Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

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.

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

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 8

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 9

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 10

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 11

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 12

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 13

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 14

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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: Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Lone Goat and Kid Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – January 1992)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Five

Length: 142 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.

In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again check out another early volume of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo series, which I have been reviewing over the last couple of weeks. For this review, I am looking at the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. Lone Goat and Kid was first released in 1992 by Fantagraphics Books and contains issues #19-24 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo once again sees series protagonist, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, traverse a feudal Japanese landscape populated solely with anthropomorphised animals. This volume follows on right after the chaotic events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and contains five new stories across six issues. This is an interesting entry in the series, particularly as it is the first volume to barely feature any of the previously introduced recurring characters aside from Usagi (a huge departure from the last volume, which contained a number of recurring characters coming together and teaming up). Instead, Sakai takes the time to introduce a bunch of new characters and scenarios across the volume’s five separate stories. Unsurprisingly, I really liked this fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, especially as Sakai manages come up with some fantastic and exceedingly enjoyable tales.

The first story featured within this volume is titled Frost & Fire, and it is a tragic story with undertones of forbidden love and class struggle. In this story, Usagi is hired by the cold and proper widow of a samurai to travel to the place of her husband’s death and retrieve his swords. Upon arriving at the small village where the samurai died, Usagi discovers that the swords are in the possession of the dead man’s lover, a poor peasant girl, who wishes to keep them as a remembrance of the man she loved. Unwilling to take the swords by force, Usagi leaves, but the peasant girl’s greedy brother has other plans for the swords.

This was a rather heartfelt first story for the volume, and it contains some great underlying elements to it. Much of the story revolves around a forbidden romance between a samurai and a peasant girl who wanted to be together but were unable to due to class differences. This was a rather intriguing central element for this story, and you can’t help but feel for the poor peasant girl, especially after meeting the samurai’s harsh and honourable widow in the opening pages. There is also examination of the evils of greed and avarice, as several of the side characters attempt to deceive and murder in order to get a quick payday. Luckily, their greed proves to be their undoing, as karma quickly strikes throughout the course of the story. There are some great scenes in this story, including one sequence where Usagi stares down the peasant girl when she refuses to give up the swords, “You know I can just take them from you”, before ultimately backing down and refusing to force her to give them up. I also liked a scene later in the book where the brother’s greed proves to be his undoing, as not only does Usagi appear behind him at one point like a vengeful spirit, but he is then ironically attacked by his “friends”, who are jealous of the wealth he achieved because of his bad actions, and whose mindset mirrors that of the brother. All of this makes for a great first entry for this volume, and I really enjoyed the amazing and captivating story that Sakai came up with.

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The next story is a rather unique entry called A Kite Story, which I have a particular love for. A Kite Story is actually broken up into four distinctive parts, each of which focuses on a different character participating in a famous kite festival. The first part, called The Kite Maker’s Story, follows a kite maker, Tatsusaburo, in the lead up to the festival. This part of the story contains no dialogue, but instead features a first-person narration from Tatsusaburo that overlays the drawings. This narration explains how he gathers the resources for his kites and the various processes he goes through to craft them together. It particularly focuses on the work he puts into creating an odako, a giant kite that he and a team of handlers hope to fly. The story then jumps to its second distinctive part, called The Gambler’s Tale, which follows the crook Hatsu and his gang of itinerant gamblers as they work the crowds gathering for the kite festival. This part starts off with some first-person narration from Hatsu and explores how he and his gang set up a rigged game of dice. This part ends its narration on the second page, when Usagi arrives on the scene and it becomes purely dialogue driven after that. Usagi, upon noticing the game, gets involved and is able to prove the gamblers are cheating (thanks to some fancy sword work), which sees not only the crooked gamblers run out of town but also those gamblers who were running fair games, and who are none too pleased with how they have been treated. This then moves to the third part of the story, called The Ronin’s Tale, which is nearly entirely dialogue driven, with only a small bit of narration at the front. Usagi deals with some of the players from the first two parts of the book, as he is unfairly blamed by the cheating gamblers in The Gambler’s Tale as the source of all the trouble to the honest gamblers. This sees Usagi have to make a rather quick and unconventional exit from the festival, which quickly breaks down into chaos. The story then concludes with a quick two-page final part, called The Kite Maker’s Tale II, which follows Tatsusaburo again and serves as an epilogue to the whole story.

I really liked A Kite Story, as Sakai did a really good job blending together a couple of distinctive narratives into one fantastic story. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating first part of this story and I always love it when Sakai uses his stories to explore certain unique Japanese cultural elements and industries. For this one, the author presents the reader with an amazing examination of the traditional kite-making process, and I loved seeing the process explained by the titular kite maker. This part of the story blends in surprisingly well with the other sections of A Kite Story, and I was impressed with how Sakai was able to turn these seeming separate and disparate tales into a complete narrative that is both entertaining and informative. Sakai also produces some amazing artwork in this story, from the giant kite to the visually impressive and detailed crowd scenes, and this is easily one of the more innovative stories that Sakai has come up with.

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The third story is the action-packed spectacular, Blood Wings, which Sakai tells over two issues. Late one night, Usagi is wandering along the road when he comes upon a dying peasant. The peasant’s last words are a mysterious warning about whatever killed him, “wings of blood”. Travelling to a nearby village, he finds a settlement living in terror, completely cut off from the outside world. They are being kept prisoner by a new and dangerous group of ninja, the Komori Ninja Clan, killer flying bats. The Komori Ninja were accidently discovered by the villagers as they prepared to ambush a shipment from a nearby goldmine and the ninja are now keeping them prisoner while they execute their attack. Knowing that the ninja will not leave the villagers alive as witnesses after the heist, Usagi attempts to break out and warn the goldmine, and when that fails, he leads the villagers in a spirited defence of their home.

Blood Wings was a fantastic and exciting story that serves as an excellent set piece for the middle of this volume. This third story is an impressive read that not only introduces a notable new group of antagonists, but it also contains some rather good action sequences. The Komori Ninja prove to be a great group of villains, and I really liked the character design that Sakai came up for them, as they fly around with sword blades attached to their wings, cutting through anyone and anything they encounter. The highlight of this story has to be the thrilling action sequences between Usagi and this new foe, who are able to outmatch the protagonist with their unique combat style. This all culminates in an extended battle sequence which sees a swordless Usagi defending the village with a force of farmers. This is probably the fastest-paced story in the volume, and Sakai comes up with an awesome narrative for it. This is also the entry in this volume that is most tied into the overarching Usagi Yojimbo world, as the Komori Ninja are revealed to be working for Lord Hikiji and are seeking to replace the Neko Ninja. This story also contains my favourite joke in the whole volume, as only Saki would have a guard yell out, “Holy flying furball! It’s Bats, man!” as the Komori Ninja descend.

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The fourth story is an elaborate and compelling entry titled The Way of the Samurai. This story sees Usagi intervene when a gang of bandits (including a very cool-looking walrus samurai), attack a messenger, and is directed to seek out the magistrate of the local town. Arriving at the town, Usagi is amazed to discover that the magistrate is a famed former general Oyaneko, whose battles and tactics Usagi idolises. Staying in the general’s house for a night, he learns that Oyaneko was a loyal retainer to the land’s former lord but was cast aside when the lord’s brash young son came to power. Now regulated to the role as a simple administrator and slowly dying of a disease, Oyaneko is discontent with his life, and, after meeting an honourable and skilled Usagi, challenges him to a duel to the death, “The way of the Samurai is found in death”.

This fourth entry in the volume is a moving tale that the author uses to explore the complexity of the samurai code of duty, loyalty and service. I really liked the intricate story that Sakai weaved around the characters of Usagi and Oyaneko, and Oyaneko’s story is particularly tragic and fascinating. This entire story is set up really well, with Usagi encountering Oyankeo, the two gaining a mutual respect for the other, learning about Oyankeo’s past and motivations, before the emotionally charged duel at the end. Sakai did a fantastic job illustrating the stress and emotion surrounding this final duel with his epic drawings, and the end result was really touching. I think this is one of the best written stories in the entire volume, and it becomes quite an emotional ride for the reader in the end.

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That leaves us with the fifth and final story in this volume, which shares the same name as the overall volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This story focuses on the characters of Yagi and Gorogoro, the titular Lone Goat and Kid. Years ago, Yagi served the same lord as Oyaneko. However, when their old lord died, Yagi was falsely accused of a crime by the new lord’s corrupt advisors and forced out of his service. Yagi and his son Gorogoro now work as Lone Goat and Kid, assassins for hire who many believe now travel the road to hell. The two assassins are also constantly targeted by their former lords’ samurai and bounty hunters sent after them by the corrupt advisors who framed them. As part of their latest attempt to kill Yagi and Gorogoro, these advisors use a proxy to hire the Lone Goat and Kid to assassinate Usagi, who they believe may be able to defeat the infamous assassin. When they meet, Yagi and Usagi engage in a brutal fight to the death, with the corrupt lord’s forces waiting to ambush the winner.

This was another awesome story filled with epic duels, a massive battle sequence, some superb artwork featuring Japan’s exquisite landscape, and a fun narrative packed full of deceit and conspiracy. The titular Lone Goat and Kid are a rather cool adaptation of the iconic Japanese fiction duo, Lone Wolf and Cub. Lone Wolf and Cub was a manga series back in the 1970s that followed a samurai assassin and his child as they travel feudal Japan searching for vengeance. This series has inspired several movies and a television show, and many different pieces of fiction have paid homage to them over the years, from The Mandalorian to Bob’s Burgers. Heck, Rick and Morty literally just did an anime homage to them last week on YouTube. Sakai’s versions of the characters are rather good, and they become fun recurring characters within the Usagi Yojimbo series. I loved how Sakai came up with some fantastic and unique character designs for the two assassins, turning them into goats rather than wolves (which was a nice touch, especially as the name “kid” has that fun double meaning), and providing them with a different backstory. However, there are some excellent similarities, such as the father’s skill with the blade, the desire to take down conspirators who wronged them and the baby carriage the son travels in, equipped with all manner of hidden weapons and blades. The character of Yagi, the Lone Goat, is particularly intense, and is almost demonic in his attitudes and persona, while still maintaining a samurai’s sense of honour. I was also really impressed with the battle sequences that featured in the last half of this story, and I liked how Sakai went from an elaborate one-on-one duel, to a mass fight against multiple opponents. All of this leads to another excellent story in this volume, which I really enjoyed reading.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, Lone Goat and Kid, was another incredible and powerful addition to the series, and I think Stan Sakai did another amazing job with this volume. Featuring five fantastic stories that contained Sakai’s usual complex narratives, iconic artwork and compelling underlying themes, Lone Goat and Kid gets another five-star rating from me, and it is really worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai

Usagi Yojimbo Samurai Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Two

Length: 141 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After the fun that I had reviewing the first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, last week, I decided to follow it up with a review of the second volume in the series, Samurai. Samurai is an impressive second outing from author and artist Stan Sakai, which does an amazing job continuing his epic series after the introductory stories contained within the first volume.

After his adventures in the first volume, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi has continued on his wandering ways. However, his latest journey quickly turns to violence when he encounters another ronin on the road. Without a word being spoken, both samurai engage in a swift and brutal duel to the death, in which Usagi is the winner. The only witness to the duel is the bounty hunter Gennosuke, who inquires into the origin of the apparent feud between Usagi and his recently deceased opponent. Usagi reveals that the dead samurai was named Gunichi and Usagi had much cause to kill him.

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Regaling Gen with his tale as they travel together, Usagi reveals that the origins of this feud goes all the way back to his childhood and his tutorage under the unusual and skilled sword master Katsuichi. This tale follows Usagi as he becomes a young samurai in the services of his Lord Mifune, where he was comrade to Gunichi, and leads all the way to the fateful battle of Adachigahara Plain and the day that Usagi became a masterless samurai.

Back in the present, Usagi continues his adventures across the land, encountering many different people and unusual creatures. Watch him fight against a kappa, help defend a village of silk merchants against a roving group of bandits and witness his weird meeting with a mysterious and powerful little monster who is going to be a big somebody one day.

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Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai, is an amazing and fantastic volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, which does an outstanding job continuing the story after the events portrayed in The Ronin. This second volume contains the first six issues of the actual Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the excellent adventures that are contained within these issues. The volume is broken down into four separate stories, the expanded story Samurai, as well as three stories which are significantly shorter. Each of these stories are really entertaining, and they all come together to create an impressive and incredible total volume of comics which I had a fantastic time reading.

The first story in this volume is also titled Samurai, and it is the major story contained within the Samurai volume. Running for 92 pages, this was one of Sakai’s first expanded Usagi Yojimbo stories, and I think it is one of his better ones. Samurai contains a captivating and exciting narrative that not only continues Usagi’s story in the present but which also goes back and explores much of the character’s past. This is shown through a lengthy flashback about Usagi’s childhood, his tutorage under the skilled samurai Katsuichi, his first meeting with Gunichi, their service under Lord Mifune, the events that led to Mifune’s war with the evil Lord Hikiji and the terrible final battle which cost Usagi his lord.

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Sakai comes up with an excellent background for Usagi in this story, and it was great to see how he expanded on some of the ideas and plot points that were featured within the first volume’s early stories. Even after all these years, the flashback contained with Samurai is still the definitive history of the character’s early days, although it has been expanded on several times in future volumes. This background is really intriguing, and I think that Sakai tells an amazing story, showing of Usagi’s unique training, his early triumphs including obtaining his swords, his service with Lord Mifune and then an expanded version of the battle of Adachigahara Plain, which has been briefly shown in the previous book. Woven into this is the tale of Usagi’s friendship with his fellow Mifune retainer, Gunichi, and the fateful day in their relationship that will cause Usagi to kill him the next time they meet. Sakai paces this entire extended story out well, and it turns into quite a complete and intriguing narrative. I like that it also added a lot more depth to the love triangle between Usagi, Mariko and Kenichi, and the scenes where Usagi and Kenichi put aside their differences for the first time for the sake of Mariko is great, and helps show that Kenichi is not a bad guy, he’s just occasionally blinded by his jealousy of Usagi.

I personally really enjoyed the scenes that featured Usagi and his sensei Katsuichi, the reclusive swords master. Their entire arc is really fun, and I love a good training sequence. Katsuichi is your typical wise and eccentric old hermit master who takes the young and eager student with potential under his wing to make him a superior student. Despite coming off as an aloof and hard man, Katsuichi is actually a kindly master who is impressed by Usagi’s determination and spirit (he gives a sly smile at the start of the training period). Katsuichi has some really interesting training techniques, and it is interesting to see how Usagi developed the skills that have kept him alive in the dangerous world he lives in. I loved the menial tasks montage, which is very reminiscent of The Karate Kid. It was also fun to see Usagi get randomly hit with a bamboo stick until he learns to anticipate surprise attacks, and I liked how it helped explain Usagi’s seemingly supernatural ability to sense when he is being watched or in danger. Overall, this proved to be an excellent inclusion to the story, and Katsuichi was easily the best new character introduced in this volume.

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Another major highlight of this first story is the part set in the present, which sees Usagi once again reunited with Gen. Gen was one of the better characters featured in the first volume, so it was really good to see him reintroduced in Samurai, especially as it helps set him up as a major recurring character in the Usagi Yojimbo series. Throughout the story, Usagi and Gen form quite an amusing partnership, with Usagi acting the honourable Zen warrior, while Gen is the unapologetic and uncultured mercenary. The two play off each other extremely well, with their great repartee and jabs at each other, and it is fun to see Usagi come out his shell a lot more around his companion. Gen also proves to be an entertaining audience for Usagi’s story, and it was fun to see his reactions to Usagi’s life tale. This was especially true when Gen started to get really into the story, despite his feigned indifference, and overreacted to several key moments. This entire story ends on a rather heartfelt moment between the two, with Gen indicating he completely understands how Usagi felt when he lost his lord “the saddest day of a samurai’s life is the day he becomes a ronin. Some day I’ll tell you how I became masterless…” and Usagi hinting that he really does see Gen as a friend. I really enjoyed seeing these two characters back together again, and this story definitely serves as a much better basis for their friendship than their backstabbing adventures in the previous volume. I also have to say, the silent dual at the front of the book between Usagi and Gunichi is the tops, and you could not ask for a better start to a story than an unexplained and sudden fight to the death.

The next story featured in this volume is the short, horror-based story, Kappa. Wandering a desolate, swampy area, Usagi comes across a kappa, a Japanese water demon, who demands a toll to cross the marshes. While Usagi is able to pass, he must go back and try to save another traveller from the kappa, resulting in a desperate conflict. This is quite a good story, especially with the ghostly twist contained at the end. I really love that Sakai chooses to explore pieces of Japanese mythology like the kappa, and it was really interesting to see Usagi face off against one. There is also an extremely brutal and impressive fight sequence against the kappa featured within this comic, which was all manner of impressive.

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The third story in Samurai was called Zylla, and featured Usagi finding and befriending a mysterious creature hidden in the bushes, that he names Zylla, when he visits the hot springs. Zylla repays Usagi by saving him from some bandits using his fiery (one could even say atomic) breath and reveals itself as a large newborn bipedal lizard who Usagi speculates may be a god, “Are you a god, Zylla?”. This is a really fun short story in this volume, and it adds a fascinating new element to the world that Usagi Yojimbo is set in. It was also great to see Sakai continue to show off his love for Japanese culture by featuring baby Zylla, and he makes several humorous references to Zylla’s future work, such as how he should visit the big city at some point. All of this makes for an amusing entry in this volume and it had me smiling as I read it.

The final story was Silk Fair, which sees Usagi come to the aid of a silk worker, defending him from bandits. The worker takes him to his village, where Usagi eventually helps defend the village from a large bandit raid, after he deals with the silk works greedy administrator. This was a nice, short entry that showed a typical Usagi Yojimbo storyline of Usagi helping to defend the helpless again bandits. This was one of the first stories where Sakai explored a Japanese craft or industry, and while it does not go into as much detail as some of the later industry based stories (later volumes feature length depictions of things like sword crafting, seaweed farming, kite making and soy sauce production), it was still interesting to see. Silk Fair contained a good mixture of action and humour, and I especially enjoyed seeing the way Usagi managed to mess with the corrupt administrator and his cowardly bodyguard. There was also a rather unique battle sequence where Usagi and the silk workers are able to defeat the bandits with sewing needles and silk streamers. In the end, Silk Fair proved to be a strong and amazing story, and I felt that it was an extremely entertaining way to conclude this volume.

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Like with every volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, Stan Sakai’s artwork is once again a major and incredible highlight of Samurai. This second volume contains some fantastic examples of Sakai’s artistic talent, and it is clear that by the time he was working on the stories contained within Sakai had settled on his preferred designs for the various characters and landscapes featured, although further refinements did occur later down the track. This new character work is really impressive, and I liked how various new characters appeared, such as the warthog Gunichi and the lion based Katsuichi. I am also continually impressed with the way that Sakai can convey emotion and expression with his drawings, and you are constantly aware of what the various characters are thinking, just from seeing their faces. The various stories contained within Samurai featured some truly amazing and visually stunning landscape backgrounds, as Sakai continued his practice of showing off the beautiful scenery of Japan. Sakai also drew a number of impressive action sequences throughout the book, and he really got the hang of sketching out and showcasing the fast-paced and skilful fights that occurred between samurai. There are some impressive duel sequences throughout this volume, including the quick and sudden fight between Usagi and Gunichi at the start of the first story or the practice duel between Usagi and Kenichi which showed the ferocious fight between the two, which quickly ended with one strong strike from the obviously more skilled Usagi. Sakai also included several larger-scale battle sequences throughout the volume which really are something to behold. I particularly liked the major war sequence that showed the expanded battle of Adachigahara Plain. Sakai did an amazing job presenting the frenetic chaos of war and the explosive action that occurred with his art, and it was certainly a visual highlight of this volume.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai was an outstanding addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is one of my favourite volumes in this entire franchise. Stan Sakai presents a fantastic blend of character backstory, action, adventure, eye-catching art and clever humour in this volume, and the end result is a five-star comic which is really worth checking out. Thanks to the excellent background based main story, Samurai is a key volume in this series, making this book a must read. Samurai gets another five stars from me, and once again I have to strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the whole Usagi Yojimbo series, to anyone looking for an epic and enjoyable new series.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth Cover

Publisher: Tor (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Ninth House – Book One

Length: 448 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From debuting author Tamsyn Muir comes a very unique and compelling science fiction novel filled with death, comedy and necromancers in space, Gideon the Ninth.

Before I begin reviewing Gideon the Ninth, I have to point out how impressive the design of the hardcover copy I received was. When I previously featured this book in one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, I mentioned how much I loved the cover art. Indeed, the drawing of the book’s titular redheaded character with her face painted liked a skull surrounded by exploding skeletons is pretty damn cool. The hardcover copy also has some excellent visuals, as the outer rim of all the pages is coloured black, which definitely gives prospective readers a noticeable visual hook, especially when combined with the all-black binding underneath the jacket, emblazoned with gold writing on the spine and a single golden skull on the front. I really liked this fantastic presentation style, and it definitely left an impression on me as I started to read the book.

In the far future, a vast interstellar empire is ruled by necromancers whose control over the various magical disciplines of death make them a powerful force. Eight noble houses serve under the First House of the Emperor, and each of them has just received a message from their ruler. The heirs to each of these houses and their cavaliers, loyal sword-wielding protectors and companions, must attend the Emperor’s planet in order to compete to become the next generation of Lyctor, immortal beings of vast power.

Gideon Nav is an indentured servant to the Ninth House of the Empire, a small and impoverished house that carries a dark reputation. A skilled swordswoman, Gideon wants nothing more than to enlist in the imperial army to leave the dark crypts, the strict occult nuns and the multitude of skeletons that make up the Ninth Planet far behind. However, when her latest escape attempt fails, she finds herself offered an irresistible bargain: act as the Ninth House’s cavalier for the period of the trials and be granted her freedom. There is just one minor problem: Gideon and the heir to the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, an extremely powerful bone witch, absolutely hate each other.

Forced to temporarily put their differences aside, Gideon and Harrow travel to First House, only to discover it is a near ruin, looked after by a few old and mostly unhelpful servants. They soon learn that the secrets to becoming a Lyctor lie hidden within the walls around them, and the representatives of various houses can do whatever they wish to learn them. Trapped on the planet, Gideon and Harrow begin to explore the First House and encounter the heirs and cavaliers of the other houses. As the mismatched pair from the Ninth House start to unravel the various mysteries and challenges before them, a gruesome murder occurs. Something powerful is lurking within the First House, and it has the heirs in its sight. Can Gideon and Harrow work together, or will their own turbulent past and the secrets of their house tear them apart?

Gideon the Ninth is a chaotically clever and massively entertaining first novel from Tamsyn Muir, who has done an excellent job introducing readers to her intriguing new world. Gideon the Ninth is the first book in her The Ninth House series, which already has two planned sequels in the works, with the first of these currently set for release next year. After hearing the awesome plot synopsis for this book earlier in the year, I had picked this as potentially being on the best books for the latter half of 2019. I am glad to see that my instincts were once again correct, as this was an awesome read that gets four and a half stars from me.

Muir has produced an outstanding story for her first novel, as the plot for Gideon the Ninth is an amazing combination of humour, universe building, emotional character moments and a captivating set of mysteries as the protagonists attempt to uncover not only the vast secrets of the First House but the identity of the person or being that is killing them off one by one. The author has stacked this book with all manner of fantastic twists, and there are a number of major and game changing developments that are well paced out amongst the story. There is never a dull spot within the book, as even parts where no substantial plot developments are occurring are filled with excellent humour from the sarcastic narrator with a huge vocabulary of various swear words. There is also a substantial amount of action throughout the course of the book. The various fight scenes blister and explode off the page, especially thanks to the unique magical system that Muir has populated this world with. All of this results in an addictive and electrifying overall story with a very memorable ending.

The real heart of Gideon the Ninth lies in its incredible main characters, Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and the complex relationship the two of them have. Gideon is the badass, rebellious, coarse, girl-loving mistress of the blade, who serves as the book’s narrator and only point-of-view character. Gideon is an absolute blast as a main character, as she deals with every situation she comes across with an abundance of disrespect, anger and exaggerated responses, resulting in much of the book’s humour. Harrow, on the other hand, is the dark noble necromancer heir to the Ninth House, whose reserved persona, obsession with necromantic research and abilities, and vindictive nature work to make her initially appear as a polar opposite to Gideon. The relationship between these two main characters is initially extremely adversarial, as both characters declare their absolute hatred for each other, and Harrow seems determined to make Gideon’s life a living hell. As the book progresses, however, Muir really dives into the heart of the relationship between the two characters, revealing a complex history and a twin tale of woe and dark secrets that has defined them for their entire lives. The combined character arc of these two main characters was done extremely well. While you knew from the very start of the book that the two characters would eventually work together, the exact reason why this occurred was handled perfectly, and the final form of this cooperation helps create an epic and tragic conclusion to the entire book. While their relationship is not explicitly romantic (Harrow’s sexuality really is not explored in this book), they do become quite close by the end of the novel, and both characters are written exceedingly well.

In addition to Gideon and Harrow, Muir has also included a range of different characters, representing the heirs and cavaliers of the other major houses in the Empire. This results in an intriguing assortment of side characters who add a lot to the overall story. The author has made sure to invest in substantial backstories for all these additional characters, and this has a number of significant benefits for the story. Not only are the readers now blessed with an abundance of viable and duplicitous suspects for the story’s murder mystery, but each of the various representatives of the houses have their own individual secrets and motives for being at the First House. Learning more about each of these characters is quite fascinating, and a number of them have some pretty amazing character arcs. I particularly enjoyed the storyline of Palamedes Sextus of the Sixth House, who treats his necromancy more as a science than a form of magic. Sextus is the most logical character out of all the people in the book, and he serves as a major driving force of the investigation into the murders. His connection to some of the other characters in the book is a major part of the book, and the ultimate conclusion of his story arc is really cool. Muir has done an incredible job coming up with the book’s various characters, and it is a major part of why this book is so awesome.

It is quite clear that Muir has an amazing imagination, as she has produced a grim and compelling new universe to set this book in. Necromancy and a futuristic science fiction setting make for a fascinating combination, and I really loved her examination of an empire built on worshipping an immortal, necromantic Emperor and the various secrets that come with it. The sheer range of different necromantic magic featured within this book is pretty impressive, especially as each of the Imperial Houses has their own specific form of necromancy, all of which are examined throughout the book. Not only are all these different types of magic really fascinating to examine but it also results in some diverse pieces of magical action, as many of the necromancers unleash their various forms of magic throughout the book, resulting in some fantastic sequences. I do think that the author could have done a slightly better job of explaining some of the unique elements of her universe at the start of the book, as I got a little confused at some points towards the beginning; however, this was quickly chased away by deeper dives into the universe’s lore later in the book. Muir has left open a number of questions and plot directions to explore in future books in the series, and I am really curious to see what happens next.

Gideon the Ninth is a wild and exciting novel that makes use of an intriguing concept, some compelling characters and an excellent story to create an exceedingly entertaining book that was a heck of a lot of fun to read. Featuring laugh-out-loud humour, intense action and major emotional moments, this is an incredible read that is really worth checking out. Muir has hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I cannot wait for the next book in the series.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

Cold Iron Cover 1.jpg

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

Cold Iron Cover 2.jpg

I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.