Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review - Rat Queens, Volume One: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Short review: Betty, Dee, Hannah, and Violet are the Rat Queens. They will drink all the drinks, do all the drugs, fight all the fights, and then Violet will have sex with Orc Dave.

Unruly women
Set up by an enemy
There's a party too

Full review: Imagine a world in which a number of the inhabitants behave like the players in a typical role-playing game, with the same disdain for social mores, other people's property, and other people's lives. Imagine that the protagonists in this world were a sassy, snarky, narcissistic, and destructive quartet of women named Betty, Dee, Hannah, and Violet, who blast and hack their way through adventures so they can get to the copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, and sex that awaits them thereafter. These are The Rat Queens.

The main storyline is one of intrigue, backstabbing, and betrayal, all packaged in a container filled with almost gratuitous violence and more than a little humor. The Rat Queens, along with the other adventuring parties in the town of Palisade - the Peaches, the Brother Ponies, the Four Daves, and the Obsidian Darkness, find themselves labeled persona non grata and given the choice of agreeing to undertake assigned tasks or face prison. As each crew heads off to their designated duty, things begin to go awry fairly quickly, and then even more trouble shows up and things get messy.

Because even the most exciting adventure story would be somewhat dull if one doesn't connect with the characters, the primary story arc is interlaced with individual stories related to each of the four main characters that make them more than just ale-drinking, drug-taking, bar-brawling hellions - instead each has an almost-to-be-expected quasi-tragic personal story. Betty's love for drugs and candy hides her love for a woman who has moved past the party lifestyle and refuses to return the smidgen's affections unless she gives up her drugging and drinking ways. Violet has rebelliously shaved off her beard and is estranged from her family, represented by her twin brother Barrie. Dee is an incredible socially awkward  atheist priestess whose parents worship Lovecraftian horrors from beyond the world, while Violet has a somewhat strained relationship with her necromantically inclined parents and what seems to be an on-again off-again love affair with Sawyer, the captain of the town guard.

But the deft characterization doesn't end with just the four Rat Queens, but is carried through to the minor characters that surround them. Sawyer is the captain of the guard, but there are indications that he has a somewhat less than savory past. "Old Lady" Bernadette, a local merchant, serves as the unlikely foil for the Rat Queens for most of the volume. Braga, the hulking half-orc member of the Peaches, is a figure of terror among the orcs that show up in the story, referring to Braga as "the bastard". Dee has a long-standing and impolite rivalry with Tizzie the leader of the Peaches. And there are the Four Daves, most notably Orc Dave who keeps bluebirds in his beard. Though these bits of character development are just that - bits - they build a world around the Rat Queens that feels real.

The strong art style in the volume matches the over the top nature of the story while still being able to capture the somewhat few and far between subtle emotional moments. There is plenty of action in the panels, along with a fair amount of splashy gore in the fighting scenes, but never so much as to overwhelm the story. The art also manages to walk a very fine line in its depictions of Betty, portraying her as a fully adult woman with fully adult desires, without avoiding the possible creepy overtones that might result given that she's the size of a seven year old child.

As a loving tribute to the sometimes absurd tropes of fantasy fiction and gaming, The Rat Queens is an almost perfect book. With generous helpings of violence, drug-use, and sexual references, the volume probably isn't suited to younger readers, but anyone who grew up watching Conan, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or reading Fritz Lieber's books will find something to enjoy here. If you think you'd enjoy a story where characters skewer the eyeballs out of their enemies after a lunch of candy and drugs, then The Rat Queens is the book for you. Or if you think a story about four women who have grabbed life by the horns and refuse to accept anything less than the most decadent experience they can get, then The Rat Queens is the book for you. Or if you think you'd enjoy a book filled with fantasy adventure, gallows humor, and darkly twisted intrigue, then The Rat Queens is the book for you. And if you think you'd enjoy all of these things, then Rat Queens is really the book for you.

What are the Hugo Awards?

2015 Hugo Award Nominees

2015 Hugo Voting - Best Graphic Story

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