Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 37: Crossroads by Stan Sakai

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 this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out another awesome entry in one of my favourite comic series with the upcoming 37th volume of the always impressive Usagi Yojimbo series, Crossroads, by Stan Sakai.

Usagi Yojimbo - Crossroads Cover

I must be doing something right with my life because I have just been rewarded with an absolute treat: two Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a single year.  For ages, fans of the series have been stuck with the ungodly pain of routinely having to wait an entire year to get a new collected edition of their favourite comic.  However, it looks like we are getting a reprieve this year as not only did we already get the awesome 36th volume, Tengu War! but now we have the 37th volume, Crossroads, coming out in just a few months.

Many readers of my blog will be familiar with my own all-consuming love for the brilliant Usagi Yojimbo series by legendary writer and author Stan Sakai.  Following a rabbit ronin in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, the Usagi Yojimbo series boasts some outstanding stories, great characters, truly awesome artwork and intriguing Japanese settings, and is easily one of the best, if somewhat underappreciated, comics out there.  I have been a major fan of this series for year, and I have been having a very good time with the current run of the comics published by IDW.  This latest run, which includes the full colour volumes Bunraku and Other Stories (one of my favourite books of 2020) and Homecoming (one of my favourite books of 2021), has been pretty awesome, and I have deeply appreciated some of the cool storylines Sakai has been following.  The other volume of 2022, Tengu War! was also a ton of fun, and was honestly prepared for that to be my primary Usagi Yojimbo fix for the year.  Luckily, with Crossroads coming out soon, I do not have that much longer to wait.

Crossroads, which will contain issues #22-28 of the current run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, is currently set for release in October 2022 and looks set to feature several fantastic stories.  This time Usagi and his newly discovered cousin and fellow samurai, Yukichi, will encounter several dangerous enemies, as well as some old friends, as they continue their travels through the dangerous lands of Feudal Japan.  It looks like Sakai has set up some brilliant stories for this next volume, and I am already extremely excited for all of them.

Synopsis:

The rabbit ronin’s newest adventures continue in this fourth volume that sees Usagi and new companion Yukichi on the road! Thinking their troubles behind them, they find new ones constantly emerging.

In “Ransom,” Usagi and Yukichi meet up with Kitsune, a street performer and thief, who has stolen a ledger recording bribes to local politicians. When Kitsune’s protégé is kidnapped in return, Usagi decides that he must help and get her back. Then, in “Crossroads,” Usagi and Yukichi come upon a group of pilgrims who have been left for dead by a band of cutthroat ronin. Deciding to go after them, Usagi must head back to the province, and the danger, from which he has just escaped!

In “Ghost Story,” Usagi and Yukichi meet Shizuye praying at a shrine to a young woman murdered 50 years earlier by her married lover and who finds herself in the same predicament. They take it upon themselves to be her protectors, but not all is as it seems when a local priest warns them to beware of ghosts!

In the final story, “The Long Road,” Usagi and Yukichi come to the rescue of a famed art dealer and his assistant attacked by bandits on the road. Failing to save the art dealer, they take it upon themselves to complete the delivery, but can the assistant be trusted?

Wow, those are some awesome-sounding stories in Crossroads and I am already in love with all four of them.  Crossroads looks set to have a pretty interesting mixture of storylines, with the most fun one likely to be the Kitsune focused entry, Ransom.  Kitsune, a foxy thief with a propensity for getting into trouble, is always really good fun, especially as her thieving ways often clash with Usagi’s inherent honesty, and it has been a while since we’ve seen her.  I look forward to watching this reunion unfold, and it will be great to see how she interacts with the more naïve and inexperienced Yukichi, as he’ll never know what hit him.  The next story, Crossroads, looks like it will be a more action-orientated romp, especially as the two samurai protagonists are following a band of murderous bandits into dangerous territory.  This sort of tale is Sakai’s bread and butter, so you already know it is going to be pure excitement with a ton of awesome battles, plus it will continue some of the storylines from the last two volumes, with Usagi forced to transverse territory controlled by series antagonist Lord Hikiji.

The other two stories in Crossroads also have a ton of potential and I was very intrigued by the fantastic synopsis that featured above.  The first of these, Ghost Story, appears to be another intriguing tale of Japanese mythology and spirituality, as Usagi and Yukichi encounter a young girl at a mystical shrine.  From the synopsis, it would appear that this mysterious lady would be some incarnation of the murdered woman the shrine is dedicated to, although I have a feeling there might be a twist or two added in.  No matter what, though, Sakai is very good when it comes to the more mystical stories in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and I am sure it will be a thoughtful and thrilling piece.  The final story sees Usagi get involved in another escort mission, this time around some valuable art.  Again, this is a pretty typical sort of story for Sakai (Usagi escorts everyone and everything along the roads of Japan, including melting ice, treasures, legendary swords and even some valuable tatami mats, just to name a few examples), so I am certain that this will be another great story.  The hints about the untrustworthy assistant are interesting, and I imagine that will add some wrinkles to the story, especially if that line is a red herring.  No matter what though, I am sure it will be great, and contain all the samurai action I crave.

Look, let’s be honest here, there is no way I am going to dislike Crossroads when it comes out, mainly due to how good every other single Usagi Yojimbo comic has ever been.  All the above stories sound extremely fun, and most of them have already gotten my imagination pumping as I try to figure out how they will go.  I am particularly interested in seeing how new protagonist Yukichi turns out, and it will be fun to see what Sakai has planned for him.  With Sakai’s usual brilliant storytelling and exquisite artwork, I already know that Crossroads is easily going to be one of the best comics of 2022.  October cannot come soon enough in my opinion, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books With a Unit of Time in the Title

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 required to list their favourite books with a unit of time in the title, such as seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, centuries, eternity, etc. 

This was a rather interesting list topic in the same vein as several other recent lists I’ve done that containing certain types of words in the title including colours, adjectives, character names and numbers.  I usually have a pretty easy time pulling these lists together as I have read a bunch of books with these items in the titles.  However, I really struggled with this list as it turns out authors use units of time a lot less in titles than you’d expect.  I was barely able to find a full 10 items for this specific list and that was after I extended my criteria to include seasons (I originally wasn’t planning to feature them).  Still, I was eventually able to get a descent list together, even though it lacks my customary honourable mentions section.  I am pretty happy with how it all came together so let us see what books I was able to scrounge together.

Top Ten Tuesday:

Day of the Caesars by Simon Scarrow

Day of the Caesars Cover

 

The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly

The Dark Hours Cover 2

 

One Minute Out by Mark Greaney

One Minute Out Cover

 

The Third Day, The Frost by John Marsden

The Third Day, the Frost Cover

 

The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom

The Last Hour Cover

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

 

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

The Grace Year Cover

 

The Last Second by Catherine Coulter and J. T. Ellison

The Last Second Cover

 

Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski

Season of Storms Cover

 

Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

Edge of Eternity Cover

 

 

Well that’s the end of this list.  As you can see, even with the apparent scarcity of appropriately titled books, there are still a few good reads out there that feature a unit of time in the title.  All 10 entries above are pretty fun reads and are worth checking out in their own way.  Let me know which of the above books you enjoyed in the comments below and I will be interested in hearing about your favourite books with units of time in the title.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Books with Dragons on the Cover

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 are tasked with listing their top books that have covers with a specific design element chosen by the blogger, for example books with certain colours, items or animals on their cover.  I thought that this was a pretty clever idea for a topic and I decided to go big with it and choose book covers that have the ultimate animal for my list, dragons.

Let’s face it, we all love dragons!  They are some of the coolest creatures in mythology, with multiple cultures having their own version or alteration of the dragon in their storytelling traditions.  Due to how iconic there are, the use of dragons in storytelling naturally transferred itself across to the world of fantasy fiction, becoming one of the most classic and well utilised monsters or companion creatures in books and movies, such as The Hobbit and the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  As such there are multiple book covers out there that feature dragons to some degree and I was curious to see which ones amongst them were my favourite.

To pull this list together, I had a think about all the best books that featured cool dragon-related cover art.  There were quite a few of these awesome, dragon-covered novels so I decided to limit myself to only using books that I have actually read.  In addition, because dragon-centric series tend to use images of the creatures across multiple entries, I will limit myself to one novel from each franchise, just to create a bit of variety.  This still leaves me with a pretty impressive collection of novels to choose from and I had to do some severe cutting to get it down to a top ten list with my typical honourable mentions section.  I think the list turned out pretty well as there are some great novels below with awesome dragon imagery on their covers.

I will quickly note that I did have a couple of issues finding good quality pictures of some of the relevant covers I wanted to feature here, particularly for some of the older novels, but I have still tried to feature them as best I can.  Apologies in advance if some of them don’t turn out perfect.

Honourable Mentions

The Voyage of the Forgotten by Nick Martell

The Voyage of the Forgotten Cover 2

I love the cover but chose to only feature this as an honourable mention as the book hasn’t come out yet.

 

A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E. Feist

A Darkness at Sethanon Cover

A couple of the alternate covers for this great book feature dragons on them, but this was the best looking one of them.

 

She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

 

Usagi Yojimbo: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

A great use of a dragon in the cover, even if the dragon in the title is more of a metaphor for firearms.

Top Ten List:

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

An incredible novel with an incredible cover.  Easily one of the best uses of dragons in cover art that you are likely to ever see.

 

Dragonslayer by William King

Dragonslayer Cover Combined

This fantastic Warhammer tie-in novel is spoiled for choice when it comes to dragons on its various covers.

 

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! Cover 2

One of the best Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, I love how well the dragon is used, both in this original cover, and in the novel’s exceedingly clever mystery.

 

Black Leviathan by Bern Perplies

Black Leviathan Cover

An extremely epic and distinctive cover for a fun action fantasy novel.  Black Leviathan, which is the English edition of Perplies’s original, German novel, The Dragon Hunter, actually has two fantastic cover variants with dragons on them, although I think the one the English version shown above is a lot more visually impressive.

Black Leviathan alternate cover

 

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ships Cover

All three books in Barker’s The Tide Child trilogy featured iconography of the series’ water-dragons, but I think the first entry, The Bone Ships, looks the best.

 

Eldest by Christopher Paolini

Eldest Cover

You can’t have a dragon-based list without featuring an entry from Paoloini’s Inheritance Cycle.  All four novels in this series featured dragons on their cover, although I think that this cover from Eldest was the most striking.

 

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree Cover

A very beautiful cover for this complex and intricate fantasy novel.

 

Warcraft: Day of the Dragons by Richard A. Knaak

Warcraft - Day of the Dragon Cover

Several great Warcraft and World of Warcraft tie-in novels feature dragons on their covers, but my favourite of these is Day of the Dragons by Richard A. Knaak, which was an awesome story.

 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Cover

Was there ever a chance I wasn’t going to feature this classic cover on this list? Of course not.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Cover 2

 

Dragonclaw by Kate Forsyth

Dragonclaw Cover

The original cover of the first entry in Australian author Kate Forsyth’s The Witches of Eileanan series, Dragonclaw, had a great dragon picture on it, and it serves as an excellent first impression of an amazing fantasy book.

 

 

Well, that’s my list.  As you can see there are some incredible books out there that make great uses of dragons on their covers.  All the above novels are really good, and you will have an incredible time reading them, while also appreciating their stunning, dragon-filled covers.  I had a lot of fun coming up with this list, and I will have to think about replicating it with another creature, item or colour in the future.  In the meantime, let me know what your favourite books with dragons on the cover are in the comments below.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 36: Tengu War! by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36

Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai

Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)

Colourist: Hi-Fi Design

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Usagi IDW #15

It is that amazing time of the year when I finally get my hands on the brand-new volume of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, written and drawn by the legendary Stan Sakai.  Fans of this blog will be well aware of my all-consuming love for this amazing series that follows a roaming rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he traverses an intriguing alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  Not only is this one of my favourite all-time comic book series but I have been steadily reviewing some of the older volumes as part of my Throwback Thursday series (see my recent reviews for Volume 12: Grasscutter, Volume 13: Grey Shadows and Volume 14: Demon Mask).  Unfortunately, Sakai only releases one volume of this epic series a year, so it is a very big deal when I finally get my hands on the latest volume (this latest volume has been one of my most anticipated releases for 2022 for a while now).

Usagi IDW #15b

This latest volume is Tengu War!, an intriguing and powerful comic that contains some awesome and clever new tales.  Tengu War! is the 36th overall volume in this series as well as the third volume printed by the publisher IDW (other IDW Usagi Yojimbo releases include Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories and Volume 35: Homecoming).  I have been rather enjoying these more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes from IDW as not only do they contain Stan Sakai’s usual impressive storylines, characters and artistic work but they are also packaged into a fantastic new format of booklet, which is slim and more aesthetically pleasing.  In addition, the IDW volumes are also released in colour, which is an interesting change of pace from the previous volumes, which were initially released in black and white.

Usagi IDW #16

Tengu War! ended up being another great volume that makes use of Sakai’s skill and art to tell several complex and entertaining tales.  Set immediately after the final comic of the previous volume and continuing several overarching storylines and themes, Tengu War! contains four unique new stories which were set out in issues #15-21 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series.  All four stories are fun and compelling new additions to the series that each present the reader with something different and distinctive.

Usagi IDW #16b

The first entry is the volume’s main multi-issue story that sees Usagi return to visit an old teacher only to find himself embroiled in a deadly supernatural war.  Made up of the first four issues of the volume, this entry actually consists of two stories, Sojobo and Tengu War!, which act together to tell one entire story, with Sojobo containing flashbacks to Usagi’s past, and Tengu War! featuring the current issue he and his friend are facing.  Due to how closely linked these two stories are, with Sojobo providing the background to the longer Tengu War! story, I decided to talk about them as a single entity in this article.

Usagi IDW #17

These stories are set right after the events of the last volume, and swiftly tell the story of Usagi and his mostly hidden second sword master, the tengu warrior Sojobo.  Years after his first meeting with Sojobo (see Volume 18: Travels with Jotaro) but before the events that would see him become a wandering ronin, a young Usagi returned to the tengu and convinced him to take him on as a pupil, enhancing his knowledge of the sword with Sojobo’s unique teachings.  Now, years later, Usagi returns to Sojobo’s clearing to pay his respects, only to discover his former master in grave danger.  A horde of guhin (lesser-tengu) are ravaging the mountainside, determined to claim the territory for themselves, and they have Sojobo and Usagi in their sights.  To survive, Sojobo is forced to return to from his self-exile and reclaim leadership of his clan.  But even with a tengu army at their back, can Sojobo and Usagi survive the onslaught of the guhin?

Usagi IDW #17b

These two stories were an excellent start to this volume, especially as they contain all the best elements of a great Usagi Yojimbo story, with great new characters, compelling Japanese supernatural elements, and another intriguing glance at Usagi’s complex past.  The first story, Sojobo, serves as a great introduction to the entire volume, perfectly continuing from the previous Sojobo story, and redefining the relationship between the two characters, showing their mentor-mentee bond.  This sets up the rest of the Tengu War! story extremely well, as you have a good basis for Sojobo’s and Usagi’s stakes in the narrative.  From there the story evolves into a classic Usagi Yojimbo tale, with Usagi getting involved in someone else’s fight, this time involving some unique and compelling supernatural foes.  This extended story continues some brilliant character moments as Sojobo becomes reacquainted with his wife and clan, while also showing off the intractability and intense honour of the tengu.  You also get to see the evolution of the bond between Sojobo and Usagi, and there are some great discussions as the wiser and battle-hardened Usagi discusses some recent changes in his life, such as the discovery of his son.  It was also quite fascinating to see the apparent impacts that Sojobo’s training had on Usagi’s skill as a warrior, and I found it fascinating that Usagi’s fighting style is described as a combination of mortal and tengu techniques.  The subsequent fights are pretty awesome and you get some fantastic and intense battle sequences that really highlight Sakai’s artistic skill.  This all leads up to the big conclusion which contains a great mixture of action, satisfaction, camaraderie and tragedy, as victory is achieved at great cost, and the reader is left extremely satisfied with how this story turned out.

Usagi IDW #18

I have said many times before that some of the best Usagi Yojimbo stories are those where Sakai makes brilliant use of monsters, creatures or spirits from Japanese culture or mythology, and Tengu War! is a great example of this.  This cool story provides one of the best looks at the tengu, a fantastic and unique Japanese yokai (supernatural entity), in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the cool dive into the mythology surrounding them.  This story contains multiple different types of tengu who act as either allies or enemies, depending on their caste.  This includes the main supporting characters, Sojobo and his wife, Nozomi, who are dai-tengu, with the classic long-nosed, red-faced, humanoid-appearance that most people would associate with tengu, and who act as master warriors and wise sages.  These tengu are supported by their followers, the ko-tengu, bird-like creatures who act as samurai retainers in this comic, and I loved the cool combination of corvid features and samurai garb and mannerisms.  The final group of tengu featured within this comic are the guhin, a lesser form of tengu who act as mysterious spirits of the hills and lesser peaks.  Sakai depicts the guhin in this story in the more recent style of giant dogs (they are traditionally unseen spirits, but many modern depictions give them a canine physical form), and they come across as werewolf-like creatures, determined to take their rightful place at the top of the mountain.  These different form of tengu are explored in compelling detail, and I loved seeing the awesome scenes featuring all of them, especially as it results in some excellent fight scenes between classic tengu goblins, sentient samurai crows, and giant werewolves.  I loved this brilliant exploration of this unique part of Japanese culture (especially with the author’s comprehensive summary at the end), and it helps to enhance the outstanding overall story.

Usagi IDW #18b

We next have the dark and captivating tale, The Master of Hebishima, which provides a chilling look at the evils of revenge, obsession and fear.  In The Master of Hebishima, the wandering Usagi chances across a couple of peasants who specialise in trapping and removing the local pests, the tokage lizards.  Upon meeting them, Usagi is intrigued to discover that the trappers sell most of their catch to a mysterious hermit on the island known as Hebishima (snake island), who lives amongst the local snakes.  When one of the trappers is injured, Usagi volunteers to transport the captured tokages to Hebishima for them.  However, what he finds there will shock and haunt him, as the hermit has a surprising history with Usagi, one that lies all the way back in the infamous battle of Adachi Plain.  Faced with this surprising threat from his past, Usagi is unprepared for just how dangerous his opponent is, or what they are truly capable of.

Usagi IDW #19

The Master of Hebishima is a tight and powerful one-issue comic that may be the best entry in the entirety of the Tengu War! volume.  Perfectly set up and executed, this tale is deeply interesting and powerful, especially with its unique and intense focus.  Sakai has come up with an excellent story for this entry that not only ties into one of the key moments of Usagi’s life but which also shows the full impact of someone’s obsession and desire for revenge.  The introduction of a mysterious stranger who has a connection to Usagi and the battle of Adachi Plain (which has been such a cool part of several volumes, including Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), is handled perfectly, and I loved his unique backstory and the fact that you never actually find out his name.  This villain’s entire history is tied to Usagi’s, and I liked the interesting symmetry in their loyalty, sense of honour and desire to serve their respective lords.  The horror elements around this mysterious hermit are just great, especially with that snake reveal, and he proves to be an excellent opponent for Usagi, who could potentially come back in some future comics (I’d be keen for that).  I was slightly disappointed that this story had nothing to do with distinctive Usagi Yojimbo villain Lord Hebi, a giant snake who serves as the principal lackey to the series’ main antagonist, but Sakai more than made up for this with all the other inclusions.  This was an extremely well-paced story, and Sakai manages to do a lot with a single issue, producing one of his more memorable stories in recent years.

Usagi IDW #19b

One of the most notable things about The Master of Hebishima is its exquisite art, some of which bears a slight difference to Sakai’s usual work.  Parts of this issue are drawn sharper and in a slightly different style to the rest of the Tengu War! volume.  This is particularly clear in the earlier panels of this issue, with some noticeable and intriguing stylistic changes to the characters and landscapes, which I thought looked like a well-enhanced version of Sakai’s usual drawings.  I assume that this is because of the influence of artist Randy Clute, who is credited as giving “art assist” for this issue.  Whatever the reason, I quite liked how this comic looked very early on, and it was interesting to see it change back to Sakai’s more typical style as the comic continued.  The rest of the art in the comic also really needs to be highlighted though, as there are some extremely memorable and shocking moments drawn within.  Not only do you get a notably spooky island of snakes for the main story but The Master of Hebishima also features a detailed flashback sequence that looks awesome, especially some of the battle sequences.  I particularly liked how the antagonist’s face was constantly obscured by shadow during these flashbacks, as it helped to make them seem more sinister and mysterious while also ramping up anticipation for the final reveal, the best part of this story.  This extended panel reveal is pretty damn freaky as the artists present a gruesome visage, accompanied by a Medusa-esque twist.  This shot of the face is particularly well drawn in impressive detail and ends up being one of the most haunting panels I have ever seen in a Usagi Yojimbo comic.  All this beautiful, if somewhat creepy, art really works to enhance this brilliant story, and it ensures that The Master of Hebishima really sticks in the mind and is well worth checking out.

Usagi IDW #20

The final story in the volume is the two-issue long story, Yukichi, another excellent character-driven narrative that introduces a fantastic new supporting character for the series.  In this story Usagi encounters a fellow rabbit samurai, Yukichi Yamamoto, on the road.  It is quickly revealed that, years ago, Yukichi was a disrespectful student at a prestigious sword school who insulted Usagi when the ronin attempted to meet his master.  Now a more mature warrior, Yukichi is delivering the sword of his dead master to the school’s successor and, after he apologises to Usagi, the two decide to travel together.  However, a rival school is determined to stop them delivering the sword by any means necessary, and they will use Usagi’s recent misadventures to justify their actions.

Usagi IDW #20b

Yukichi is an amazing and fantastic story that serves as a great ending to the Tengu War! volume, especially as it combines an excellent Usagi Yojimbo story with some cool new character introductions.  This story is another one with an excellent pace to it, smartly bringing in Yukichi, revealing the history between him and Usagi, before revealing the story’s villains, the members of a dishonourable sword school.  From there the story intensifies as, after an initial confrontation, the students and instructors from the rival school attempt to kill Usagi and Yukichi, while also trying to claim a bounty on Usagi (a consequence of the main story in the previous volume, Homecoming).  This results in a brilliant climatic scene where the two protagonists take on a horde of underlings before Yukichi engages their leader in an intense duel.  This duel comes across as pretty awesome in the artwork, and you get the sense it is a real battle between master swordsmen.  The conclusion of the fight, which highlights Yukichi’s naivety compared to the more jaded Usagi, is very cool, and I liked the conclusion of the story, where Yukichi is forced to make a big decision and eventually decides to travel with Usagi.

Usagi IDW #20c

While the action, artwork, and story are great, the real highlight of this comic is the introduction of new character Yukichi, who Sakai is obviously setting up to be a big supporting figure in the overall series.  Yukichi gets an excellent and comprehensive introduction here, and you swiftly get a grasp on his personality, history and relationship with Usagi.  I mostly liked this character and his design, especially as he is a good foil to Usagi, given their divergent training history and life experiences, and his fighting style is awesome as well.  His strong sense of honour, especially when faced with the poor successor to his master, was a great inclusion, and it does bring in some similarities with Usagi.  I did think that the sudden realisation that they were cousins was a tad too coincidental, and wasn’t particularly necessary, but it does bring in a certain connection between the two which will bond them for the rest of the series.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yukichi’s facial design either, especially those overly large and expressive eyes.  It kind of made him look cartoonish and somewhat undercut the seriousness of some scenes.  Still, this was my only real complaint about this new character and I am very curious to see what happens with him in the future Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  I am predicting similarities to Usagi’s previous travels with Jotaro in volumes 18 and 19, and it will be interesting to see Yukichi interact with the other supporting cast members like Gen or Kitsune.  An overall excellent and impressive end to this amazing volume that wraps everything up nicely.

Usagi IDW #21

As always, I really need to highlight the fantastic and awesome artwork featured with this incredible volume as Sakai continues to enhance his excellent stories with some gripping and powerful scenes.  I have already discussed some of the best bits of art of each respective story, especially the amazing art of The Master of Hebishima, but every panel in this comic is drawn in exquisite detail.  Not only does Sakai present some great character designs, especially around the new supernatural creatures in the Tengu War! story, but you have his always impressive setting shots that perfectly highlight the beautiful Japanese natural landscape or the historical buildings.  You also must love the excellent battle sequences scattered throughout the stories.  Sakai has always excelled at conveying movement and combat with his minimalistic style, and this is brilliantly highlighted in the various comics of Tengu War!, including in elaborate group fights or one-on-one duels.  I am also really enjoying seeing these stories in colour from the get-go as part of the IDW release.  While I will always be extremely fond of Sakai’s usual black and white style, having these adventures appear in colour is also amazing, and I feel that the colour enhances some of the art, especially in The Master of Hebishima, which came up beautifully.  All this art brilliantly combines Japanese influences with western art styles and is such a joy to behold, especially as it always makes everything about the Usagi Yojimbo comics just a little bit better.

Usagi IDW #21b

Another year, another exceptional Usagi Yojimbo volume as Stan Sakai once again produces a masterful and impressive new comic.  Tengu War! is another awesome volume that presents the reader with three excellent stories that combine brilliant character work with unique narratives and outstanding artwork.  I had so much fun reading this excellent comic, and it gets another easy five-star rating from me and comes very highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

Usagi #34

Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

Usagi #35

The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

Usagi #37

Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13: Grey Shadows by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grey Shadows Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2000)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 13

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another epic entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai with the 13th volume, Grey Shadows.

Usagi #23

I had a lot of fun reviewing the 12th volume, Grasscutter, last week and it set me down a bit of a reread journey which saw me revisit several other Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  As such I thought I would take the time to do another review of one of Stan Sakai’s comics, and luckily the next one on my list, Grey Shadows, is a particularly good one.

Grey Shadows takes place immediately after the massive events of Grasscutter and details several adventures that rabbit ronin protagonist Miyamoto Usagi goes on during this period.  Made up of issues #23-30 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, Grey Shadows returns to the series norm of featuring several shorter stories, each of which pit Usagi against a new threat or opponent.  Grey Shadows have several excellent stories, including some that focus on fantastic murder mystery elements while simultaneously introducing interesting new characters.

The first story in this volume is the intriguing and touching entry, My Father’s Swords.  This single-issue story first sees Usagi at the temple of his friend priest Sanshobo recovering from his deadly duel with the demonic spearman Jei at the end of Grasscutter.  Still troubled by the disappearance of Jei’s body and the sudden burden of being responsible for the legendary Grasscutter sword, Usagi journeys out from the temple to scout the surrounding area and determine if it is safe to move the divine blade.  His journeys eventually lead him to meet young wandering samurai, Donbori Chiaki, whose father was an old friend of Usagi’s who served with him under Usagi’s former lord.  While travelling with Chiaki, a chance encounter reveals secrets that will rock Usagi’s soul as a samurai.

Usagi #24

This was an interesting first story for Grey Shadows and it is one that I really appreciated.  I liked the excellent start that revisited key events of the previous volume and examined the burden that Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen now bear.  Not only does Sakai use this opportunity to inform the protagonists about some of the other events of Grasscutter that they were unaware of, but it also helps set up the future 15th volume, Grasscutter II, which will end this overall storyline.  Sakai also takes a little time to showcase Usagi dealing with the dark details of the defeat of his adversary Jei, especially after Jei’s body disappeared upon his defeat.  There is a great scene where a clearly shaken Usagi destroys Jei’s fallen black spear to convince himself that his foe is truly dead, although you can tell he doesn’t believe it.  I am rather impressed that Sakai manages to do such a comprehensive wrap up of the events of the previous volume in such a short amount of time, while also leaving room for another interesting story.

The main story of My Father’s Swords is pretty moving, as Usagi is immediately brought back to another trauma, his service to Lord Mifune and the Battle of Adachi Plain (see Volume 2: Samurai and Volume 11: Seasons).  Travelling with the son of an old comrade lets Usagi briefly relive his glory days, before the past is once again thrust upon him when it is revealed that his friend, Donbori Matsuo, is still alive, following his son anonymously as a cripple.  The reasons for Matsuo hiding his existence from his son and the burden he then places on Usagi to keep this secret for him is a little heartbreaking, and it provides more context about the samurai way of life Usagi is bound to.  The entirety of this storyline is handled perfectly, from the great introduction to Chiaki, the fun remembrances of Usagi’s past, to the final revelation about Matsuo that ends the story on a poignant note that will leave you very thoughtful and moved.  I enjoyed some of the clever artistic tricks in this story, such as the dark shade around Usagi when he deals with Jei’s spear, and the fun way in which Sakai slips in the beggar Matsuo into the background of several scenes, revealing his subtle surveillance of his son.  An excellent entry that not only references the events of Grasscutter but also features a powerful story of its own, My Father’s Swords proves to be a great start to this entire volume.

Usagi #25

Sakai follows up the moving first story of Grey Shadows with the dark second entry, The Demon’s Flute, a clever and memorable horror story.  The Demon’s Flute sees Usagi traversing some remote hills only to be drawn to a small town by the haunting melodies of a flute.  Once there, he discovers that the village is under attack by a mystical menace which kills villagers in utter darkness while the sound of a flute plays.  Believing it to be a ghostly figure of a flutist who wanders around with a white tokage (the dinosaur lizards that serve as this world’s main animals), the villagers implore Usagi to help save them.  However, the true evil attacking them proves to be more complicated and sinister than anyone of them believed.

The Demon’s Flute is a great story that shows just how haunting a Usagi Yojimbo story can be, especially when Sakai utilises some of the creepiest elements of Japanese mythology.  While some of the elements of the story are slightly predictable (Usagi has rocked up to save a lot of random villages over the years), the story has a great pace to it that sees Usagi attacked by dark forces he cannot overcome.  The various scenes where Usagi runs around the village chasing the darkness and the sound of a playing flute are extremely tense, and the sudden reveal of the story’s monster proves to be very thrilling.  I loved the great art that surrounded this part of the story, especially as Sakai makes great use of pure blackness to enhance the tension and threat of a scene, with Usagi often only illuminated by a small hand torch.  The final reveal of the monster and the reason for the haunting flute is pretty cool, and I liked the dark sense of honour and duty that drives even the evil and dead of this realm.  While parts of the story are wrapped up a little too neatly, this was still a brilliant entry which reaffirms my love for Sakai’s horror stories.

The next entry in Grey Shadows is the wholesome and enjoyable Momo-Usagi-Taro, which sees Usagi arrive at a large town.  However, he is almost immediately accosted by a group of orphan children who wrangle him into accompanying them to their orphanage, where he tells them an epic tale to keep them entertained.  This is a genuinely nice entry in this volume, which helps to break up the tension and serves as a gentle buffer between the darker stories in the volume.  While Sakai does take the time to do a little set up for the upcoming stories, most of Momo-Usagi-Taro is dedicated to Usagi’s story to the children, which is a retelling of the classic Momotarō folk story.  I always love it when Sakai tells traditional Japanese stories in his comic, especially as you get to see his artistic take on the legend (which usually results in the protagonist being altered to resemble Usagi), and it was great to see this classic tale brought to life in a new way.  Readers are in for a nice story here, and I loved the fun revelation at the end that the orphanage is the same one shown in Daisho, which is supported by the bounty hunter Stray Dog.

Usagi #26

Now we are getting to some of the main stories of Grey Shadows with The Hairpin Murders.  Set across two issues, The Hairpin Murders sees Usagi get involved in a murder mystery case in town when several prominent merchants are killed using a woman’s hairpin.  Teaming up with the brilliant detective, Inspector Ishida, Usagi helps with the investigation and is soon thrust into a long-hidden conspiracy that bind the victims together.  However, the closer they get to the truth the more resistance they encounter from Ishida’s superiors, forcing them to decide just how far they want to go to get justice.

This was an excellent and intriguing story that serves as one of the more impressive entries in this entire volume.  While still maintaining its comic style and focus, The Hairpin Murders reads just like a classic murder mystery story and sees the protagonist involved in a constricted investigation to find the truth.  Sakai sets up this mystery perfectly, and you are soon racing along to find out who is responsible and why.  There are a couple of great twists here, as well as some interesting connections to kabuki theatre, with the eventual reveal of the murderer and their motivations is handled really well.  The story ends on a pretty satisfying note, and it proves to be quite an intense and intriguing story.

Usagi #27

One of the best things about The Hairpin Murders is the introduction of new character Inspector Ishida, who serves as a supporting figure in the rest of Grey Shadow’s stories.  Based on real-life policeman Chang Apana (the inspiration for fictional detective Charlie Chan), Ishida is a hard-boiled police inspector who is tasked with investigating various crimes around his town, mostly murders.  Despite being restricted by feudal Japanese practices (he can’t do a proper investigation of a body), and the interference of his corrupt superiors, Ishida is a brilliant detective, able to solve complex crimes with the most basic of clues.  Ishida gets a great introduction in The Hairpin Murders, as not only do you see him investigating a tough case but you also learn more about his personality, dedication to justice and elements of his tragic past.  It is so fun to see him in action in this story, especially as he has that great fight scene that shows of his unconventional fighting style (which is surprising considering his small, hunched stature), as well as his excellent use of the cool jutte weapon (I love the jutte so much).  However, the real hint at just how complex and fascinating a character Ishida is occurs at the end of The Hairpin Murders when Ishida is presented with a massive dilemma of justice.  It is strongly implied that Ishida, who spends most of the story sticking to the rules, takes justice into his own hands, and I think it fits perfectly into his character arc, while also leaving some ambiguity about how far he went.  This really was one of the best character introductions of the entire Usagi Yojimbo series and it was so successful that Ishida would become a major recurring character in future volumes (such as Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden).

The other two-issue long story in Grey Shadows is the compelling and moving tale, The Courtesan.  In The Courtesan, Usagi runs into the scared young woman he has noticed multiple times in the last few stories and saves her from a group of masked attackers.  His actions lead to him gaining the attention of the town’s leading courtesan, the alluring Lady Maple, who begs Usagi to help save the life of her young son, who is the legitimate heir to the local lord.  However, dangerous forces within the lord’s court see Lady Maple kidnapped and her son in danger, with only Usagi able to help.

Usagi #28

This was another powerful story that really helps to make this volume stand out in terms of story building and character work.  The Courtesan is a particularly well-paced story that ties in well with the other entries of the Grey Shadow’s volume.  Sakai has come up with a pretty compelling narrative here, and the secret battle for control of the lord’s inheritance is played out with some awesome elements, such as a dive into the world of Japanese courtesans and including several great fight sequences.  The character of Lady Maple is particularly strong, as not only does Sakai make a lot of effort to highlight her elaborate beauty with his artwork, but he also shows the mother hidden underneath the fancy makeup and costume, one who is concerned solely for the welfare of her child.  This leads up to an epic and tense conclusion, as Usagi faces down all the conspirators, only for his victory to be marred by tragedy.  I loved the powerful ending this story contained, which, while sad, also ensures that several worthy characters get what they most wanted in life.  Easily one of the strongest tales in the entire volume, I always enjoy reading this impressive story.

The final entry in Grey Shadows is the fast-paced and action-packed single-issue story, Tameshigiri, which serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire volume.  Tameshigiri is another mystery story that sees Usagi assist Inspector Ishida to investigate some murders around town.  This time the two friends are looking into a series of random killings by mysterious masked samurai.  The attacks seem extremely random and lacking in motivation, but the two are soon drawn towards the acolytes of a failing sword testing school who may have a dark reason for dropping bodies around town.

Usagi #29

This was a pretty fun and cool final story for the volume, and it leaves an exciting end note for the reader.  Sakai pulls together a fantastic and compelling shorter story here that once again combines murder mystery elements with the traditional comic book action.  While the culprits of the murder are quite clear from the outset, it is pretty fun to see their plan unfold and the protagonist’s subsequent investigation into it.  The reasons behind the antagonists’ actions are pretty fascinating, and the author paints an outstanding picture of desperation and duty that drives them to kill.  I also quite liked the intriguing investigation into traditional sword testing, which ties into the story extremely well and proves to be a fascinating addition to Tameshigiri’s plot.  The entire story leads up to a massive action sequence that sees multiple participants on both sides engage in a deadly battle to the death.  Not only doe we get to see more of Inspector Ishida’s unique fighting style, but Usagi also shines in an awesome duel.  Throw in the amusing jokes about the events of the preceding story, where Ishida clearly knows Usagi is behind some of the mayhem, and you have a very entertaining entry that not only wraps up the Ishida-based storylines extremely well, but also ensures that the reader has some fun on the way out.

I must once again highlight Sakai’s brilliant artistic work in this cool volume, as Grey Shadows contains impressive examples of Sakai’s amazing style.  There are so many beautiful and intricately detailed drawings throughout this awesome volume, and I love how perfectly it enhances the already great storylines.  I particularly love the amount of detail that he throws into the various panel backgrounds, ensuring that the reader sees both the full breadth of Japan’s majestic natural landscape and the traditional feudal style buildings in the towns and villages Usagi visits.  Sakai also does incredible justice to the many battle sequences scattered throughout Grey Shadows, perfectly portraying the intricate deadly movements that make up the character’s sword play.  You always get an impressive sense of how the characters moved as they battled, and I deeply appreciated all the brilliant and brutal fight scenes.  This incredible artwork always pairs so perfectly with the written story, ensuring that this 13th volume was very spectacular and awesome to look at.

Usagi #30

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with Grey Shadows, and it proved to be another excellent entry in Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series.  This 13th volume features several outstanding stories, which really dive into their unique protagonists and antagonists and show the full majesty of this version of feudal Japan.  Serving as a key entry in the overall series thanks to the introduction of a cool new character, Grey Shadows is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans and it gets another five-star rating from me.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books on my Autumn 2022 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.  The official Top Ten Tuesday topic for this week was around Dynamic Duos, however, I decided to instead move up my quarterly post about the best upcoming books to read (TBR) for the following three months.  This is a regular post I do at the start of each season, and as this Tuesday is just before Autumn (Spring for you folks in the Northern Hemisphere), this is the ideal time to put this up.

For this list, I have come up with 10 of the most anticipated novels that are coming out between 1 March 2022 and 31 May 2022.  There are quite a few very cool novels set for release in the next few months that I am extremely excited for, including some of my most anticipated books and fantasy novels of the year.  Due to how impressive some of these upcoming books are, it took me a little while to finalise my list but I was eventually able to whittle it down into a Top Ten list (with a few honourable mentions).  I have primarily used the Australian publication dates to reflect when I will be able to get these awesome novels, and these might be somewhat different to the rest of the world.  I have previously discussed a number of these books before in prior Top Ten Tuesdays and Waiting on Wednesday articles and I think all of them will turn out to be pretty incredible reads.  I have extremely excited for the next three months as quite a few up these upcoming reads are easily going to be amongst the best books of 2022.

Honourable Mentions:

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi – 15 March 2022

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover

A fun romp with giant monsters that is going to be so very entertaining.

 

Everyone in my Family has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson – 29 March 2022

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone Cover

A great upcoming book with a fantastic concept, Everyone in my Family has Killed Someone is the latest thriller from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson (Greenlight and Either Side of Midnight).  This cool novel will see an entire family with murderous secrets start killing each other during a deadly family reunion, and I know I am going to love it. 

 

Amongst our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch – 12 April 2022

Amongst our Weapons Cover

Impressive fantasy author Ben Aaronovitch returns with the latest book in his Rivers of London series that follows a special police unit that investigates magical crimes in London.  This series perfectly blends urban fantasy with police procedural elements (check out my reviews for Lies Sleeping and False Value), and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold – 26 April 2022

One Foot in the Fade Cover

After having a brilliant 2020 with his first two novels, The Last Smile in Sunder City (one of the best debuts of 2020) and Dead Man in a Ditch, Luke Arnold returns to the deadly Sunder City, a former stronghold of magic that has fallen into devastating ruin following the destruction all magic in the world.  One Foot in the Fade will continue to follow Arnold’s detective character as he attempts to bring back magic and save the former magical creatures he doomed to an early grave.

Top Ten List:

Usagi Yojimbo: Tengu War! by Stan Sakai – 22 March 2022

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

The first entry on this list is the next upcoming Usagi Yojimbo comic, Tengu War!.  I had this book on my last TBR list, but the release date got knocked back to March, so I am featuring it again here.  I am extremely keen for this comic and I cannot wait to see what epic adventure Usagi gets into next.

 

Kingdoms of Death by Christopher Ruocchio – 22 March 2022

Kingdom of Death Cover 2

An incredible sounding entry in one of the best current science fiction series.

 

An Empty Throne by Robert Fabbri – 1 April 2022

An Empty Throne Cover

More chaos in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death.

 

The Bladed Faith by David Dalglish – 5 April 2022

The Bladed Faith Cover

Assassins, deposed kings, and dead gods should lead to an epic read.

 

Desperate Undertakings by Lindsey Davis – 7 April 2022

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

The next Flavia Albia novel from legendary historical fiction author Lindsey Davis, who has produced some outstanding books in recent years (check out my reviews for Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death and The Grove of the Caesars).  This next entertaining sounding novel will follow its protagonist as she investigates several despicable deaths around ancient Rome.  Sure to be a ball of fun, I am extremely keen to check it out.

 

The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne – 12 April 2022

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Still my favourite cover of 2022.

 

Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka – 12 April 2022

Three Assassins Cover

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Kotaro Isaka’s Bullet Train, the English translations of one of his impressive Japanese books.  I had a ton of fun with this clever thriller and I was extremely excited to find out that Isaka had a new book coming out this year with Three Assassins.  His new book will pit another unique group of assassins against each other and should make for an extremely captivating read.

 

The Girl and the Moon by Mark Lawrence – 4 May 2022

The Girl and the Moon Cover

One of the most intriguing current masters of fantasy fiction, the impressive Mark Lawrence brings his clever Book of the Ice trilogy to and end this year with The Girl and the Moon.  I have deeply enjoyed this cool series over the last two years, with the first two entries, The Girl and the Stars and The Girl and the Mountain, being extremely impressive reads.  I cannot wait to see how this series ends I am expecting heartbreak, destruction and some powerful moments.

 

Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen – 10 May 2022

Star Wars - Brotherhood Cover

Return to the Clone Wars with this awesome upcoming Star Wars novel.

 

Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry – 10 May 2022

Kagen the Damned Cover

My favourite thriller author dives into fantasy fiction this year with an intense revenge story I am already predicting will be a five-star read.

 

 

Well, that is the end of my Top Ten list.  I think it turned out pretty well and it does a good job of capturing all my most anticipated books for the next three months.  Each of the above should be extremely epic, and I cannot wait to read each of them soon.  Let me know which of the above you are most excited for and stay tuned for reviews of them in the next few months.  In the meantime, it looks like I have quite a few books to get through soon and they should all be pretty awesome.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books with Character Names in the Titles

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 are required to list their favourite books that have character names in the title.  I rather liked the idea of this topic, especially as I was unsure if I would be able to really complete a full list about it as only a few book titles really came to mind when I initially thought about it.  However, after a bit of research I was able to come up with pretty substantial list of potential entries, which included some amazing releases.

To make this list a bit of a challenge I tried to avoid books or comics that had series names included in the title (for example, all the Harry Potter books).  I also tried to avoid entries where they added on a name to the main title to designate that a book is going to be about a specific character in a franchise, such as Maul: Lockdown from Star Wars or Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty from Warhammer 40K.  I did, however, include a few books from these franchises where the primary version of its title had a character name in it.  Despite these limitations, I still had a massive list of awesome books, which I then had to cull down.  I ended up having to remove several fantastic reads, but I think the below list really captures the absolute best books I have read with character names in the titles.  So, let us see what made the cut.

Honourable Mentions:

Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars Tarkin Cover

A compelling Star Wars novel that does exactly what it says on the packet, tell the story of Grand Moth Tarkin, one of the most distinctive villains from the original film.

 

Steel Tread by Andy Clark

Steel Tread Cover

I am being slightly cute with this Warhammer 40K novel, as Steel Tread is the name of a tank, rather than a human or alien.  However, I would argue that Steel Tread was a proper character, due its presence, impact on the protagonists, and because machines are partially sentient in this universe.

 

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

Bloody Rose Cover

The second book in Nicholas Eames’ The Band series, Bloody Rose is a fantastic fantasy read that centred around a group of mercenary monster fighters.  The title of this book refers to the infamous leader of this mercenary group, Bloody Rose, who serves as quite the distinctive figure.  A fun and captivating book that is really worth checking out.

 

Vader by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca

Star Wars - Darth Vader Volume 1 Cover

The first volume of the epic 2015 Darth Vader series was simply named Vader.  While this was an unimaginative title, the volume itself is extremely epic as it followed Vader in the aftermath of A New Hope.  Perfectly written and filled with some amazing artwork, this was a major volume that not only introduced the amazing character of Doctor Aphra, but also contained an exceptional ending where Vader discovers that the pilot who destroyed the Death Star was named Skywalker.

Top Ten List:

Mort/Eric by Terry Pratchett

Mort and Eric Cover

I have a hard time not including as many of Terry Pratchett’s masterful Discworld novels as possible on lists like these, and luckily for me there were only two Discworld books with character names in the titles, so I figured I would include both.  The first is the excellent novel Mort, which sees Death decided to recruit an apprentice, the titular Mort, who almost immediately starts messing with reality by trying to save the life of a doomed princess.  This was a hilarious novel, especially the bits following Death’s midlife crisis, and it sets up a bunch of other interesting Death-led Discworld novels.  The other book is Eric, one of Pratchett’s shorter books, that follows a teenage demonologist, Eric, who attempts a Faustian demon-summoning for absolute power.  Unfortunately, rather than summoning a demon, Eric instead gets the incompetent wizard Rincewind, who naturally stuff everything up.  This was another funny Discworld book, and I love how the cover of this book crosses out Faust and replaces it with a pen-drawn Eric, just to hammer home what this novel is satirising.

 

The Aurora Cycle by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising Cover

I had to mention one of the best trilogies of recent years with The Aurora Cycle by Australian authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, especially when all three entries contain a character name in their titles.  Made up of Aurora Rising, Aurora Burning and Aurora’s End, these titles all refer to the titular character Aurora (also known as Auri) a time-displaced psychic who ends up being the key to saving the entire universe.

 

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

One of the more recent releases on this list was Stephen King’s Billy Summers.  An interesting and intense thriller, Billy Summers follows the titular character, an honourable assassin, as he embarks on his final job, only to encounter betrayal, introspection and a girl who changes everything.  This was one of the best books of 2021, and I really loved finding out all about Billy Summers.

 

Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Cover

Easily the best Star Wars book that focuses on a specific character is the epic Thrawn by legendary author Timothy Zahn.  This novel perfectly reintroduced Zahn’s greatest character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, into the new canon and is one of my absolute favourite Star Wars novels.  Eventually leading to another five connected books (Alliances, Treason, Chaos Rising, Greater Good and Lesser Evil), this was an exceptional read, and I like how the simple title Thrawn tells you everything you need to know about this book.

 

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon Cover

Years ago, when I was first getting into fantasy I received a cool novel I knew nothing about apart from the title, Eragon.  Intrigued by its closeness to dragon, I dove into this great book and quickly became utterly engrossed by the story of teenager Eragon who finds a dragon egg and becomes a legendary hero.  I have a lot of love for this book and the Inheritance Cycle series that followed, so I just had to feature this novel on this list.

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Gen’s Story by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Gen's Story

I really do tend to hit my classics when it comes to lists like this, so naturally I had to see if there was an entry from one of my favourite comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, that I could feature.  There were actually several Usagi Yojimbo volumes that contained character names in the title, including Lone Goat and Kid, Travels with Jotaro, and Tomoe’s Story.  However, the one I went with was the volume Gen’s Story.  This great volume contains a brilliant story that showcases the childhood of fantastic supporting character Murakami Gennosuke, better known as Gen.  This comic examines why the often disrespectful and uncouth bounty hunter has such dislike for samurai honour and discipline and served as a brilliant bit of backstory for one of the best characters in this series.

 

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth Cover

I was spoiled for choice for this list when it came to the works of Tamsyn Muir, as several of her books feature character names in the title.  While I was very tempted to feature her first novel, Gideon the Ninth (one of the best debuts of 2019), I instead went with her second book, Harrow the NinthHarrow the Ninth was an incredible read that ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020.  Containing a trippy and exceedingly clever narrative, this book follows Harrow, a spacefaring necromancer who is going through some major identity issues.  An exceptional read, I am really looking forward to Muir’s next book, the 2022 release Nona the Ninth.

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Cover

I had to include the extremely compelling The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.  Another brilliant debut and one of the best books of 2018, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle follows a mysterious time-displaced man who awakens in several different bodies during a fancy party at an old British estate.  Forced to experience the entire party again and again, the protagonist only has seven chances to discover who murdered the party’s host, Evelyn Hardcastle.  Compelling, unique and with a title that immediately grabs your attention, I deeply enjoyed this cool book.

 

Talon of the Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist

Talon of the Silver Hawk Cover

Another excellent book I had to feature on this list was the impressive Talon of the Silver Hawk by Raymond E. Feist.  While on the surface this title doesn’t appear to contain a character name, Talon of the Silver Hawk is the main character, as it was the name he chose during a tribal vision quest.  While he goes by other identities and names throughout the novel, this is the one closest to his heart and it makes for quite a catchy book title.  I have a lot of love for this novel, especially as it introduced me to Feist’s excellent and extended Riftwar Cycle, and it is really worth checking out.

 

Vader Down by Jason Aaron, Kieron Gillen, Mike Deodato and Salvador Larroca

Vader Down Cover

The final entry on this list was the cool comic Vader Down.  Written and drawn by the join teams behind the 2015 Star Wars and Darth Vader comic book series, this comic follows Darth Vader who is shot down above a Rebel-controlled planet, and must contend with a Rebel army, traitors, the original trilogy protagonists, and all manner of other dangers.  An exceedingly epic and exceptional limited crossover series, this is one of my favourite Star Wars comics of all time and it is guaranteed to make you a fan of the current Star Wars extended universe.

 

That’s the end of this list.  As you can see, there are some really cool books and comic volumes out there that make good use of character names in their titles.  I am very happy with how this list turned out and I think it captures my absolute favourite books that make use of this naming convention.  This might be a list I revisit in the future, especially as there are several other excellent books that I am planning to read soon featuring character names in the titles (for example, the upcoming fantasy book Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry).  Until then, let me know what your favourite book was a character name in the title is in the comments below.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Books of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  In this final Top Ten Tuesday for the year, participants are tasked with listing their top books of 2021, which is something I look forward to every year.  This is a bit of a continuation of a series of lists I have been doing over the last month which have highlighted some of the authors and books I have been most impressed with this year, including my favourite audiobook, favourite debuts and my top pre-2021 books I read this year.  However, this list here is the big one as it covers my absolute favourite releases of the year, of which there are quite a few.

Just like with 2020, 2021 has been pretty shitty in places, but thankfully readers got a bit of solace from the fact that this was an amazing year for books, with a huge range of incredible releases coming out across the genres.  Not only did several outstanding new series start but we had some exceptional debuts and several incredible trilogies conclude in a big way.  I have had an amazing time reading or listening to so many outstanding books this year and quite a few releases have become instant favourites.  I must admit that I somewhat struggled to pull this list together, as there were so many books that deserved to be mentioned.  Therefore, because I am a very soft touch, and because the quality of the books I read this year was so impressive, I have decided to expand this list out to 20 entries (just like I have the last two years).  These 20 books are my absolute favourites from 2021, and I would strongly recommend every one of them to anyone interested in a great read.

To make it onto this list a book needed to be released here in Australia during 2021 (one minor exception) and I had to have read it.  I have excluded Never by Ken Follett, as I am only partway through it, and there are many awesome-sounding books I sadly didn’t squeeze into my reading schedule for this year, although I am sure that several of those would have made the cut.  I decided to leave off my usual Honourable Mentions section as the extra 10 entries kind of make it unnecessary.  There will be a bit of crossover between the below entries and some of my previous lists.  Several novels also appeared on my Top Ten Favourite Audiobooks of 2021 list and my Top Ten Favourite Books from the First Half of 2021 list which I ran back into July.  Overall, I am fairly happy with how this Top 20 list turned out and I think it contains a pretty good range of novels that really showcases the different types of books that I chose to read this year.  So without further ado, here is the list.

Top 20 List (no particular order):

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Last Graduate Cover

Let us start this list off strong with the awesome fantasy novel that I still haven’t gotten over, The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik.  The sequel to her 2020 hit, A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate continues the impressive Scholomance series in a big way , making full use of its cool characters and uniquely dangerous magical school setting.  There were some major developments in this second novel, including an epic and heartbreaking cliff-hanger that is guaranteed to make me pick up the final book next year.

 

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary Cover

Next we have one of the best science fiction reads of the year.  Written by the exceedingly talented Andy Weir (of The Martian fame), Project Hail Mary is a very clever, entertaining and science heavy novel that sees a man travel to a distant star to find a way to save Earth when the sun starts to lose energy.  A brilliantly written and deeply captivating read that features a great, surprise supporting character and an awesome twist around the protagonist.  Highly recommended!

 

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan

The Pariah Cover

I had a great time this year checking out new authors, and one of the best was fantasy author Anthony Ryan, who started his Covenant of Steel series with The Pariah.  Featuring an epic and captivating tale that follows a young protagonist as he explores a war-torn, religiously ruled landscape, The Pariah was an impressive fantasy read that I could not put down, no matter how hard I tried.  I deeply enjoyed this cool book and I cannot wait to grab the sequel, The Martyr, next year.

 

Relentless by Jonathan Maberry

Relentless Cover

For the fourth year in a row, one of Jonathan Maberry’s amazing books has achieved a spot on this list (Deep Silence was one of the best books of 2018, Rage was one of the best books of 2019 and Ink was one of the best books of 2020).  Relentless, was one of his best, sending his legendary protagonist on deadly revenge mission against his worst enemies as they attempt a new world-ending master plan.  I loved this latest science fiction/thriller hybrid from Maberry, especially due to the exceptional character work, and this was a captivating and exceedingly exciting read.

 

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover

There was no way that I could exclude the incredible latest book from the legendary Joe Abercrombie, The Wisdom of Crowds, from this list.  This exceptional fantasy read perfectly wrapped up the brilliantly dark Age of Madness series (which previously featured the excellent A Little Hatred and The Trouble With Peace).  Featuring some of the best and most complex characters you are likely to see in fiction, and an intensely dark tale of revenge, betrayal and revolution, The Wisdom of Crowds is relentlessly entertaining without a single dull moment.  I had an incredible time with this book and I cannot wait to see what Abercrombie comes up with next.

 

Usagi Yojimbo: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Even after 35 volumes, Stan Sakai’s bestselling Usagi Yojimbo comic (which is one of my favourite all-time comic series) continues to shine with the exceptional HomecomingHomecoming was another beautifully drawn and narratively rich volume that takes the protagonist on a dramatic journey back to his home village and the many pains that reside there.  An exceptional and fun read; I cannot wait to get my hands of Sakai’s next volume, Tengu War, in a few short months.

 

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

After producing one of the absolute best debuts of 2020 with The Kingdom of Liars, talented rising author Nick Martell continued his impressive Legacy of the Mercenary King series with The Two-Faced Queen.  Featuring deadly assassins, a vengeful queen and even a couple of murderous dragons, The Two-Faced Queen was even more exceptional than his first novel, deeply expanding the cool overarching narrative and adding in even more twists, reveals and surprises.  This was one of the best sequels I have ever read, and readers will be quickly drawn into the book’s many mysteries, unique magic and deeply captivating storylines.

 

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

2021 was an amazing year for Star Wars novels, especially with the launch of the High Republic sub-series (Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm were particularly good).  However, one of the absolute best Star Wars books had to be the amazing Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed, which brought the compelling, star fighter focused Alphabet Squadron series to a beautiful end.  Perfectly wrapping up the story contained in the first two novels, Alphabet Squadron and Shadow Fall, Victory’s Price was a powerful and intense character-driven war story that focused on five damaged Rebel pilots fighting in the war after the end of Return of the Jedi.  This was easily one of the most exciting and moving Star Wars novels I have had the pleasure of reading and it is a must read for fans of the franchise.

 

The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly

The Dark Hours Cover 2

After producing two brilliant reads last year (Fair Warning and The Law of Innocence), bestselling crime fiction author Michael Connelly continues his outstanding Ballard and Bosch sub-series with The Dark Hours.  This amazing novel contained another fantastic murder mystery combined with several other great police procedural story lines to create an outstanding overall narrative, expanding the fun partnership established in Dark Sacred Night and The Night Fire.  I deeply enjoyed this latest Connelly book and I powered through extremely quickly.

 

The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake Cover

One of the best current authors of fantasy fiction, R. J. Barker, brings his exceptional Tide Child trilogy to a moving and captivating end with The Bone Ship’s Wake.  Perfectly following on from The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships, this epic nautical fantasy perfectly wrapped up all the trilogy’s captivating story arcs and character development with some big, emotional moments.  I loved every twist and devastating moment in this novel and, thanks to this captivating conclusion, the Tide Child series ended up being one of the best trilogies I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

 

Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Colonyside Cover

Amazing science fiction author Michael Mammay continued his brilliant Planetside series (made up of Planetside and Spaceside) with Colonyside.  This latest novel dragged Mammay’s entertaining and gruff protagonist out of retirement once again to investigate a shady corporate mystery on an alien planet.  This book swiftly devolves into an exceptional conspiracy storyline, filled with twists and giant monsters.  I had such a wonderful time with this book that it was my one exception to the 2021 release date rule (it had a very late December 2020 release).  An impressive and clever read.

 

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Another amazing new author I checked out this year was the insanely talented John Gwynne, who produced an incredible first entry in his Bloodsworn Saga, The Shadow of the Gods.  This amazing first novel contained a brutal and compelling Norse-inspired fantasy tale that followed three awesome central characters as they engaged in their own deeply personal quests.  Filled with some outstanding fantasy combat, amazing character moments and a deeply impressive narrative, this was an exceptional and addictive read that made me an instant fan of this author.  I have no doubt that the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, is going to top this list next year and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

 

The Dark/Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark and Mind Bullet Cover

2021 was the year that I first tried out some books from compelling author Jeremy Robinson.  I actually read two of his books, The Dark and Mind Bullet, both of which were amazing in their own way.  While The Dark was a darkly compelling and slick horror read that showcased a brutal invasion from Hell, Mind Bullet was a funny and entertaining science fiction thriller that followed a psychic assassin being hunted by the world’s most unusual killers.  Both were outstanding reads that got easy five-star ratings from me, so I had a very hard time choosing between them for this list.  Therefore, I decided to include both, as I had such a great time with them and are equally worth checking out.

 

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Comedian Richard Osman followed up his 2020 debut, The Thursday Murder Club, with another fun and entertaining murder mystery book, The Man Who Died Twice.  This compelling and hilarious sequel thrust Osman’s elderly protagonists into another complex investigation, this time involving spies, stolen diamonds, and drug dealers.  This book had some amazing moments and ended up being another fantastic read.

 

Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Cytonic Cover

I have been waiting a couple of years for Sanderson to continue his Skyward series and I was very happy to finally get my hands on Cytonic.  The third entry in this impressive young adult science fiction series, Cytonic was an exciting and inventive read that continues the captivating tale started in Skyward and Starsight.  Taking his eccentric protagonist to a fantastic and unique new setting, Sanderson produced an epic and moving narrative that had me glued from the very first second.  There are some big, if sad, moments in this novel and I had a wonderful time listening to it.  I am a little miffed that I might have to wait another couple of years for this series to come to an end, but if it is anywhere as good as Cytonic, it will be worth it.

 

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

One of my favourite crime fiction books this year had to be the dark and exceptional Australian thriller The Housemate by Sarah Bailey.  This wonderful and intense read contains a complex and multifaceted mystery that keeps the reader guessing while they watch the central protagonist become even more unhinged by the revelations from her past.  I honestly could not put this great book down and I will be grabbing more of Bailey’s clever novels in the future.

 

Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Artifact Space Cover

After wowing the world with his fantasy and historical fiction reads, author Miles Cameron had his science fiction debut this year with Artifact Space.  This powerful and deeply captivating read transports the reader to a massive spacecraft on a multi-year trading mission.  However, the protagonist, a girl with a past and a fake identity, soon finds that her ship is under attack from outside forces and must do everything to save her new home and friends.  This was a compelling epic which perfectly shows how talented Cameron is, no matter the genre.

 

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

The master of horror and thrillers, Stephen King, had a great year in 2021 releasing two brilliant reads.  While I really must highlight his clever coming-of-age horror read, Later, his best book was the cool thriller, Billy Summers.  Billy Summers is a compelling, character driven read that follows a skilled hitman, as he attempts to engage in his last kill, only to run into a ton of surprises and complications.  A wildly enjoyable and captivating read that has convinced me to check out more Stephen King books next year.

 

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Lesser Evil Cover

The other really good Star Wars novel of 2021 was Lesser Evil, the third book in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Ascendancy series.  Set before his impressive Thrawn trilogy (made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason), Lesser Evil perfectly wraps up the Thrawn Ascendancy series (made up of Chaos Rising and Greater Good) while also exploring the early history and greatest victory/defeat of Zahn’s iconic Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring excellent characters, cool universe expansion and some of the best tactical space battles you are likely to see, Lesser Evil was an exceptional read and I really hope that Timothy Zahn has some more Star Wars novels in the works.

 

Relentless by Mark Greaney

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

Last, but definitely not least, was the latest epic Gray Man novel from Mark Greaney, Relentless.  This awesome novel sets Greaney’s dangerous protagonist on another intense spy mission as he attempts to stop a terrorist attack in Germany.  I deeply enjoyed this fast-paced, action-packed and captivating spy thriller, especially as Greaney went out of his way to produce a clever and realistic narrative.  I had such a blast with Relentless and I cannot wait to see what deadly adventures occur in his next Gray Man novel.

 

 

Well, those are my 20 favourite books of 2021. It turned out to be quite a good list in the end, and I am very glad that I was able to highlight so many fantastic books.  2022 is set to be another excellent year for amazing reads, and I will be examining some of my most anticipated books for the first half of the year next week.  In the meantime, let me know what your favourite books of 2021 were in the comments below, and make sure you all have a happy and safe New Years.