Short review: The Rat Queens can't rest on their laurels as Palisade is threatened by terrible calamity, this time coming from within its walls.
The morning after
Evil revenge plot brewing
Full review: Volume Two of The Rat Queens, subtitled The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth, begins its story the morning after Volume One concluded, showing each of the four members of the group in their respective bedrooms: Violet sleeping safe in the strong arms of Orc Dave, Betty cuddling happily and playfully with her lover, Hannah arguing with Sawyer after a seemingly ill-advised night of drunken sex, and Dee lying by herself, sad and alone in her room. In just four panels the graphic novel speaks powerfully about the personalities and lives of the four women who form the core of this series. In many ways, this first page encapsulates everything one needs to know about this series, and why it is as good as it is. It is this kind of environmental storytelling that uses the presentation to inform the reader, as much as anything the characters say or anything that happens in the plot, that makes The Rat Queens such a fantastic series.
Although the first volume of this series had some dark moments and ominous developments, it was, for the most part, full of drunken silly and bawdy humor. While this volume has plenty of silly asides, and goofy elements, it is set against a backdrop that is much bleaker and more serious than its predecessor. I do not think it an accident that most of the comic relief in the volume is provided by the smidgen Betty, who has the least substantial personal story and the least amount of character development in this book. So when the quartet are sent off to stop a collection of mushroom people from attacking caravans, it is Betty who decides to see what dead mushroom person tastes like. While under the effects of mushroom hallucinogens, it is Betty who imagines that one of her companions is a life-size clown made out of candy. But Betty is also the glue that holds the group together, as witnessed by a brief heartfelt conversation she has with the emotionally distant Hannah that borders on treacly but ends up being merely satisfyingly tear-jerking and serves to pull the book back to the interpersonal relationships that form the core of the story.
Much of the story in the volume focuses on Dee and Hannah, in large part highlighting the complex relationships they have with the men in their lives. In Hannah's case, the books focuses on her tempestuous relationship with the Palisade captain of the guard Sawyer, and in Dee's case, the story highlights her strained relationship with her hitherto unmentioned husband. In each case, the Queens' relationship exposes more about their personalities, but also dovetails into the villainous plot that the merchant Gerrig planted in the first installment that now comes to fruition in this one. Fundamentally, this story really belongs to Dee, as it is her religious background and her complex relationship with the faith she was born into that underpins the plot. Closing the circle even tighter around the Rat Queens, it is Hannah's relationship with Sawyer, and his sordid past with Gerrig and Gerrig's deceased wife that drives the four main characters into the thick of the fray and gives the story a personal element that makes it more compelling to the reader: The villain is not merely threatening the world at large, but is taking direct aim at the characters the reader knows and loves.
The volume doesn't merely use the relationships of the present, it gives the reader insight into the past of the various character, mostly through the presence of reality-warping extradimensional entities that induce hallucinatory flashbacks in the characters, an elements that allows the authors to provide backstory while also avoiding falling into the habit of having characters simply rehash old events. Filling in the background of the characters in this way by using these little vignettes gives the story an immediacy that sidesteps the hazard of getting bogged down by having the characters rehash what is essentially old news. Instead, the characters relive these formative experiences, and the reader gets to see them do it: We are told what inspired Violet to leave her ancestral home and reject tradition by shaving her beard. We learn about Hannah's childhood as the daughter of necromancers, and more of her past with Sawyer, but also about her relationship with Tizzie, the leader of the rival adventuring group the Peaches. We are even given a little bit of a flashback from Orc Dave, who it seems might be somewhat more frightening than had been previously indicated.
What makes The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth work so well is that this character development doesn't hinder the gripping adventure that makes up the plot, and instead complements it and drives the story forward. To a certain extent, the back story and character development is needed, because once the story gets rolling in earnest, it moves at an almost breakneck pace that would have been exhausting if it had spanned the entire book. For the final act, Wiebe pulls out all of the stops, bringing not only the Rat Queens into the fray, but also the Four Daves, Sawyers, second in command Lola, Braga, Tizzie, and even the mostly useless guardsman Gary into the picture for a huge showdown against the villainous Gerrig and his collection of minions. But even in the fight sequences, the story is still showing the development of characters, bringing relatively minor characters like Lola or Braga to the fore and setting them up to possibly feature in future installments of the series. Fans of tense, gripping, and over-the-top action need not worry, however, as the story delivers that in spectacular fashion, ending with a choice made that is certain to have long-term ramifications for the Rat Queens specifically and Palisade more generally.
Overall, the second volume of The Rat Queens takes the foundation that was laid down by Sass and Sorcery and builds a dark, terrifying, and yet still humorous story on top of it. The underlying theme of the story seems to be that one's past determines one's present, no matter how hard one tries to walk away from it, and it results in a story that feels almost pitch perfect. With as many moving parts as The Rat Queens has, this book could have devolved into an unfocused mess, but instead the writing and artwork combine to pull everything together remarkably well while at the same time giving almost every notable character some amount of development and their chance to shine in the spotlight. In short, if you are looking for an action-packed adventure simultaneously loaded with Lovecraftian horror, irreverent and sometimes obscene humor, and solid (and sometimes quite touching) character development, then The Rat Queens, Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth is probably a book you want to read.
Previous book in the series: Rat Queens, Volume One: Sass and Sorcery
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