Review: Red Sonja Vol. 2: The Art of Blood and Fire trade paperback (Dynamite Entertainment)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

As I've said before I'm not much of a fan of the sword and sorcery genre, sticking mostly to superheroes and sci-fi, but Gail Simone has given me new respect for Red Sonja, at least, with her recent Dynamite series. Red Sonja Vol. 2: The Art of Blood and Fire is a fine follow-up to the first; Simone carries over a great depiction of Sonja, but this book is structurally and tonally different enough from the first volume, Queen of Plagues, to feel realized in its own right. Simone's Red Sonja remains dynamic and likable, a hero presented respectfully such to immediately transcend the traditional roles of women in pulp fantasy. Given unfortunately just one more volume of Simone's Red Sonja, I'll be curious to see the ultimate shape and arc of this great trilogy.

[Review contains spoilers]

In Art of Blood and Fire, Red Sonja agrees to a quest to gather six premiere artisans from across the land for an emperor's party; if she succeeds, a thousand slaves will be freed and if she fails the slaves will be buried alive. Simone lines up the six-pronged quest with the main story's six issues, such that each issue (give or take the lead-in or denouement) involves Sonja seeking out one of the artisans (where "seeking out" is more often either "capturing" or "rescuing"). There's still a plot carrying through the six issues, but this volume is much more episodic than Queen of Plagues, with each chapter effectively acting as a self-contained short Red Sonja story.

From the outset there's a sense of Simone taking a freer approach to Red Sonja in this volume, most specifically with Sonja's humorous, constantly-thwarted attempts throughout the book to have sex. I can only speculate as to what goes on behind the book's scenes but I wonder if the success of Queen of Plagues -- a traditional action-adventure story, though well-reasoned -- opened the gates for Simone to present a more Simone-esque, bawdier story this time around. I noticed as well that Sonja spends more time in some combination of her trademark chain mail bikini here, something that mostly didn't appear in Plagues, as if by Simone initially demonstrating Sonja's range she can now return to some of Sonja's more traditional accoutrements.

Because I'm not much for swords and sorcery, something I particularly liked about Plagues was Simone's manner of bringing touches of modernity to the ancient setting; Plagues ultimately turned on science's encroachment on ancient belief in religion. Here as well, Simone has a courtesan who seeks to unionize her fellow prostitutes to provide better care for all and then also an astronomer who refuses to recant his "heretical" beliefs. The latter is especially poignant because Simone, playing in her imaginary time period well, actually has Sonja pronouncing the astronomer "mad" for thinking the Earth is round. This gives the book a necessary sense of realism despite the setting in that we see Sonja set against a world that's in some respects beginning to leave her behind. (Additionally, while there are weird creatures, Red Sonja has not so far -- purposefully, I think -- featured actual magic, positioning the book more in sci-fi than swords and sorcery per se.)

I also appreciated that Simone uses many of these Red Sonja "shorts" to explicate Sonja's own character. In the third chapter with Aneva, "Princess of Pillowing," Sonja imagines her life if her family hadn't been murdered and she'd grown up with makeup and finery, feeling inadequate to Aneva; she comes to find that Aneva feels the same about her in reverse. In the fifth chapter, equally Sonja compares her poor village's modest means -- especially when it came to their ramshackle house of worship -- with a rector's opulent palace. Given the conceit that Sonja is essentially unbeatable in battle, Simone uses these stories to show Sonja's vulnerability in other ways, and it continues Simone's path of making an otherwise one-dimensional character infinitely more vivid.

Rounding out the collection is Simone's Red Sonja #0, which -- bucking tradition -- is not an origin story at all but, if anything, actually a story of Sonja's death and the husband she leaves behind. All gets sorted out in the end, of course, and the purpose of this issue as I understand it is just as a jumping-on or one-off Red Sonja story (which fits perfectly in this episodic collection). Going into it blind, however, I liked the momentary confusion as to whether this was a present-set or future story, because given its zero numbering, I actually believed for a moment that perhaps Sonja settled down one day and that Malak had been her husband. Some of this, though lies, would have been the realization of Sonja's other-life fantasies when she met Aneva, and so it serves as a good bookend to this volume.

It's been over two years since my review of Red Sonja Vol. 1: Queen of Plagues precisely because it takes a bit for me to work up the excitement to read a swords and sorcery book, but Red Sonja Vol. 2: The Art of Blood and Fire reminded me immediately what I'd liked before. Again, Gail Simone's got a fine second volume in her Red Sonja trilogy here, and I'm enthused to immediately continue to the conclusion.

[Includes original covers, variant cover gallery, full #0 issue script with pencils]
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  1. Spot on review, as ever. I definitely agree that this book feels more like a Gail Simone product than the last one - I'd go so far as to say that (outside of Secret Six) this is the Gail Simone-iest book I've ever read... and I loved it for that!

    1. Hey Zach! Yes, I think "Simone-iest" just about says it. And more so than Vol. 3 also, though the conclusion there had Simone-esque attributes in other ways. All of these speak well for Simone's "independent" projects; have you read Leaving Megalopolis? I ought to, I know.