Review by Ian Keogh
While very popular with teenage boys during the 1970s and 1980s, Red Sonja sword fighting in her chainmail bikini had always been considered ridiculous by some female comic readers. Equally, some embraced her as an all too rare role model as a fighter able to stand against Conan, never mind what she wasn’t wearing. By the more enlightened 21st century that old look was no longer appropriate, and Gail Simone’s version of the indomitable She-Devil with a sword generally wears more clothes.
As Simone’s sword and sorcery proved so popular on the parent title (see recommendations), it makes sense that the assorted contributions on this anthology are framed by her tale of the Grey Riders hunting Sonja down, with their scribe Eles providing the narration. In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, each pursuer takes the time to explain why they’re hunting Sonja, and their explanations form the material delivered by other creative teams, although people they meet also occasionally chip in.
It makes for an engaging collection, every inclusion written by a woman, some better written than others, but all fun and highlighting the violent and mystical world Sonja inhabits, along with her bravery and personality. The exception is Meljean Brook and Mel Rubi stressing her cowardice and luck for purposes of deception, while Rubi is one of several artists to go for the classic chainmail bikini look. It’s been noted that all but the framing story occur in her past, and as part of it Rhianna Pratchett and Naniiebem supply the origin of that armour, using the old excuse of what men might be looking at. It’s intended as tongue in cheek.
Most artists involved work in a realistic figurative style, with Jack Jadson’s framing sequences (sample art) busier and with greater detail than most others. Tula Lotay breaks with the style by drawing a cartoonier version of Sonja, but her version retains the necessary allure and power.
Simone gives the impression of her framing story being slightly tongue in the cheek, what with the stock fantasy names and Conan substitute, but that never intrudes too far into an intriguing game of cat and mouse. It’s revealed early that Sonja is well aware the Grey Riders are on her trail, and Simone ensures she remains a step ahead of them. There’s an inevitability about the ending, but it’s not as if we didn’t know it was coming. Anyone who’s enjoyed Simone’s Red Sonja series ought to have just as much fun from her inviting some friends along to help out.