Know this, reader: in times long past, the world was a brutal and savage place. Strange monsters stalked the lands and foul enchanters performed unspeakable rites in honor of dark demons and darker gods. In this time there was a woman as deadly as she was beautiful. She had the body of a courtesan and the manner of a queen, both of which belied her warrior’s spirit. She was known by many names—The Scourge of Hyrkania and The She-Devil were among the more polite monikers—but chiefly she was known as Sonja the Red.
There was another time, however, when Red Sonja was not so legendary or feared. She was once a captive, a gladiatorial slave of the depraved King of Zamora. Red Sonja was freed by Diamath, a just and fair king who waged war on Zamora and sought to undo the damage done by the despicable tyrant. In doing so, Diamath became one of the rarest of men: one who had earned Red Sonja’s respect, if not her fealty.
It is in honor of that respect that Sonja answers his summons three years later. Diamath’s kingdom is beset by Zamoran invaders backed by an army of beast-men, the likes of which have never before been seen. Worse yet, his people are befouled by a fearsome and unnatural plague. Diamath has no hope for survival—he merely wishes to give his people the chance to die fighting, rather than wasting away. It is a request Sonja is willing to grant… until she discovers the general of the opposing army is the only other warrior to survive the Slave Pits of Zamora: Sonja’s sword-sister, Dark Annisia!
Historically, Red Sonja has been a problematic character in many respects. Based on classic mythology, her origin story centered upon her rape at the hands of the bandits who killed her family. Worse yet, her empowerment by a war goddess required a vow of chastity with the exception of any man who could best her in honorable combat. Later writers tried to soften its unsavory implications by characterizing the vow as a test of Sonja’s will to hold to her oath, not an invitation for her to be re-victimized by any brute capable of disarming her.
It’s hard to believe that Red Sonja ever became a feminist icon with that baggage. Thankfully, Gail Simone has done away with all that by revamping the mythos. Gone is the suggestion that Sonja’s strength was the gift of any god or goddess! Away with the oaths of chastity and moderation! Simone’s Sonja is a hard-drinking, ass-kicking warrior who could drink Conan the Barbarian under the table and carry off the buxom barmaid to her bedchambers for a night’s pleasure. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Sonja took the direct route to revenge on the killers of her family with no rape or god-oaths involved. It’s miraculous that so revolutionary a change comes about with so little fanfare. These facts come to light as part of the larger narrative, as rich and exciting as any Red Sonja story ever told.
Simone’s story is well-matched by the artwork of Walter Geovani. He captures the essence of the world of Hyboria, depicting fierce monsters and mighty warriors with equal skill. He also manages the impossible task of depicting Red Sonja without descending into the realms of gratuitous cheesecake.
Dynamite Entertainment rates this series as T+, appropriate for readers ages 13 and up. I would agree with this assessment, as this Red Sonja series is far less bloody and suggestive than previous runs. There is copious bloodshed including beheadings and a few scantily-dressed serving girls, but nothing that would be inappropriate for a teen audience.
Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues, vol. 1
by Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani
Dynamite Entertainment, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: T+ (13+)