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.

Throwback Thursday – Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 9 January 2001

Series: Dresden Files – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In my Throwback Thursday series I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I continue my exploration of one of the most highly regarded urban fantasy series out there, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, with the awesome and deeply captivating second entry in the series, Fool Moon.

The Dresden Files are an outstanding collection of novels that follows professional wizard and private investigator Harry Dresden in modern-day Chicago as he battles magical creatures and practitioners that threaten innocent people.  Generally considered the gold standard of the urban fantasy genre, The Dresden Files have been going for over 20 years and currently consist of 17 novels and a massive collection of short stories and novellas.  While I have been meaning to check this series out for a while, I only started reading them last year when I received a copy of the latest entry in the series, Battle GroundBattle Ground was an epic and extraordinary read that featured a mass-supernatural war in the middle of Chicago.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground and it was easily one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020, while Butcher was one of the best new-to-me authors I read last year.  Because of how incredible I found Battle Ground to be I have decided to go back and start reading the series right from the beginning.  I started with Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel a couple of months ago, Storm Front, which proved to be another impressive read, and I am now extremely hooked on this series.  So when I was in the mood for a fun book to break up my reading schedule, I decided to start listening to Fool Moon, and boy am I glad that I did.

Business has been slow for Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, after his last investigation led to all out chaos and destruction.  However, his life is once again about to get very interesting when he is dragged to a murder scene.  One of the bodyguards of a notorious crime lord Dresden has dealt with in the past has been brutally torn to shreds.  With a full moon in the sky and bloody wolf prints surrounding the victim, Dresden comes to the only conclusion he can: there is a killer werewolf stalking the city.

Diving once more into a supernatural case, Dresden attempts to find the killer before the moon rises again.  However, this may prove more difficult than he initially believes, as Chicago is currently rife with wolf-based magic practitioners, enhanced criminal gangs and monsters, each of whom could be more than capable of committing the crime.  Worse, when an associate of his turns up dead, Dresden finds himself under suspicion for the murders by the police and the FBI.

Now on the run with his reporter girlfriend and a mysterious ethereal shifter, Dresden needs to find out who or what is responsible for the murders and why they have involved him.  But with the most bestial elements of Chicago’s criminal elements coming after him and an uncontrollable and seemingly unkillable monster hunting through the night, can Dresden stop the killers before it is too late, or will the next full moon be his last?

Wow, now this was a pretty awesome second entry in the outstanding Dresden Files series.  Butcher has crafted together something really special in Fool Moon, thanks to its compelling and intense story, amazing characters, great humour and impressive fantasy additions.  I had an absolute blast getting through this book in a few short days and it was so good I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

At the centre of this incredible novel is a complex and exciting narrative that sets the protagonist on a deadly journey filled with murder, mystery and monsters.  Starting with an intriguing investigation into an apparent werewolf serial killer, Fool Moon’s story eventually devolves into a survival story for the protagonist as he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the true killers and several different groups of criminals and werewolves.  This proved to be a really impressive and addictive narrative, and I loved the outstanding blend of a detective story with magic, wizards and wolves.  The mystery angle contained within Fool Moon is particularly good, and while the culprit is revealed about two-thirds the way through for excellent story reasons, it was still a fantastic and twisty case that I enjoyed.  Butcher really invested in several excellent and memorable extended sequences in this novel that were a lot of fun to get through, including a particularly intense brawl between several antagonistic groups with Dresden in the middle, and a fantastic high-stakes final confrontation where no one is safe.  However, my absolute favourite sequence occurred in the middle of the novel and saw Dresden forced to contend with a rampaging monster in the middle of a police station.  The sheer carnage and destruction that occurred in this sequence was really cool, and readers are left on the edge of their seats as the fates of several characters hang in the balance.  I deeply enjoyed this intense scene, and it absolutely cemented Fool Moon’s place in my dark heart.  This was an incredible and powerful story, and readers who check it out are in for a thrilling and captivating treat.

A particular strength of The Dresden Files as a series is the way in which the author makes it very accessible to new readers who can easily slip into any of the books in the series, even some of the later instalments, and easily follow what is going on.  Fool Moon is a great example of this, and I felt that people unfamiliar with the rest of the series should be able to enjoy this book without any problems.  All the recurring characters in the narrative are quickly and effectively reintroduced, often in a similar manner to how they appeared in the first book, and any relevant storylines, magical abilities or prior adventures are also covered in some detail.  As a result, new readers should have no trouble enjoying this great book, and indeed this will probably turn them into a fan of the series and ensure that they check out some of the other books.  However, there are some cool connections to the first novel that dedicated readers will notice, and I liked the underlying story thread of someone plotting and planning behind the scenes to mess with the protagonist.  Overall, this a great book for all fantasy and mystery fans, especially those who like a complex, multi-genre narrative.

I love all the awesome fantasy elements that Butcher slips into his novels, and it is always great to see the weird and magical in the midst of modern-day Chicago.  Fool Moon is no exception, as Butcher has a lot of fun expanding out some of the rules of magic in this book, as well as highlighting a few additional magical denizens and powers.  While this is very cool, the real magical highlight of Fool Moon has to be the werewolves.  Most fantasy authors who feature werewolves in their story would choose just one specific type that they like and leave it at that.  Butcher, however, is not the sort of person to do stuff by half measures (check out the massive fantasy war featured in Battle Ground) and instead features five separate subtypes of werewolves, all of whom are potential suspects for the murders.  I deeply enjoyed this use of multiple werewolves throughout the novel, not only because it really helped to enhance the book’s already fantastic mystery, but because it was awesome and fascinating to see the different creature subtypes.  Each werewolf or wolf-based magic user has their own unique abilities, source of power and personalities which Dresden has to learn about and overcome if he is to survive.  These wolves include shapeshifters, demon talisman powered wolves and humans with wolf-like mentalities that make them act like berserkers.  The standout, however, is the loup-garous, a cursed individual with no control over their actions; essentially a more monstrous version of wolf man from film.  Butcher paints his loup-garous as a particularly dangerous being which is practically invincible to everything and anything it encounters, including the protagonist’s most destructive magic.  This loup-garous causes some real carnage in this book, and watching Dresden attempt to defend himself from it is pretty crazy and makes for some excellent and intense scenes.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed the epic use of werewolves in this novel and Butcher really does the old lore surrounding them justice.

It is impossible to talk about a Dresden Files novel without discussing the incredibly well-developed characters featured within.  The most prominent of these is central protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard for hire.  Dresden is an exceptionally entertaining and likeable protagonist who provides pretty much all of the book’s great humour thanks to his outrageous personality, disrespect for authority and witty observations about the events going on around him.  As such, he is a fantastic character to follow, and you really appreciate his knowledge and insights into the supernatural and the people around him.  While much of the book shows Dresden as a confident and amusing being, we do get to see more of the character’s darker side as he deals with dark and dangerous magic.  Thanks to the author’s outstanding writing style, the reader is front and centre for all of the protagonist’s slips towards darkness and despair, especially as he encounters tragedy, loss and insane opposition.  I really appreciated this examination of the protagonist’s fragile psyche, and Butcher makes sure to take him to the edge in Fool Moon.  The author also makes some additional intriguing references to Dresden’s past which hint at some traumatic events and betrayals.  Fool Moon also shows of Dresden’s full magical potential, especially as he launches some incredible attacks here, even if they do leave him very drained.  It also shows the character at his most vulnerable, as he is forced to go it alone with only the bare amount of resources and abilities.  All of this makes for an intriguing and powerful character and I really enjoyed seeing more of this awesome protagonist.

In addition to Dresden, Butcher also makes excellent use of several great supporting characters, each of whom add some fun and compelling elements to the plot.  The most prominent supporting character was probably Karrin Murphy, Dresden’s liaison in the Chicago police.  Murphy, a hardnosed professional who is one of the few police officers to believe in the supernatural, has an intriguing character arc in this novel.  This is mostly because of Dresden’s actions in Storm Front, as well as his somewhat chauvinistic determination to protect Murphy from magic, both of which ruined have Murphy’s trust in him and placed her in some hot water with the police brass.  This fractured relationship becomes a key story point in Fool Moon, especially as it leads to Murphy being quick to jump on Dresden as a potential suspect in the crimes.  This adds some compelling difficulties for the protagonist in the story, and I really appreciated the excellent drama that emerged between the two as Murphy and a repentant Dresden attempt to work out their issues.

Aside from Murphy, you have the return of Susan Rodriquez, Dresden’s love interest and a reporter for a tabloid newspaper.  Susan is an interesting counterpoint to Dresden, being an ambitious reporter determined to find out the truth of the arcane no matter what.  She has a fun and fiery relationship with Dresden in this novel, and it was interesting to see her more involved with the story, especially as she sees Dresden at his darkest and most dangerous point.  I also loved seeing more of Gentleman Johnny Marcone, the sly and powerful gangster who Dresden has previously gone up against.  Macone is a fantastic villainous character, and I love the antagonistic relationship he has with Dresden, even when the two are on the same side.  You also have to have a laugh at Bob, a guiding spirit who resides inside a skull in Dresden’s basement, as he adds some intriguing exposition and laughs in his scenes.  There were also some intriguing new characters added in this book, although I will not go into too much detail about them as it could spoil some parts of the story.  None the less, they were all really fun additions to the plot, and having so many different new magical or shapeshifting beings ensured the reader was constantly trying to work out who was the actual villain.  All in all, a fantastic group of characters, and I felt that they really helped to turn Fool Moon into an excellent and first-rate read.

One of the reasons I have been enjoying The Dresden Files books is because they have some really awesome audiobook formats.  Each of these audiobooks I have listened to have been extremely amazing, and I love the way in which they portray these fun stories in a concise and exciting manner.  The Fool Moon audiobook has a runtime of just over 10 hours, and listeners will power through this in no time at all, especially as it is really easy to become addicted to the fantastic story.  However, the main thing that I love about these audiobooks is the perfect choice of narrator in actor James Marsters (Spike from Buffy and Angel).  Marsters does an outstanding job with his narration, imbuing the various characters with some fantastic and fitting voices that expertly convey their personality, emotions and actions.  I am particularly impressed by the way in which he portrays the story’s narrator and main protagonist, Harry Dresden, and the tone he uses for him perfectly represents the sarcastic and entertaining rogue wizard.  This is one of the best examples of an audiobook narrator matching their protagonist, and it makes for some fantastic listening.  I also appreciated the way in which Marsters started really getting into his narration of certain key events in this second novel.  While he did an excellent job in Storm Front, I felt that Marsters stepped up his game in Fool Moon, and while it was not quite at the level of enthusiasm and volume that featured in Battle Ground (he was really getting caught up in the action there), it was noticeably more exciting.  This enthusiasm added a lot to the enjoyment I felt while listening to Fool Moon and I strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check this book out.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher ended up being another exceptional and spectacular addition to the author’s legendary Dresden Files series.  I had an outstanding time listening to the clever and exciting narrative that Butcher came up with for his second novel and I think that the author actually stepped up his game a little with Fool Moon.  Featuring some great characters and an addictive and thrilling mystery surrounding werewolves, Fool Moon is an incredible read that I powered through in no time at all.  I can think of no higher praise for this book than to say that the moment I finished it I immediately started the next novel in the series, Grave Peril, as I still had not gotten my fill of Dresden Files goodness.  I am already making some amazing progress with Grave Peril and I am planning to review in the next week or so.  Until then, readers are strongly encouraged to check this awesome second entry in the series out, as you will not regret it.

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.

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 17 November 2020)

Series: Standalone/Pine Deep series

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to journey back to the weirdly dangerous town of Pine Deep as one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Maberry, presents his latest novel, Ink, an intriguing and clever horror thriller that dives down into the world of memories and tattoos.

Pine Deep, Pennsylvania is a town long-steeped in blood and death.  After barely surviving the terrible events of 15 years ago, now known by the locals as The Trouble, the town has slowly recovered, with fresh businesses and people bringing in new life.  However, no one is ever truly safe in Pine Deep, especially with a malicious predator haunting the streets, one with very particular appetites.

Monk Addison is man who has experienced many weird and horrifying things in his life, but what he is about to encounter in Pine Deep will shake him to his core.  A bounty hunter who has sought redemption in life by covering his body with tattoos depicting the faces of murder victims, Monk has recently moved to Pine Deep to be closer to his friend and tattoo-artist Patty Cakes, but what he arrives he finds Patty in a state of shock.  An important tattoo on Patty’s hand has started to disappear, and as it fades, so do the memories associated with it until Patty can no longer remember anything about, not even the precious person who inspired it.

As Monk desperately tries to understand what is happening to his friend, a pattern begins to emerge.  Several people within Pine Deep are experiencing losses of traumatic or significant memories, and in every case tattoos related to these events have also disappeared.  Worse, in some cases new tattoos are appearing on people, forcing them to do terrible deeds.  Working with Pine Deep’s chief of police, Malcolm Crow, and his adopted son, Mike Sweeney, Monk, Patty and other impacted residents of Pine Deep attempt to discover who or what is behind these stolen memories.  But can they find who is responsible before their memories fade, or will this predator continue to feast on the very thing that makes them human?  The Lord of the Flies is hungry, and his reign of terror has only just begun!

Over the last couple of years, I have become a major fan of Jonathan Maberry’s writings, and I only just recently finished reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels, as well as the first Rogue Team International book, Rage, so I was very excited to get my next fix of Maberry excitement with InkInk was one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020, and it really did not disappoint in any way, as Maberry has produced an intense and captivating horror novel that proved to be both extremely exciting and deeply terrifying.

Ink is an outstanding and impressive book that contains one heck of a story that sees several remarkable characters attempt to deal with a weird and powerfully scary supernatural threat that is attempting to destroy what is most precious to them.  Maberry has crafted together a fantastic narrative for this book that is equal parts clever, compelling and scary, and which dives down deep into the psyche of several complex individuals.  The author utilises his trademark style to produce a wide-ranging, multi-character story that shows the full impact of the antagonist’s dark machinations, and the slow hunt of the protagonists to comprehend what is happening to them, and their subsequent attempts to combat the threat.  While I did think that the story was a little slow at the start, once it gets going the reader has a hard time putting it down, as they become obsessed with seeing the full extent of the horror, as well as becoming connected to the characters featured within.  While Ink contains a lot less action than a typical Maberry novel, this is an extremely exciting and fast-paced read, with the thrilling game of cat and mouse between the villain and his victims proving to be quite intense.  Readers should be warned that this is an extremely adult read, containing some fairly graphic sequences of violence, torture, mental manipulation and sexual content, which may not be for everyone.  Overall though, this is an exceptional read, and I really loved getting to the end of this enthralling and excellent narrative.

While Ink is ostensibly a standalone novel, in many ways it is a sequel to Maberry’s debut series, the Pine Deep trilogy, while also being set in the same universe as several of his other books, namely the Joe Ledger novels.  The entirety of Ink is set in the town of Pine Deep, which was the titular setting of the original trilogy.  As a result, several characters from these books appear throughout the course of the novel and there are a lot of mentions of the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, some of which play into the plot.  While you potentially could get a little more out of Ink by reading the Pine Deep novels first, I would say that you really do not need any prior knowledge of these books to enjoy Maberry’s latest novel.  Like always, Maberry’s writing is very inclusive, providing the reader with relevant information about the events that occurred in these previous novels.  As a result, the reader gets a decent summary of what occurred in the Pine Deep trilogy and how it relates to Ink.  This allows readers unfamiliar with the Pine Deep books to enjoy Ink without any issues, and this might even be a good Maberry starter novel for anyone who has been interested in reading some of his books.  On the other hand, those fans of Maberry who are familiar with this prior trilogy will no doubt really enjoy the return to this iconic setting and will have an amazing time seeing what has happened in the 15 years following the end of Bad Moon Rising (the third and final book in the Pine Deep trilogy).  The summaries of the Pine Deep novels contained within Ink are rather easy to get through and Maberry works them into the story extremely well, so those people familiar with these prior works should be able to read them without getting bored of a forced recap, and this is book that any horror or thriller fan can easily enjoy.

At the heart of Ink are the excellent main point-of-view characters that Maberry utilises to tell his complex tale.  There are several major characters featured throughout the book, including several original characters created specifically for Ink.  The most notable of these is Monk Addison, the relentless and scary former soldier who is desperately seeking redemption after a long and bloody life.  Monk turned out to be an amazing central character for this book and I loved the way that Maberry slowly revealed his past in order to show just how special he his.  Monk goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, and I found myself getting quite attached to him as the story progressed.  In addition to Monk, Ink also has a particular focus on Patty Cakes, Monk’s tattoo artist friend whose memories are impacted by the book’s antagonist.  Patty is a deeply tragic and magical character who has gone through a lot in her life and who now finds herself being attacked in a much more personal and devastating way.  Seeing Patty being overwhelmed by the loss of her memories is really disturbing and heartbreaking and you cannot help but feel her loss deep in your soul, which is a testament to Maberry’s excellent writing.  Patty is another character who you grow to care for as the story unfolds and the constant danger she is put into, both mentally and physically, keeps the reader on edge.  The other two original major characters I need to highlight are Dianna and Gayle.  Dianna is a medium who also has her memories stolen by Ink’s antagonist, while Gayle is someone who builds a connection to Dianna, who is then impacted by Gayle’s lost memories in a different way.  I liked the way that Dianna and Gayle were worked into the story, and they helped to provide a new angle to the narrative.  Watching them team up with Patty added some enjoyable female empowerment elements to the novel, and there is a touching LGBT romance between Dianne and Gayle that I thought Maberry handled well, even if it was a tad explicit.

In addition to these new characters, Maberry also makes use of the protagonists from the Pine Deep novels who return as major characters in Ink.  This includes major characters Malcolm Crow, Mike Sweeney, Val Guthrie and Jonatha Corbiel (now Jonatha Newton).  While Val and Jonatha have mostly smaller roles in this book, Malcolm and Mike are major point-of-view characters, performing their own investigation of the latest batch of weird events occurring around Pine Deep.  Both proved to be exceptional additions to the cast, as not only are they complex characters (especially after the events of the Pine Deep trilogy), but they also add some distinctive viewpoints into the investigate parts of the book.  Maberry does a fantastic job introducing these characters to new readers, while those who have read the Pine Deep books will deeply appreciate seeing what has happened to them since the events of this initial trilogy.  While I am sure that many of Maberry’s readers would have hoped for happy lives for Malcolm, Mike and Val after all they have been through, all three characters have experienced additional difficulties and tragedies in the last 15 years.  These additional life events, as well as their traumas from the Pine Deep books, are expertly incorporated into their characterisation for Ink, and it proved deeply compelling to see their arcs unfold.  I personally enjoyed seeing the new protagonists’ reactions when encountering Malcolm and Mike, and there are a lot of depictions about realising how dark, dangerous and damaged both of them are.  Some of these new characters are also in for a hair-raising surprise when it comes to Mike, and it was interesting to see how that certain aspect of Mike’s character has evolved since his last book.  All of the characters featured in Ink were deeply compelling, and I felt that Maberry did an exceptional job featuring them throughout this novel.

If there is one thing that Maberry is particularly good at it, it is creating iconic and despicable antagonists for his novels.  Ink is no exception to this, as Maberry has once again produced a dark and sinister figure in Owen Minor, the self-proclaimed Lord of the Flies.  Owen is an inherently creepy and deeply disturbing individual who has gained the ability to steal people’s tattoos and the associated memories with them, as well as several other abilities.  Thanks to a series of intriguing interludes, Maberry dives into the history of Owen, showing his origins as a character, what his motivations are and how he realised what his powers were.  This examination of Owen’s psyche and history is both fascinating and unsettling and getting this deeper look into the character’s soul makes the reader dislike him even more, especially as you begin to realise just how twisted he truly is.  The author also includes a number of chapters from the point of view of several different side characters who have been infected by Owen in some way or another.  These scenes not only help to explore the true extent of his abilities but they also show the lengths he is willing to go to get his favourite meal.  The way in which he attacks his victims and then revels in their mental agony ensures that the reader builds a deep hatred for him and you really cannot wait to see him get some form of comeuppance.  All in all, this was another great antagonist from Maberry, and I look forward to seeing what sort of maniac creature he comes up with next time.

As I mentioned above, Maberry returns to his iconic town of Pine Deep for this latest novel, with most of the story set within it.  This proves to be a fascinating and dark location for this great book, and I think that Maberry had fun revisiting this haunted town.  The author really loads a sense of menace and despair into nearly every scene set within the town, and this is enhanced by every character recognising just how weird and dangerous the place can be.  There is a lot of history associated with Pine Deep, as during the original Pine Deep trilogy the town was nearly destroyed by dark forces, with the survivors deeply traumatised as a result.  These events, now know by everyone as The Troubles, are a major part of the town’s identity, and Maberry does a great job teasing out what happened during The Troubles to new readers, with only hints and vague comments describing for the first part of the book.  It proved to be quite fascinating to see how the town has recovered in the roughly 15 years since the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, and Maberry fans will have an amazing time seeing this continuation of the setting.  I really enjoyed seeing the characters explore Pine Deep once again and I hope that Maberry has plans to revisit again in some of his future novels.

One of the more compelling elements of this book is the author’s examination of the importance of tattoos and the memories that people associate with them.  I have to admit that I am not particularly into tattoos; while I can appreciate the cool art that other people get, it is really not something I would consider doing for myself.  However, I deeply enjoyed the way in which Maberry explored the tattoo world in this novel, examining both tattoo artists and the people who desire the art on their body.  In particular, he explores the way in which people get tattoos to mark special or significant occasions, or how tattoos can be used to memorialise tragedy or dark moments from someone’s life and the emotional and memory connections that result from the tattoos.  This becomes quite a significant part of the novel, because the antagonist steals the tattoos to get to the memories associated with it.  As a result, Maberry than examines the impact of losing such a memory and what it could potentially do it to a person.  While some characters manage ok with losing these darker memories, a lot of them are deeply troubled by it, as going through these events and overcoming them, are key to their identity.  Without these memories, and the tattoos that personify them on their body, these characters become despondent, and in many cases it becomes too much for them to bear.  It helps to really emphasise just how evil and malignant the actions of the antagonist is, and I really appreciated the author’s dives into the human psyche and his compelling depiction of what happens when someone loses their memory and identity.  The removal of certain memories from the various point-of-view characters also adds a new level of difficulty to the protagonist’s investigation, as they have to try and find a way to hunt down someone who they can’t remember.  These inclusions really added a lot to the story, and readers may come away with a deeper understanding of how important tattoos can be to people.

As with all of Maberry’s novels that I have so far enjoyed, I really could not resist grabbing the audiobook version of Ink.  The Ink audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, which is a typical length for one of Maberry’s novels, and I found it extremely easy to power through this book in less than a week.  Part of this was because of the excellent narration of long-time Maberry narrator, Ray Porter, who once again lends his awesome vocal talent to this thrilling book.  Porter is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment, and I cannot imagine listening to one of Maberry’s novels without his amazing voices.  Just like he does in the Joe Ledger novels, Porter really dives into the characters he is portraying, ensuring that the full range of their emotions become abundantly clear to anyone to who listening to the story.  He is also does an amazing job enhancing the horror elements of this book with some of his creepier tones, and the listener can get chills at the horrible and slimy voices he uses for the antagonist or for some of the darker scenes in Ink.  While it was a little disconcerting at time to hear some of the familiar voices from the Joe Ledger audiobooks in this new novel, Porter was once again fantastic narrating Ink, and I would strongly recommend this format as the ideal way to check this book out.

Jonathan Maberry once again shows why he is one of the preeminent authors of the weird thriller novel, with this outstanding horror book InkInk is an extremely clever and thrilling horror book that grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning and refuses to let go.  Thanks to the outstanding narrative, impressive characters and interesting themes, Ink proves to be a captivating and exciting read, especially when combined with the distinctive setting of Pine Deep from Maberry’s previous novels.  As a result, Ink comes highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and this novel is worth checking out.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and I cannot wait for Maberry’s next novel, Relentless, which comes out in several long months.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17

Length: 15 hours and 43 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the urban fantasy novel, Jim Butcher, returns with the next entry in his world-acclaimed Harry Dresden series, Battle Ground, an awesome novel that was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.

Jim Butcher is a highly acclaimed fantasy author who has been dominating the market since his debut novel in 2000.  Butcher has written a number of books throughout his career, including his Codex Alera series, the first book of his planned Cinder Spires series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass and even a Spider-Man tie-in novel, Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours.  However, the body of work that Butcher is best known for is his long-running urban fantasy series, the Dresden Files.  The Dresden Files started back in 2000 with Storm Front and follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard who works as a private investigator in Chicago, solving supernatural crimes and protecting humans from dangerous magical creatures.  This series proved to be incredibly popular and is widely considered to be the gold standard of urban fantasy novels.  The Dresden Files currently consists of 17 books, with the universe expanded out with short stories, novellas and even some graphic novels.

While I have always heard incredible things about the Dresden Files books, I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of them yet.  This is an admittedly massive gap in my fantasy reading knowledge, and it is one that I have been meaning to fill for a while.  So when I recently received a copy of the latest novel in the series, Battle Ground, I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to finally break into the series.

For years, Harry Dresden, rogue wizard and general smartass, has defended the city of Chicago from all manner of supernatural threats and each time he has managed to keep it safe, until now!  War is coming to Chicago as a being of unbelievable power, the Last Titan, Ethniu, marches towards it, determined to have her revenge.  To achieve her goal, she has assembled a vast supernatural army and is in possession of a magical superweapon of unbelievable destructive power.  With these forces at her command, Ethniu has sworn to wipe out the entirety of Chicago in one night and kill all eight million of its inhabitants.

In order to combat this terrible threat, Dresden must rally together every friend, former enemy and magical ally he can find in order to face down the opposing army and stop Ethniu.  However, this will be no easy task.  Not only must he deal with the conflicting politics of the rival magical factions but dangerous monsters are also loose in the city, determined to take advantage of the destructive circumstances.  Worse, thanks to Ethniu’s superweapon, every electronic piece of technology in Chicago has been knocked out and the entire population is now helpless and unable to flee from the oncoming chaos.

As Dresden and his allies attempt drive back the enemies coming towards them, they face an uphill battle.  Ethniu is one of the most powerful beings in existence, and not even the combined might of Chicago’s magical elite may be enough to stop her.  Throughout this night Dresden will face terrible losses and be forced to make some of the hardest decisions in his life.  But even Dresden’s most desperate tricks may not be enough to turn the tide and save the city.  One thing is clear: no matter who wins, Dresden and the entire city of Chicago will never be the same again!

Well damn, Jim Butcher really went all out with Battle Ground and has produced one heck of an impressive novel.  This was a spectacular read, filled with a lot of huge, epic moments, smart storytelling, extremely likeable characters and clever fantasy inclusions, all wrapped up with a fun sense of humour and excitement.  Battle Ground is the 17th Dresden Files book, quickly following up the 16th book, Peace Talks (where several storylines explored in the novel originated).  I had an absolute blast reading Battle Ground, and I do have to admit that I am currently feeling a lot of regret for not getting into this series a heck of a lot sooner, as this latest entry is easily one of my favourite books of 2020.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is an extremely powerful story that sees beloved series protagonist Harry Dresden attempt to save his city from all-out destruction as a magical army invades, intent on killing everyone.  This results in an intense and action-packed novel that is a bit of a change of pace from some of the previous novels in the series, which usually read more like fantasy detective fiction.  Battle Ground is a war story, with the protagonist engaged in the battle of his life throughout the entirety of the novel.  Butcher starts Battle Ground off quickly with the protagonist having to face off against a kraken, which easily draws the reader in off the bat (I know I was pretty darn impressed with that introduction).  From there he sets up the start of the war perfectly, with a number of characters introduced as their roles in the coming fight are established, as well as an exploration of the various magical political entities in the city and why they are supporting Dresden in his fight.  It does not take long for the actual war for Chicago to start, and once it does the story does not slow down again until the battle reaches its brutal climax.  There are some truly epic and captivating battle sequences throughout the course of this book as Dresden and his allies face all manner of dangers and turmoil, including a range of distinctive adversaries from the previous entries in the series.  There are so many memorable and exciting moments that featured in this part of the book and I found myself going through an emotional ringer as everything unfolded, from feeling saddened at some critical scenes, to being inspired as a beloved character led an impassioned charge against the foe.  I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to Battle Ground’s story, and it honestly did not take me long to get completely and utterly addicted to the narrative as I desperately waited to see how the story would conclude.  When it did, I found myself completely satisfied with the ending and it left me with a deep longing to see where Butcher takes the series next.  Overall, this was an incredibly well-written and wildly exciting narrative which will stick in the readers mind as they wait for the next Dresden Files book to be released.

Now, was it a mistake coming into this series on the 17th book that serves as an epic conclusion to a number of key storylines?  Potentially.  But do I have any regrets about reading this latest Dresden Files novel?  Absolutely freaking not!  I had an incredible time with Battle Ground, especially as Butcher made sure to make this novel accessible to new readers, even with the book’s huge range of characters and massive stakes.  Pretty much every major character or event that is relevant to the main narrative of Battle Ground is explained in sufficient detail so that new readers coming to the series for the first time can follow what is happening and get a decent sense of the significance of a location, event from a prior book or the personal history that Dresden has with a character.  I do have to admit there were a few things I was a tad uncertain about, mainly because they would have been covered in Peace Talks.  For example, I did find the motivations of the book’s main antagonist, Ethniu, a little vague and there was a lack of build-up around her various allies and minions.  There is also a major twist towards the end of the book which did not hit me as significantly as it would have for a long-term reader of the series, as it is tied into several overarching plot threads from the previous books.  Despite this, I was able to follow the plot extremely closely, and my lack of prior knowledge in no way stopped me enjoying all the incredible action and wonderful characters that were part of the books plot.  As with any later addition to a series, Battle Ground is definitely intended to be enjoyed by established fans; however, I will recommend this to readers unfamiliar with the series as I know they will have an amazing time reading it.

One of the key things that I enjoyed about Battle Ground was the extremely likeable and entertaining series protagonist, Harry Dresden, who serves as the narrator of the entire story.  Dresden is a very fun and unique protagonist, and for most of the series he has worked outside of the established system of magical rule as a private investigator.  However, in this book he is part of the government, serving both the White Council of Wizards and as a member of Queen Mab’s court.  Despite this, he still retains his extreme anti-authoritarian streak and is constantly infuriating those people who are higher up on the magical hierarchy with his glib attitude.  I have a strong attachment to sarcastic and infuriating protagonists and Dresden is one of the more enjoyable ones I have seen in fiction.  Butcher really goes out of his way to make Dresden as likeable and entertaining as possible and most of the book’s brilliant humour is derived from Dresden’s comedic observations and statements about the events occurring around him and the outlandish people that he meets.  I also had to have a chuckle about the various pop-culture references that Dresden brought up throughout the course of the book, even in life threatening situations, such as the way he imitated Gandalf while holding off opponents on an iconic Chicago bridge.  Despite this carefree and entertaining exterior, Dresden is actually a very deep protagonist, weighed down by the responsibilities he faces and the constant desire not to be corrupted by the forces he encounters or bargains with.  Dresden goes through a lot of emotional damage in Battle Ground as he must not only contend with the guilt of letting this destruction reign down on his beloved hometown, but also with a series of losses that he faces along the way.  Butcher expertly captures Dresden’s emotional turmoil through his use of the first-person narrative, and the reader cannot help but be entranced by some of the darker moments this usually cheerful character experiences.  This excellent combination of characteristics really helps to turn Dresden into a relatable individual and an impressive protagonist and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in the future books of the series.

In addition to Dresden, Battle Ground features a veritable smorgasbord of cool side and supporting characters who the protagonist encounters throughout the course of the novel.  Due to the high stakes of the plot, this book contains a massive cast with a huge number of characters from all the previous books and novellas appearing in cameos or significant roles.  Most of these characters are really amazing, and Butcher does a fantastic job introducing them and ensuring that the reader knows who they are, what their connection to the protagonists is, as well as key elements of their history.  Due to my lack of familiarity with the series, I really appreciated the author’s dedication to reintroducing these characters and I felt fairly confident following who the various people were and what their role in the story was.  That being said, I was probably a little less emotionally impacted with some of the resultant twists and turns involving some of these characters, and I imagine long-time readers of the story are going to get a lot more out of their actions then a newcomer to the series.  These long-term readers should be warned that Butcher takes the stakes of this book particularly seriously and several characters are going to meet some dramatic fates.

I personally enjoyed many of the characters that were featured in the plot and I felt that each of these inventive personalities either added some real emotional depth to the novel or served as an entertaining additional to the story.  Some of my favourite characters in Battle Ground included River Shoulders (full name: Strength of a River in His Shoulders), a Sasquatch magician who wears Victorian era garb and who is one of the most likeable creatures in the book.  River Shoulders has a lot of fun moments throughout the story, although I have to highlight the quick scene which saw him make a pitch to improve race relations with an improvised ventriloquist act, as it made me laugh pretty hard.  I also really enjoyed Major General Toot-Toot Minimus, a small fairy who leads an army of Little Folk in defence of Dresden, all in the name of pizza.  Toot-Toot is one of the main comic reliefs of their entire novel and it was quite entertaining to see in action, especially when he manages to overcome the bigguns in defence of Za Lord.  However, the character I enjoyed the most aside from Dresden was Waldo Butters, Knight of the Cross.  Now, despite the fact that I would constantly think about the character of Butters from South Park whenever he appeared (in fairness, they have a lot of similarities with each other), Waldo Butters is probably the character who gets the most development and use throughout the course of Battle Ground.  Butters, who only recently took on the mantle of a Knight after spending most of the series as a defenceless sidekick, really comes into his own in Battle Ground, acting in a major defence role throughout the fight for the city.  Not only does he have some very inspiration fight sequences, but he also has a series of particularly emotional scenes with Dresden and adds a lot of heart to the narrative as a result.  I also really loved some of his scenes where he squares off against Battle Ground’s big bad, and you get a real Neville Longbottom vs Voldemort feel from it.  You can clearly see that Butcher has some big plans for Butters in the future, and I am personally cannot wait to see what they are.  I am honestly only scratching the surface of the various side characters who appeared throughout Battle Ground, but needless to say that they were all pretty exceptional and it was a real treat to meet them.

Battle Ground also served as my introduction to the magical version of Chicago that serves as the setting for this fantastic series.  This proved to be an excellent setting for this great book, and I really enjoyed the way that Butcher has melded together regular Chicago with some more subtle magical elements, such as a ruling magical council, hidden enclaves of power and mysterious creatures hiding just beneath the surface.  There are a lot of cool elements to this setting, and I think that the author did an amazing job reintroducing it for the context of this latest novel.  I was particularly impressed by the way Butcher brought a number of key city landmarks to life in this book, with several iconic pieces of Chicago used to great effect throughout the book as settings for epic scenes.  Unlike any previous book in the series, the events of Battle Ground ensure that Chicago goes through some massive changes as a magical army invades.  The destruction levelled upon Chicago is substantial, and there are several emotional sequences that see the citizens attempting to deal with these forces coming to kill them.  Naturally, this is going to have some major impacts in the future entries in the series, and I look forward to seeing what the long-term impacts of this book are going to be.

I also need to mention that, aside from Battle Ground’s main story, this novel and its associated audiobook format also contains the short story, Christmas EveChristmas Eve is a relatively tiny part of the novel, only made up of 15 pages (or around 25 minutes of the audiobook), and shows Dresden encountering several people on Christmas Eve.  This short story is set after the events of Battle Ground (despite being initially written and released in 2018) and contains a rather nice and emotionally rich narrative that examines Dresden’s emotional state as a father and friend.  Christmas Eve is a much more relaxed and lower-stakes story that Battle Ground, and I personally really enjoyed reading it after all the bloodshed, sacrifice and death of the main story.

While I did receive a nice hardcover copy of Battle Ground, I ended up listening to its audiobook format instead.  The Battle Ground audiobook runs for a little under 16 hours, which I powered through in only a few short days; it did not take me long to get addicted to this novel.  I deeply enjoyed the Battle Ground audiobook and I felt that it was an awesome way to enjoy this great book.  Not only did I find myself absorbing more of the story elements and getting drawn more into the plot but I also loved the top-shelf narrator they utilised for this audiobook.  Battle Ground was narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who has also narrated all the previous books in the series as well as the short stories and other associated novels.  I am a major fan of Marsters, having watched a ton of the television shows he has appeared in, so I was very excited to listen to one of the audiobooks he narrated.  Unsurprisingly, Marsters proved to be an outstanding narrator, empowering this already impressive novel with his amazing vocal talents and moving the story along at a brisk and exciting pace.  Marsters did an awesome job providing each of the characters with their own unique and distinctive voice which fit the personality and depiction of each character perfectly.  I was also particularly impressed with how he brought the book’s protagonist to life.  Marsters really dove into the character of Harry Dresden, providing a perfect voice for the maverick wizard that effectively captured his various quirks and personality traits.  This excellent narration also explored the various raw emotions that Dresden experienced throughout the course of the novel and you get a fantastic sense of what the character is going through and how much he is struggling.  I really have to highlight the enthusiastic emphasis that Marsters utilises when reciting Dresden’s various spells and I could totally imagine the protagonist shouting out his incarnations in that way.  I also liked the humorously altered voices that were utilised for some of the supernatural creatures, such as Toot-Toot, which was not only widely entertaining but which fit the outrageous character extremely well.  All of this makes for an incredible audiobook experience and I fully intend to listen to the other entries in the series rather than seeking out a physical copy.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher is an extraordinary and epic urban fantasy novel that serves as the latest novel in Butcher’s acclaimed Dresden Files series.  Butcher has done an incredible job with Battle Ground, presenting the reader with an awesome and captivating narrative, filled with a huge array of enjoyable characters and clever fantasy elements.  The result is an outstanding and deeply impressive novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Battle Ground gets an easy five-star rating from me and it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  I cannot praise this novel enough and it certainly served as a wonderful introduction to the Dresden Files.  I am intending to go back and start reading the series from book one and I have no doubt I will love each and every entry in the series.  I am especially keen to check them out in their audiobook format because James Marsters has narrated each of them and I know I will deeply enjoy hearing these clever stories read out.  Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to see what other extraordinary stories exist within Butcher’s extensive Dresden Files.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best authors of fantasy fiction, the legendary Garth Nix, returns with a fun and creative new young adult novel, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London.

Garth Nix is an interesting and talented writer who has been writing since the 1990s, when he debuted with The Ragwitch.  Since then he has gone on to write a huge number of fantasy series and novels, most of which are aimed at a younger audience, including The Seventh Tower, The Keys to the Kingdom and the Troubletwisters (cowritten with Sean Williams).  However, his most famous body of work has to be The Old Kingdom young adult series, also released as the Abhorsen series.  The Old Kingdom books, which started with Sabriel in 1995, follow the adventures of the Abhorsens, a noble clan of necromancers who protect their kingdom from the undead and evil necromancers.  I read Sabriel and some of the follow-up books when I was a lot younger, and it remained one of my favourite series growing up (although I do need to reread it, especially as a new novel in the series is coming out next year).  Because of how much I enjoyed this series from Nix, in recent years I have kept an eye out for any recent books he has released and I was lucky enough to read his 2019 release, Angel Mage, an entertaining standalone novel that re-imagined The Three Musketeers with magic-granting angels.  Due to how much I enjoyed Angel Mage last year, I decided to also try Nix’s 2020 release, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, and I really enjoyed how it turned out.

In a slightly alternate London in 1983, student Susan Arkshaw has arrived in the city shortly after her 18th birthday to find work and to prepare herself for university life.  However, Susan is also on a mission to find out who her father is.  Despite not knowing his identity or how her mother met him, Susan is certain he lives in the city and is determined to track him down.  Her first lead, an old friend of her mothers, seems promising, until he is turned to dust by a silver hatpin wielded by a mysterious and flamboyantly dressed young man, Merlin St Jacques.

After rescuing her from gun-toting thugs and several deadly and mysterious creatures, Merlin reveals that he is a left-handed bookseller, one half of a secret organisation of magical booksellers who police the Old World of legend and magic and ensure that it does not intrude on normal people.  Merlin is undertaking his own mission to find the person responsible for the death of his mother and is initially content with letting Susan go about her own business in town.  However, when several of the magical and dangerous denizens of the Old World start to attack Susan, it becomes clear that something does not want Susan to find her father.

Drawn into the secret world of magical booksellers and ancient legends, Susan begins to understand the true depths of the world surrounding her.  Working with Merlin and his sister Vivien, a right-handed bookseller, Susan attempts to uncover the secrets of her past in order to discover why anyone would be interested in her.  It soon becomes apparent that Susan is the key to a terrible and dark plot that threatens the natural order of the world and could lead to the destruction of the booksellers.  Can Susan and her new friends face down the dark forces coming towards them, or will the mythic hordes of the past be unleashed on an unsuspecting world?

With The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Nix has come up with another exciting and compelling young adult fantasy novel that was a lot of fun to read.  This new book from Nix is a creative and action-packed novel that follows a bold protagonist as they run headfirst into the midst of a dangerous supernatural world policed by a strange collection of booksellers.  The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a standalone novel (with potential to grow into a series), and Nix does an excellent job setting the scene for the narrative at the start and ensuring readers quickly become familiar with the unique new world he has come up with.  I did find that it took me a little while to get into the book, but once I got really involved with the plot the rest of the book flew by and I was able to finish it off rather quickly.  This was a really fast-paced story, loaded with all manner of supernatural fights, weird and creative inclusions and a couple of interesting twists, that all comes together into an excellent narrative that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

The major highlights of this book are the crazy and inventive creative elements that Nix has come up with.  I love the whole idea of a group of eccentric, combat-trained and magically powered booksellers fighting dangerous creatures, and Nix obviously had a lot of fun coming up with them and introducing the unique elements of their organisation.  It was really fun to learn about this unique group of magical heroes, including their various talents, techniques and internal politics.  The inclusion of a group of booksellers who have a magical base beneath some of London’s premier bookshops, also ensures that there are innumerable literary references featured throughout The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, and I had fun identifying all of them and seeing which book would be casually mentioned next.  There is also an intriguing variety of different magical beings and creatures that the protagonists encounter throughout their journey, including some childlike goblins who trap people in a magical renaissance fair, stalking scarecrows, giant mystical wolves and a series of frightening undead corpses.  All of these elements are really cool and immensely creative, and it was a lot of fun to see the protagonist encounter them throughout the course of the book.  I really think that this new fantasy location has a lot of potential for other novels and I hope that Nix chooses to visit this alternate version of London at some point in the future.

I also enjoyed the great characters that Nix featured in this book.  The story is primarily told through the perspective of Susan, a young woman who is encountering a lot of these supernatural elements for the first time.  Susan is an excellent central character, who manages to take each and every new encounter and opponent in her stride, while also providing the reader with a newcomer’s viewpoint to the weird and wonderful Old World of magic.  While Susan is a good main character, you cannot help but enjoy the antics of Merlin St Jacques, the left-handed bookseller who introduces Susan to magic and serves as her protector and love interest.  Merlin is a cocky and funny character who has a love of fancy clothes (he has innumerable outfits), and a penchant for crossdressing.  Merlin serves as a great comic relief character for most of the story, although he isn’t afraid to get serious at times, especially when forced to deal with the tragic death of his mother or the consequences of his own mistakes.  This group of main characters is rounded out by Merlin’s twin sister Vivien, a right-handed bookseller (which gives her a different set of magical powers and responsibilities).  Vivien serves as a counterbalance to Merlin’s more eccentric tendencies, acting as the more sensible member of the trio and serving a vital story role as a result.  These three young main characters are also backed up by a range of distinctive and enjoyable side characters, including the various booksellers, each of whom has a unique design aesthetic.  All of these characters help to make a great story, and it was a lot of fun to see this adventure take place in front of their eyes.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is another excellent novel from Australian author Garth Nix, who once again presents the reader with an exciting and clever young adult fantasy novel.  Thanks to its great story, amazing creative elements and compelling characters, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is an awesome read that will be enjoyed by its intended younger audience while also remaining appealing for an older audience.  This is a really fun book to check out, and I look forward to seeing what crazy adventure Nix comes up with next.

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

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage 15

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 16

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #2

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #3

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #4

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #5

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #6

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6: Circles by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Circles

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this latest Throwback Thursday, after reviewing Lone Goat and Kid a couple of weeks ago, I am still in a Usagi Yojimbo mood, so I thought I would check out the sixth volume of this fantastic comic book series, Circles.

Usagi 25

Circles is another fun and exciting addition to this excellent series which I honestly cannot praise enough (although I have been trying very hard in my last several Throwback Thursday articles). This sixth volume once again presents the reader with several outstanding and inventive stories that chronicle the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, as he journeys around a unique version of historical Japan. This volume contains five separate stories, derived from issues #25 – 31 of the Fantagraphics Books run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as a short story taken from Critters number #50 (a comic magazine that had some early Usagi Yojimbo appearances). There are some rather amazing stories featured within this volume, and I had an incredible time reading them.

The first story contained within this sixth volume is called The Bridge, which sees Usagi encountering a demon out of Japanese folklore. During a dark a stormy night, Usagi is entering a village from across a bridge when suddenly he lashes out with his sword behind him, convinced something is sneaking up on him. When he finds nothing there, Usagi shrugs it off and enters the nearest inn, only to learn from the villagers that the bridge he just crossed has been possessed by a demon, and Usagi’s back now bears the claw marks of the demon. Awaking next morning, the villagers find a severed monstrous hand on the bridge, which Usagi appeared to have cut off the night before. Taking the hand into the inn, Usagi and villagers wait for a priest to arrive in order to perform an exorcism on the severed limb, but the demon of the bridge has other plans.

Usagi 26

This was a rather good supernatural story that sees Usagi go up against one of Japan’s many demons and monsters. Several significant elements from this story are taken from the story of the demon of Rashomon Gate, including the severing of the arm and the demon disguising itself as an old woman to recover its severed limb (although unlike the samurai in the legend, Usagi doesn’t fall for it). The demonic antagonist of this story is rather sinister in its drawing style and methods of attack, and it proves to be a dangerous opponent for Usagi. I love the extended fight on the bridge, and I especially enjoyed the way that the whole event ended, providing a side-character in the story their moment of vengeance. Overall, this was a tight, well-written story that was a lot of fun to read.

The next story in this volume is titled The Duel, and, as the name suggests, it features some duels between samurai. Usagi arrives in a village and is challenged to a public duel by the local champion while the watching villagers place bets with a travelling bookmaker, a duel that eventually results in Usagi’s opponent’s death. Completing the duel, Usagi meets and has lunch with a fellow unemployed samurai, Shubo, who subtly takes his measure. It is revealed that Shubo, who is a talented swordsman, is in league with the bookmaker who manipulates the odds of Shubo’s duels in order to make money off the betters. Shubo, who needs the money to provide for his wife and child, believes that he can beat Usagi, and the bookmaker inflates the odds in Usagi’s favour so that they can clean up when Shubo wins. Forcing Usagi into a duel, the two engage in a quick fight to death, with tragic results.

Usagi 27

This was a really clever and captivating single story that Sakai did an incredible job writing. The whole story concept is just brilliant, and Sakai sets it up and executes the plot brilliantly. There are some amazing scenes throughout The Duel, and the story features an excellent mix of comedy and tragedy which work together amazingly to produce a gripping narrative. Usagi, as the reluctant participant of this duel, is pissed at the entire affair, and his outraged reaction to the town people cheering his victory is rather good, especially as the peasants show over-the-top fake remorse in order to get him to go away so they can collect their winnings: “We are lower than the scum at the bottom of a stagnant pool!” While there is some fun and well-deserved karma coming down onto the bookkeeper who overextends himself and tries to escape, nothing quite takes away from the tragedy of Shubo’s wife and young child. The final panel of this story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it shows the wife and child waiting just outside the village for him to return. But as the light in the sky gets darker and darker, you can see the worry start to work its way onto the wife’s face, until she breaks down completely in the final panel, fully realising that her husband is dead. The wife comes across as a massively tragic character in this story, and the major impact that this final page has is a testament to how amazing Sakai’s storytelling and illustrations are.

The third story in the volume is the rather short entry, Yurei, which is the story that appeared in Critters. In this tale, Usagi, who is camping at the edge of a river, awakens to find a Yurei, a ghost, floating before him. The ghost imparts her tragic story to Usagi; she was betrayed and murdered by her husband, and she now seeks justice. Usagi then awakens and finds a woman’s hairpin on the ground next to him. Thinking his encounter with the ghost was just a dream, he travels to a nearby inn and attempts to trade the pin for a meal. What he does not realise is that the innkeeper is the murderous husband from the ghost’s tale, and his discovery of the pin leads to a series of deadly events. This was a good, fast-paced story which tells a compact and intriguing tale. I loved the supernatural elements in this story, and it was interesting to see Usagi portrayed as a tool of fate, who wonders into some ghostly revenge without even realising it. This was a fantastic short entry in this volume and was great to check out.

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The next entry in Circles is an entertaining and over-the-top tale titled My Lord’s Daughter. In this story, Usagi, who is telling a bedtime tale to children, is shown as the classic hero from Japanese legend, fighting through vast hordes of demons, monsters, and obstacles to rescue a beautiful princess from an Oni. This was a fun take on some of the traditional Japanese heroic legends, and it was cool to see Sakai draw a classic tale with Usagi as the protagonist. Sakai has some obvious fun setting the Usagi hero fearlessly against armies of demons and monsters, and he comes up with some clever fight sequences and scenes in this book, from a brutal duel with an Oni, to an underwater battle between Usagi, a shark and a giant octopus wielding several swords in its tentacles. This is an entertaining and exciting story, and I had a good laugh at the end reference to Sakai’s old comic, Groo the Wanderer.

Now let us get to the fifth story of this book, which is kind of the main event of the entire volume. This is a big story, told across four issues, titled Circles. This story follows Usagi as he returns home for the first time since the events of volume one, The Ronin. There are actually a couple of distinctive parts to this story, especially the first issue, which is somewhat separate from the rest of the story (with the exception of some build-up at the end). For this first part, Usagi, on his way back home, decides to stop at his old master’s house to pay his respects to the grave marker of Katsuichi, the man who taught him how to wield a blade. The story then shows a flashback, which serves as a continuation to part of the origin story Usagi told in the second Usagi Yojimbo volume, Samurai, about Usagi’s past. In the flashback, it is shown that Usagi’s master was ambushed and seemingly killed by members of the Dogora Fencing School after Usagi beat their students in a tournament. However, upon arriving at Katsuichi’s old house, he discovers that his master is still alive, having survived the ambush, and has taken on a new student. I liked this revisit of Usagi’s origin story with Katsuichi, although the whole death scene in the flashback comes a little bit out of nowhere. Still, it was interesting to see how much Usagi has matured since he was learning the way of the sword, and it was nice to see the teacher and student reuniting. The flashback sequence is also top quality, and Sakai illustrates up a storm in this one, showing a fierce battle and some intense emotions from Usagi, who goes from a full-on berserker rage as he gets his revenge on his master’s killer to an intense grief in just a few scenes.

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The story then continues as Usagi journeys back to his village, only to be confronted by his old childhood rival, Kenichi. It turns out that Jotaro, Kenichi’s son with Usagi’s former love, Mariko, has gone missing, and bandits are roaming the area. While Usagi and Kenichi are able to defend their town from a raiding party, the attackers reveal that Jotaro has been kidnapped by the bandits and are holding him hostage. Leading an army of local peasants against the bandit’s hideout, Kenichi and Usagi hope to rescue Jotaro and end the raids that have been plaguing them. However, what they do not realise is that the bandits are being led by the deranged and dangerous former adversary of Usagi, Jei, a mysterious and seemingly unkillable murder with a black blade, who hopes to use Jotaro to get his revenge on Usagi. But even Jei is not the most dangerous thing that lies ahead, as old resentments between Usagi and Kenichi, their shared love for Mariko and certain revelations may tear everything apart.

Wow, I have to say that the final three issues of Circles are just incredible. There is so much to unpack from them, as Sakai brings together a brilliant and powerful story. First of all, it was great to see Jei return as a villain once again. Jei, who was introduced in volume 3, The Wanderer’s Road, is an outstanding antagonist, and his continued feud with Usagi is just brilliant. The two engage in a fantastic and extended duel in this story, and Sakai did a fantastic job showing off each combatant’s skill and martial ability through his drawings. I also love the extensive battle between Kenichi’s peasant army and the bandits, which proved to be rather eye-catching. Not only is there a beautifully drawn sequence in the misty forest before the big battle in which Usagi does a great Jei impersonation to scare a bandit sentry, but Sakai illustrates a massive battle between the two forces. The massive single panel that shows the pitched battle is just impressive, and I love the detailed and entertaining scene that the author produced here.

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While all of the above is pretty amazing, what really makes this captivating story is the complex relationship between Usagi, Kenichi and Mariko. There are so many great layers plastered into this relationship. Usagi and Mariko were deeply in love when they were younger, and they still have great feelings for each other. However, Mariko ended up marrying Kenichi, and she is bound by duty, and her child, to him, no matter how she feels about Usagi. Kenichi, on the other hand, has always borne antagonism towards Usagi, which has been compounded over the years by their differences in skill and the fact that Usagi was chosen to serve Lord Mifune and left the village. However, Kenichi’s resentment towards Usagi is even greater, as he knows that Usagi is in love with his wife, and that these feelings are reciprocated by Mariko.

This leads to some outstanding scenes throughout this story, as these three try to come to terms with their complicated emotions. I particularly loved one scene in the middle of the story, where Usagi and Mariko discuss their feelings and reveal that they still both love each other, although Mariko makes it clear that they can never be together. The scene ends when Kenichi interrupts them, and while the look of heartbreak and shame on Mariko’s face is notable, what really gets me is the way that Kenichi’s usual stern/angry look is replaced with one of sad resignation in the last panel once he realises how Mariko still feels about Usagi. Despite this, Kenichi comes across in this story as a surprisingly honourable and well-intentioned character who puts aside his negative feelings for Usagi for the greater good, and it is a fantastic examination of a character who has mostly been antagonistic in the previous volumes. Sakai also drops a massive bombshell at the end of this story, when he reveals that Jotaro is actually Usagi’s son, and that Kenichi has known this and raised him as his own. Because of this, Mariko asks Usagi to leave and not try to settle down in their home village, as she fears it will put a wedge between Jotaro and Kenichi, who she sees as Jotaro’s true father. Usagi regretfully accepts this in another dramatic and captivating scene, although Mariko arranges for Usagi to see Jotaro as he leaves, and Usagi has a heartfelt time with his son, noting the similarities between them, and even suggesting Jotaro seek out Katsuichi as a teacher in later years. All of this is some first-rate storytelling and character development, and cannot praise Sakai enough for this amazing, emotional storyline. This is actually the last book that Kenichi and Mariko appear in (so far), and I think that Sakai did a fantastic job tying their love triangle together. All in all, Circles is easily my favourite story in this entire volume (The Duel comes close), and it is worth grabbing this volume just to check this key story out.

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It should come as no surprise to anyone considering all the praise I elicited above that I am giving this sixth volume of Usagi Yojimbo a full five star rating. This was another incredible comic book that features Sakai’s outstanding blend of powerful stories, memorable characters, intense action, fun references and depictions of traditional Japanese culture and history and some truly impressive artwork. I absolutely loved this volume, and this entire awesome series, comes highly recommended and is an unquestionable must-read.

Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 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.

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.