Friday, June 24, 2016

Yamada Mongartari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks

Yamada Mongartari: To Break the Demon Gate

by Richard Parks

To Break the Demon Gate was written in 2014, by Richard Parks. Mr. Parks is a Mississippi native who currently inhabits New York with his wife; and veteran author of short stories who has only recently started writing full blown novels. While this is the first work of Mr. Parks I've read, looking at a list of his work there is a certain bend towards Japanese influenced fantasy. It's kinda interesting how wide spread Japanese works and influence is in North America. I'm certainly not immune to it, the first work from outside the Anglo sphere (English speaking nations, pretty much the United Kingdom and former colonies) was a Japanese light novel. Part of this is the sheer amount of Japanese work that makes it to North America.  Speaking for myself when I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my choices were often English fiction, American fiction or Japanese fiction. Back then, that last was mostly in the form of anime but that did spark an interest in the culture of Japan in a lot of people. That's not entirely one sided either, anime was inspired by Disney Animations. To be honest if I had to guess, I would say that Japanese works are often foreign enough to be new and interesting but influenced enough by American works that it's not completely bewildering.

To Break the Demon Gate, fits into that. It's set in a semi-historical feudal Japan where ghosts, demons and more are real and drop by way to often for comfort. Our main character, Yamada Mongartari is a broke washed-up minor nobleman who now works as “nobleman's proxy”: solving mysteries and problems for the wealthy and powerful who need these issues resolved quietly and discretely. When he's not working, he's drunk. Mostly to forget his failures and personal loses. In other words, he's a noir private eye. In feudal Japan. With magic and ghosts. You could stick him in the Maltese Falcon and he would work just fine! I can almost hear Mr. Parks yelling at the top of his lungs ‘Genre conventions be damned I want my Japanese ghosts in my detective story!’ The thing of it is, it works masterfully in this novel. Yamada is an interesting character, the mysteries he's hired to solve are complex, strange and help to pull you in. Additionally, Mr. Parks clearly has an understanding of Japanese history and culture and unlike a lot of writers goes to the pre-Shogunate era, to a time when the court of the Emperor of Japan did actually rule Japan. This is a very neglected period, so it gets bonus points from me. When I read this book I actually feel like I'm reading a noir mystery that could happen in a ghost ridden Japan of that bygone age. Additionally, there is an attention to detail in the time period that I enjoy. Characters communicate by exchanging poems (something the nobles of the time did to both show off their education and maintain a level of privacy in their communications). The word samurai isn't used as it hasn't come into vogue yet, instead the warrior class are referred to as Bushi and they're not at the top of the totem pole yet, so they mostly serve as retainers to the noble class. The Taira and Minamoto clans are both referenced although their confrontation in the Genpei wars hasn't happened yet. Instead the story takes place during the Taira domination of the Imperial Court (made possible by their strategy of getting the Emperor married to a Taira princess as often as possible without causing massive inbreeding). However conflict between them and the provincial Minamoto clan (whose claim to power is they're doing all the actual fighting against rebels and barbarians to the north) is on an upswing.

Before I get into that let me get into some of the characters, first off we have a character who doesn't actually have a lot of screen time but looms large over the plot: Princess Teiko, 2nd wife of the former Emperor, mother of the current heir to the throne (imperial succession was complicated). While we don't get to see a lot of her, her actions shape a lot of the plot. She acts with one goal on her mind, to ensure that her son gets crowned Emperor of Japan. She does this using every tool and person at her disposal--including herself--with a ruthlessness that is actually rather shocking in its purity. In fact I'm going to note that frankly she is the most ruthless character in this book. For all that, she's not malicious or violent. In fact she's actually a fairly sympathetic character, showing that sometimes ruthlessness is wasted on the wicked. Alongside her is her brother Prince Kanemore, who wants nothing more than to renounce his title, start his own clan and hack his own fief from the howling wilderness. For that to happen his nephew must take the throne. Prince Kanemore not only is a friend to our main character Yamada but also serves as patron, ally and conduit into the halls of power where a lot of the struggle takes place. He's also serves as kind of a straight man to Yamada's sneaky cleverness at times. On the other end of society we have the vagabond exorcist Buddhist Priest Kenji. We don't find out a lot about Kenji in this book but we do find out that while somewhat reliable (when sober) Kenji wears his vows lightly (hence the sober remark). That said, he's often a useful ally to Yamada and helps shines a light on supernatural matters. Arrayed against them is Lord Sentaro of the Taira clan, who himself is wealthy, powerful and ruthless in the pursuit of his goal. Placing a son of the Emperor and Taira princess on the throne of Japan. To that end he will lie, cheat, steal and even murder men, women and helpless children; and sleep contently because he honestly believes such a goal is worth any sacrifice. I honestly love villains like this. Lord Sentaro isn't in this for primarily personal gain (he's already at the very top of his social structure) he's playing for the benefit and enrichment of his family and his family's family unto the 10th generation. Lord Sentaro is a vile human being in a lot of ways but he's one I can understand and even respect. I'd still recommend shooting the bastard mind you, but I can respect and hate a person at the same time.

The conflict between the Taira clan and the various other clans clan over control of the Imperial court under-girds the whole book, providing the basic conflict but the book avoids focusing on that. Instead it's about the personalities and their conflicts that really take center stage. This isn't just a dynastic struggle between two family groups. It's a personal struggle between Yamada, who is fighting for people he loves and cares for, against a man he hates. After all it was Lord Sentaro who got Yamada ousted from the Imperial court in the first place. Meanwhile Lord Sentaro blames Yamada for his failure to get his candidate chosen as heir to the throne. So both these men are carrying large grudges against each other and would really love if if the other guy could just... Fuck off and die already. On top of this are a number of characters with their own secret motivations and desires that I can't discuss for risk of spoilers. Those motivations however cause actions that end up steering the plot in many ways and it's how Yamada and Lord Sentaro navigate and deal with those actions that display their virtues and vices. Throw in a number of unexplained murders, a supernatural uproar and plots within plots and you have a really fun story.

The characterization is downright amazing,the attention to detail both historical and plot-wise are very well done (he has most payments being made in rice! Yamada pays his rent in rice! Everyone forgets that detail about Japan, a lot of payments were made in rice!). The dialogue can be a bit stilted to western ears as Mr. Parks adopts a more formal way of speaking with his characters (which also makes sense as most of them are upper class noblemen with an education, not to mention that Japanese has a formal form of the language that English just lacks entirely.  Translating would also lend to the stilted feeling.) which may be a problem for some readers, although it honestly didn't bother me. That said I did grow up with the King James Bible so any work that doesn't have Thees and Thous (there is no such thing in this book, just a formal tone in speaking) is honestly not that difficult for me. Perchance if thou had hast my training in thy youth, thou wouldst tread upon the same path as I. There is an issue with pacing as well. Mr. Parks did most of his writing in short stories and it shows here, so in a lot of ways this book reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a full length novel with a single story. On the one hand, I kinda like that and I can say that Mr. Parks manages to do in 50 pages what more than a few of the recent books I've read couldn't do in over 300. That is: tell me a story with a middle, beginning and ending! On the other hand, he should consider working a bit harder to develop stronger interconnections between chapters. In total it didn't impact my appreciation of the story; it was still quite easy to follow; and at least I didn't feel like the last 75 pages or so was a headlong rush to wrap everything up because oh crap we've run out of novel (you know who you are. You know!). Your mileage may vary on Mr. Park's pacing though, so be aware of that going in.

All in all I really enjoyed the book. It's not often I read a story before the Genpei Wars in Japan and less often that I read a story set in a Japan that never was that's not about samurai doing samurai things to each other. On top of that, I appreciated the noir style of the tale and characterization, but the same time the story didn't leap headfirst into the darkness that lot of modern noir tales tends towards. I also enjoy a story willing to defy rules like when and where certain stories are suppose to take place and do it well. The pacing issues and the dialogue may detract from the enjoyment and sadly do bring the grade down on this book, but I am also left more than willing to read more of Mr. Parks work and certainly would like to see more of Yamada. After the last couple books, this was a welcome breath of fresh air and I am glad not to be taking a veteran writer to task but to celebrate their work instead. Because of this I am awarding Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks a B+. Let's see if we can keep up the good times right?

Next week, we return to light novels for a bit as I need kind of a brain dump before tackling one of the historical non-fictions on my shelf demanding that I get over here and learn something. See you then.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender by Onrie Kompan Art by Giovanni Timpano

Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender
by Onrie Kompan
Art by Giovanni Timpano

I actually picked up this comic at Phoenix Comic Con this year, because I wanted to read something short and was interested in the subject matter. I wasn't planning on buying any comics this year but when the gentleman running the booth told me what it was about well... I figured what's one more comic in the box right?  I thought I would break trend and read, then review it within weeks of buying it instead of months.

Onrie Kompan is an American born and raised writer, as far as I can find out this is his first project and he's labored on it for almost 3 years. This includes several trips to Korea to research Admiral Yi. His passion for this work even got Stan Lee involved, who wrote the foreword to the comic. I do want to note that his passion for this is self evident, even just reading the comic I can see this is something that Mr. Kompan worked very hard on and believed in very much. Mr. Timpano is an Italian born artist, who is still very new to comics. That said his art is pretty damn good; I personally like the choice of deep, rich colors for this comic. That said I could do with less use of black and shadows as it makes even scenes that are taking place in broad daylight out on the open sea feel like they're taking place in some twilight forest, though everything is easy to see and tell apart. Which given the equipment of the time is hard to do. I also want to mention I appreciate the care lavished upon the gear and ships in this series. The Turtle ships themselves are incredible! They look menacing and dangerous from the first panel, just like a super weapon ought to!

Let me talk about the real life Admiral Yi, who was ironically an officer of the Korean Army sent to the navy as a punishment. So one of the greatest admirals of all time... had no formal training as a naval officer, he just kinda taught himself. Seriously if you wrote a fictional character who did this, critics like me would eat you alive. He joined the military at a time when the military was looked down upon as a lesser career path. This was a by-product of the Confucian philosophy that had major influence on Korea at the time. I believe the saying that illustrates this is “Good Iron does not make nails and good men do not make soldiers.” That said officers were still considered upper class and had to pass examinations to achieve rank. Yi passed his examinations and served with distinction in the army but had a lot of political enemies who constantly got him demoted. Dumping him in the navy was intended to be a kind of final insult, but ended up in some ways being the salvation of the Korean nation, preserving it from Japanese Conquest for hundreds of years.

The comic begins with the Japanese invasion in full swing (with a quick prelude of Shogun Hideyoshi vowing to conquer the world) and starts us off with the battle of Okpo in 1592. It's the first of several battles shown in the graphic novel and they are well done. Sticking fairly close to the historical record of what actually happened, with a few flourishes here and there to make things a little easier to follow or to make it work better as a story. One example of this is a confrontation between Admiral Yi and ninjas. As far as I can find out, ninjas were never used by the Japanese Army in Korea. On the flip side they could have been and the fight itself is pretty awesome... so I'm willing to forgive it. When it comes to the actual war itself, the graphic novel does a good job. Showing the grim odds against the Koreans that were overcome by a combination of new weapons, Yi's genius and the troops own courage and masterful execution of the Admiral's plan. I enjoyed these parts greatly and like the sheer amount of effort put into it. It's when the graphic novel wanders away from the battlefield that it gets into trouble.

While I enjoyed the graphic novel over all, there are a number of decisions that I have to disagree with, and others that I don't disagree with but I disagree with the implication. There are also some choices I could go both ways on.  For example, the Japanese Generals Todo and Michiyuki are revealed to be having a love affair with each other. My problem here is that neither general was gay in the historical record and there is no evidence of such an affair. This might seem like a small thing, but these were real people. In such cases I feel we should try to get as close to the actual person as possible (for example there was a gay President of the United States, he was unmarried and had a male 'friend' in the white house with him. I leave it to the reader to figure out which President that might be. I will just say showing him as let's say in a passionate love affair with a woman would not have my support either). On that vein is the disappearance of Admiral Yi's family in this story! His eldest son and his nephew were present at a number of battles with him. He was a married man (and also had a concubine but given that was the custom of the time, I won't hold that against him). His best friend was the Prime Minister of Korea! Instead the Admiral Yi we're shown in this graphic novel is a grim island unto himself with admirers and supporters but few friends. By choosing this more boring approach, Mr. Kompan has turned his back on a number of story possibilities.  In story terms, it seems like he did this to create a semi-romantic relationship with the head nurse Injung, but that doesn't go anywhere so I'm left asking “why?”. Speaking of romance, we also have a young refugee lady named Jin who seems to exist in this story mainly to stir up trouble. I'm holding my opinion on her here because her story arc ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but like Injung her subplot doesn't seem to go anywhere. Also, her decisions make very little rational sense to me and I have no idea what she is supposed to be doing.

Another issue I have is Baron Seo, a Korean informant to the Japanese, and former slaver who hates Admiral Yi with all his being for some past action. He's supposed to be the main villain but he's just so unnecessary! We don't need a conflict between Seo and Yi because we already have a several conflicts! We have Yi vs the Japanese, as they attempt to destroy his way of life and his very nation. We have Yi vs his fellow admirals and officers as they fight for credit and to steal command from him. We have Yi vs his own damn king who wants to keep Yi under control and worries about a wildly popular and successful military man overthrowing him and taking his throne. Let me throw this in as well; Seo is really one dimensional! He has one character trait which is that he is Evil Mcevil Face! Seriously every time he's the focus of the book he is either doing something worth the death penalty or helping someone else do something worth the death penalty. Frankly he brings the quality of the whole work down, because I'm not invested here, I'm rolling my eyes and asking when I can get back to Yi fighting off a mass invasion with only a small army of devoted men. Which is kind of the story I paid money to see!

While I was entertained and enjoyed a lot of this comic, there are entire characters and sub plots which felt like wasted space. Additionally, changes to made to historical characters didn't really seem to make the story any better. That said this wasn't a bad comic. The battles were awesome, the story easy to follow and the art was good. All of that said Yi Soon Shin: Warrior and Defender by Onrie Kompan is going to clock in at a C+. It's better than average but the fact is that Mr. Kompan added a lot of things that didn't need to be added and took away things that made the story weaker. I'm going to suggest my readers check out the Extra history series on Admiral Yi as well, you can find it here (

Next week, we go back to novels. See you then.

Edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Drawing the Dragon by April Adams

Drawing the Dragon
April Adams
Drawing the Dragon was written in 2011 by an independent author, April Adams. Ms Adams is a former Army Paratrooper (this is a Marine review series but I won't hold that against her), who graduated UC Santa Barbara and lives in San Diego with her husband, children and pets. I bought the book from her in person at Phoenix fan fest 2015 thinking it might be a good review someday, and here we are 6 months later.

The setting is something of a mash up of fantasy and science fiction. The idea is that after settling the moons of Jupiter and pushing out into the galaxy we run into the natives of the Andromeda galaxy; who happen to be humanoid, skinny, short and have pointed ears. As such we dub them elves (for some reason what elves call themselves is never an issue). We also discover great space faring monsters that we dub dragons. Fortunately dragons are friendly. Unfortunately they're dying, or they were before humans came up with a way to say them by turning them into giant cyborg spaceships. I'm going to take a moment to admit that is an awesome idea and I really like this part of the setting. Ms. Adams goes one further by linking the dragon's captain and the dragon itself in a symbiotic relationship. I'm not sure how I feel about this part because it seems like everything is in a symbiotic relationship in science fantasy these days. In this case they bond with their pilots as hatchlings (who are called Jordans for some reason) and grow into fighters and from there into capital ships. The dragons are grown via...magic. An “engineer” gathers together the metal and other materials needed (for example diamond) and using unexplained magic powers bonds that material to the dragon and by increasing the air pressure inside the dragon (remember they've been modified to have human/elf crews living inside of them) cause them to grow quickly. We're actually shown this happening in the book so I have to give Ms. Adams points for showing instead of telling.

The dragons and their Jordans are the main characters of the book, there are three of them each naming themselves after the color of their dragon: Jordan Blue, Jordan Scarlet and Jordan Jade. The story mainly focuses on Scarlet (a human woman) and Blue (an elf woman). Jade (an elf man) isn't really as prominent. We are given a view of his life, but we don't spend as much time with him as the other two. To be fair, he's not as interesting and doesn't have lot to do in this book, but he does get one important job. I found Scarlet the most interesting because in a lot of ways she is the most flawed. She's vain, taking a lot of effort and care to preserve her admittedly very good looks (on the flip side, good looks are something that do take a lot of work to maintain, like strength or intelligence), and she has a vile temper. She is also prideful and petty, making decisions driven by those emotions. She is also brave, tough as hell and driven beyond belief. She does all of this without becoming a terrible person. In combination, these traits mean she is often driving the plot. Blue is no slouch either being a fairly decent character in her own right, but because of her really tight relationship with Galen (a doctor and an elf) she often feels like half a person. It is possible that because the story is about Blue, I end up giving Scarlet more credit for stealing a good chunk of it. Blue does have her own stuff going on, there's a fair amount of strangeness in her back story Most of her life however seems to revolve around her dragon or her boyfriend Galen, to the point of getting some sort of magictech comm chip embedded in her ear so she can talk to him 24/7. Which does seem a little unhealthy. While I don't dislike Blue, I kind of find her confusing and while I appreciate her character, there's not a lot of pay off. I'll come back to this.

There is one element I do know how I feel about, the Chimera. The Chimera are an artificial race built to look perfect and be in great physical shape, so of course they were built as a slave race. More specifically, a race of pleasure slaves and living status symbols; owning a Chimera was a sign of wealth and prestige. Until they eventually rose up, killed their masters, and fled out into the darkness of space to plot revenge on the societies that created them. These are, of course, the villains of the story and honestly they're kinda lame.  I'll grant that an interstellar society allows for a vast scale so even exclusive luxury goods can be made en mass, but that same scale means they would be extremely widely scattered across light years. Hell there could only be a couple thousand of them on a planet. These aren't sapient creatures being created in millions to toil in factories or mines, but people being made to serve as sex toys and status symbol nannies, butlers, and maids for the super elite. All of this begs the question of how the hell did they managed a coordinated uprising and escape? Sure they had people helping them who weren't Chimera but you would need a hell of an organization to pull that off. This also brings up another question. Why? OH WHY? WOULD YOU EVER MAKE SAPIENT SLAVES!?! ESPECIALLY SAPIENTS WHO WOULD REALIZE THEY'RE SLAVES AND HATE IT!?! WHY WOULD YOU EVEN WANT TO!?! This is a society where we are shown they have the ability to make non-sapient constructs who do the jobs that the Chimera did just as well and were just as pretty. So even pretending there would be no moral questions about this, there are a host of practical and safety related questions that arise.

This is a repeating theme in fantasy and science fiction stories that take on the role of a morality play (a story meant to teach about good and sinful behavior basically). Honestly I'm getting a bit tired of it, or rather I get tired of it being jammed in without any real thought about it. The humans in this story are suppose to be descended from our Earth. The book even shows us a far future remake of the Wizard of Oz, so clearly parts of our popular culture survived and spread. One of the repeating lessons of our popular entertainments is that creating slave races is bad! So why would you do it? It doesn't help that a lot about the Chimera themselves are left a mystery. We know they have ships (or at least one ship) but are they now a rival empire? A roving fleet? A terrorist organization? The book treats them inconsistently, with the central government refusing to authorize violent action against them despite them committing several acts of war. This is something I found frustrating because there's no explanation for why the central government is dragging it's feet. And then there's Bjorn.

I loathe Bjorn. Not in the love-to-hate way I do a lot of villains of page and screen, but in the way I do characters that just annoy me. Ms. Adams seems to want me to sympathize and root for Bjorn when he decides that he's in love in Scarlet but I just found this creepy; mainly because he decides this after spending a couple hours torturing her, including taking a blowtorch to her ribs. Call me old fashioned, but I'm of the opinion that once someone tortures you that severely, they're off the dating list forever. Frankly, his willingness to throw away his plans and advantages to protect Scarlet from others comes across as creepy and obsessive. It doesn't help that Ms. Adams like to suggest that Scarlet does feel a major attraction to him and is just lying to herself about her feelings. Okay yes, Bjorn is very pretty, but I'm going to argue that prettiness stops being compelling after a torture session that almost kills you, along with various murders and attempted murders of people you know and care for.

Additionally, the pacing is a mess. There are flashbacks without any announcement, so you're left trying to figure out why a character who was piloting a dragon 2 pages ago is now on vacation with her boyfriend on abandoned Earth. Changes in viewpoint character are sudden and if you're not paying attention you miss them entirely. I get the feeling that Ms. Adams is trying to create a feeling of being unmoored in time and space for her reader as part of the theme she is proposing rather haphazardly in the book, but instead makes the book hard to read and the story difficult to follow. Several minor characters wander in and out of the story without much announcement, which only makes the problem worse. There's also the narrative device she chooses to impart the history of her universe to us: that of a Grandfather telling stories to his unknown-how-many-great's grandkids. I'm supposed to being wondering what the Grandfather's deal is and who he really is, but I'm so overloaded with mysteries and schemes in this book that I simply don't care. It would also help if she didn't try to hide the identity of the characters in the flashbacks. Yes, I get that the Jordans changed their names upon becoming Jordans. No, having flashbacks to their training appear as disconnected sections with nothing to do with the plot until the very end without any identification of who the hell I'm reading about didn't make me feel favorable. It's fairly easy to figure out by the 2nd time it happens, so when the reveal comes there's little feeling of pay off. Frankly this book needed an editor badly or at least someone to tell Ms. Adams that yes, she is being very clever with all of this but cleverness comes in a distant 2nd to telling a story that the reader can follow.

There's also my eternal complaint. The story isn't complete. We're left with questions that are only raised in the last 30 pages of the book, and character conflicts that literally only happen in the last chapter! Instead of this being a pay off for the story and a conclusion, it's basically an announcement to read the next book to find out what the hell is going on. At this point I think everyone knows how I feel about that. It's okay to end a book with someone setting up a quest for the next one. Just make sure you've told me a complete story before you do it. I pay you money for this, the least you can do is give me a complete story! I feel like I'm banging on this drum every other review and I honestly don't mean to, but everyone keeps doing this! We had a build up about some revelation about Jordan Blue that was frankly half done for example.  So I find myself very frustrated with Drawing the Dragon. There's a good story here with an interesting universe and very human characters but it's screwed up by lousy pacing and jarring shifts in the narrative; and a lack of a satisfying conclusion. So, while I want to give it a higher grade because cyborg dragons! In Space! In the end Drawing the Dragon by April Adams gets C, because that's what it earned.

Bah, next week we're going to try something new. A historical graphic novel. See you then.

This review was edited by Dr. Ben Allen.  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone

Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani

Oh... Where to even start here? With the long and strange history of the character of Red Sonja? With her creator Robert E Howard? The fabled career of Gail Simone? To Discuss Brazilian artist Walter Geovani? Not to mention the graphic novel itself? You know what? I'll start with Gail Simone.

I kind of feel like Ms. Simone is both a warning and an example to comic editors everywhere about what might happen if you turn to a fan and ask “You think you can do better?” Because as it turns out... she can. Personally speaking, I'm very comfortable in saying she's one of the better comic book writers out there, which is interesting because before becoming a writer she was a hair dresser who had studied theater in college. She first came to everyone's attention when she joined a small web site called Women in Refrigerators which took it's name from an infamous scene where Green Lantern Kyle Rayner came home one day to find his murdered girlfriend stuffed into a fridge. The website pointed out that an awful a lot of female superheroes and other characters were being murdered, raped or otherwise brutalized; to serve as plot devices in the stories of male characters. Which in a lot of cases turned them into well... props for the plot instead of fully realized characters in their own right. I'm going to risk jumping in the white hot gender wars of the internet and say Women in Refrigerators had a point. This isn't to say you can never hurt a female character, just that if you're killing Supergirl just to invoke angst in a Superman story you might not being treating Supergirl as a character in her own right. The same of course holds true in reverse. From there Ms. Simone wrote a column on Comic Book Resources and moved on to writing Simpson Comic Books. Then DC comics hired her and the rest is her becoming so beloved by comic book readers that when DC editor Brain Cunningham fired her on the 9th of December, the fan outrage was so powerful that she was rehired on the 21st of the same month (this would be the warning part for editors...). Red Sonja was written in the next year for the up and coming company Dynamite (who sadly I won't be discussing in this review, space and all).

Walter Geovani, the artist is a Brazilian born artist who had worked mainly on independent comics. Honestly I feel that Red Sonja is some of his best work so far (it's the latest example I've seen, to be fair) but I can see rapid improvement in the young man. Now I'm not an art critic, so when the improvement is so dramatic that I can notice it, it must be good. The art on Red Sonja is pretty damn good too; the action has weight and movement, and it conveys a certain brutality which is what you need for a character like Sonja. I'm actually left with high hopes for the man.

Let me talk about Red Sonja, who springs from the same mind that gave us Kull, Solomon Kane and most famously of all Conan the Barbarian. I speak of course of one of the more under appreciated fathers of sword and sorcery and maybe American Fantasy in general, Robert E Howard. I intent to write more about Howard in a later entry in this series but here's what you need to know for now: he's awesome, I love his work and will make no apologies for that. Interestingly enough Red Sonja wasn't written as a character in Conan's setting. She was instead a character in one of his historical works “Shadow of the Vulture,” set during the actual siege of Vienna. In it the character of Red Sonya is a red haired, gun slinging sword's woman who is after revenge on the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and his consort Roxelana (Roxelana was a real person who became the wife of the Sultan, the first woman that was actually married by the Sultan in hundreds of years). It is revealed that Roxelana is actually Sonya's sister and she had betrayed the family to the Sultan.

Fast Forward to the 1970s, Marvel Comics is making Conan the Barbarian comics and they're converting Howard's other works into Conan stories to avoid running out of material. Roy Thomas rewrites Shadow of the Vulture into a Conan story and combines the Red Sonya of that story with another Howard character Dark Agnes De Chastillon (Interestingly Dark Agnes also inspired another character Jirel of Joiry who would become the prototype in turn for a legion of female heroes. This is what I mean about Howard not getting his fucking due!). Red Sonya proved to be a popular character (her first appearance was not in the scale bikini but that would come along shortly) and took off. Roy Thomas and friends would hammer together their own origin story in 1975 that appeared as a story in a Kull comic. It's... a very 1970s origin story I'm going to have to say. Red Sonya is basically a peasant girl whose family is brutally murdered while she is raped and left to die. While Sonya lays there the goddess Scathach (The goddess in question is based on a woman from Irish mythology, a Scottish Warrior Woman who trains the great Ulster Hero Cu Chulainn) appears to her and basically offers her superpowers, that she may be as a strong and fast and skilled as any man with a weapon. As long as she swears to never lie with a man who doesn't first kick her ass. I'll admit from the year 2016 that origin is a bit... well...look guys “I Spit on your Grave,” was a thing back then but it ain't anymore. Plus that vow really kinda bothers me, I mean, the only person Red Sonya can have a sexual relationship with is someone willing to beat the crap out of her? That's kinda of... Rapey. I'm not big on these issues so I kinda feel when I notice it, it's time to tone it down.

That's why we have Gail Simone who in this graphic novel gives us a 3rd origin story for the character. In Queen of Plagues we have Red Sonja dealing with her past, an invading army of men and monsters from the ocean deeps, a plague, and the fact that the woman she considers a sister has turned on her and gone batshit crazy. To be honest when I read the novel for the first time, I considered it the 2nd best origin (Shadow of the Vulture is the best one!). On reflection (having read it three times now) we have a story where Red Sonja is dealing with betrayal by a sister, a siege on a city by an expansionist empire of an alien culture and her own mental issues; the mixing of the two origins is actually pretty damn good and I find I like it. The only thing I disagree with is writing out the goddess (seriously I would just modify the deal to make it less 70s revenge porn). We get to peer back into her childhood where she was raised by a hunter, before her family was murdered before her very eyes by a wanna be warlord (that's a nice touch, it's not a real band of soldiers, but a bunch of thugs who think they're soldiers who do this, making the following scenes much more believable). We see this in flashbacks, as well as where Sonja learned to be a two legged whirlwind of death. She had been taken as a slave and taught to kill by a fellow prisoner Dark Annisia (who may herself be a nod to Dark Agnes, man, we got layers here!). She and Dark Annisia were freed when a man lead a coup to overthrow the brutal and wanton king of the city. Dark Annisia left, Red Sonja stuck around for awhile moved by the mercy and generosity of such a man. Sadly without support Dark Annisia had sunk into a kind of PTSD driven insanity where she believed herself literally hounded by the souls of the men and women she killed. This insane rage led her to a path that collided with Red Sonja and while they may regret it, neither one of them were backing down and neither one of were pulling their punches. I really wish we got to spend more time with Dark Annisia to see how she slid into her current stage. This is a very comic book version of PTSD and the reactions of people who suffer from it. I would have liked to see it treated with a more realistic tone. I would say that I hope in the future Ms. Simone gives something like that more consideration, because it's a real issue and some of my brothers in arms are still laboring under it. That said, Ms. Simone never treats it as anything but a tragedy and does not make light of it, which counts for a lot with me. She is after all, a civilian and as far as I know doesn't have a lot of direct experience with such things.

Red Sonja Queen of Plagues is a successful re-imaging of the characters origin that includes a lot of nods to her inspirations. The action is great, the dialogue rather snappy without being to modern which helps it retain a serious tone. Because of this Red Sonja Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone is an A. Ms. Simone's first appearance on this review series is a triumphant one and I hope for more to come.

Quick note, this is the first week I've had someone else proofread my review.  Give a thank you to Ben Allen for his hard work folks. Next week, we go back to novels. See you then.