I really appreciated Riches’s inclusion of such a unique historical adversary.  Indeed, all of the historical inclusions in this book are excellent, and I had an amazing time exploring them as the story progressed.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches is a captivating and enjoyable novel that takes the reader on a fascinating and action-packed journey through history.  Riches does an excellent job continuing his bestselling Empire series, and I had a great time getting through his exciting story, loaded with great characters and an impressive historical background.  All of this results in an amazing historical fiction novel that is well worth checking out, whether you are a fan of this long-running series or a general historical fiction fan looking for a fun adventure story.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Lionheart Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 14 May 2020)

Series: Lionheart – Book One

Length: 381 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honour, glory, loyalty and war! Bestselling historical fiction author Ben Kane takes the reader on a medieval adventure alongside a young King Richard the Lionheart, with his latest epic novel, Lionheart.

I have been on a real roll with some great historical fiction novels in the last couple of weeks, having absolutely loved The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis and The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat, so when I got a copy of Lionheart by Ben Kane I jumped at the chance to read it. Ben Kane is one of the top historical fiction authors at the moment, having produced a number of fantastic books set in ancient Rome, including The Forgotten Legion trilogy, the Hannibal series and the Eagles of Rome series. I have read several of Kane’s previous novels, and I have always found them to be exciting and compelling books with loads of historical detail. This latest release, Lionheart, is Kane’s first novel that does not involve Rome in any way whatsoever, and it acts as the start of a brand new series that will follow the life of one of England’s most iconic kings.

England, 1179. Henry II rules a vast empire, made up of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine, controlling all with an iron fist, with his only blind spot being his four rebellious sons. Ferdia is minor Irish nobleman, taken as a hostage by the English to ensure his rebellious family’s cooperation and loyalty. Given the name Rufus by his captors, he spends years languishing in an English castle, before a chance encounter with Henry’s second oldest son, Richard, will change everything.

Managing to save Richard’s life, Rufus is taken in as his squire. Drawn to the prince’s natural charisma, bravery and dedication to his men, Rufus gladly swears his loyalty to Richard, and boldly follows him to war as he attempts to subdue the rebellious lords of Aquitaine. The battles and sieges that follow will make Richard’s reputation as a warrior and leader, and Rufus is able to prove his worth beside him, despite the actions of his bitter rival Robert FitzAldelm.

However, while Richard seeks honour and glory in Aquitaine, his ambitious brothers grow jealous of his success and begin to plot against him. Lending their support to the rebels, their actions lead to a crisis that could split the kingdom in two and deliver it to the King of France. As Richard finds himself surrounded by traitors and plotters, he makes his own bid for the throne. It is time for the Lionheart to rise?

Lionheart turned out to be an amazing and exhilarating book that combines intriguing moments from history with a compelling and action-packed tale of honour, loyalty and desire for power. Kane crafts together an impressive and exciting narrative that follows the early life of King Richard the Lionheart as he fights in some of his earliest battles and deals with the various members of his family. The story is primarily told from the point of view of the fictional character Rufus, as he follows Richard through his various adventures. Not only does this allow the reader to see some of the key events of Richard’s life, but it also provides an intriguing central narrative around Rufus, as he attempts to find his place in the world after being taken from his family, while also battling his ruthless opponent, Robert FitzAldelm, another fictional character, who serves as a wonderful foil to the protagonist. Lionheart’s story contained an excellent blend of action, intrigue, compelling historical elements and fantastic interactions between the various characters, which makes it extremely easy to get lost in this book.

The absolute highlight of this novel has to be the enjoyable historical backdrop of Richard’s life that the entire story is set to. Lionheart takes place between 1179 and 1189, which is a really intriguing period of history. The book does not examine Richard and his brothers’ joint rebellion against their father (although it is mentioned several times), but it does focus on the turbulent familiar battles between Richard and his family. During this period, Richard had to put down an extended rebellion in Aquitaine, fighting first against the plots of his brothers and later against the whims of his reluctant father as he attempts to win the throne. Kane does an outstanding job exploring all these chaotic historical events in great detail, and it was extremely fascinating to learn about all the battles and politics that occurred. It also ensures that the book’s plot, which was set all around these events, proved to be rather exciting, as the protagonist watches Richard weave through all the battles and political intrigue. I also have to say that I was impressed with the shear amount of historical detail that Kane installed into every aspect of the plot. Not only has the author made use of a vast cast of historical figures throughout the story (helpfully recorded in a character list at the front of the book), but every line of this book is filled with details about period culture, dress, day-to-day life, battle and the life of a squire and knight. Kane has clearly done an incredible amount of research for this book, and I really loved the authenticity that this added to the story, making for a story that is both captivating and enlightening, just like all great historical fiction novels should be.

Another great aspect of the story is the way that Kane also spent time exploring the life of William Marshal. Marshal, a real-life historical figure of some significance, serves as the book’s secondary point-of-view character, and a number of chapters are told from his perspective (in the third person, rather than the first-person perspective used for all of Rufus’s chapters). This proves to be a clever move on Kane’s part for a number of reasons; primarily because William Marshal is such an absolutely fascinating person. Marshal was a successful and well-known knight, famous for his loyalty, honour and martial prowess, and he was widely considered the pinnacle of knightly virtue in Europe at the time. Kane spends a lot of time exploring the character of Marshal and portrays him in a more ruthless and opportunistic light, which worked rather well for this realistic and compelling story. Marshal is also an incredible useful point-of-view character, as for the entirety of this book he was either in the service of one of Richard’s brothers or his father the king. This provided the reader with a viewpoint into the camp of Richard’s political opponents, which added to the tension of the story, as the reader became privy to information that the protagonists did not know. In addition, it also allowed for an intriguing contrast between Richard and the other members of his family, as Marshal considered the deficits of his lords against those of Richard, who he held a great respect for. Marshal also finds his loyalty tested several times, as his master’s plots threaten to weaken the kingdom, and he must decide whether it is more dishonourable to disobey his liege or to allow them to act unopposed in their own worst interests. I am extremely glad that Kane decided to use Marshal as a secondary protagonist, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future books.

I also have to mention all the awesome action sequences that Kane fits in throughout Lionheart. Due to the historical circumstances in which this book is set, there are a large number of battles, fights and sieges, which our protagonist often finds himself in the middle of. I really enjoyed seeing all the cool fight sequences that occurred throughout the plot and Kane has a real flair for historical action scenes, bringing them to live in exciting detail. Definitely a great book for those lovers of medieval battles and fights, this book is guaranteed to slake anyone’s desire for action and adventure.

Lionheart is an excellent new novel from Ben Kane, who thrives in a non-Roman history setting by bring together an impressive story about a young Richard the Lionheart. I had an amazing time reading this book, and I loved the exciting narrative and the fascinating historical elements. Lionheart serves as an awesome first book in a new series from Kane, and the second novel, tentatively titled Lionheart: Crusade, should prove to be a brilliant read for next year. Until then, Lionheart comes highly recommended, and is really worth checking out.

Warrior of the Altaii by Robert Jordan

Warrior of the Altaii Cover

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 9 October 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a very unique fantasy read? Think about checking out the hitherto unpublished first novel from Robert Jordan, an author many consider to be amongst the best fantasy writers of all time.

The late, great, Robert Jordan was a highly regarded author who started writing in the late 1970s and found his calling several years later in the fantasy genre. His first published work was The Fallon Saga of historical fiction novels, which were made up of three books released between 1980 and 1982. Following this early work, Jordan was contracted to write several Conan the Barbarian novels, starting with Conan the Invincible and Conan the Defender, both of which were released in 1982. Jordan ended up writing seven Conan the Barbarian books between 1982 and 1984, and they are some of his earliest works of fantasy fiction. However, Jordan would find his greatest success later when he wrote his epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, which were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read.

The Wheel of Time series is an epic fantasy series that started in 1990 with The Eye of the World. Made up of 14 massive novels, the series ran until 2013, and is considered one of the most creative, complex and enjoyable fantasy book series ever written. Not only did many of the books gain high critical praise but it is one of the bestselling fantasy series of all times, selling over 80 million copies. Unfortunately, Jordan passed away in 2007 and it fell to fellow author Brandon Sanderson to complete the final three books in the series utilising Jordan’s notes. Sanderson did a fantastic job finishing off the series, which concluded in 2013 with A Memory of Light, (make sure to check out my reviews for some of Sanderson’s other books, including The Way of Kings, Skyward and Starsight). The Wheel of Time series is probably going to get a lot of attention in the next year or so, as it is currently being adapted into a major television series by Sony and Amazon. Featuring Rosamund Pike in the leading role, and with a mostly unknown cast of young actors, this series has some real potential to dominate in the post Game of Thrones television landscape. The Wheel of Time books were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read, and they served as an excellent and enjoyable introduction to the genre for me. Despite recently featuring several of The Wheel of Time books in my Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list, I do have to admit that it has been a substantial time since I have had the opportunity to read The Wheel of Time novels, and I am a little hazy on some of the series’ details. As a result, I am strongly considering trying to reread some of the books (probably the audiobook formats) before the first season of the television adaptation is released, although I will have to see how I go with time as each of the books are likely to be some of the longest audiobooks I will ever listen to, plus I also have a bunch of other series I want to get into.

Warrior of the Altaii is actually the first novel that Jordan wrote and attempted to get published. He apparently wrote it in 13 days back in 1978 but unfortunately no publishers picked it up at the time. By that point he was working on some of his other series, so the author shelved it and it remained unpublished until now. There is actually a rather fascinating and entertaining summary of this book’s publication history in the foreword that was written by Jordan’s wife and editor/publisher Harriet McDougal, which I am sure many fans of the author will find quite interesting.

Warrior of the Altaii is set on the vast and harsh lands known as the Plain. The Plain is home to all manner of terrors, obstacles and fierce warriors, as several barbarian tribes roam the cruel landscape. Amongst all the tribes of the Plain, none are more feared or deadly than the Altaii, fighters without peer, whose nomadic way of life and dedication to raiding has sustained them for generations. Life is always difficult on the Plain, but recent strange events are making it harder for the Altaii to survive. More and more ferocious beasts roam the land, dark omens abound, and some unknown group has been destroying the various water holes that keep all of the inhabitants of the Plain alive.

Amongst these chaotic events, Wulfgar, a leader of a troupe of Altaii, travels to the massive city of Lanta on the outskirts of the Plain on a trading mission. Arriving at the city, Wulfgar and his followers and comrades encounter great hostility and scorn from all they encounter, including the city’s twin queens. It soon becomes apparent that the queens of Lanta are conspiring against the Altaii with a rival barbarian tribe and the mysterious individuals known as the Most High. But what are their objectives, and why are they targeting the Altaii?

As Wulfgar attempts to understand the scope of the threat facing him, he receives a prophecy of doom and the destruction of the entire Altaii race. Their only salvation apparently lies in the hands of a traveller from another world, who will gift Wulfgar the knowledge needed to save his people. Can Wulfgar defeat the vast forces arrayed against him, or will he be overwhelmed by treachery, assassins and the vengeance of two scorned queens?

This was a rather exciting and enjoyable read that was a lot of fun to check out. Warrior of the Altaii is a cool classic fantasy read that features an interesting and, at times, over-the-top story with a number of great action sequences and some rather cool fantasy ideas. The plot of this book is extremely fast-paced, and there is never a moment that is not exciting or filled with action or adventure. There are a number of really fun sequences throughout the book, including the siege of a major city, several large-scale battle sequences that feature some fantastic strategies and high body counts, as well as a few desperate and brutal smaller fight scenes that are bound to keep readers on their toes. Despite being ostensibly a fantasy novel, there are a few interesting science fiction elements in this book, as several beings with advanced weapons have apparently travelled across from an alternate world. This results in a cool blend of science and magic in places, which added a whole new layer to the story. Warrior of the Altaii is a good standalone novel with a mostly self-contained narrative that did not leave any major storyline elements open. This is probably for the best, as, for very obvious reasons, there is not going to be any sort of sequel. Overall, I felt that Jordan created an excellent and thrilling story within this book, which I believe will be appealing to most fantasy readers.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it is the unpublished first attempt at a novel from an author who is better known for their later works, and as a result, fans of Robert Jordan’s later works can get a glimpse of his early writing style. One of the major things that I took away from reading Warrior of the Altaii was the fact that Jordan clearly had an aptitude for creating intriguing fantasy worlds even early in his career. Throughout this book, he described a dark and detailed world, of which we only saw a small part, filled with memorable characters, organisations, threats and locations. Several of the elements utilised in this book were clearly early versions of things that were later featured in The Wheel of Time novels, such as the inclusion of an all-female group of magic users, which are similar to The Wheel of Time’s Aes Sedai. In addition, the whole barbarian tribe-centric storyline he produced for this book is very reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian and it is very clear why his wife thought that he would be a good fit to write several of these novels. I think that major fans of Jordan and his existing series are going to find a quite a lot to enjoy in this book, and I would strongly recommend Warrior of the Altaii to anyone interested in seeing how this great author started out.

While I quite enjoyed this book, there are elements to Warrior of the Altaii that some readers might not enjoy. In particular, there are lot of examples of female enslavement by the barbarian characters of this book. While, to be fair, the main male character does get enslaved for a period of time, I can image that quite a few readers may not appreciate all the times that female slavery becomes a casual, recurring plot point. The way that it is used in this book does seem to be a bit more of an old-school fantasy inclusion such as would be seen in a piece of Conan the Barbarian fiction and is perhaps not as appropriate for a modern book. However, as this book was written in the 1970s, this is a somewhat understandable inclusion, and I don’t think you need to read too much into it. It honestly didn’t take too much away from the enjoyment of the story; it is just something people might need to consider before reading this book.

Warrior of the Altaii is an electrifying piece of fantasy fiction with a bit of an old-school feel to it that I quite enjoyed. I had a great time checking out this early work from a fantasy author I hold in very high regard, Robert Jordan, and it was a real treat to see his previously unpublished first novel. This is definitely an interesting read for fans of the fantasy genre and is well worth checking out, especially if you are in the mood for a fast-paced and action-packed fantasy adventure.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After eight years of being one of my favourite yearly highlights of the Roman historical fiction scene, Robert Fabbri brings his bestselling Vespasian series to an end with the ninth and final book, Emperor of Rome.

Rome, 68 AD. Vespasian started his life as the second son of a rich but rural Roman family from the Sabine Hills. Looked down upon by the older Roman families for his family’s humble origins, Vespasian was never expected to obtain any major power in Rome. But after nearly 40 years of political intrigue, unusual adventures and a distinguished military career, Vespasian may actually be in a position to claim the ultimate prize: becoming Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Ever since he first arrived at the city of Rome at the young age of 16, Vespasian has lived under several unhinged or easily manipulated emperors of the Julio-Claudian line, each of whom was worse than the last. The latest of these emperors, the ruthless and insane Nero, has ordered Vespasian to put down a major rebellion in the Roman province of Judaea. However, this appointment is the ultimate no-win situation. If he fails in his task, his family’s prestige and political future are over. But if he succeeds in bringing the rebellion to an end with a successful military campaign, he will incur Nero’s lethal jealousy for obtaining glory that could make him more popular than the Emperor. As Vespasian debates what course of action to take, news from Rome will change everything.

The rebellion of several legions and their noble commanders has forced Nero to commit suicide, and his death results in a massive power vacuum. Vespasian, being in charge of two legions and having allies governing key provinces, is now a major contender for the throne, especially with his brother Sabinus lobbying for him back in Rome. Moreover, for years Vespasian has been gifted with signs and portents of his eventual rise to power, and he wants to claim his destiny. However, Vespasian is not the only person with dreams of imperial power, and several others are marching on Rome. The Year of the Four Emperors has begun, and only one man will be left standing.

Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series are fun and at times over-the-top novelisations of the life of one of Rome’s most important emperors. The main series is made up of nine books, but there is also a related standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire, as well as the ebook-only Crossroads series. I have been a huge fan of the series for some time and have read and reviewed several of the books in the series, as well as the Arminius novel, although only my review for the previous Vespasian novel, Rome’s Sacred Flame, is currently featured on my blog. This series really has been a favourite of mine for some time, and I have been looking forward to Emperor of Rome for a few months. Unfortunately, this book does mark the end of the series, as Fabbri brings his epic story to a close and finally brings his chosen Emperor to the throne.

Emperor of Rome is a fantastic new addition to this awesome series. It tackles the chaotic period following the death of Nero, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job finally showing the ascension of Vespasian to the throne and covering a number of other interesting historical events, many of which would have widespread implications in the future. The overall story is a great blend of action and politics, and it also ends the story of several important characters from the series, as well as the rise of some of the next generation of Roman politicians and rulers.

Emperor of Rome is primarily told from the point of view of its protagonist, Vespasian, as he campaigns in the east of the Roman Empire. This allows for Fabbri to tell a different story to some of the other historical fiction novels that feature the Year of the Four Emperors. Rather than get bogged down in the politics happening in Rome, the focus is instead completely on Vespasian and his companions as they observe the chaotic events occurring in Rome from afar while trying to decide the best time for Vespasian to make his move. I thought that this was a rather clever way to look at the story as it let Fabbri examine the potential political, military and personal implications of each of Vespasian’s actions during this period, especially as early moves on Vespasian’s part might have seen him be overthrown by some other potential candidate for the throne. Emperor of Rome also showcases the early reign of Vespasian to a degree, and it was great to finally see the character gain the throne after nine books.

In addition to the examination of Vespasian’s bid to become emperor, Fabbri also focussed on Vespasian’s campaign in Judea, which is a significant event in Middle Eastern history. For much of the book, the province of Judea (modern Israel/Palestine) and its Jewish population are in revolt against the Romans. Vespasian, and later his son Titus, lead a particularly vicious campaign against the population, killing or enslaving thousands. Fabbri spends quite a lot of time describing the events of this conflict, sometimes known as the First Jewish-Roman War, and mostly relies on the accounts of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote several works on the subject and actually appears as a character in Emperor of Rome, as a basis for this story. Fabbri does an amazing job providing an account of this conflict. A number of key events of this war are covered in this book, including several ridiculous events that apparently actually occurred around the siege of Jotapata. I was greatly intrigued by the author’s novelisation of this conflict, as I had not read too much about it before in other works of historical fiction. The author brings a gritty realism to the conflict and does not hold back on the probable violence, cruelties and dehumanisation of the Jewish people that would have occurred during this war. This was a captivating but essential part of Vespasian’s story, and one that was necessary to explore in order to fully understand the actions required to become Emperor.

Several of the previous books in the Vespasian series have had an enjoyable supernatural edge to them, as the protagonist encountered ancient gods, prophets and sorcerers, as well as some biblical figures from early Christianity. This is continued in Emperor of Rome, mainly in the form of omens and prophecies that Vespasian has received in the previous books that show he is destined to be a great ruler, such as his viewing of a phoenix while on a mission in Africa. In this book, many of these signs come together, encouraging Vespasian to finally make his bid for Emperor. The look at the influence of such omens and prophecies added an intriguing element to the overall story. I also liked how some of the prophecies and predictions of the some of the characters were relevant to larger historical events in the future, such as the spread of Christianity or the current conflict in modern Israel/Palestine. These supernatural elements have always been one of the things that helped distinguish the Vespasian books from other Roman historical fiction series out there, and it was great to see so many of the events from the previous books finally come together here in the final chapter of the book.

Emperor of Rome is an amazing conclusion to this outstanding and entertaining historical fiction series. Fabbri has always had the fantastic ability to turn historical fact into wild and captivating tale filled with action, intrigue and historical excesses, and in this final book he once again takes several intriguing historical events and uses them to craft another excellent story. I will miss reading the Vespasian series each year, but at the same time I am also very excited, as Fabbri’s next series, The Alexander Legacies, is set to be released next year, and it sounds like it will look at some other exciting times in ancient history.

Throwback Thursday – Legend by David Gemmell

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (22 June 2017) – originally published by Century (April 1984)

Series: Drenai – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 13 minutes

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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I try out a fantasy book that has been on my mind for many years, the 1984 classic fantasy novel, Legend, by the late, great David Gemmell.

Legend was the debut novel from Gemmell, an impressive author who wrote over 30 novels between 1984 and his death in 2006, most of which fell within the fantasy genre. Some of his works included the Rigante, Stones of Power, Jon Shannow and Hawk Queen fantasy series, as well as the Troy and Greek historical fiction series. However, his most famous body of work has to be the Drenai series. Featuring 11 books, the Drenai series were a collection of loosely connected novels set within the same fantasy universe. While the storylines are all linked in some way or another, especially books like the three Waylander novels, the series can pretty much be read in any order, which is kind of what I did.

I actually have a bit of a random history with the Drenai series, as I happened to listen to the 10th book in the series, White Wolf, some years ago. For the life of me I cannot think why I would have grabbed this fantasy book off the shelf. Whatever the reason, the story of White Wolf stuck with me, and I would find myself occasionally remembering details of the plot, while completely forgetting the book’s title or the author’s name. I was eventually able to figure out what book it was thanks to the one clear detail I could remember (the names of the protagonist’s famous swords) and tracked down another audiobook copy of White Wolf to listen to a few years ago. I also really enjoyed White Wolf the second time around and was eager to find out more about the rest of the books in the series.

Out of all of the books in the Drenai series that I looked at, the one that appealed to me the most was the very first one in the series, Legend. Legend tells the story of an epic and desperate siege that sets up the entire Drenai universe and contains the defining story of Gemmell’s most iconic character, Druss the Legend, who also appeared in White Wolf. Many of the story elements of Legend deeply appealed to me, and it also made practical sense to start at the beginning of the series, especially as it serves as a significant point in the series’ chronology. Unfortunately, due to a combination of a lack of time, problems finding a copy of Legend, and a requirement to focus on more recent books, I never got a chance to read Legend or dive deeper into the Drenai series. However, it always remained high on my to-read list, and I am so happy that I finally got a chance to read it.

Legend is the story of the siege of Dros Delnoch, the fortress city that acts as a gateway to the declining Drenai Empire. Dros Delnoch is the greatest fortress in the world. Sitting in the middle of a narrow pass and guarded by six high walls and a great keep, the city should be able to withstand any attack. However, the charismatic Nadir warlord Ulric has forged together a mighty host of 500,000 Nadir tribesmen, which he plans to sweep over the walls of Dros Delnoch.

If the city is able to hold for a few months, a new Drenai army will be able to reinforce the battlements. But with only a small force of 10,000 soldiers within the city, many of them raw recruits, this seems to be an impossible task. However, help soon arrives from the most unlikely of places. Former solider Regnak follows his newfound love to the city, despite his apparent cowardice and dark secrets. A gentleman bandit leads his band of outlaws to man the walls, partly for money and partly to make up for his past sins. The mysterious band of mystical warrior priests, known as The Thirty, also arrives to fulfil their destiny to die in battle. Each group has a role to play in the defence of the city, but only one of the new defenders will give the Nadir pause and raise the defenders’ hopes, the greatest hero of the age, Druss the Legend.

For decades, Druss has fought and defeated every enemy he has come across, but there is one thing even he cannot overcome: time. Now a grizzled veteran of 60 years, Druss has come to the city for one final battle, but first he needs to come to terms with his status as a living legend. Even as an old man Druss is still a dangerous person, and there is a reason that he is known as Deathwalker by the Nadir. As the siege begins, heroes will rise, tragedy will stalk the defenders and a legend will end, but will anything be enough to withstand the Nadir horde?

Well damn, that was a pretty epic book and one that was well worth the wait it took for me to get around to reading this. Legend was an incredible and enthralling read that had me hooked from the very beginning all the way to the very last word. It is a classic piece of fantasy action and adventure. Gemmell loaded his story with some truly compelling and flawed characters to create an outstanding read. Featuring a ton of amazing, pulse pounding action, heartbreaking tragedy and an epic siege, this book was absolutely fantastic, and I am really glad I read it.

Probably the main thing that I liked about the book was Gemmell’s outstanding portrayal of a massive fantasy siege. I have always loved the classic siege storyline, and there is something about a huge army attacking a castle that I cannot turn away from. The siege of Dros Delnoch within Legend is easily one of the best sieges that I have ever read, as Gemmell produces a magnificent battle around the city that lasts nearly the entire book. The whole setup for the siege is pretty insane, with 500,000 Nadir tribesmen (who bear a lot of similarities to the historical Huns) attacking a Drenai (essentially Roman) city with six massive walls. The author does an amazing job properly pacing out this siege throughout the novel, including appropriating enough time to really showcase all the pre-siege activities, including training, preparation of the defences and initial sabotages before the first battle even happens. Once the battle begins, though, it is a non-stop barrage of action as the defenders fight off multiple assaults each day.

Due to the author’s excellent storytelling and character work, the reader becomes extremely invested in the fate of the defenders, and each time a wall falls, or the attackers gain an inch, you are mentally rooting for them to fight back. There are a number of discussions and plans that take place throughout the book, and it is quite fascinating to see the thought and planning that the author put into the defence of his city. I especially liked how the city’s six walls played into the battle, as the defenders’ decisions on how and when to hold these battlements provided some great moments and debates for the reader to appreciate. The siege lasts the entire book and features a huge number of epic fight sequences, all of which will get your adrenaline racing and your heart pounding. I loved every second of the siege that was featured in this book, and I hope to see it brought to life on screen one day (provided they do it right).

In addition to its first-rate siege, Legend also features a large number of complex and well-written characters. The first is Regnak, who turns into one of the book’s main characters. Regnak is a former soldier who is first presented as a coward, looking to flee all personal responsibility, although this is quickly revealed to be a side effect of being a natural ‘baresark’. However, when he meets Virae, the daughter of the Earl of Dros Delnoch, he falls in love and follows her back to the siege. Regnak has a great storyline about finding one’s inner courage and overcoming one’s issues, and while his romance with Virae is a bit weird at times, it does result in some tragic scenes throughout the book. Next you have the members of The Thirty, an order of 30 warrior priests who enter the fight knowing that 29 of their members are going to die. Not only do the priests represent most of the fantasy elements of this book thanks to their physic abilities but their ability to see into the future results in some interesting debates about destiny and fate. Quite a few members of The Thirty are introduced, although most of their story is focused on their youngest member, Serbitar, and his mentor, Abbot Vintar, as Serbitar has the hardest time accepting the future and wants to change it to help the defenders.

Without a doubt, the best character in the entire book is Druss the Legend. Druss is Gemmell’s most iconic character and has appeared in several other books in the Drenai series, all of which occur before the events of Legend. These include The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, which details the rise of Druss and the events that made him a legend, The Legend of Deathwalker, which features an earlier encounter with Ulric and the Nadir, and White Wolf, where I first encountered the character of Druss. However, Legend is definitely the character’s defining book, as it features the conclusion of his epic life and his final stand.

There is a lot of great character work involved with Druss, and the man is a pretty epic character. He is an older man, many years past his prime, who was faced with a choice: die in glory at Dros Delnoch or decline into obscurity. Choosing to die in battle (mainly to spite Death), Druss arrives in Dros Delnoch ready to fulfil his destiny. Gemmell does an outstanding job portraying Druss as an old and wise warrior who is weakened by age but is still a far more capable warrior than many of the others involved with the siege. While readers will enjoy the action sequences featuring Druss, the main thing about the character is the way that he attempts to come to terms with his status as a living legend whose body can no longer keep up with his myth. Druss knows that his reputation as a man who always wins is one of the main things that keeps the soldiers going, and he is constantly working to inspire the soldiers and show that he is still the super human many of them think he is. However, at the same time he must deal with the tangible impacts of age and must try to overcome them in order to survive and inspire on the battlefield. This examination of a man uncertain about his continuing place in the world and who knows he is going to die very soon is extremely well done, and readers cannot help but fall in love with the character and get very invested in his storyline, even though you know how it is going to end. The Druss that is featured in Legend is probably one of the finest fantasy characters that I have read, and I look forward to reading some additional books featuring him in the future.

The book also features an amazing cast of secondary characters, each of whom adds so much to the story featured within Legend. These characters include:

  • Orrin – the commander of the forces defending Dros Delnoch. Orrin is a nobleman who is inexperienced and ill-suited for command. However, once Druss arrives, he works hard to change his ways and become a worthy leader of his troops. He has an amazing redemption arc and turns into quite a likeable character.
  • Bowman – a forest bandit who Druss convinces to join the defence of the city. Initially pretending he is there for money; it is eventually revealed that he is searching for some sort of redemption as well. Bowman’s sarcastic wit adds some necessary humour to the story and he proves to be quite a likeable character.
  • Gilad and Bregan – two farmers who sign up to the army and find themselves becoming heroes of Dros Delnoch. These two characters allow Gemmell to show the story of the common defender of the city. Together they have quite a surprisingly compelling storyline, and the readers actually get quite invested in their survival.
  • Hogun – one of the few professional soldiers in the city. Hogun serves as a great secondary observer for most of the book, and his growing respect and camaraderie with the other defenders mirrors the reader’s growing attachment to all those people featured within Legend.
  • Ulric – leader of the Nadir horde attacking the city. Ulric is presented as a visionary like Atilla the Hun or Genghis Khan, who has united his people against a common threat and now seeks to create a mighty empire. I quite liked how Ulric, despite being the antagonist, is only partially presented as an evil man. Instead, he sees all the violence he does as necessary and he even grows to respect the defenders of the city, especially Druss. Ulric turns out to be quite a complex and well-written antagonist that reader ends up respecting to a degree.
  • Caessa – a female member of Bowman’s band, who harbours a deep secret. She’s not my favourite character, but her storyline has a few intriguing twists, and it is interesting to see her growing attachment to Druss.

In addition to all the characters mentioned above, there are also a huge bevy of other minor characters from both sides of the conflict whose point of view and feelings are examined throughout the book. Not only does this allow for a number of short and, in some cases, tragic stories for the reader to enjoy; it also increases the scope of the battle. Overall the character work is pretty impressive, and pretty much every character allowed for a richer and more captivating tale to be told. If I had one criticism of Legend’s characters, it would be that the female characters are mostly portrayed as over-emotional, irrational or downright catty in most of their interactions, which makes the book feel a bit socially dated at times.

I ended up listening to an audiobook version of Legend narrated by Sean Barrett. At only 13 hours and 13 minutes, Legend represents a fairly quick listen, especially when you get stuck into the story. I had a fantastic time listening to the audiobook version of this book, and I felt that it really helped me sink into the story and appreciate all the amazing action and drama going on in the city. Barrett has an excellent voice for an older fantasy like Legend, and I really felt he got to the heart of most of the book’s characters. I strongly recommend the audiobook version of Legend, and I will probably check out the other books in the series on audiobook as well.

Legend really did not disappoint, as it easily met every single one of my high expectations. I enjoyed every minute of this exceptional book and it gets an easy five stars for me. I cannot overstate how epic in scale and writing the siege featured in this book was, and all of the characters within this story are just sensational, especially the Legend himself, Druss. I fully intend to check out some additional books in Gemmell’s Drenai series in the future, although there are so many interesting choices that I’m not too sure where to start. Be sure to check out future instalments of Throwback Thursday to see which other Gemmell books I look at.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K. J. Parker

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Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback Format – 9 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 350 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok, now this was one hell of a book!!!

K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction that keeps the reader enthralled with its excellent story, fantastic self-aware humour and one of the best depictions of a siege that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The end result was an excellent read that I just had to give a full five stars to, and it has to be one of my favourite books of 2019 so far.

The Robur Empire is one of the great civilisations in the world, and at its heart lies the City, capital and seat of power of the Emperor, kept safe by its impenetrable walls, powerful armies and unsurpassed navies.  However, that safety is unexpectantly compromised when a massive force of soldiers appears out of nowhere, slaughtering the entire imperial army, crippling the navy and completely surrounded the City.

The only forces left garrisoned in the City are the men of the Empire’s Engineering Corps, led by Colonel-in-Chief Orhan, who suddenly finds himself in charge of the defence of the City.  Orhan is a coward, a glorified bridge builder, a man able to work the complex imperial military system for his own gain and a foreigner despised by most of Robur society, but he is not a great military leader.  He is, however, one of the most devious and underhanded men the army has ever seen, and these might just be the qualities needed to save the City from destruction.  As Orhan works to unite the various factions in the City to his cause and come up with a range of unique defences, he makes a shocking discovery.  A figure from his past is leading the assault against the City, and Orhan quickly realises that he might be on the wrong side of this battle.

I really enjoyed this latest book from Parker, who has created a complex and captivating fantasy tale that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  K. J. Parker is actually a pseudonym of author Tom Holt, who was able to keep the dual identity secret for 17 years before it was revealed in 2015.  Between his two identities, the author has written an amazing number of books since his 1987 debut, mostly focused on the fantasy genre.  This includes over 30 humorous fantasy novels as Tom Holt, five historical fiction novels, the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies as Parker, a number of standalone fantasy books and a huge range of short fiction, some poems, songs and even some non-fiction work.  For those who may be concerned, no reading of any of Parker’s prior work is required to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City as this latest book is a standalone novel.  Still, I will be keeping an eye out for any future books by either Tom Holt or K. J. Parker as I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and fantastic sense of humour.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an intriguing novel that is told from the perspective of its “hero” Orhan, who is narrating the story of his defence of this city within a historical text.  This story is incredibly entertaining, as not only does it feature a first-rate siege within an excellent fantasy location, but it is told by a complex and multi-layered character who paints the entire ordeal of being in charge in a very funny light.

I am a man who loves a good siege storyline, but this has to be one of the best ones that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  At the start of the siege the situation looks grim, as a vast host surrounds the City, whose defenders have all been slaughtered outside the walls, with the exception of Orhan’s engineers, who lack the basic military supplies and machinery to defend the City.  As the enemy start a conventional long-term siege with advanced weaponry and superior forces, Orhan is forced to come up with something to delay their inevitable defeat in the hopes of reinforcements turning up.  Without the required men, equipment or leadership, they cannot rely on the traditional 15 methods of defending a walled city that the books suggest, so he has to rely on the on his own 16th way, which involves bluffing, chaos and mad-cap innovation.  As a result, much of the book features Orhan’s many unconventional methods to defend the City, whether it involves taking symbolic control of the entire empire, legitimising and attempting to control two rival criminal gangs or creating devastating new siege weapons.  The protagonist and his men’s engineering prowess comes in effect quite a bit throughout the book, and I loved seeing the machines and other unique defence methods that he deploys as a result.  All the various deceptions and tactics used to hold the City against this superior force is widely entertaining and I absolutely loved the siege storyline which serves as an amazing centre to this incredible story.

The setting that the author chooses for this book is pretty interesting and adds a lot of great elements to the story.  The Robur Empire is pretty much the Roman Empire, with the City being this universe’s equivalent of Rome.  I thought that the City was a fantastic setting for the vast majority of the story, and the various factions and problems with such a large city really tied into the great siege storyline.  The City’s criminal organisations, the Greens and the Blues, former charioteer supporters (very Roman) turned rival criminal unions, are the cause of a large amount of strife, and I liked how their own battles and self-importance became such a major part of this book.  I also felt that Parker did an amazing job portraying a city that sits at the heart of a massive empire, and the attitudes of the people within felt pretty accurate.

On top of the great setting, Parker has also created an intriguing, extended world for this story.  The Robur Empire is a great overall setting for most of this book, as its setup, design and attitudes are very similar to the ancient Romans.  Parker’s initially subtle use of racial identity in this empire is quite intriguing, and it becomes a major part of the book.  Essentially the empire is made up of the pure-blooded Robur, who are called blueskins due to their darker skin colouration.  Then there are those people with white skin, who are given the derogatory name of milkfaces, who are treated like second-class citizens within the empire, and who came from lands conquered by the Imperials.  Not only does this become an important plot point with the army attacking the City made up completely of milkfaces, but it is reminiscent of the Roman Empire, when the pure-blooded Roman citizens looked down upon the paler barbarians from Gaul, Britain or Germany.  I also liked how the author tried to replicate the precision military system of the Romans with the Robur, and it was fun to see how the problems of such a system came into play throughout this book, such as having the military resources of the entire empire being kept in supply depo sites rather than in the capital.  I quite enjoyed these fantastic settings, and I thought that they were an excellent place to set these complex stories.

While the siege storylines and settings are extremely amazing, this book would be nothing without its main character and the person narrating this fictional historical text, Orhan.  Orhan is an amazingly complex character, and the personality that Parker creates for his hero is outstanding.  Orhan is a milkface who has risen to high military command within the Robur Empire due to his abilities as an engineer.  As a result of his hard early life and the constant belittlement and discrimination by the blueskins he serves under, he is an incredibly cynical person with a very jaded outlook on life.  The author does an amazing job transcribing these character traits onto the page, often in a sarcastic and very entertaining manner as he describes the events going on around him, and the reader gets a great sense of the character’s frustrations.  While Orhan is attempting to defend the City, his own narrations reveal him to be an extremely self-serving and selfish person who has been forced by circumstances rather than duty to protect the City.  His motivations become even more complex as he begins to wonder if he is on the wrong side of the conflict, as the invading army is completely made up of milkfaces like himself, and even when he is doing the right thing the blueskins in the city that he is defending still treat him badly.  Even with that doubt, he is a surprisingly (especially to himself) effective commander, whose deceitful and inventive nature, as well as his extensive knowledge of history and engineering, allows him to come up with some outstanding defensive strategies.  My favourite has to involve his unique method for dealing with the enemy’s sappers, which sees him use his knowledge of the City, his craft and his ability to manipulate his opponents to create a fantastic response.  The entire sequence involving this anti-sapper technique is one of the best parts of the book, and I love the doubt and regret he experiences as a result of his actions.  Overall, Orhan is an outstanding narrator, and his depiction of the chaotic event and his part in them really made this story for me.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction, and I think I already have a contender for my future top ten books of 2019 list.  This book has to be read to fully appreciate its complexity and cleverness, and I found it to be boundlessly entertaining and widely funny.  K. J. Parker’s latest book comes highly recommended, and it is well worth checking out.

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

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Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

Sensational fantasy author Nicholas Eames follows up his exceptional debut with the five-star novel Bloody Rose, featuring an epic quest storyline which takes its protagonists through a series of wild adventures in a spectacular and large-scale fantasy landscape.

In the human lands of Grandual, mercenary bands hold a celebrity status among the people.  Originally formed to help protect against the horrors of the world, most bands now spend their days touring from city to city, fighting monsters in arenas in order to gain fame, glory and money.  The most famous of these bands is Fable, led by the notorious Bloody Rose, daughter of the land’s greatest hero, Golden Gabe.  Years after her father led a mercenary army to rescue her from a horde of monsters, Rose has reformed Fable with the druin Freecloud, the shaman Brune, the Inkwitch Cura and their booker, the waggish satyr Roderick.  With a massive chip on her shoulder, Rose is determined to take on the toughest jobs and challenges that she can find.

In the city of Ardburg, Tam Hasford is sick of her job slinging drinks at the local pub to the famous mercenaries passing through.  As the daughter of two mercenaries herself, Tam craves adventure, and when Fable rolls into town looking for a new bard, Tam jumps at the opportunity to travel with Bloody Rose and her band.  Gaining a well-deserved reputation for her singing and an accidental reputation as a fighter, Tam receives the moniker ‘The Bard’ and a crash course in the mercenary lifestyle of drinking, gambling, fighting and good times.

But while Tam is having fun in her new role, there is still work to be done.  A massive monster horde has once again left the wilds and is threatening several human cities.  All of Grandual’s mercenary bands are gathering to meet them, all except Fable.  Rose is leading her band in the opposite direction and appears unconcerned with the potential devastation the monsters could cause.  Has Bloody Rose lost her nerve or does she have a far more dangerous quest in mind?  While Fable’s plan to become legends may prove to be successful, they will have far more destructive consequences than anyone could ever predict.

Bloody Rose is the incredible sequel to Eames’s 2017 debut, Kings of the Wyld, and forms the second book in Eames’s The Band series.  Set several years after the events of the first book, Eames switches up the story, focusing on the adventures of Rose and her band of mercenaries, while telling the narrative through the eyes of new point-of-view character Tam.  While there are many tie-ins with the first book, including several of the main characters, Eames has mostly shifted the focus onto a new generation of characters.

Although Bloody Rose is the second instalment in this series, curious readers can easily start their adventure with this book.  This book’s point-of-view character, Tam, never directly experienced the battles of the first entry in the series, and she ends up having quite a few conversations that describe or dramatise the events of the previous novel.  As a result, new readers who start with Bloody Rose will not experience any confusion and will be able to enjoy this story right off the bat.  That being said, readers who start with this book will probably get a hankering to read Kings of the Wyld due to how amazing Bloody Rose is.

This is a substantial piece of fantasy literature with a powerful story that is guaranteed to draw the reader in from the first page.  The huge scope of this story is just remarkable, as what begins as a simple adventure story transforms into an epic battle for the survival of all life in the world.  Much of this scope is the result of the significant number of secondary characters and antagonists that are introduced throughout the book.  It is a testimony to Eames’s skill as a writer that all these characters don’t overwhelm the story, and the reader finds themselves interested in seeing how each these characters ends up.  The use of a brand new point-of-view character to tell this story is a clever move from Eames as it allows a fresh insight into this world of mercenary bands and monsters, moving on from the old veterans that were the focus of Kings of the Wyld.

The author has infused his narrative with a huge amount of humour, most of it quite adult and over the top in nature.  This humorous tone infects quite a lot of the way that the book is told and makes it a very fun read.  There are some extremely funny scenes through the book, from debates about fake cockatrices, to the antics of a drunken satyr, to discussions about the dietary requirements of minotaurs.  While this humour is a key and overwhelmingly fun part of the story, Eames does get deadly serious in several parts of the book when the protagonists encounter dark days.  These darker scenes are felt particularly hard by the reader, mainly due to the sudden shift away from the lighter tone of the rest of the book.  While there are several examples of this throughout the story, I found that the final scenes of this book were particularly intense and had me absolutely captivated.  This clever combination of the outstanding comedy overtones and the gripping dramatic moments works exceedingly well and turns Bloody Rose’s story into one of the best fantasy narratives I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

In addition to the great use of comedy, drama and story, Eames has also packed this book with a significant amount of action and adventure.  The protagonists of this story essentially fight everyone as they adventure across the land, and participate in all sorts of combat, including arena battles with monsters, fights with titanic creatures, large-scale battles and even a few tavern brawls.  All these action sequences work well with the book’s other elements.  Not only do these battles result in some devastating moments but Eames also includes some comedy in these fight scenes, which can prove to be very entertaining.  Readers should also keep an eye out for the fun and inventive combat tactics used throughout this book, which are not only destructive but creative.  Never has red hair been used in battle so effectively.  With as much conflict and combat as you’ll ever need in a book, this is a perfect read those looking for those looking for their next injection of thrilling action and adventure.

Eames has also created a vast world to be the setting for this story, filled with a huge number of fantasy creatures and massive amount of world building lore.  Having such a large and well-established world is essential for a story of this magnitude.  The protagonists do a substantial amount of travel from one end of Grandual to the other, exploring large cities, small towns, barren wastes, massive battlefields and dangerous forested areas.  The author has also filled this story with every classic fantasy and mythological creature one could think of, as well as a few unique creatures from his own imagination.  All these creatures are a great addition to the story, resulting in some very fun battle sequences throughout the book, especially when their a huge number of these creatures in action.  One of the more intriguing races is the druin, the rabbit-eared humanoids created by Eames which used to rule all the humans and monsters of this fantasy world.  There is some fascinating history around the druin which has some significant impacts on the story, as well as gifting these creatures with some cool abilities that come into play in a variety of great ways.

The author has also spent time developing a fantastic band of main characters for the reader to follow on their adventure.  Using his new narrator, Tam, to full effect, the reader is given an introduction to every member of Fable and learns their history and motivations in significant and interesting detail.  A decent amount of time is spent looking at all of the members of Fable and the reader is given a deep understanding of each of them.  Each member of the band is a fairly unique fighter and character in their own right, but together they form a fun team.  Eames really hammers home how close these band members become throughout the book, and the reader becomes attached to the characters as they grow closer together.  This makes any potential harm or trauma they experience particularly hard for the reader to experience, and really adds to the books emotional depth.

With the follow-up to his epic debut, Eames has once again demonstrated why he is one of the freshest and most exciting new voices in fantasy fiction.  This exceptional story is an action-packed bonanza that sees several compelling characters engage in a heroic quest across an impressive fantasy landscape.  With the perfect blend of comedic adventure, epic fantasy storytelling and some dramatic character moments, Bloody Rose is an exceptional and excellent read that is guaranteed to become your new favourite story.

My Rating:

Five Stars