Top Ten Tuesday – Favourite Pre-2021 Novels

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  This week participants of Top Ten Tuesday get a freebie to list whatever topics they want.  I am planning to take advantage of this by doing two lists.  Not only have a done a movie-related list ranking the James Bond movies, but I am also going to start my annual end-of-year lists here by looking at my favourite pre-2021 novels that I read this year.

Each December I have a lot of fun looking at some of the best and most impressive books and comics that I have read throughout the year in a series of Top Ten Lists.  While these lists usually focus on 2021 releases, for the last few years, I have also taken the time to list out some of the best novels with pre-2021 release dates that I have read in the last 12 months.  There are some excellent older novels out there that I haven’t had the chance to read before this year, and it is always fun to go back and explore them.  I ended up reading a bunch of awesome older books throughout 2021, including some pretty incredible novels that got easy five-star ratings from me and are really worth checking out.

To come up with this list I had a look at all the novels I read this year that had their initial release before 2021.  This included several 2020 releases I only got a chance to check out this year, as well as a few older novels that I had been meaning to read for a while.  I was eventually able to cull this down to a workable Top Ten list, with a descent honourable mentions section.  This new list ended up containing an interesting combination of novels, although there was a bit of an overload of entries from the Dresden Files’ series by Jim Butcher, as well as some Warhammer 40,000 novels, both of which I really got into throughout this year.  Still this honestly reflects the best pre-2021 novels I read throughout the year, so let us see what made the cut.

Honourable Mentions:

Trollslayer by William King – 1999

TrollSlayer-john-gravato-Gotrek-and-Felix-1st-edition-cover

I have been meaning to check out the awesome Gotrek and Felix series of Warhammer Fantasy novels for ages and the recent release of the early entries on audiobook gave me the perfect opportunity to finally do so this year.  The first book in this series was the fantastic, Trollslayer, which introduced the two mismatched companions, Gotrek the dwarven Slayer and Felix the human poet, and highlights some of their earliest adventures throughout the Warhammer Fantasy world in a series of exciting and fun short stories.  This was an excellent initial entry by William King and it made me a massive fan of the unique tandem of Gotrek and Felix.

 

Skavenslayer by William King – 1999

Skavenslayer Cover

I ended up loving Trollslayer so much that I immediately read its sequel, Skavenslayer, which proved to be just as fun as the first book.  Skavenslayer has a more connected story that shows Gotrek and Felix getting caught up in a Skaven invasion of Nuln.  I had an absolute blast with the humour in this novel, especially surrounding the bickering and backstabbing Skaven, and I powered through it in a couple of days.

 

The Return by Harry Sidebottom – 2020

The Return Cover

An epic and clever historical read by the impressive Harry Sidebottom, The Return is a compelling read that sees a damaged Roman soldier return home only to encounter a series of dark murders.  I was really glad that I got a chance to read The Return this year after missing out on it in 2020, and it ended up being a compelling read.

 

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson – 2020

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Another 2020 novel I read towards the start of the year, Either Side of Midnight is a compelling Australian murder mystery that serves as a sequel to Stevenson’s first book, GreenlightEither Side of Midnight had a brilliant thriller storyline, and it was one of the cleverest crime fiction books I had the pleasure of checking out this year.

Top Ten List (by original publication date):

First and Only by Dan Abnett – 1999

First and Only Cover

2021 was the year that I really dove into the Warhammer extended universe, a decision that I am very happy about as there are some exceptional works there.  While the Gotrex and Felix novels were my go-to series for Warhammer Fantasy, when it came to Warhammer 40,000 the clear choice was easily First and Only by legendary Warhammer fiction author Dan Abnett.  First and Only is the first book in the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series, which follows a group of Imperial foot soldiers as they fight and die across the myriad dangerous battlefields of the 41st millennia.  This first novel introduced the reader to the key Ghosts and takes them on a compelling and deadly series of adventures featuring war, death, and conspiracy.  A wonderful and deeply exciting read, I cannot wait to enjoy the rest of the series next year.

 

Storm Front by Jim Butcher – 2000

Storm Front Cover

Another series that I decided to really dive into this year was the exceptional Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  Generally considered the gold-standard of urban fantasy novels, this series blends fantasy and crime fiction elements in the city of Chicago.  I fell in love with this series last year when I checked out the awesome 17th novel, Battle Ground (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020) which convinced me to go back and read some of the earlier entries.  As such, I read the initial novel, Storm Front, towards the front of 2021 and I had a wonderful time with it.  Storm Front contains an excellent story that introduces the protagonist, rogue wizard Harry Dresden, and follows his investigation of a series of magical murders around town.  I had an absolute blast with this novel, and while it isn’t Butcher’s best work, it was an excellent debut that serves as a great first entry in this iconic series.

 

Daemonslayer by William King – 2000

Daemonslayer Cover

Out of the three Gotrek and Felix novels I have so far had the pleasure of reading, I think that Daemonslayer is probably the best.  This cool novel sees the titular protagonists journey to the most dangerous place in the entire Warhammer Fantasy universe, the Chaos Wastes, to face daemons, monsters and warriors of Chaos.  This novel has a more complete and linear story than the preceding two entries, which makes for a stronger tale.  An extremely exciting and action-packed epic, I look forward to reading more of these novels in the future.

 

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher – 2001

Fool Moon Cover

The second Dresden Files novel I checked out in 2021 was the fantastic Fool Moon, which I found to be one of the strongest overall entries in the series.  Fool Moon pits the protagonist against multiple tribes of werewolves, each of whom have their own magical origins, as he attempts to solve the murder of a friend and clear his name.  This was a very clever and intense novel, and I deeply enjoyed the excellent story and powerful scenes that Butcher was able to craft together.

 

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher – 2002

Grave Peril Cover

I really got into the Dresden Files novel this year and quickly read Grave Peril right after finishing off Fool MoonGrave Peril was another exceptional read that saw Dresden face off against vampires, elves and a nightmarish being of pure evil.  This was another awesome novel that added in some great key characters, new antagonists, and substantial universe expansion.  Featuring some truly dark moments and some major character development, this was an outstanding novel that I had a lot of fun with.

 

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher – 2002

Summer Knight Cover

The fourth and final Dresden Files book I managed to get through this year was the awesome Summer Knight.  This book sees Dresden forced to work for the Winter Court of the elves who need him to solve a murder.  Summer Knight has a great story that moves at an extremely quick pace and takes the protagonist to some awesome new places.  I had an excellent time with Summer Knight, and indeed all the Dresden Files books I read in 2021 and I look forward to further exploring this series next year. 

 

The Gray Man by Mark Greaney – 2009

The Gray Man Cover

Another series that I decided to go back and check out this year was Mark Greaney’s epic Gray Man spy thriller series.  I have been deeply enjoying Greaney’s more recent Gray Man novels, such as Mission Critical, One Minute Out and Relentless, and I thought that it would be good to back and check this series out from the start, especially as there is a movie adaptation coming out next year.  I ended up having an incredible time with The Gray Man which set’s the protagonist, Court Gentry, against a horde of professional hit teams.  An exceptional and action-packed thrill ride, I cannot wait to see how the movie version of this turns out.  I am also extremely excited for some other Greaney books coming out in the next couple of months, as they should be pretty damn awesome.

 

Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber – 2014

Star Wars - Maul - Lockdown Cover

2021 was a great year for new Star Wars novels, many of which were pretty damn exceptional.  However, one of the downsides of this was that I had less time to read some older Star Wars novels.  I did however get a chance to read Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber, whose previous Star Wars novel, Death Troopers, was an awesome horror read.  Lockdown has an awesome (and currently non-canon) story about Maul being sent to infiltrate a maximum-security space prison that runs a series of death fights.  This was a great and compelling read, and I loved all the fun elements featured within.  I am hoping to check out a couple more earlier Star Wars novels next year, and there are a few that I currently have my eye on.

 

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe – 2019

State of Fear Cover

Another excellent book I checked out this year was the 2019 novel State of Fear by Australian author Tim Ayliffe.  I had been hoping to read this one for a while, especially after enjoying Ayliffe’s first novel The Greater Good, and I finally got the chance this year in the lead up to Ayliffe’s third novel, The Enemy WithinState of Fear was a great Australian thriller that set the protagonist against a dangerous terrorist threat both in Sydney and in London.  Featuring some intense emotional moments and an impressive story, State of Fear is an excellent read and I look forward to checking out more of Ayliffe’s novels in the future.

 

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Josh Reynolds– 2019

Kal Jerico - Sinner's Bounty Cover

The final entry on this list is the incredibly awesome Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty, which is part of the Necromunda sub-series of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Sinner’s Bounty was initially released in 2019, but an audiobook version came out last year, which was a lot of fun to listen to.  Featuring one of the best characters in the Warhammer 40,000 canon, notorious bounty hunter Kal Jerico, this novel takes the protagonist and his team to an obscure Underhive town to get a rich bounty.  Forced to contend against monsters, religious zealots, rival bounty hunters and an army of mutants, the protagonists have a cool and fun adventure, filled with intense action, fun humour, and a ton of treachery.  An amazing and deeply enjoyable read, I am very glad I decided to check this book out.

 

 

And that is the end of this list.  As you can see I have managed to check out a bunch of epic pre-2021 novels this year.  Each of the above were exceptional and fun reads and I would strongly recommend them, especially if you are in the mood for some fun fantasy or science fiction adventures.  I look forward to reading some other older books in 2022, and it will be interesting to see what makes my next version of this list then.  I imagine it will end up looking a little similar, especially as I have plans to continue several of these series, especially the Dresden Files, as well as examining some other outstanding Star Wars and Warhammer novels.  Make sure to check back in next week for some other end-of-year lists as I continue to highlight some of my favourite reads from 2021.

 

Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is that time of the year again when I absolutely gush about the latest volume of the epic and outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic series by the infinity talented Stan Sakai.  This time I look at the 35th volume in this incredible long-running series, Homecoming, which presents the reader with a rich and emotional tale of regret and loyalty as Usagi returns home.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading my blog will already know of my deep love for the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series.  Following the adventures of the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, this series is set in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, and features incredible stories about samurais and honour.  Homecoming, which contains issues #8-14 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, is the second volume printed completely in colour, and features the work of colourist Tom Luth in addition to Sakai’s writing and drawing.  This latest volume follows on shortly after the events of previous volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, and continues three intense and powerful unique stories.

The first story in this volume is the two-issue entry TatamiTatami sees Usagi return to the lands of his former master, the late Lord Mifune, now ruled over by nefarious series villain, Lord Hikiji.  Journeying through a now hostile countryside, Usagi finds himself following an armed procession who are transporting high-quality tatami mats to the castle of one of Lord Hikiji’s rivals.  Usagi finds the caravan under attack by the Neko Ninja, who are determined to destroy the tatami.  When Usagi’s long-time ally and former Neko Ninja head, Chizu, appears, it soon becomes apparent that Hikiji has dispatched the ninja to destroy the tatami in order to damage his rival’s reputation.  Determined to defy Hikiji, Usagi and Chizu travel with the caravan to help guard the tatami from attack.  However, Chizu soon comes into conflict with her rival, Kagemaru, as they fight for leadership of their clan.  Can Usagi and Chizu disrupt the plans of Hikiji and Kagemaru, or will the dark lord continue to reign supreme?

Anyone who thinks it impossible to write a compelling story with death, politics and ninja around tatami mats has clearly never had the joy of reading one of Sakai’s stories before.  Throughout the Usagi Yojimbo series, Sakai has written some thrilling and intense stories around unique elements of Japanese culture, including seaweed farming, pottery making, sake brewing, and giant kite making, just to name a few.  This latest example, Tatami, is no exception to this, as Sakai crafts together a fascinating story that not only highlights the importance and prestige of tatami mats but which also perfectly ties into the wider Usagi Yojimbo universe.  Tatami starts strong, with a fantastic and exquisitely drawn sequence that shows the crafting process behind the tatami, from harvesting the reeds, to the lengthy weaving process.  The story then introduces Usagi to the narrative, also providing some key background for the main storyline in the Homecoming volume.  The action swiftly follows with the tatami caravan under attack from cunning ninja, and Usagi is convinced to help guard the tatami with the help of Chizu.  This all leads up to an epic night fight as Usagi and his allies face off against a horde of ninja.  This fight scene is particularly well drawn and features some great examples of sword play, a beautiful scene of fire and intensity as Usagi appears to stand alone in front of a swarm of ninja, and several massive explosions as the ninjas detonate black powder bombs.  This all leads up to a rather poignant finale, as Usagi suffers from a rare and moving defeat and people he respects are called upon to sacrifice everything for their samurai sense of honour.

In addition to the main story surrounding the tatami, there is also a rather interesting side-plot surrounding Chizu and her battle with Kagemaru for control of the Neko Ninja.  This has been a long-running conflict going back all the way to 11th volume, Seasons, and it was great to see some more progress on it, especially as it ties Tatami into some of the wider Usagi Yojimbo storylines.  This subplot proves to be pretty damn cool, as Chizu works to manipulate Kagemaru and her former followers, using the catspaw of Usagi and the other tatami guards.  This ends up in a fun ninja duel, as Chizu faces off against Kagemaru and another ninja, Kimi, above the plain where Usagi is fighting.  This is a fast-paced and deadly fight which makes use of several different ninja tricks and weapons, and which proves to be an exciting and cool addition to the plot.  There are a couple of intriguing, if slightly predictable, developments within this narrative, although it does hint that we are getting closer to a conclusion of this long-running Neko Ninja plot line.

The real highlight of the Chizu subplot, and indeed the entire story, is the outstanding epilogue where Kagemaru meets with Lord Hikiji’s main advisor, the giant serpent Lord Hebi.  While Kagemaru is initially expecting praise for his actions, it becomes apparent that Hebi and Hikiji are displeased that Chizu continues to disrupt their plans when Kagemaru is offered unique sake, brewed using poisonous serpents.  There is an incredible amount of menace in this entire sequence, especially once Hebi pours out the dead serpent from the sake, and then proceeds to eat in front of Kagemaru (nothing is more intimidating that some light cannibalism).  Hebi’s simple warning: “Do not ever fail us, Kagemaru,” is an amazing way to end this scene, and the mighty ninja leader is left absolutely shaken as he leaves Hebi’s presence.  This epilogue was perfectly written and drawn, and it proves to be an outstanding way to end this story arc, while also hinting that the Chizu-Kagemaru rivalry is about to heat up.  I absolutely loved this great first story, and Tatami proves to be an exceptional start to the entire volume.

The next story in this volume is the moving and intriguing Mon, which also follows Usagi’s travels through the land of his former lord, Mifune.  However, Usagi soon encounters much fear and resentment from the people he encounters, many of whom try to avoid his attention.  He soon discovers that they are shunning him because he still wears the mon (crest) of his former lord on his clothes, reminding people of the costly war that Mifune fought and lost against Lord Hikiji.  The tense situation gets even worse for Usagi when several Hikiji soldiers notice him and attempt to take their anger and resentment out on him, which does not go well for them.  Further, when a desperate innkeeper and former Mifune soldier works out who Usagi truly was, various ambitious Hikiji soldiers gather to claim the substantial bounty of Usagi’s head.

This was another fantastic entry, and one that proves to be rather touching and dramatic.  Sakai does a wonderful job setting up the main story around the Mifune mon and why it is currently feared and hated throughout his former lands.  The impeccably loyal Usagi is forced to deal with unexpected hatred and concern from those he encounters, which once again makes him think about the past with great regret and concern, especially as he continues to battle with his own conflicted loyalties about whether he should continue to serve a dead master.  There are several fantastic references to Usagi’s role in the war’s final battle, as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was interesting that there is still fallout after all these years.  It was also great to learn more about mons and the importance that they can have to the people wearing them.  This is explored to a degree within the story itself, but Sakai also includes a detailed author note at the end of Mon which describes the history behind mons in general and their current role in Japanese society, while also discussing Usagi and the Sakai family mons.  I particularly liked the story surrounding the innkeeper, who, after years of desperation, finally loses his loyalty to the Mifune cause by informing on Usagi.  The final encounter between Usagi, the Hikiji troops and the bartender is also amazingly drawn, and the dramatic cliffhanger helps turn this into a pretty impressive story.

The final story in Homecoming is the powerful tale, The Return, which finds Usagi in the one place he has been trying to avoid the most, his old home village.  After the conclusion of Mon, Usagi washes up in his village and soon finds himself in the care of the love of his life, Mariko, and her husband, Kenichi.  As the usual feelings of regret, anger and resentment quickly grow between the childhood friends once more, Usagi finds himself forced into a far more serious conflict.  A cadre of former Mifune samurai have arrived in town and captured all the villagers.  Led by the fanatical Kato, these samurai seek vengeance for their lord and plan to destroy Hikiji’s influence and power by attacking an emissary of the Shogun as he travels through the village.  Torn between loyalty to his dead lord and the survival of his village, Usagi must work with Kenichi if there is any chance to save the people they love most in the world.

The Return is an exceptional and moving story which serves as the centrepiece and main entry of the Homecoming volume.  There is a lot going on in this final story, and Sakai manages to craft together an outstanding narrative that continues the dramatic and touching arc surrounding the failed love between Usagi and Mariko and the multiple complications accompanying it, and which also places Usagi and everyone he loves in great danger.  The Return continues immediately after the events of Mon, and Usagi is quickly engulfed in both the drama surrounding Mariko and Kenichi and the overall danger of the former Mifune samurai.  This soon results in a conflicted Usagi forced to bluff his way through the encounter in order to try and save his village from the samurai’s deadly revenge plot.  Working together with Mariko and Kenichi, Usagi’s plan eventually results in a bloody, extended battle against the invading samurai.  This proves to be a pretty epic and intense narrative, and Sakai really amped up the action and the stakes of the entire story by setting Usagi up against some of his former comrades.  There are so many great elements to this story, although you have to love the extended battle sequence at the end, especially once recurring characters Katsuichi and Jotaro make their appearance.  The final parts of this entire story are pretty touching, as the various characters say their goodbyes, and Sakai leaves this entire volume on an intriguing note, as for the first time it hints at another fencing master Usagi trained after, and which makes me eager for the next volume in this series.

The most intriguing elements of the entire story are the complex antagonists that are former comrades of Usagi who are willing to commit atrocities in the name of their dead lord.  For years, the former followers of the late Lord Mifune are seen in a bit of a tragic light, with most of them, especially Usagi, portrayed as extremely honourable men, much in the vein of their deceased lord.  As a result, it is extremely jarring to see former Mifune samurai engage in such vile actions, especially as they justify as part of their oaths to their lord: “A samurai cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord!”  There are some clear 47 Ronin inspirations here, with former samurai gathering after many years to achieve a final vengeance, even if this story is a little darker than the classic Japanese tale.  There are also some deep and compelling discussions about honour and loyalty throughout The Return, especially as Usagi is forced to balance his loyalty to his late lord against his own personal honour, feelings about his childhood village, and his own memories about Lord Mifune’s character.  The inevitable confrontation between Usagi and his former comrades is pretty harsh, and it was interesting to see a fight between two different groups of Mifune supporters who believe that their way is the right way.  I felt that the use of colour was particularly effective in The Return, as it made the final battle sequence really pop.  It was also very memorable to see Usagi face off against samurai dressed in the same Mifune clothes and colours that Usagi has worn in every comic.  Seeing a group of similarly coloured and clothed characters facing off against Usagi makes for a very different battle sequence, and it was really interesting to see.

Easily the thing I was most looking forward to in this volume was the emotional fireworks that would occur when Usagi eventually returned to his home village.  This has previously happened in two separate occasions, in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles, both of which proved to be utterly heartbreaking.  Much of this revolves around the complicated love triangle between Usagi, who is still deeply in love with Mariko, who is married to his old rival, Kenichi.  While Mariko still has great feelings for Usagi, she is bound to Kenichi by her honour, and will not leave them, especially as it will shatter her whole family.  At the same time, Kenichi, who has always resented Usagi for his talent and luck, knows that Usagi and Mariko have feelings for each other, which breaks his heart, as he has also always loved Mariko.  All this is further complicated by the fact that Mariko and Kenichi’s son, Jotaro, is really Usagi’s child, who Kenichi willingly raised as his own son.  This has resulted in much conflict and despair amongst the three in the past, and it honestly does not take long for the anger and resentment to build up once more in The Return, especially as Kenichi is angry that Usagi encouraged Jotaro to seek out his old fencing master rather than go to the school Kenichi learned from.  While there are several great sequences where Usagi and Mariko once again display their unspoken love, much of the focus of The Return revolves around the intense rivalry between Usagi and Kenichi.  The story starts with their usual resentment and anger towards each other, but the two eventually start to work on their differences, especially as they prepare to save their villages.  There are several fun flashbacks to some of their adventures as children, which showed their early rivalries, as well as the two of them achieving great things together.  This comes to the fore as the story progresses, and the two are once again able to set aside their differences for the greater good.  This was an amazing thing to see, especially as they have been mostly antagonistic to each other throughout the entire series, and I liked how Sakai worked to resolve their conflict.  There were also several touching scenes between Jotaro and both of his fathers, which really represented one of the most important things the two former rivals have in common, and I loved that Sakai included Jotaro in this story.

There were some amazing moments in The Return, and I was deeply impressed with the incredible story that Sakai used as the centrepiece of this volume.  I really liked how Sakai successfully blended together so much action and intrigue with a powerful character-driven narrative, and I loved the cool examinations of honour and loyalty as a formerly bitter rivalry started to come to an end.  This final entry really delivered on all the potential of Homecoming and Sakai has done an exceptional job here crafting this story together.  I also really appreciated the way in which the other stories within Homecoming served as prequels to The Return, with key plot elements introduced in the earlier entries in the volume.  This was some extremely clever storytelling, and it really helps Homecoming to stand out as an exceptional and fantastic volume in this epic series.

As usual, the art of this Usagi Yojimbo comic was absolutely exquisite, and Sakai has worked his typical visual magic, creating several striking and powerful sequences throughout the entire volume.  In addition to some of the impressive action sequences and scenes I have mentioned above, Sakai produces some outstanding shots of the iconic Japanese landscape, with some incredible drawings of forests, mountains, towns and plains.  Each of these is pretty breathtaking, especially now that they are in colour, as the recently introduced colour work of Tom Luth really adds some new depth to the already awesome drawings.  I absolutely love the way in which Sakai matches his simple yet beautiful drawings with the complex storylines contained within Homecoming, and readers are in for a fantastic visual treat when they check this volume out.

Even after 35 outstanding volumes of the Usagi Yojimbo series, the amazing Stan Sakai continues to show why he is one of the best comic creators in the business with the incredible Homecoming.  Featuring several touching and powerful stories, which are backed up with some exceptional character work and stunning artwork, Homecoming is another superb collection of Usagi Yojimbo tales.  Fans of this long-running series are going to have an absolute blast reading this latest volume and it is very much worth checking out.

WWW Wednesday – 27 January 2021

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (Trade Paperback)

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

I finally got around to starting The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, which was one of the most highly regarded fantasy debuts of 2020.  I am only about 50 pages into this novel at the moment but so far I am really enjoying this book with its weird bone magic, Eastern influenced setting and sinking islands.  The Bone Shard Daughter looks set to be an awesome read and I am really glad that I’ve begun reading it.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule (Audiobook)

Star Wars - Light of the Jedi Cover

I have made some substantial progress on this latest Star Wars novel.  Light of the Jedi is a fantastic and compelling new addition to the canon set hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga during the period known as The High Republic.  An awesome and exciting read, I should finish this off in the next few days.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Return by Harry Sidebottom (Trade Paperback)

The Return Cover

Colonyside by Michael Mammay (Audiobook)

Colonyside Cover

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson (Trade Paperback)

Either Side of Midnight Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

Black Canary: Breaking Silence by Alexandra Monir

Black Canary - Breaking Silence Cover

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

WWW Wednesday – 20 January 2021

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

The Return by Harry Sidebottom (Trade Paperback)

The Return Cover

I started reading the latest impressive Roman historical fiction novel from the amazing Harry Sidebottom, The Return, and I am about two thirds of the way through it at the moment.  This is the third great Roman novel Sidebottom has done in recent years (make sure to check out my reviews of The Last Hour and The Lost Ten), and I am really enjoying the excellent blend of historical fiction and dark murder mystery elements.  A fantastic and compelling read, I should hopefully finish it off in the next couple of days.

Colonyside by Michael Mammay (Audiobook)

Colonyside Cover

Colonyside is the third Planetside novel from an amazing new science fiction talent, Michael Mammay that I have been really looking forward to for a while.  Serving as a sequel to his first two epic novels Planetside and Spaceside (both of which were my among my top reads of 2018 and 2019 respectfully), Colonyside sees the protagonist engage in another clever investigation on an alien world.  Featuring an deeply captivating mystery and an outstanding story, Colonyside is an impressive read that I am really enjoying.  I have just under two hours to go with it and I cannot wait to see how the entire thing ends up (hopefully the protagonist doesn’t nuke an entire planet, again).

What did you recently finish reading?

Fool Me Twice by Jeff Lindsay (Trade Paperback)

Fool Me Twice Cover

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver (Audiobook)

Altered Realms cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule (Audiobook)

Star Wars - Light of the Jedi Cover


That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

WWW Wednesday – 13 January 2021

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws): 

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

Fool Me Twice by Jeff Lindsay (Trade Paperback)

Fool Me Twice Cover

I finally got around to starting Fool me Twice, the exciting sequel to Just Watch Me by bestselling author Jeff Lindsay.  This is a very fun thriller series that follows master thief, Riley Wolfe, as he attempts to steal some of the world’s most precious and heavily guarded artefacts.  In this second novel, Wolfe is compelled to steal a massive fresco that is not only painted on a wall, but which is located within the Vatican.  This should be an extremely awesome read and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver (Audiobook)

Altered Realms cover

I have nearly finished this cool, if massive, audiobook version of B. F. Rockriver’s LitRPG debut, Altered Realms: Ascension.  This is an extremely enjoyable book, that follows a NPC within a video game who is turned into a player and must adventure across his massive fantasy world to save everything he knows.  This is an amazing and surprisingly compelling audiobook which is well worth checking out.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont (Trade Paperback)

The Frenchman Cover
What do you think you’ll read next?

The Return by Harry Sidebottom (Trade Paperback)

The Return Cover

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Book Haul – 15 November 2020

I have had a pretty awesome week book-wise, having been lucky enough to receive several amazing novels that I am quite excited to read.  I have been waiting for most of these novels for some time now and I have very high hopes for all of them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

The first entry in this Book Haul post is Hollow Empire by Canberra author Sam Hawke.  Hawke’s first novel, City of Lies, was one of my favourite novels of 2018 and I am really looking forward to seeing how she follows up her epic debut fantasy novel.

The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

The Emperor's Exile Cover

The Emperor’s Exile is the latest novel in the captivating Eagles of the Empire historical fiction series (check out my reviews for the last two entries in the series, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of Rome).  Scarrow is an extremely talented author and I cannot wait to see how the latest entry in this action-packed historical fiction series continues.

Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen

Nophek Gloss Cover

This book is an intriguing debut from new author Essa Hansen.  Containing an exciting sounding science fiction story, Nophek Gloss is quite an interesting novel and I am curious to see how it turns out.

Hideout by Jack Heath

Hideout Cover

Another entry from a Canberran author, Hideout is the latest book from Australian crime writer Jack Heath and the third book in the Timothy Blake series.  These books follow the adventures of a cannibal who serves as a consultant to the FBI, and Hideout features a cracker of a story idea, with the protagonist trapped in a house with several other psychopaths, one of whom is murdering everyone else, one by one.  Hideout sounds incredibly fun and I cannot wait to check it out.

Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon

Firefly Generations

Generations is the fourth entry in a series of Firefly tie-in novels that have been released over the last couple of years.  I am a major fan of the Firefly franchise, and all three prior novels (Big Damn Hero, The Magnificent Nine and The Ghost Machine), have been extremely enjoyable reads.  I have been waiting for this latest novel for a very long time and I am planning on reading it next.

The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

The final entry on this list is The Return by Harry Sidebottom.  Sidebottom is an impressive historical fiction author who has been doing some intriguing things over the last couple of years.  His prior two novels, The Last Hour and The Lost Ten have all combined Roman historical fiction storylines with various thriller/crime fiction sub-genres.  This new novel looks set to be an intense and gripping historical murder mystery story and it will be interesting to see what unique story Sidebottom comes up with this time.

Well that is it for this latest Book Haul post.  I certainly have a lot of great books to read at the moment and I better get to it.  Let me know which of these books you are most excited for and I will try to get to them as soon as possible.  Until then, happy reading.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books I Want to Read Before the End of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this latest Top Ten Tuesday participants are supposed to list the Top Ten Book Titles that Would Make Great Song Titles.  However, I am going to do something a little different today and I am instead going to list the Top Ten novels I want to read before the end of 2020.

This is a bit of a continuation of a list I did this time last year when I realised that there were only 50 days left in the year and I was freaking out about all the books I still wanted to read.  Well, as crazy as it sounds, this year has nearly come to an end and there are currently only just over 50 days left in it.  While I for one will not be sorry to see the backend of 2020, I am very mindful of the big pile of novels from this year currently sitting on my table (my editor/wife Alex wants to point out that it is actually tables, plural, plus a couple of bookshelves).  So with that in mind I thought I would do another version of this list to inspire me to read these books and knock them out before this year from hell comes to an end.

For this list I have had a decent look through my many book piles to work out which novels I really need to finish off before the year ends.  In order to focus this list on books that are cluttering up the house a little, I decided to exclude novels that I do not currently have copies of (such as Call of the Bone Ships by R. J. Barker, which is hopefully on its way).  I also decided to exclude novels that I am definitely going to read before the end of the year because I am planning to review them for a Canberra Weekly Christmas column (for example, Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke or The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow).  Using these parameters, I was able to come up with a list of 10 books (with some honourable mentions), that I would really like to read before the year ends.  This list includes an interesting range of novels, from some of the top releases of 2020 to some novels that came in a little under the radar.  However, all 10 sound really good and I cannot wait to try and read them all.

Honourable Mentions:

Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Shorefall Cover

TRUEL1F3 by Jay Kristoff

TRUEL1F3 Cover

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club Cover

Top Ten List:

The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

The Obsidian Tower Cover
I am honestly surprised and a little ashamed that I have not made time to read this awesome-sounding novel yet.  The Obsidian Tower is the latest book from rising fantasy star Melissa Caruso and it is set in the same universe as her Swords and Fire trilogy.  I am a major fan of the Sword and Fire books (made up of The Tethered Mage, The Defiant Heir and The Unbound Empire) and this is the book I will try the hardest to make time for in the coming weeks.


The Devil and the Dark Water
by Stuart Turton

The Devil and the Dark Water Cover

Another book I am very much berating myself for not making time for.  The Devil and the Dark Water is the second novel from Stuart Turton, who wowed me so much in 2018 with his debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.  I have a lot of love for Turton’s previous release and I am sure that this new book is going to be just as awesome.


Either Side of Midnight
by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Either Side of Midnight is an intriguing-sounding Australian crime fiction novel that I am really looking forward to reading.  The sequel to Stevenson’s debut novel, Greenlight, Either Side of Midnight follows a fascinating and complex murder scenario following an apparent suicide on live television.  This should make for a fun read, and I cannot wait to check out this awesome sounding book.


The Wolf of Oren-Yara
by K. S. Villoso

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro Cover

This exciting and action-packed fantasy novel caught my eye earlier in the year, and I have been curious to check it out ever since.  I have heard some good things about The Wolf of Oren-Yara, which serves as the first book in the fantastically titled Chronicles of the Bitch Queen series, and I think I am really going to enjoy this impressive sounding novel.


The Return
by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Acclaimed historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom has been on a real roll over the last couple of years, producing two unique and enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels (The Last Hour and The Lost Ten) that each had the characteristics of a particular genre of thriller/crime fiction.  The Return apparently contains some elements of Scandi-noir fiction, and I look forward to seeing how this distinctive murder mystery style blends with a classic Roman historical fiction story.


Cyber Shogun Revolution
by Peter Tieryas

Cyber Shogun Revolution

I had an absolute blast reading Tieryas’s previous novel in the United States of Japan series, Mecha Samurai Empire, and have been really looking forward to reading Cyber Shogun Revolution ever since it was announced.  This new United States of Japan novel should be another incredible and distinctive novel and I need to make a real effort to check it out soon.


The Bluffs
by Kyle Perry

The Bluffs Cover

The Bluffs is another Australian crime fiction novel that I am quite keen to read before the end of the year.  The Bluffs is the debut novel of Kyle Perry and it sounds like quite an intriguing novel set deep within the wilds of the Tasmanian bush.  I have heard some good things about The Bluffs from some fellow reviewers and I am quite keen to read it in the next few weeks.


The Sandman
by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs

The Sandman

I am a major comic book fan, but I have to admit that I have never had the opportunity to read Neil Gaiman’s iconic The Sandman comics.  Luckily, an audio drama adaptation of this classic comic was released earlier this year featuring a first-rate voice cast and helmed by radio production stalwart Dirk Maggs, and I am looking forward to seeing how this audio depiction of the comic turns out.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

The Bone Shard Daughter is an impressive-sounding fantasy debut that came out a little while ago.  This is another novel that I have heard some really good things about and it should hopefully turn out to be a first-rate book.

War Lord by Bernard Cornwell

War_Lord_cover.PNG

The last entry on this list is War Lord by Bernard Cornwell.  War Lord is the final book in Cornwell’s long-running The Last Kingdom series.  I am a major fan of The Last Kingdom novels and I am extremely curious to see how this outstanding historical fiction series finally comes to an end.

That’s the end of this week’s Top Ten list.  I am extremely happy with how this list turned out as I am really keen to read each and every one of the novels listed above.  All of them have an amazing amount of potential and I think several could end up being some of my favourite books of 2020.  Make sure to check back in a few weeks to see if I have managed to get around to reading any of them yet.  In the meantime, let me know which books you really want to read before the end of 2020 and best of luck getting through them.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books on My Winter 2020 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants need to list the top ten books on their Winter 2020 (or Summer 2020 for those up in the Northern Hemisphere) to be read (TBR) list.

There are some rather fantastic-sounding novels coming out in the next couple of months, and I am quite excited for a number of them. Surprisingly, producing this list did not go as smoothly as some previous TBR lists that I have done. This is because several books I was hoping to include have been delayed since the last time I looked them up, presumably due to the coronavirus outbreak. While this is a little disappointing, I was still able to come up with a good list of Winter TBR books, and the entries below are some of my most anticipated releases coming out in June, July and August 2020. I have previously addressed several of these books before in my weekly Waiting on Wednesday posts, and there is also likely to be some crossover between this list and some of my previous Top Ten Tuesday lists, such as my Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2020 list and my Predicted Five Star Reads list. I have also chosen to exclude any books that I have already read or have started reading (such as Stormblood by Jeremy Szal). Overall, I think I came up with quite a diverse list of books.

Honourable Mentions:

Devolution by Max Brooks – 16 June 2020

Devolution Cover


Star Wars: Shadow Fall
by Alexander Freed – 2 July 2020

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover


Out of Time
by David Klass – 21 July 2020

Out of Time Cover

Top Ten List (By Release Date):


The Obsidian Tower
by Melissa Caruso – 9 June 2020

The Obsidian Tower Cover


The Return
by Harry Sidebottom – 11 June 2020

The Return Cover


The Constant Rabbit
by Jasper Fforde – 30 June 2020

The Constant Rabbit Cover

This is a really quirky and entertaining novel that I received earlier this week, which I think could be a lot of fun to read. Jasper Fforde is an author who I have enjoyed for years, and I had a great time reading his last book, Early Riser. His latest book, The Constant Rabbit, sounds absolutely bonkers as it features anthropomorphic rabbits moving into a human town and facing prejudice in a satire of racism in the UK. I am sure I am going to laugh myself silly with this book, and it should be a really unique read.

Queen of Storms by Raymond E. Feist – 14 July 2020

Queen of Storms Cover


World of Warcraft: Shadows Rising
by Madeleine Roux – 14 July 2020

Shadows Rising Cover


Demon in White
by Christopher Ruocchio – 28 July 2020

Demon in White Cover 1


The Gates of Athens
by Conn Iggulden – 4 August 2020

The Gates of Athens Cover

Conn Iggulden is an extremely talented historical fiction author who has produced some amazing novels throughout his career, including his last book, The Falcon of Sparta. His upcoming novel, The Gate of Athens, is the first entry in his new Athenian series, which will take a look at the major wars of ancient Athens. This is probably going to be one of the best historical fiction books that I am going to read in the next few months, and I cannot wait to check it out.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – 4 August 2020

Harrow the Ninth Cover

Last year I was blown away by the incredible Gideon the Ninth, which was part fantasy, part science fiction, part murder mystery and 100% non-stop fun. Gideon the Ninth was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019, and I am extremely excited to read the sequel, Harrow the Ninth. This upcoming novel seems set to continue the crazy adventures of the first book, and I am really looking forward to seeing where the story goes after Gideon the Ninth’s shocking conclusion.

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin – 4 August 2020

The Night Swim Cover

The Night Swim is the next intriguing release from Australian author Megan Goldin, and it looks set to be one of the most compelling mystery novels of 2020. I really enjoyed Goldin’s previous book, 2018’s The Escape Room, which I ended up reading in a single night, and I am looking forward to getting through the author’s next compelling story.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker – 25 August 2020

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

The final book on my list is How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by bestselling fantasy author K. J. Parker. Parker is a really clever writer who has produced a huge number of impressive fantasy novels over the year. His previous book, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, was an incredible read and it was one of my favourite books of 2019. Due to how much I enjoyed his last book, and because How to Rule and Empire and Get Away with It might have some intriguing connections to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, I have extremely high hopes for this upcoming novel, and I think it is going to be absolutely amazing.

 

Well that’s my latest top ten list. I am very happy with the final list that I pulled together, especially as this is a great mixture of impressive-sounding novels. I think each of the books listed above have incredible potential, and I cannot wait to read each and every one of them. Let me know which of these books interests you the most in the comments below.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Grove of the Caesars and The Return

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For my latest Waiting on Wednesday article I take a look at two upcoming historical murder mysteries which I believe are going to be really incredible. Both of these historical mysteries have amazing-sounding plots set in the ancient Roman Empire, and they have been written by two of my current favourite historical fiction authors, Lindsey Davis and Harry Sidebottom.

The Grove of the Caesars Cover

The first of the books I will be looking at is The Grove of the Caesars by legendary Roman historical fiction author Lindsey Davis. The Grove of the Caesars is set for release in early April 2020 and will be the eighth book in Davis’s Flavia Albia series, which is itself a sequel to Davis’s long-running Marcus Didius Falco series. The Flavia Albia series follows its titular protagonist as she investigates a series of murders and other crimes in ancient Rome, and is distinctive thanks to its intriguing mysteries, fantastic depictions of the city and its often humorous tone. I have long been a fan of the Flavia Albia series, having been lucky enough to receive a copy of the first entry, The Ides of April, back when it was first released. I have since gone on and read the rest of the books in this series, and I currently have reviews for the last three books in the series, The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy and A Capitol Death, on my blog. For this upcoming book in the series, Davis has come up with another amazing sounding plot premise, which is sure to result in an excellent and enjoyable read.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Too many people tell Flavia Albia, ‘Don’t go to the Grove’. Such warnings will only lure her to the place she is warned away from, Julius Caesar’s Gardens, where she finds more than one intriguing mystery.

Someone has buried tattered scrolls here, by unreadable ancient philosophers. Hardly has she taken an interest in what looks like book collecting fraud, when far worse happens. A present evil stirs in the undergrowth. A man holds a birthday party that goes terribly wrong, exposing a long series of neglected crimes.

Albia learns that a serial killer has haunted the gardens and grove for years targeting women. It isn’t her place to investigate; that’s the job of a dubious vigiles cohort, beefed up by the sinister imperial agent, Julius Karus who she thinks is vile. But sympathy for the dead women and their grieving relatives resonates with Albia. Even if she has to work with Karus, nothing will stop her until the serial killer in the sacred grove is at last caught and brought to justice.

I really like the sound of this great book and cannot wait to get my hands on it. Not only has Davis apparently come up with an intriguing story which sets its fun protagonist against a deadly serial killer, but it looks like she will weaving some interesting historical details about Ancient Rome throughout the book. Davis has featured a number of fascinating and unique aspects about parts of ancient Rome into her books before, and I look forward to learning more about Caesar’s gardens, as well as how ancient book collecting fraud would apparently look.

Based on my previous experiences with Davis’s work, the moment I heard that there was going to be another Flavia Albia novel coming out I knew that I was going to enjoy it. This series is extremely entertaining, and I always have a great time unravelling the clever mysteries that Davis comes up with, especially as they often result in large-scale farcical fights. This new story sounds particularly fascinating, and cannot wait to see how it unfolds.

The Return Cover

The second book is The Return, the latest novel from the innovative author Harry Sidebottom, who has been doing some cool things with the Roman historical fiction genre in the last couple of years. Sidebottom is an excellent historical fiction author who has primarily written Roman historical fiction since his debut in 2008. While I am a big fan of his original Warrior of Rome series, his most recent work has been particularly interesting to me, as he has been mixing in distinctive thriller elements to his books. This started with his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which was essentially 24 in ancient Rome as his main protagonist races against the clock to stop the assassination of his Emperor. He followed this up last year with The Lost Ten, which utilised military thriller elements to create quite a compelling story about a group of Roman soldiers infiltrating an impregnable Persian fortress. Both of these books were amazing pieces of fiction and I really enjoyed reading them. His upcoming book, The Return, sounds like it is going to be an intense and compelling read, as Sidebottom is apparently attempting to work elements usually associated with Scandi-noir fiction into this historical fiction tale.

Goodreads Synopsis:

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home after years of spilling blood for Rome. One of the lucky few to survive a lifetime of brutal battle, he intends to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return is set to be another amazing and intriguing read from Sidebottom, and I am looking forward to seeing how he combines historical fiction with a dark murder mystery. The whole idea of a troubled and traumatised Roman solider returning home and being forced to try and investigate a crime is pretty darn cool, especially as the after-effects of war start to have an impact on his psyche. I have to say that I am very curious about this one, and I am expecting The Return to be one of the most unique novels of 2020. The Return is due to be released in early June 2020, and I will have to make sure I get it as soon as I can.

Both of these amazing sounding upcoming books should prove to be real highlights of my early 2020 reading year. The Grove of the Caesars and The Return have some extremely awesome plot concepts behind them, and I am really excited to read the latest books from two of top historical fiction authors in the world today.