Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2020)

Series: Jack Quick – Book Two

Length: 327 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Following his outstanding 2018 debut, up and coming Australian crime fiction author Benjamin Stevenson returns with an excellent and exciting new novel, Either Side of Midnight.

Sam Midford is a man who seems to have it all.  The host of a popular current affairs program, Midnight Tonight, Sam routinely provides fun and insightful jokes to the Australian public.  But his latest show is about to deliver something very different for the audience, as a nervous Sam pulls out a gun on live television and shoots himself in the head.  The resulting video is seen by millions, and the entirety of the country is shocked by his actions, believing it to be the tragic suicide of a secretly disturbed and haunted individual.

However, there is one person who is convinced that Sam’s death was something very different from suicide: his twin brother, Harry.  Harry believes that Sam was murdered, but with incontrovertible evidence of his suicide seen by a multitude of witnesses, how can this possibly be the case?  Determined to prove that there is more to his brother’s death, Harry seeks the help of someone who is almost as notorious as his dead brother, disgraced former television producer and true crime documentary maker Jack Quick.

Following the infamous and deadly conclusion to his documentary series, Jack is currently serving time in prison for tampering with evidence in a murder investigation.  In the final days of his sentence, Jack is approached by Harry, who believes that he is the only person capable of finding out the real truth behind Sam’s death.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Jack reluctantly accepts the case, believing that all he will uncover is proof that Sam committed suicide.  However, he soon discovers several inconsistencies in Sam’s death as well as evidence that connects his suicide to that of a young girl in the brothers’ past.  Diving deeper, Jack begins to think that there is a sinister killer at work, using subtle and deadly methods to murder their victims.  There is more than one way to kill someone, and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous his new obsession is.

Either Side of Midnight is a fantastic and outstanding read from one of the rising stars of Australian fiction, Benjamin Stevenson.  Stevenson is a Canberra-born comedian and musician who recently made the jump to crime fiction author with his debut novel, Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  Greenlight was a compelling and intriguing novel that followed a guilt-ridden true crime documentary maker who suddenly became convinced that the man his show released from prison was actually guilty.  Set amongst the distinctive scenery of Australia’s wine country, Greenlight was a deeply impressive debut that provided the reader with a dark and clever murder mystery.  Either Side of Midnight is the sequel to Greenlight and is set 18 months after the events of the first book, with the same protagonist engaging in another sinister investigation.

Either Side of Midnight contains an outstanding story that presents the reader with another captivating and intense investigation told through the eyes of the series’ damaged and dark protagonist.  Stevenson has come up with a very clever story for this novel which forces the characters to investigate a murder that appears to be a very public suicide.  I really liked this cool plot premise when I first heard about it and I was glad that Stevenson was able to work it into such a captivating and cohesive narrative.  The investigation starts off quick and fast and does not slow down throughout the entire book, as the author comes up with some excellent twists and dark turns to throw the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, and I was deeply surprised with the final reveals of this mystery.  The entire premise of how the victim is killed is extremely clever and topical, and while I cannot talk about it without spoiling the plot, I felt that Stevenson came up with a great story around it and did a fantastic job tying it into real-world events.  I also really enjoyed Either Side of Midnight’s intense and impressive ending, not only because of the eventual reveal of the true perpetrator of the murder was extremely clever and perfectly set up, but also because of the thrilling and deadly confrontation with the protagonist, which includes the villain setting up extraordinarily evil and extremely memorable means of taking Jack out.

Either Side of Midnight also serves as an excellent sequel to Stevenson’s first novel and I felt that the story elements from Greenlight flowed really well into the plot of this second novel.  This fantastic mystery can also be easily read as a standalone novel, as the author does a great job of revisiting some of the key plot elements from the previous entry.  This ended up being a fantastic read, and I really appreciated the very dark edge that Stevenson gave to the story, which allowed for an extremely compelling and dangerously addictive tale.  I do need to point out that this book is probably best avoided by readers who are triggered by mentions of suicide, as there are some rather graphic scenes and discussions, so be warned about that.  That being said, I had an amazing time reading this new novel from Stevenson and I ended up powering through this intense story in less than a day.

You cannot talk about Either Side of Midnight without discussing the compellingly damaged main protagonist, Jack Quick, who returns for another harrowing adventure.  When we last left Jack, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for manipulating evidence to ensure the success of his true crime documentary.  Jack, who was extremely emotionally and mentally strained in the first book, has started to recover somewhat since the events of Greenlight, having finally started to get help with his bulimia and having confessed his darkest secret to his father.  But life once again gets substantially complicated for Jack when he is reluctantly drawn back into the triggering world of lies, murder and television production due to his family obligations.  I liked Stevenson’s portrayal of Jack in this novel; the events of the first book have made him a little more responsible and compassionate and less of a dick than before.  However, he is still a clever and somewhat manipulative person who manages to BS his way towards the truth and proves to be an entertaining protagonist to follow.  Stevenson continues to examine Jack’s battle with bulimia, a particularly distinctive character trait for a male crime fiction protagonist, in a realistic manner and I really appreciated the way in which the author dives into the psychology of the disorder.  There is also a fantastic continuation of the storyline from the first novel around Jack’s older brother Liam who, after an accident Jack witnessed as a child, has been in a permanent vegetative state.  The fate of Liam and the guilt that Jack feels for his condition is a major part of the protagonist’s character arc in Either Side of Midnight, especially as Jack and his father are forced to discuss ending his care, and it proved to be an excellent and touching part of the novel’s plot.  I really enjoy Stevenson’s outstanding portrayal of this complex character and the examination of his various battles and issues was an essential part of Either Side of Midnight’s outstanding plot.

While the obvious focus of Either Side of Midnight is Jack, Stevenson has also loaded up his second novel with several other damaged and distinctive characters, each of whom add some intriguing angles to this great story.  The most significant of these characters are the Milford twins, Sam and Harry, who serve as the victim and main driving force of the novel respectfully.  The Milford twins, also known as the Midnight Twins, are a former comedy duo who split apart several years earlier, when Sam went on to host his television show and Harry vanished into obscurity.  The author really dives into the background and psyche of these two characters.  Sam was haunted by the guilt over his lost girlfriend, who died while the two twins were trapped on a Ferris wheel.  Harry, the younger twin, is filled with regret and sadness over how their partnership ended, and their relationship soured.  Both characters ended up being complex and damaged individuals, and their struggles have major impacts on Either Side of Midnight’s narrative.  Stevenson did a fantastic job with these characters, and I really appreciated the intriguing storylines that he weaved around them.  It was also interesting to see Benjamin Stevenson portray a set of twin comedy entertainers, as he himself is a member of a comedy duo, known as The Stevenson Experience, with his twin brother James.  You have to assume that Stevenson used a lot of his own experiences to build up these characters and their comedy routine, and I felt this was a fantastic part of the novel, although I’m going to avoid reading too much into the author killing off one of the twins.  I also really enjoyed some of the other damaged characters featured throughout the book, and the protagonist is forced to examine several compelling and tragic backstories to get to the truth of this case.  There is a particular focus on loss and the impacts it has on relatives of the deceased that I particularly appreciated, especially as three major characters (Jack, Harry and side character Ryan) each survived a great tragedy that impacted an older sibling.  I had an incredible time getting to know the broken and bereaved characters in this novel, and it turned out to be a significant part of this fantastic narrative.

One of the other cool features of this book was the author’s excellent use of the rugged Australian setting, which was also one of the most distinctive features of the first entry in the series.  While this book does not spend as much time in the rough countryside as Greenlight did, with most of Either Side of Midnight taking place in urban Sydney, a good part of the plot does take place in a small coastal town.  I really liked the parts of the novel set within this small-town environment as it proved to be an isolated and at times dark setting for this excellent mystery.  The author did a fantastic job of bringing a distinctively Australian rundown town to life in a way that is very realistic to anyone who has done some travel around coastal Australia, which was really cool to see.  I also liked how Stevenson takes the time to examine and parody some elements of wider Australia, particularly its television industry, with the investigation centred on a fictional Australian television network.  This fictional network shares a lot in common with some of the real-life television networks here in Australia.  Anyone who is familiar with some of the main Australian networks will really appreciate Stevenson’s portrayal of these television stations, as he mirrors the stations’ numerical names, provides notable callouts to some extremely popular shows, and portrays some of bitter rivalries the main commercial networks have with each other.  This actually becomes a major part of the plot, and I loved seeing the cynical protagonist navigating the cutthroat rivalries based around a series of soap operas and reality television programs (especially as I am not a big fan of these sort of shows, and they are absolutely saturated in our programming).  Overall, I felt that the author provided a very Australian setting which proved to be an amazing backdrop to this excellent novel.

Either Side of Midnight was an exceptional and amazing second novel from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson that comes highly recommended.  Stevenson has produced an addictive and dark crime fiction story that sees an excellent protagonist investigate an impossible crime.  Featuring great characters, an impressive mystery and a fantastic setting, Either Side of Midnight is an excellent novel that is easily one of my favourite Australian fiction novels of 2020.

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 3: The Wanderer’s Road by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Wanderer's Road Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 17 January 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Three

Length: 146 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 week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the third volume of the outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic book series, The Wanderer’s Road. I was originally planning to save this one until next week, but I just watched some episodes of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated show today that featured Usagi, and so inspiration struck once again.

Usagi 7

The third volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series follows on from the events of the second volume, Samurai, and features several standalone adventures as the series’ titular protagonist, Miyamoto Usagi, continues to wander around this alternate version of Feudal Japan. The Wanderer’s Road features six first-rate and deeply enjoyable stories which were originally contained within issues #7 – 12 of the Fantagraphics Books’ Usagi Yojimbo series. It also contains a short bonus story from the Turtle Soup comic project which features a very special guest star.

The first of the stories featured within The Wanderer’s Road is The Tower. This story revolves around a hungry tokage lizard (the dinosaur-like lizards that infest Usagi’s world), who finds himself in a spot of bother and is chased up a tower by an angry shopkeeper, who refuses to let it down. Usagi, arriving upon the scene, decides to intervene, and attempts to rescue the tokage; however, thanks to the vindictive shopkeeper, he finds himself also trapped atop the tower. Attempting to bond with the tokage, who he names Spot, Usagi endures the conditions on the tower, while enraging the shopkeeper even more, until the story comes to a crashing end. The Tower was a fantastic start to this third volume, and it features a rather enjoyable and fun story. While it is perhaps the weakest story in this volume, only by dint of how incredible the other issues featured in The Wanderer’s Road are, it was still an excellent entry in this series, and served as a great introduction to a fun recurring character in Spot. The Tower contains some funny moments, from the way Usagi inadvertently keeps messing with the bullying shopkeeper on the ground, to the tiny turtle with a ninja mask that Sakai hides away in one of the crowd shots. All of this results in a fantastic story which I rather enjoyed.

Usagi 8

For the second story in this volume, A Mother’s Love, we go from a comedy to a tragedy. In this story, Usagi and his new companion Spot befriend an old woman on the road and accompany her back to town. Once in town, it is revealed the that old woman is the mother of a ruthless moneylender whose thugs have been terrorising the populace. After a tense night at the moneylender’s house, the old lady begs Usagi to kill her son, as she cannot bear to see the evil creature that he has turned into. While Usagi refuses her request, he is soon forced into a fight with the moneylender’s men. However, it is revealed that the old woman has manipulated the guards into attacking Usagi so that she can use the distraction to kill her son herself. When Usagi and Spot discover this, the old woman beseeches a stunned Usagi to kill her and finally put her out of her misery. A Mother’s Love is an incredible and heartbreaking story, which puts Usagi in a no-win situation. The last three pages of the books have to be one of the most heartbreaking and tragic sequence in the entire series. The teary old woman sing a lullaby as she cradles her dead son in her arms while a heartbroken and defeated Usagi watches on is extremely sad. The way that the old woman’s lullaby suddenly ends heavily implies that Usagi fulfilled the old woman’s wish and killed her. His final statement, “I do pray the Gods will be merciful…. Mother” as his despondently leaves the moneylender’s house, accompanied by Spot’s mournful cry are a sad way to end this story, but it makes for one heck of a captivating sequence. Other highlights of this book include Usagi’s large-scale fight against an army of bodyguards, the fun inclusion of Spot in several of this fights (little dude is lethal with his tail), and a stare-down scene between Usagi and the moneylender, which highlighted how intimidating Usagi can be when he wants to. All in all, a perfect and compelling story which shows just how amazing Usagi Yojimbo can be.

The next story in this volume, Return of the Blind Swordspig, is another masterpiece from Sakai, which features another outing from one of the best characters from Usagi Yojimbo, Zato-Ino, who was first introduced in The Ronin. This story sees the blind outlaw Zato-Ino travelling the road, still pursued by assassins and bounty hunters. Ambushed in the woods once again, Ino is able to fight off his attackers thanks to a timely warning from Spot, who had briefly walked away from Usagi. While Spot and Ino part ways, Ino soon catches up with Usagi, who cut off Ino’s nose the last time they met (he’s got a wooden nose in this book, it’s a transplant!). Ino follows Usagi to a nearby temple, where he is able to gain an advantage over Usagi in the dark as the two engage in an epic duel. Usagi’s life is spared only by the intervention of Spot, who stands between them, forcing Ino to back down, envious of the friendship Usagi is blessed with. Realising that the two souls have much in common, Usagi sends Spot to accompany Ino on his journey to find peace, and the two wonder off as friends.

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Return of the Blind Swordspig is another fantastic story that shows some complex and powerful character work. Sakai’s portrayal of Ino as a tortured and hate-filled loner is once again tragic and very moving, and it was fantastic to see him finally find a true friend and companion, something he has always desired. The way that Ino changes his travel songs from ballads about walking the roads alone to a melody about how he is grateful to have a companion is telling, and Usagi’s parting utterance of “Have a good life… both of you” matches the audience’s thoughts for these two great supporting characters. While the best thing about Return of Blind Swordspig is the continued examination of Ino’s complex personality and the progression of his character arc, I also really need to highlight the incredible swordfight in the dark between Ino and Usagi. Not only is this amazingly drawn, but the start of the duel where Ino slices the candle in half once again shows off Sakai’s love for classic Japanese movies. Slicing a candle to make a room dark is the trademark move of Zatoichi, the movie character that Ino in based upon, and Sakai backs this up by having Ino say “Now we’re both blind, Usagi” which is very similar to what Zatoichi says in these circumstances. All in all, this is an outstanding entry that really shows of Sakai’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around some exceptional characters.

 

The fourth story in this volume is Blade of the Gods, which introduces readers to the incredible antagonist Jei. Jei is a skilled and murderous spear-wielding samurai who wanders the land killing those he deems evil in the name of the Gods (spoiler: pretty much everyone is evil in Jei’s eyes). Encountering Usagi one night in a peasant’s hut (it is heavily implied that Jei killed the peasant before Usagi showed up), Jei suddenly declares Usagi to be evil and they engage in a brutal fight to the death both inside and outside the hut. Usagi is only saved by a blast of lighting and is left wondering if Jei was a madman or a true emissary of the gods. This was a compelling and fantastic story, which features one of the best fight sequences in the entire volume. The true highlight of this story is the introduction of Jei, who is easily one of the best characters in the entire Usagi Yojimbo universe. Jei is probably the most dangerous antagonist so far encountered in the Usagi Yojimbo series (Lord Hijiki really hasn’t revealed himself too much yet), and he serves as a wonderful recurring character. Sakai did an excellent job introducing Jei in this story, showing off his motivations, his style and the fact that he is a killer without peer and a fighter on par with Usagi. The character design for this villain is really striking, from his black-bladed spear to his pure white eyes and deranged wolf smile. I also liked the way that the reader is left wondering whether he is actually supernatural in origin or just a crazy person. While this is revealed in later volumes, the mystery of him is an exciting feature for the early Usagi Yojimbo stories that he appears in. I really love the character of Jei, who is actually based on Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (fun fact: when you use the Japanese honorific his name, Jei-san, becomes a pun on Jason), and I think that this was an excellent first appearance for him.

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The next story in The Wanderer’s Road is the fun entry, The Tea Cup. The Tea Cup sees the return of the bounty hunter Gen, who Usagi encounters on the road in the midst of a fight. Gen is escorting a precious tea cup to a tea master and must defend it from assassins who are trying to steal it. Accompanying Gen, Usagi helps him defend the cup with the samurai encountering a number of complications, including a band of killers, two orphaned children and the bad luck that follows Usagi and Gen when they team up. This was easily the funniest story in the entire book, thanks to the inclusion of Gen. Usagi and Gen have a hilarious relationship which is always fun to see, and they play off each other really well. This includes a number of running jokes from the previous Gen stories, the final entry in their game of sticking the other person with the lunch bill (which doesn’t go the way they planned this time) and several other hilarious scenes, including one joke that takes the entire story to come to fruition (he really was slow of mind). In this story, you get to see a bit of Gen’s softer side and the fact that, despite his rough exterior, deep down he is a good and caring person. Sakai also fills this story with a number of fantastic references to the cartoon, Groo the Wanderer, which Sakai previously did the lettering on, including a unique stylised poem at the start of the story, a fun imitation of Groo “Gen does what Gen does best”, and even cameo appearances from Sakai, Sergio Aragonés and the rest of the creative team behind Groo the Wanderer. All of this makes for a hilarious and entertaining tale, which is going to produce quite a few laughs for readers.

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The final full story in this volume is The Shogun’s Gift, which sees Usagi facing off against a Neko Ninja who has stolen a valuable sword from his friends Noriyuki and Tomeo of the Geishu Clan. This turned into quite an action packed and clever game of cat and rabbit (I mean cat and mouse), as Usagi puts on a great dumb samurai act to fool the ninja, Shingen. It was entertaining to watch Usagi continually encountering Shingen, especially as the ninja got more and more enraged each time Usagi appeared and casually poked holes in his story. The Shogun’s Gift ends with a great fight sequence and a rather clever bit of trickery from Usagi, which serves to turn this into a cool and enjoyable tale. I liked the introduction of Shingen, who has a big role in a future volume, and the scene where he is able to conceal the fact that he is hidden in the ceiling even after being stabbed is pretty badass. I also think that this volume did need a story that looked at the larger political picture of this world, including the nefarious plans of Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja, and it was good to see some more of that. Overall, this proved to be another phenomenal entry in this volume, and it served as a great concluding main story.

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In addition to all the big stories mentioned above, The Wanderer’s Road also contained the short bonus story, Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew. This short story originally appeared in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic project, Turtle Soup, and features the first encounter between Usagi and one of the turtles, in this case Leonardo. In this comical tale, Leonardo suddenly lands in Usagi’s realm and is immediately attacked by a band of ronin, while at the same time just down the road, Usagi is attacked by a group of Neko Ninja, the two fights join into one brawl, where Usagi and Leo are the only survivors. Upon seeing each other, the two assume that the other is part of the band that initially attacked them, and they run at each other to engage in battle, only for Leo to be dragged back to his Earth. This of course doesn’t stop the momentum they built up charging at each other, and it results in chaos and injury on both worlds. This was an exceedingly funny first meeting between these iconic comic characters, and this entire story is boundlessly amusing, even with its shorter size.

As you can see from my passionate descriptions above, each of the stories featured in this volume is an outstanding entry in its own right, and I deeply enjoyed each of them. I honestly cannot tell you which story in this volume was my favourite, as three in particular were quite exceptional. Sakai did a masterful job with each of these stories, and I really enjoyed how they are presented in this volume. I think that The Wanderer’s Road contains an excellent blend of stories, which range from the tragic, the dramatic and the comedic, and each of them contains some amazing examples of Sakai’s trademark artistic skill. I also think that having a volume made up entirely of shorter standalone stories also works really well, especially as Volume 3 falls between two other volumes made up of larger, multi-issue stories. The Wanderer’s Road gets another five-star rating from me, and I look forward to reviewing more Usagi Yojimbo volumes in the near future.

Throwback Thursday – Legend by David Gemmell

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (22 June 2017) – originally published by Century (April 1984)

Series: Drenai – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 13 minutes

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 week’s Throwback Thursday, I try out a fantasy book that has been on my mind for many years, the 1984 classic fantasy novel, Legend, by the late, great David Gemmell.

Legend was the debut novel from Gemmell, an impressive author who wrote over 30 novels between 1984 and his death in 2006, most of which fell within the fantasy genre. Some of his works included the Rigante, Stones of Power, Jon Shannow and Hawk Queen fantasy series, as well as the Troy and Greek historical fiction series. However, his most famous body of work has to be the Drenai series. Featuring 11 books, the Drenai series were a collection of loosely connected novels set within the same fantasy universe. While the storylines are all linked in some way or another, especially books like the three Waylander novels, the series can pretty much be read in any order, which is kind of what I did.

I actually have a bit of a random history with the Drenai series, as I happened to listen to the 10th book in the series, White Wolf, some years ago. For the life of me I cannot think why I would have grabbed this fantasy book off the shelf. Whatever the reason, the story of White Wolf stuck with me, and I would find myself occasionally remembering details of the plot, while completely forgetting the book’s title or the author’s name. I was eventually able to figure out what book it was thanks to the one clear detail I could remember (the names of the protagonist’s famous swords) and tracked down another audiobook copy of White Wolf to listen to a few years ago. I also really enjoyed White Wolf the second time around and was eager to find out more about the rest of the books in the series.

Out of all of the books in the Drenai series that I looked at, the one that appealed to me the most was the very first one in the series, Legend. Legend tells the story of an epic and desperate siege that sets up the entire Drenai universe and contains the defining story of Gemmell’s most iconic character, Druss the Legend, who also appeared in White Wolf. Many of the story elements of Legend deeply appealed to me, and it also made practical sense to start at the beginning of the series, especially as it serves as a significant point in the series’ chronology. Unfortunately, due to a combination of a lack of time, problems finding a copy of Legend, and a requirement to focus on more recent books, I never got a chance to read Legend or dive deeper into the Drenai series. However, it always remained high on my to-read list, and I am so happy that I finally got a chance to read it.

Legend is the story of the siege of Dros Delnoch, the fortress city that acts as a gateway to the declining Drenai Empire. Dros Delnoch is the greatest fortress in the world. Sitting in the middle of a narrow pass and guarded by six high walls and a great keep, the city should be able to withstand any attack. However, the charismatic Nadir warlord Ulric has forged together a mighty host of 500,000 Nadir tribesmen, which he plans to sweep over the walls of Dros Delnoch.

If the city is able to hold for a few months, a new Drenai army will be able to reinforce the battlements. But with only a small force of 10,000 soldiers within the city, many of them raw recruits, this seems to be an impossible task. However, help soon arrives from the most unlikely of places. Former solider Regnak follows his newfound love to the city, despite his apparent cowardice and dark secrets. A gentleman bandit leads his band of outlaws to man the walls, partly for money and partly to make up for his past sins. The mysterious band of mystical warrior priests, known as The Thirty, also arrives to fulfil their destiny to die in battle. Each group has a role to play in the defence of the city, but only one of the new defenders will give the Nadir pause and raise the defenders’ hopes, the greatest hero of the age, Druss the Legend.

For decades, Druss has fought and defeated every enemy he has come across, but there is one thing even he cannot overcome: time. Now a grizzled veteran of 60 years, Druss has come to the city for one final battle, but first he needs to come to terms with his status as a living legend. Even as an old man Druss is still a dangerous person, and there is a reason that he is known as Deathwalker by the Nadir. As the siege begins, heroes will rise, tragedy will stalk the defenders and a legend will end, but will anything be enough to withstand the Nadir horde?

Well damn, that was a pretty epic book and one that was well worth the wait it took for me to get around to reading this. Legend was an incredible and enthralling read that had me hooked from the very beginning all the way to the very last word. It is a classic piece of fantasy action and adventure. Gemmell loaded his story with some truly compelling and flawed characters to create an outstanding read. Featuring a ton of amazing, pulse pounding action, heartbreaking tragedy and an epic siege, this book was absolutely fantastic, and I am really glad I read it.

Probably the main thing that I liked about the book was Gemmell’s outstanding portrayal of a massive fantasy siege. I have always loved the classic siege storyline, and there is something about a huge army attacking a castle that I cannot turn away from. The siege of Dros Delnoch within Legend is easily one of the best sieges that I have ever read, as Gemmell produces a magnificent battle around the city that lasts nearly the entire book. The whole setup for the siege is pretty insane, with 500,000 Nadir tribesmen (who bear a lot of similarities to the historical Huns) attacking a Drenai (essentially Roman) city with six massive walls. The author does an amazing job properly pacing out this siege throughout the novel, including appropriating enough time to really showcase all the pre-siege activities, including training, preparation of the defences and initial sabotages before the first battle even happens. Once the battle begins, though, it is a non-stop barrage of action as the defenders fight off multiple assaults each day.

Due to the author’s excellent storytelling and character work, the reader becomes extremely invested in the fate of the defenders, and each time a wall falls, or the attackers gain an inch, you are mentally rooting for them to fight back. There are a number of discussions and plans that take place throughout the book, and it is quite fascinating to see the thought and planning that the author put into the defence of his city. I especially liked how the city’s six walls played into the battle, as the defenders’ decisions on how and when to hold these battlements provided some great moments and debates for the reader to appreciate. The siege lasts the entire book and features a huge number of epic fight sequences, all of which will get your adrenaline racing and your heart pounding. I loved every second of the siege that was featured in this book, and I hope to see it brought to life on screen one day (provided they do it right).

In addition to its first-rate siege, Legend also features a large number of complex and well-written characters. The first is Regnak, who turns into one of the book’s main characters. Regnak is a former soldier who is first presented as a coward, looking to flee all personal responsibility, although this is quickly revealed to be a side effect of being a natural ‘baresark’. However, when he meets Virae, the daughter of the Earl of Dros Delnoch, he falls in love and follows her back to the siege. Regnak has a great storyline about finding one’s inner courage and overcoming one’s issues, and while his romance with Virae is a bit weird at times, it does result in some tragic scenes throughout the book. Next you have the members of The Thirty, an order of 30 warrior priests who enter the fight knowing that 29 of their members are going to die. Not only do the priests represent most of the fantasy elements of this book thanks to their physic abilities but their ability to see into the future results in some interesting debates about destiny and fate. Quite a few members of The Thirty are introduced, although most of their story is focused on their youngest member, Serbitar, and his mentor, Abbot Vintar, as Serbitar has the hardest time accepting the future and wants to change it to help the defenders.

Without a doubt, the best character in the entire book is Druss the Legend. Druss is Gemmell’s most iconic character and has appeared in several other books in the Drenai series, all of which occur before the events of Legend. These include The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, which details the rise of Druss and the events that made him a legend, The Legend of Deathwalker, which features an earlier encounter with Ulric and the Nadir, and White Wolf, where I first encountered the character of Druss. However, Legend is definitely the character’s defining book, as it features the conclusion of his epic life and his final stand.

There is a lot of great character work involved with Druss, and the man is a pretty epic character. He is an older man, many years past his prime, who was faced with a choice: die in glory at Dros Delnoch or decline into obscurity. Choosing to die in battle (mainly to spite Death), Druss arrives in Dros Delnoch ready to fulfil his destiny. Gemmell does an outstanding job portraying Druss as an old and wise warrior who is weakened by age but is still a far more capable warrior than many of the others involved with the siege. While readers will enjoy the action sequences featuring Druss, the main thing about the character is the way that he attempts to come to terms with his status as a living legend whose body can no longer keep up with his myth. Druss knows that his reputation as a man who always wins is one of the main things that keeps the soldiers going, and he is constantly working to inspire the soldiers and show that he is still the super human many of them think he is. However, at the same time he must deal with the tangible impacts of age and must try to overcome them in order to survive and inspire on the battlefield. This examination of a man uncertain about his continuing place in the world and who knows he is going to die very soon is extremely well done, and readers cannot help but fall in love with the character and get very invested in his storyline, even though you know how it is going to end. The Druss that is featured in Legend is probably one of the finest fantasy characters that I have read, and I look forward to reading some additional books featuring him in the future.

The book also features an amazing cast of secondary characters, each of whom adds so much to the story featured within Legend. These characters include:

  • Orrin – the commander of the forces defending Dros Delnoch. Orrin is a nobleman who is inexperienced and ill-suited for command. However, once Druss arrives, he works hard to change his ways and become a worthy leader of his troops. He has an amazing redemption arc and turns into quite a likeable character.
  • Bowman – a forest bandit who Druss convinces to join the defence of the city. Initially pretending he is there for money; it is eventually revealed that he is searching for some sort of redemption as well. Bowman’s sarcastic wit adds some necessary humour to the story and he proves to be quite a likeable character.
  • Gilad and Bregan – two farmers who sign up to the army and find themselves becoming heroes of Dros Delnoch. These two characters allow Gemmell to show the story of the common defender of the city. Together they have quite a surprisingly compelling storyline, and the readers actually get quite invested in their survival.
  • Hogun – one of the few professional soldiers in the city. Hogun serves as a great secondary observer for most of the book, and his growing respect and camaraderie with the other defenders mirrors the reader’s growing attachment to all those people featured within Legend.
  • Ulric – leader of the Nadir horde attacking the city. Ulric is presented as a visionary like Atilla the Hun or Genghis Khan, who has united his people against a common threat and now seeks to create a mighty empire. I quite liked how Ulric, despite being the antagonist, is only partially presented as an evil man. Instead, he sees all the violence he does as necessary and he even grows to respect the defenders of the city, especially Druss. Ulric turns out to be quite a complex and well-written antagonist that reader ends up respecting to a degree.
  • Caessa – a female member of Bowman’s band, who harbours a deep secret. She’s not my favourite character, but her storyline has a few intriguing twists, and it is interesting to see her growing attachment to Druss.

In addition to all the characters mentioned above, there are also a huge bevy of other minor characters from both sides of the conflict whose point of view and feelings are examined throughout the book. Not only does this allow for a number of short and, in some cases, tragic stories for the reader to enjoy; it also increases the scope of the battle. Overall the character work is pretty impressive, and pretty much every character allowed for a richer and more captivating tale to be told. If I had one criticism of Legend’s characters, it would be that the female characters are mostly portrayed as over-emotional, irrational or downright catty in most of their interactions, which makes the book feel a bit socially dated at times.

I ended up listening to an audiobook version of Legend narrated by Sean Barrett. At only 13 hours and 13 minutes, Legend represents a fairly quick listen, especially when you get stuck into the story. I had a fantastic time listening to the audiobook version of this book, and I felt that it really helped me sink into the story and appreciate all the amazing action and drama going on in the city. Barrett has an excellent voice for an older fantasy like Legend, and I really felt he got to the heart of most of the book’s characters. I strongly recommend the audiobook version of Legend, and I will probably check out the other books in the series on audiobook as well.

Legend really did not disappoint, as it easily met every single one of my high expectations. I enjoyed every minute of this exceptional book and it gets an easy five stars for me. I cannot overstate how epic in scale and writing the siege featured in this book was, and all of the characters within this story are just sensational, especially the Legend himself, Druss. I fully intend to check out some additional books in Gemmell’s Drenai series in the future, although there are so many interesting choices that I’m not too sure where to start. Be sure to check out future instalments of Throwback Thursday to see which other Gemmell books I look at.