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

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Blood & Sugar Cover.png

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.