Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Cover art for Rat Queens Volume One: Sass and Sorcery
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Past Memory devoured D&D-style fantasy by the armful. You know the sort of thing I mean; Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance and that ilk, where each character fills such a standard role in the narrative that you could run an RPG with 'em if you wanted.

RAT QUEENS operates in a similar vein, but it’s clearly out to smash its antecedents into bloody bits.

The Rat Queens are an adventuring company comprised of Hannah, an Elven spellcaster; Violet, a Dwarven fighter; Dee, a human cleric; and Betty, a Smidgen (think halfling or hobbit) thief. The four of them used to protect the town of Palisade, but general consensus says they and the various other adventurers who hang around the place have become as much trouble as the monsters they used to fight.


To encourage the Rat Queens and their colleagues to actually give something back to the community (and, like, avoid jail time), the Powers That Be hand down a series of assignments. The adventurers do their jobs; the charges get dropped. Easy peasy--except each of the jobs turns out to be a death trap.

Enraged, the Rat Queens set out to discover who set them up. They really hope it’s not that sexy guard captain Hannah’s kind of got a thing with.

Laid out in its simplest form, RAT QUEENS looks like a standard fantasy adventure. You’ve got mercenaries and monsters and a medievalesque town facing a Great and Terrible Evil. Dig deeper, though, and this is a really cool take on an oft-told story.

Like, obviously the contemporary reader's gonna see it as a big deal that the Rat Queens are all female, but nobody in-story ever, ever, ever suggests that hey, maybe there’s something weird about that. Neither do any of the other characters hint that Hannah, Violet, Dee, and Betty aren’t up to snuff as adventurers because they aren’t men. It’s a non-issue. Other than the Four Daves, who are obviously running with a bit, the rest of the mercenary companies the Queens hobnob with are also liberally studded with, if not solely populated by, women.

And not all these martial women are white! Furthermore, there’s none of that “oh, look at these brown people who’ve actively chosen not to be evil!” crap in the mix. People are just people. Yeah, they come from different cultures that give them a different perspective on the world, but nobody's socialized to be evil so nobody's had to repudiate their heritage or anything. It initially looks like Wiebe and Upchurch might be trending that way with Dee, who is a black woman from a cult of giant-squid-worshippers, but they quickly nip any such suspicions in the bud. Dee’s parents seem like nice, supportive people, giant squid god and all. They don’t even disown her or curse her name when she decides she can’t share their faith.

There are no Fanatical Black Cultists Who Hate Everyone Who Thinks Differently From Them here, thanks.

The main characters all come across as complex people with plenty to them beyond their archetypal roles. Hannah has been to university and uses lots of awesome relics that mimic contemporary devices like cell phones. Violet totally started shaving her beard before all the other dwarf ladies jumped on the trend, and she doesn’t appreciate her twin brother shaming her for that choice. Dee would much rather read alone in her room than join in the wild parties the others throw, but she tries to make herself like social stuff for their sake. Betty is stoned a lot of the time, and she’s really upset Hannah ruined her chances with that hot girl from the bar, and she’s trusting the sexy guard captain (who’s not her type, but whatevs) not to tell anyone she makes extra dough by selling her homemade drugs.

It did take me a couple of issues to sink in, but once I was there I was hooked. This is damned fun stuff, y’all. It’s everything twelve-year-old me loved, but it comes packaged with plenty of stuff twelve-year-old me didn’t even know she wanted.

Women who are in no way unusual for filling the same roles as their male counterparts.

Queer folks.

A refreshing amount of profanity.

I’m wicked eager for Volume 2.


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