Monday, October 20, 2014

Sword Sisters review

    What if Red Sonja wore clothes?

    This is an odd way to begin the review but it's what I thought about when I read this book. Red Sonja, for uncultured HEATHENS out there (or people who have just never heard of her), was an adaptation of a Robert E. Howard character to Conan the Barbarian's Hyborian Age created by Marvel comics.

    The character is infamous for creating the chainmail bikini outfit while also, perversely, being one of the strongest female characters then in print. Her dichotomy of being a male fantasy character who is otherwise empowered would also extend to her sexual politics: infamously being a woman who would never be with a man who could not defeat her in battle.

    Aella is basically Red Sonja without all that crap.

    Well, sort of. Sword Sisters is more like Red Sonja: The Teenage Years. I understand this is a prequel to an indie fantasy movie starring and directed by one of the authors, Tara Cardinal. I haven't seen The Legend of the Red Reaper so I have to just this novel on its own merits. For that, the novel works pretty well.

    The premise of the novel is, loosely, Demons (with a capital D) invaded the world a thousand years ago. They proceeded to engage in horrific war crimes, many of which resulted in half-demon hybrids called Reapers. The majority of these hybrids were just as bad as their parents. However, they also engaged in war crimes which resulted in quarter-demon hybrids who weren't nearly as horrible. These Reapers successfully drove off the demons and won the war. One last half-demon hybrid was born, however, and she was sent to live amongst her quarter-bloodlined brethren.

    This is Aella. Aella is prophecized to be the last of the Reapers and someone who will change the world. Many of her brethren, who have formed a sort of samurai warrior-caste, are less than pleased their civilization is going to die with her. Despite this, they have chosen to adopt her and treat her as one of their own. They are attempting to mold her into the perfect Reaper and, bluntly, Aella is taking to this like a fish to desert.

    So she rebels, goes out looking for trouble, and finds it.

    Before I get into the rest of the review I should mention that while the book ditches Red Sonja's weird sexual hangups, it does maintain a strong gendered focus. In addition to the fact that the entire of the superheroic sword-swinging badasses being the product of sexual assault, the world of Red Reaper is strongly patriarchal.

    Women do not fight outside of the Reapers and are expected to dutifully obey their husbands. They are also chattle to be used in the religious ceremonies of the people's oft-questionable deities. The titular sister gets introduced soon after Aella rescues her from being sacrificed to a giant spider. The novel got itself an automatic nine out of ten, there, just because the heroine fights a giant spider.

    You can't get much more Sword and Sorcery than that.

    I can't give Sword Sisters a ten out of ten despite how much I want to because of a few minor flaws. The introduction is an info-dump which could have been better told to us in the book itself. Aella's angst is rather annoying at times and more believable as a sixteen-year-old girl rather than a ninety-five-year-old-one-who-looks sixteen. I also am uncomfortable with the fact the heroic warrior caste of the novel are, literally, all the product of war crimes.

    Despite this, though, I would recommend this novel strongly. It's nice to have old school Sword and Sorcery and if the novel is strongly gendered, it's gendered in the way which Red Sonja was good rather than bad. Many of her best stories were about kicking sexist pigs in the face and rescuing young women from human sacrifice before teaching them how to fight. The Reapers are an excellent group of heroes, origins aside, reminding me of the Witchers from the titular series.

    The supporting cast is excellent too with Amelia, unsurprisingly, being my favorite of the group Aela picks up. She's a great take on the "clever peasant girl" archetype and reminds me of Belle from Beauty and the Beast if the latter was really angry at being dumped at the Beast's castle. I really bought Aella and Amelia's friendship and how it developed. I also became very fond of Damato after his introduction. Sort of a antihero version of Aragorn. Some of the characters I like won't make it through the book and others will, leading me to hope this will be a series.

    As for Aella, herself, as mentioned she gets a little whiny herself but insecurities do not overwhelm her positive qualities. She's a strong character still finding her footing but who doesn't hesitate to get in the face of her tormentors. I also like that she's more interested in teaching others to stand up for themselves than be their rescuer. I find her atheism curious in this world (as I do in most fantasy worlds) but being raised by demons then demon hybrids will, undoubtedly, leave an impression.

    In short, if you can look past its flaws, this is a great-great book. I recommend it for all Sword and Sorcery fans, men and women alike.


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