Throwback Thursday – Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 September 2001)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Three

Length: 11 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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 my latest Throwback Thursday article, I continue my dive into the bestselling Dresden Files urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher by looking at the third chilling novel, Grave Peril.

I am really getting into the awesome Dresden Files novels, a major long-running urban fantasy series that follows Harry Dresden, a wizard living in modern-day Chicago, as he investigates supernatural crimes.  Generally considered one of the best urban fantasy series of all time, I started enjoying this series last year when I read the latest novel, Battle Ground.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground (easily one of the best novels and audiobooks of 2020) and I have since decided to go back and check out the earlier entries in the series.  I already enjoyed the very first novel, Storm Front, a couple of months ago, and Fool Moon, which I finished and reviewed last week, was so much fun that I had to immediately go and read another Dresden Files book.  I have just finished off the third entry, Grave Peril, and decided to feature it in this Throwback Thursday article.

Something is stirring in the dark of Chicago and it is bringing all manner of ghosts and spooks with it.  Harry Dresden, professional wizard, is used to facing the supernatural dangers infecting his city, but he has never experienced quite so much chaos as the spirit world has gone crazy.  Powerful ghosts and tortured spirits are popping up all around Chicago, causing the walls between our world and the Nevernever (the spirit world), to weaken and fray.  As Dresden attempts to find out who or what is behind the current upsurge in spiritual activity, he finds himself under attack from a powerful and unseen force that can strike through his nightmares.  Scared, weakened and full of self-doubt, Dresden is near powerless to stop this creature as it begins to target his friends and loved ones.

With a righteous Knight of the Cross at his back and his reporter girlfriend hounding him for a scoop, Dresden looks for the true source of the entity coming after him.  But in order to find the truth, Dresden must place himself in the very heart of Chicago’s supernatural underworld.  With old enemies, bloodthirsty vampires, howling spirits, deadly demons and his twisted fairy godmother coming after him, can Dresden survive this latest attack unscathed, or will his enemies finally succeed in destroying him, mind, body and soul?

Is it even possible for Butcher to write a bad Dresden Files book?  I have yet to see any evidence to suggest this as Grave Peril, the fourth Dresden Files novel I have read and the third book in the series, turned out to be another epic and powerful fantasy read.  Butcher has come up with a fantastic novel in Grave Peril, and I loved the dark and compelling story that sees Dresden face various demons from his past.  Utilising some great new characters and serving as a major entry in the overall series, this was an outstanding read which gets yet another five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex narrative that Butcher came up with for Grave Peril, especially as it takes Dresden and his friends into some sinister and dangerous places.  This book starts quick, with a great extended sequence that sees Dresden and Michael face off against a powerful ghost in the Nevernever.  This amazing opening to the novel is then followed by an intriguing central story which forces Dresden to investigate a new and unusual antagonist, the Nightmare, who is feasting on his dreams and using the power it steals to go after Dresden’s loved ones.  This central story is very intense and compelling, playing to the series’ detective novel inspirations as Butcher sets up a fantastic mystery while also showing a desperate Dresden coming under attack in some unusual ways.  There are some fantastic moments in this part of the book, and I really appreciated the author’s inclusion of multiple supernatural suspects as you try to figure out who is involved and how they are pulling off their plans.  All this leads to the book’s most memorable sequence, a vampire masquerade, which sees Dresden and his closest allies trapped at a ball, surrounded by a dangerous array of enemies and, trying to work out motivations and plans on the fly.  The story is eventually all wrapped up with a dramatic and clever conclusion that is exciting, emotionally rich and a little traumatising to the reader.  I deeply enjoyed Grave Peril’s cool narrative and it honestly did not take me long to get fully engrossed in what was happening.  While this novel is not as action orientated as the previous book, Fool Moon, it has a much darker edge to it with a particular focus on manipulation, emotions and intrigue.  Readers should be warned that some of the scenes can be a bit over-the-top at times (I am pretty sure the protagonist gets raped by a vampire at one point) and are a little hard to read.  However, this is an overall exceptional narrative.

Like most books in the Dresden Files series, Grave Peril can be read as a standalone novel without any knowledge of the previous entries.  Butcher always makes his novels very accessible to new readers, and while there are some references to the character’s previous adventures, most of the relevant details and re-examined and explained throughout this book.  Grave Peril is a fairly major entry in the overall series as Butcher starts to introduce some important storylines, key supporting characters and lasting world-building elements which become quite significant in future novels.  In particular, Butcher introduces lore surrounding vampires, spirits, and fairies, with the protagonist coming into conflict with all three.  Each of these fantasy elements are set up extremely well and have a dark edge that fits into the series’ distinctive tone.  I loved the author’s depiction of the fairy creatures as monstrous and shadowy manipulators, and it was quite cool to see all the lore around vampires.  Grave Peril introduces three major vampire courts, with each court made up a different sub-species of vampire with their own specific powers and weaknesses, from the Dracula-esque Black Court, to the sexually and emotionally powered vampires of the White Court.  Each of these different types of vampires are strongly featured in Grave Peril and are a fantastic part of the story.  The highlight for me was probably the various battles between Dresden and the members of the Red Court, who can be pretty freaky and repulsive, and Butcher sets up an intriguing, long-running storyline with the Red Court here.

It is near impossible to discuss a Dresden Files novel without mentioning the incredible and well-written characters that appear in each book.  Butcher has a real talent for introducing and developing memorable protagonists and antagonists, and Grave Peril is a particularly good example of this.  Not only do several amazing recurring characters reappear in a big way but Butcher also introduces some intriguing new figures who make a big splash.

The key character as always is series protagonist and point of view character, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the sarcastic and amusing maverick wizard who is constantly finding himself in trouble.  I always deeply enjoy following Dresden throughout these novels, mainly because he has a wicked sense of humour, an entertaining attitude and an uncanny ability to annoying and enrage everyone he comes across.  Most of Grave Peril’s humour comes from Dresden’s outrageous actions and observations, including his insane decision to arrive at a vampire’s ball dressed in a cheesy Dracula costume (that raised some eyebrows and lengthened some fangs).  Despite this fun and amusing exterior, Dresden is quite a damaged individual, and you really get to see that on full display in Grave Peril.  Dresden goes through some major traumatic events in this novel, several of which nearly break him as he is forced to encounter or do some very dark deeds.  Butcher really takes his protagonist to the edge in this novel, and there are some very intense scenes, including a glimpse of Dresden’s nightmares and deepest fears.  The author also continues to drip-feed hints of his protagonist’s dark past throughout this novel, especially when Dresden comes into conflict with an old enemy/mentor.  All this hurt and trauma is really touching and compelling, and the entire novel features a heartbreaking ending for Dresden, which really hits home, especially after you find yourself connecting with the character.

Aside from Dresden, there is a great collection of supporting and side characters I had a lot of fun seeing in this novel.  The most prominent of them is newly introduced protagonist, Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross.  Michael is a modern-day holy crusader, wielding a powerful blessed sword and his own unflappable faith to strike down evil.  Michael is a very intriguing character, and I deeply enjoyed the friendship he forms with Dresden.  Michael is a man of intense faith and goodness, who manages to balance family with his responsibilities as a knight, and this serves as a fantastic counterpart to the more flaky and irresponsible Dresden.  Like Dresden, Michael goes through some major traumas in this novel, several of which shake even his faith and resolve.  However, no matter how dark the situation, Michael manages to pull through and he and Dresden work together well as an enjoyable team with Michael serving as a mentor figure and conscience to Dresden.  I felt that Butcher did a great job introducing Michael in this novel, and I am excited to see how this noble knight develops in future Dresden Files’ entries.

Other great side characters in this novel include Dresden’s girlfriend, feisty reporter Susan Rodriguez.  Susan has not been my favourite character in the past, but she has a great story arc in this novel.  Not only does she attempt to do her own research into the case but she also serves as a major figure of emotional turmoil for Dresden as he struggles to prioritise her over his supernatural work.  While I did get a little annoyed at some of Susan’s decisions in this novel, I enjoyed the compelling story arc Butcher weaves around her, especially as it alters her in a big way.  My favourite haunted skull, Bob, returns once again and has several great scenes throughout Grave Peril.  I love Bob’s funny, if slightly pervy, personality, and all his appearances are very amusing.  There are some great new characters featured in this book as well, including Lea (The Leanansidhe), Michael’s fairy godmother.  Lea, who previously made a dark bargain with a desperate teenage Dresden, spends much of this book manipulating and hunting Dresden, attempting to claim him and his power.  I loved the use of this evil, manipulative and sexy fairy godmother through the novel, and she ended up being a pretty impressive secondary antagonist.  Grave Peril also sees the introduction of Thomas Raith, a White Court vampire who finds himself helping Dresden.  Thomas is a cool addition to the plot, and it was intriguing to see his introduction to the Dresden Files, especially as I know some spoilers about him.  All of these characters were pretty awesome and I had an outstanding time seeing their latest dark adventure unfold.

As I have with the previous entries in this series, I ended up listening to Grave Peril’s awesome audiobook format.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are a thing of beauty and I love how fun and exciting listening to these great books turns out to be.  The Grave Peril audiobook has a decent runtime of just under 12 hours, which is longer than the previous two Dresden Files novels, but readers will be too caught up in the amazing narrative to care.  I managed to power through it in only a few short days, mainly because of the outstanding narration from actor James Marsters.  Marsters, best known for his roles in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville and Torchwood, narrates all the Dresden Files books and does an exceptional job bringing each of these novels to life.  I absolutely loved the incredible gravitas and energy he infused in the Grave Peril audiobook.  Marsters really gets into the heart and mind of Dresden, and you get an amazing sense of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling through the narrator’s voice and tone.  I also enjoyed the enthusiasm that Marsters exhibited in several key scenes, as he attempted to highlight certain weird and dangerous story elements.  For example, he does a fantastic enraged and shrieking ghost wail towards the start of the novel that gave me a start, and I loved the dark and dangerous voices he pulls together for some of the more monstrous creatures.  It was also very cool to hear Marsters yell out some of Dresden’s spells in the heat of battle, and it really enhances the excitement of the scene.  All of this and more makes the Grave Peril audiobook the perfect way to enjoy this novel, and I plan to check out the entire Dresden Files in this format.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and incredible fantasy novel that serves as an amazing third entry in the bestselling Dresden Files.  Butcher crafted together a dark and compelling character driven narrative for Grave Peril which proved to be extremely addictive and powerful.  I had an outstanding time getting through this novel, and I loved all the clever introductions and memorable sequences the author loaded into the plot.  A highly recommended read, especially as an audiobook, I cannot wait to see what other madness occurs in the rest of this fantastic series.

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 6 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Since I started this blog, one major author that I have neglected is the master of horror fiction, Stephen King.  King needs absolutely no introduction, with a decades-long career of amazing horror novels, thrillers and heartfelt pieces of fiction, most of which have been turned into iconic films and television shows.  Despite this, I haven’t read many of King’s novels before, aside from Cell and the novel he co-wrote with his son, Owen King, Sleeping Beauties.  Honestly, I have only started getting into horror novels in the last couple of years (it is still not my favourite genre TBH) and I have completely failed to make time to check out some of King’s more recent releases.  However, his latest novel, Later, caught my eye and I decided that it would be a good opportunity to expand my Stephen King knowledge.

Jamie Conklin is a young boy with a very unusual problem: he can see and talk to the spirits of the recently deceased.  The son of a struggling single mother, Tia, Jamie just wants to have a normal childhood.  However, as his ability becomes more apparent, his mother cautions him to hide his strange gift, worried that people will abuse his talents, especially as the dead have no choice but to truthfully answer any questions that Jamie asks of them.

Content to keep his secret to himself, Jamie attempts to live like a normal New York City kid during the late 2000s.  However, when his mother pressures him to use his abilities to help save her failing publishing business, it places him in the crosshairs of his mother’s lover, corrupt police detective Liz Dutton.  Liz, desperate for recognition from her bosses, draws Jamie into the hunt for a killer’s final surprise, which only his dead spirit can reveal.  However, not all secrets are easily taken from the dead, and soon Jamie must contend with a terrible force determined to torment him from beyond.  Can Jamie survive what is coming for him, or will it drag him into insanity?

This was an extremely cool novel that makes we really want to go out and read some more Stephen King books.  Later is a fantastic read which combines multiple genres together to create an exciting and fast-paced narrative loaded up with some real heart and memorable characters.  I had an absolute blast reading this clever novel, and thanks to its shorter length and captivating narrative, I powered through it in a very quickly.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex story that King came up with for Later, which proved to be a powerful and intriguing character-driven tale that moved across the genres.  Told in a first-person chronicle format by an older version of the main protagonist, Later details the childhood of Jamie Conklin and his early experiences of talking to the dead.  Weaving in anecdotes of his childhood and depictions of his early life with his mother, the story quickly and effectively sets up how Jamie discovered he had his powers, and some of the most significant times that he saw and talked to the spirits of the departed.  This proves to be a fascinating coming-of-age story that showcases how this unique talent twisted and altered the course of Jamie’s life and took him into some dark places.  The author does a fantastic job capturing the style of a young man recounting major events from his childhood, and I very much appreciated the mixture of childlike innocence with cynical reflections.

While this chronicle of a child’s life forms an effective and powerful centre to this entire narrative, this is also a horror story, as Jamie is traumatised by several of the spirits he encounters, especially as King provides some harrowing descriptions of mutilated ghosts and bodies.  These horror elements get even stronger and spookier when Jamie encounters a truly evil spirit who starts to haunt him.  Several of the scenes featuring this being are pretty terrifying, and I liked how King strongly highlights the dark side of Jamie’s power.

The author also works in some intriguing crime fiction elements as well, as the protagonist get wrapped up in a murder investigation and the dangerous schemes of a police officer.  The crime fiction features are pretty thrilling, and l appreciated the consideration of how Jamie’s powers could be abused.  I liked this unique blend of genres, and it ended up creating a very compelling and powerful story, which King sets out at an incredibly fast rate.  King sets the story up perfectly, and I found myself really getting pulled in as the narrative set off, thanks to its unique tone and intriguing selection of supporting characters.  The entire narrative goes in some very interesting directions and I liked how interconnected all the events that the narrator is recounting fit together into a clever and moving tale of discovery and redemption.  All of this comes together into an exciting and scary finale as the narrator comes face-to-face with several of the monsters in his life, and I think that King came up with a very satisfying and clever ending for the book, which has potential for a sequel.  I did think that the final big reveal of the book was extremely unnecessary, but it was a particularly typical Stephen King twist, so I should not have been so surprised.  Overall, this was an exceptional narrative that I cannot hype up enough.

Later is a standalone novel from King which features a whole new group of characters.  As a result, it is very accessible to a wide range of readers, even for those people who have not previously enjoyed any of King’s novels.  I personally found it really easy to get into this cool story, even with my limited knowledge of the author’s prior works, and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on his clever and unique story.  This is also quite a good book for established fans.  Not only does it contain a lot of elements of a classic Stephen King novel, such as a young protagonist on a journey of self-discovery who ends up losing their innocence, but there are also some intriguing connections to some of King’s most iconic works.  One horror inclusion in the novel appeared to be a version of a creature from a previous book, and I think that King readers will really appreciate the clever references he chucks in.  Due to all this, I feel that Later is a perfect book for any curious readers, no matter their experiences with King’s works, and this may end up being the novel that draws new readers into this compelling master author’s web.  I personally will make a bit more of an effort to read more of King’s works in the future, and I already have my eye on his next novel, which is coming out later this year.  I also kind of hope that we see more of the characters at some point, especially as King did such a great job setting them up in this novel, while also leaving their overall story very open-ended.

I quite enjoyed the relatively modern setting that King utilised as a backdrop to his plot.  With the protagonist chronicling his tale in his 20s, presumably in the present day, most of his childhood took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s.  This is a pretty interesting departure from some of King’s more recognisable novels that explore the childhoods of their protagonists, such as It and Stand by Me, all of which make excellent use of their 1950s or 1980s settings (I liked the awesome 1980s nostalgia you got in the latest It film, for example).  Instead, King loads up Later with a ton of references to 2000s culture and movies, and I had a fun time remembering some of the things that the protagonist experienced as a child.  King, through the medium of his protagonist, also cleverly mentions The Sixth Sense right off the bat, ensuring readers that this story is “not like that movie with Bruce Willis”, which I thought was very entertaining, and also quite true.  The Great Recession also becomes a key plot point of the novel, and it was interesting to see how King was able to utilise it as a major motivator for various character actions.  I also liked how the story was set in New York City, rather than the small-town American locations King’s books are known for.  The author uses this city-based location to great effect throughout the novel, painting a fantastic picture of New York life, especially through the eyes of his young protagonist.  Jamie ends up visiting various parts of the city throughout the events of Later, including several communities on the outskirts of New York, and I enjoyed this great use of location.

I also have to highlight the multiple jokes about novelists and publishers that King features throughout Later, mainly due to Jamie being born into a publishing family.  You have to imagine that King had a lot of fun coming up with all the great jokes and comedic insights into Jamie and his mother’s experiences with writers, and it ended up being a really fun addition to the plot.  I had a particularly good laugh about the descriptions of a certain series of trashy historical romance/adventure novels that Tia’s struggling publishing company relies on, and I loved how King explored it throughout this entertaining narrative, as well as cleverly featuring a mock-up cover of one of these fictional novels released as a bonus dust jacket for Later.  This extra dust jacket (see below), was drawn by the same cover artist who did Later’s hardcover, and I enjoyed the similar styles and the excellent tongue-in-cheek testimonial from King, praising this book within a book.  Fun little inclusions like this really helped to push Later up to another level, and I liked how the humour from the publishing jokes contrasted nicely with the dark horror and crime fiction elements.

The Secret of Roanoke Cover

While I probably would have enjoyed reading a physical copy of Later, I instead chose to enjoy this fun novel in its audiobook format, which ended up being a fantastic choice.  This audiobook has an extremely quick run time of just over six and a half hours.  This shorter length was one of the main reasons I decided to listen to Later, and I was able to get through it in a day or two, although a lot of that was down to how awesome the story was.  This was an impressively fast-paced audiobook, and I really felt that this format worked well with the first-person chronicle style the author utilised, as it felt like the protagonist was the one vocalising the story to you.  Later was narrated by actor Seth Numrich, and it is one of the first audiobooks he has lent his voice to.  I really enjoyed Numrich’s work on this audiobook; not only did he do an amazing top capturing Later’s unique tone, but he also provided a range of great voices for the characters featured within the novel.  His main voice, which represented the narrating protagonist, really encapsulated the innocence and pain of the character as he tells the story of his strange childhood, and it helped draw me to the protagonist.  The rest of his voices were pretty good, although I thought the voice he used for female detective Liz Dutton sounded a little like John Leguizamo, which is probably not what he was going for.  Overall, though, this was an exceptional audiobook, and I would strongly recommend it to those who want to check out Later.  I also hope that Numrich considers narrating more audiobooks in the future as he displayed some real talent here and was an absolute treat to listen to.

Later is an outstanding and impressive novel from the legendary Stephen King, who creates a unique and powerful tale of life, death and coming to terms with both.  Featuring an intriguing narrative that blends together clever horror and crime inclusions with a powerful coming of age story, Later is a truly memorable novel that is extremely easy to fall in love with.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and it is a must read for all fans of King’s work and anyone who has ever been curious about his writing.

Later Cover 2

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.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 July 2019)

Series: Ghost Town – Book 2

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Michael Pryor revisits his Ghost Town young adult series with another entertaining and intriguing story, Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town.

Anton Marin is having an extremely odd gap year. As a member of an infamous outcast ghost-hunting family, Anton can see the ghosts that linger in our world, and he has recently taken up the family business. Working with his new partner, the English badass Rani Cross, Anton works to protect the people of Melbourne from the more dangerous types of ghosts while also ensuring that all the wandering spirits they encounter are helped on to the next world. However, even with Rani’s help, ghost hunting in Melbourne has recently gotten even more difficult as the city finds itself in the midst of a genuine ghost plague. A massive infestation of the most dangerous types of ghosts imaginable is wreaking havoc across the city, and even usually benign or harmless spirits are starting to attack people.

Anton and Rani’s problems are about to get even worse; a deadly cult of Trespassers, humans who use magic to control ghosts for their own ends, is in town and determined to capture anyone with ghost sight for use in their rituals. As Anton and Rani find themselves with a target on their back, Anton must deal with the return of his long-lost aunt Tanja. While Anton is overjoyed to have a member of his family back, he quickly realises that not everything with his aunt is as it seems. What secrets is Tanja hiding and what is her connection to the leader of this group of Trespassers? As secrets and occult dangers arise within Melbourne, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Michael Pryor is one of Australian’s most notable authors of young adult fiction, having written a number of fantasy and science fiction novels for a younger audience. Some of his most notable series include The Law of Magic, The Extraordinaries and his six entries in the long-running The Quentaris Chronicles. Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is the second book in Pryor’s latest series, Ghost Town, and follows on from his 2017 release, Gap Year in Ghost Town. I initially thought that Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town was my first experience reading Pryor’s work, but I actually remember reading some of the books in The Doorways trilogy back when I was kid. While this was something like 20 years ago (and now I feel old), I do know that I greatly enjoyed these books and their clever concept, so I was excited to check it out.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is an interesting and engaging piece of young adult fantasy with a number of cool features. Pryor has done a fantastic job combining a unique concept of ghost hunting with a group of enjoyable characters and grounded the story in the author’s home city of Melbourne. This results in a great piece of fiction that will do a wonderful job of enthralling a whole new generation of young Australian readers. For those readers who are only just coming onto this series, knowledge of the previous book is not a necessity to enjoy this sequel, as the author does a good job of re-introducing the characters, plot details and adventures that were featured in Gap Year in Ghost Town.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this series is the overarching concept of a world haunted by real and potentially malevolent ghosts, and the adventures of the few individuals who can actually see them. Pryor has populated his story with all manner of different types of ghosts, each with their own specific characteristics, strengths and appearances. Readers will get to see the various ghosts that the protagonists go after, including the Lingers, Moaners, Thugs, Weepers and a new breed of zombie ghosts, just to name a few. All of these ghosts are really cool, and I enjoyed how this book started going into a little more detail about the origins of ghosts and the malevolent forces behind them. I also liked how the story also pivoted towards a more human antagonist in the form of the Trespassers, and it was intriguing to see how a group of people utilising the ghosts for nefarious purposes. It was interesting to see the protagonist’s ghost hunting techniques in action, and it results in some intense action sequences, especially when they have to fight ghosts and the Trespassers at the same time. This is an inventive and clever concept that helps make this series stand out from some of the other young adult fantasy books out there.

Another great distinguishing feature about this book is the author’s inclusion of a contemporary Melbourne setting. I love fantasy stories that utilise modern settings, and Pryor did an exceptional job bringing the city of Melbourne to life. The characters visit all manner of key landmarks in the city throughout the course of the story, and I really liked seeing locations I have visited featuring fights between ghost hunters and spirits. Pryor also uses the opportunity to showcase some of his favourite restaurants and cafes and it was nice to see an author insert elements of a city they clearly love into their story.

In addition to its intriguing concept and excellent setting, I was also impressed with the complex characters in Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town. The main protagonist is Anton, the funny and slightly odd heir to an exiled ghost hunting family with their own unique techniques for dispersing ghosts. Anton serves as the narrator and point-of-view character for the story, and he offers a fun and introspective narration to the book, while the revelations about certain family secrets offer up some interesting drama. The other main protagonist, Rani, is an extremely skilled sword-wielding badass who is a former member of an established ghost-hunting order from England and is an excellent female character for this series. Anton and Rani form a great team in this book, as the two of them find their groove as a partnership and work well against the threats they face. The character of Bec is an interesting third member of this partnership, as not only is she Anton’s oldest friend, who plays a cute game where they try to guess quotes from famous figures, but she is also Rani’s girlfriend, who they share an apartment and cat with. Bec really brings the team together, and there are some interesting examinations of the dynamics between the three of them, as each of them feels like they are the outsider in the group. There are also a few cool new additions to the series in this book, including a couple of Scottish ghost hunters, their ghost-hunting dog and a good antagonist in the form of the leader of the new cult of Trespassers.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is an excellent piece of young adult fiction that is appropriate for a wide range of different ages and tastes. While there are a few dark scenes, such as a somewhat gruesome torture sequence, the vast majority of the book is appropriate for young teens and perhaps particularly mature young readers. I thought the author’s inclusion of a positive lesbian relationship between Rani and Bec was a really good feature for the young adult audience, and it was that was portrayed extremely well. I am also sure that young Australian readers, especially those living in Melbourne, will love to see these fantasy variations of locations they are familiar with, and it will hopefully invigorate their imagination.

Michael Pryor has done an amazing job following up Gap Year in Ghost Town, as he presents another compelling and enjoyable paranormal young adult adventure. With inventive ghosts, scary antagonists, great characters and a fantastic Australian setting, Pryor has once again shown why he is one of the leading authors of young adult fiction in Australia. Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is definitely worth checking out, and it has a lot of features that should prove appealing to the younger teen audience.

God of Broken Things by Cameron Johnston

god of broken things cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: Age of Tyranny – Book 2

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Those readers looking for the next entertaining grimdark fantasy adventure to sink their teeth into need look no further than God of Broken Things, the electrifying second book in Cameron Johnston’s Age of Tyranny.

It has only been a few short months since the devastating attack by the Skallgrim raiders on the city of Setharis, which severely weakened the city. Despite repulsing the Skallgrim and their monstrous hordes, Setharis is still in incredible danger. The Skallgrim forces are massing to launch another attack on Setharis, and the Skallgrim’s masters, the parasitic alien lifeforms known as the Scarrabus, are determined to enslave the entire city to their will. Setharis’s salvation once again rests in the hands of its most hated son, Edrin Walker.

Edrin is powerful magus whose rare abilities allow him to crack open and control the minds of all those around him. His breed of magus, known as tyrants, are feared throughout the world due to their propensity to lose control and use their magic to rule whole civilisations. Despite his role in saving the city from the Skallgrim, Edrin is still distrusted by both the common people and his fellow magus of the Arcanum. However, his skills may be the only thing that can win the war against the Skallgrim and the Scarrabus.

A massive force of Skallgrim are advancing over the mountain passes of the Clanholds, hoping to launch a fresh assault on Setharis. Against his will, Edrin is forced to lead a small army to reinforce the tribes of the Clanholds against the Skallgrim army. Accompanied by a small personal bodyguard of killers and thieves, Edrin leads his forces into the mountains, where far more dangerous things than the Skallgrim and their monsters lurk. Spirits, demons, gods and his own deadly past all lie in wait for Edrin, whose powers have been altered following his battle with a treacherous god. Can Edrin and his forces hold back the Skallgrim, or will he succumb to one of the many horrors in the mountains? And what happens when the tyrant comes out to play?

Johnston is a talented author whose debut novel, The Traitor God, really impressed me last year thanks to its awesome story and enjoyable main character. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the sequel, God of Broken Things, this year and was very happy when I received it a few weeks ago. God of Broken Things turned out to be a fantastic follow-up to the first book and I had an incredible time reading it. Not only does Johnston present another wildly entertaining story for the reader to enjoy, but he also does a fantastic job of expanding his dark fantasy world and exploring the complex mind of his main character.

I really liked where Johnston took the story in this book. While The Traitor God’s story of a hunt for answers in the dark fantasy city was cool, I really liked seeing the main character go to war in God of Broken Things. The whole storyline of Edrin leading an army up into the Clanholds, a dangerous mountainous environment filled with all manner of horrors and dangers was really cool, especially as he kept encountering worse situations and more terrifying opponents. This resulted in some epic moments and massive battles, and Johnston also took the opportunity to explore the history of several of the different races mentioned within the first books, including the Scarrabus, the Ogarim and some more mystical creatures like spirts and demons. This expansion of the Age of Tyranny universe was quite intriguing, and I wonder if there will be more exploration of the world and the various mentioned multiverses in future books. I also liked the deeper look that the author took into his protagonist’s past, showing some of the activities that occurred during the years he was exiled from Setharis. I loved the various twists and epic moments that Johnston sprinkled throughout the book’s plot, and there was never a dull moment in the entire story. I especially enjoyed how the final battle in God of Broken Things ended, especially as the author included a clever red herring in the book’s formatting to throw the reader off. Overall, this was an incredible story, and Johnston did an amazing job trapping me within this entertaining narrative.

One of the best parts of this book was the author’s continued focus on the protagonist, Edrin Walker, who serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character. Edrin was already a fairly complex character in The Traitor God, where he was portrayed as a powerful exiled magus hated, distrusted and ostracised by everyone due to the specific nature of his magical gift. Because of the way he is treated he acts hostile and uncaring to the world, while still participating in the odd act of heroism and compassion. This is continued in the second book, where Edrin continues to battle with his natural instincts and irritation while trying to do the right thing, especially for the few people who actually like or respect him. I really liked the way that the author continued to show Edrin exploring his moral side in this book as, against his better judgement, he actually attempts to help people and keep Setharis safe. The various sacrifices that he subsequently makes for the greater good are very much against the grain of his original character, and it is interesting to see this side of Edrin grow.

Due to the way he is treated, Edrin is an incredibly jaded character, and the author utilises this in a number of clever ways. Not only does this ensure that Edrin is the most likeable character in the book, mostly because he stands in sharp contrast to all the other magus characters, who are elitist snobs, but it also makes him a really entertaining narrator. The character’s sarcastic and mocking manner permeates the entire way he tells the story, resulting in some great reactions and a very amusing overall story.

Edrin continues to get into all sorts of entertaining misadventures in God of Broken Things, and it is hard not to love the unorthodox way he deals with things. Not only does he lead a bodyguard of deranged killers into battle but he rarely ever takes things seriously, no matter who he is dealing with. I love the disrespect and mockery that the character shows when encountering anyone in authority, be it friend or foe, magus or human, god or monster, and I laughed out loud at the way he got his revenge on one of Setharis’s gods in this book. It was also great to see the character apply his particular brand of bastardry to the battlefield, coming up with all manner of unconventional traps and attacks for the forces that are up against him. I particularly loved the cool way he took down the main antagonist of this book, and it really reflected both his cunning and his growth as a character.

The main character’s mind-bending magic continues to be a really cool part of this series, especially as his abilities become even more powerful in God of Broken Things. Johnston’s portrayals of the way that Edrin’s powers to break into and manipulate the minds of all those around him is done extremely well and it results in a number of epic scenes. I never realised how many creative ways someone could magically manipulate a person’s mind until seeing some of the scenes in this book, as Johnston comes up with some very inventive ways to utilises his protagonist’s magic. I especially loved seeing Edrin using these powers in the middle of the battle, as there are some awesome ways he disadvantages his enemies and helps his allies. However, the author also explores the consequences of the tyrant powers, as Edrin continuously runs the risk of taking things too far and grossly abusing his powers. Several examinations of the character’s guilt over some of the mental actions he commits become a compelling part of the story, and the character’s mental magic is a great part of the book.

Those readers who are looking for an explosive amount of fantasy action are in for a real treat with this book. Johnston makes sure to include a ton of battles and fight sequences in God of Broken Things, as the ragtag defenders of the Clanholds face off against a massive horde of Skallgrim, Scarrabus, demons and monsters. All of these fight scenes are incredibly brutal as Johnston depicts some amazing battles throughout this book. Most of these scenes are enhanced through the use of magic, and the sheer destructive power of the various characters’ magical abilities is pretty impressive. The various demons and monsters the protagonist finds himself up against in this book are pretty gruesome and offer up some pretty great battle scenes as a result. Overall, the action in God of Broken Things is quite superb, and fans of bloody fantasy fights will not be disappointed.

Cameron Johnston’s second outing, God of Broken Things, is an amazing piece of grimdark fantasy fiction that proved to be just as much fun as his debut novel, The Traitor God. I had an incredible time reading God of Broken Things as the excellent combination of story, magical action and character work kept me trapped until the very last page. Readers are guaranteed to love this outstanding dark fantasy read, and I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun and powerful adventure. The ending of the book makes it a little unclear if Johnston will continue the Age of Tyranny series, but I will be keeping a close eye out for any future books from this rising star in the grimdark fantasy genre.