Review: Red Sonja Vol. 3: The Forgiving of Monsters trade paperback (Dynamite Entertainment)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Gail Simone's final volume of the Red Sonja regular series, Red Sonja Vol. 3: The Forgiving of Monsters, is oddly-shaped. Though there's elements here that hearken back to the first volume, one has to turn their head and squint a little more than is optimal to see this fully as a conclusion (if Simone even means for the three collected volumes to share a trilogy structure, which might simply be my construction). Mostly the awkwardness comes in the initial four-part story here perhaps serving better as the climax, and the final two-part story less so, though this might indicate alternatively the most pertinent points Simone wants to make here.

Irrespective, Simone's three Red Sonja volumes are action-packed, surprising adventure stories full of humor, wisdom, and gore. They serve certainly as a pitch-perfect primer on the character and present Gail Simone as a writer at the top of her game.

[Review contains spoilers]

Simone's Red Sonja so far has been the tale of a warrior who travels from town to town taking missions and battling injustice, often while in search of hot food, cold drink, and a warm bedmate. At the same time, Simone has partnered Sonja's fighting prowess with her personal struggles: the memory of the murder of her family and village in the first volume, Queen of Plagues, and her self-consciousness and thoughts of how her life otherwise might have been in the second volume, Art of Blood and Fire.

Looking at Dynamite's three collections as a three-act structure, these were some of the themes the third volume might address and put a final point on. In the final total, the book does that, but again, the structure is wobbly. The third volume's first four-part story, essentially the titular "Forgiving of Monsters," brings back most of Sonja's supporting cast, pits her against death herself, and celebrates the warrior's accomplishments, but delves not much into her character; the second two-part story touches on the fact that Sonja barely learned to read, getting to that self-consciousness, but it's a considerably smaller story comparatively. I grant that a grand climax and then a coda is not without precedent, but my impression was that the narrative felt lopsided.

"Forgiving," the story, sees Sonja finally encounter the only brigand from her village's massacre that she hasn't yet killed, just as she's cursed by a dying evil wizard never to be able to forgive. This plays out predictably, almost comically, at the outset when Sonja nearly beats a barkeep to death over a minor slight. Sonja takes the trail of the brigand, finds and then loses him, but then chooses to maim herself rather than risk hurting innocents again. Ultimately healed and cured of the curse, Sonja forgives the brigand for her own well-being.

Certainly there's plenty in Forgiving that bespeaks conclusions, including that all of Sonja's major allies from the first two books return, plus her friend (thought dead) Dark Annisia, not to mention a throng of people whose lives Sonja has saved. Thematically I'd also mention that for a swords and sorcery series, actual sorcery has been rare, so it's fitting that the third book has it at the center. The story is well-written and exciting, and takes a particularly surprising and gruesome turn when Sonja burns her hands nearly to her own death to forestall the curse.

But the evil wizard Kalas-Ra's curse is random, seeming without reason other than to serve the needs of the plot, and we're never really given to understand its purpose or real consequence besides Sonja attacking the barkeep (why would Kalas-Ra curse her with lack of forgiveness instead of uncontrollable rage, for instance?). The ins and outs of magic aren't clear this late in the series; magic comes off awkwardly, as in the case of the man Simone introduces who apparently had the power to summon fire and then lost it, with no more explanation or indication as to whether this is normal or not.

Queen of Plagues established that Sonja killed all of her village's murderers, so the appearance of the final brigand here is contradictory and dissonant rather than calling back harmoniously to the beginning; the curse plus the brigand pretty well telegraphs that Sonja will forgive the man in the end, too. Also, it was notable that Queen of Plagues, a story largely about women helping women, featured an appearance by the ghost of Sonja's father, suggesting narratively that Sonja's mother ought make an equally key appearance later on, but in Forgiving she's only present briefly as a zombie; this is perhaps Forgiving's biggest disappointment.

To the final two-part story's credit, it does see Sonja helping out a trio of young girls, as has been the case often throughout the series. Around brutal battles, Simone also has Sonja consider how she was denied book-learning as a child because of her gender (or at least taunted for her learning difficulties). In the end, Sonja begins to perfect her handwriting, and the story ends with one of the girls starting to write essentially the beginning of Queen of Plagues. The former speaks to the themes of aligning what Sonja is and what she might have been, and the latter is an appropriately pro-women note for Simone's run to go out on; it is simply the story's lesser scope overall as compared to its immediate predecessor that gives me pause about it finishing the book.

My expectations for the third volume, rightly or wrongly, certainly don't overshadow that every scene Gail Simone writes with Red Sonja sings, and that Simone's three Red Sonja volumes are full of memorable supporting characters and dastardly villains. I'd be remiss to overlook artist Walter Geovani, who succeeds at the unenviable task of drawing a sexy but never oversexualized Red Sonja even as she runs around most of the time half-unclothed. Concluding with Red Sonja Vol. 3: The Forgiving of Monsters, Gail Simone's Red Sonja is one of those books I'd definitely give to friend who didn't read comics regularly, and it seems to me Dynamite would have done well to have collected all of these issues into one big can't-miss omnibus.

[Includes original and variant covers, Gail Simone script with pencils]
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