“Lord of the Rings meets Bridesmaids”. That’s how writer Kurtis J. Wiebe has often described Rat Queens, and it’s a fitting comparison, though I’d maybe throw Kill Bill in there, too. Rat Queens is a modern take on the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy epic – funny, crass, full of action, and comically over-the-top violent. But there’s a lot more to the book than cussing and gore; below that surface lies a captivating story of love, friendship, and drama.
The Rat Queens are a party of adventurers who make their home in a quiet town called Palisade. Or at least, it was quiet until they showed up – when they’re not out killing goblins and looking for treasure, they’re in town, drinking, brawling, and generally causing trouble. Typical adventurers, really.
And so, Sass and Sorcery opens with a town meeting; Palisade’s less rowdy residents are sick of the antics of the Queens (and a few other adventurer groups), and so as punishment, they’re each given a quest. For the Rat Queens, the task is to clear some goblins out of a nearby cave – a seemingly easy task, until they get ambushed by an assassin along the way and barely make it out alive. It turns out that all the other groups – the Peaches, the Four Daves, the Brother Ponies, and Obsidian Darkness – were similarly attacked, launching them into a journey to find out who’s trying to have them all killed, and why.
If this sounds like a run-of-the-mill fantasy story, don’t be mistaken. The group’s cleric, Dee, is an atheist who tries not to think too much about their source of her healing spells. Betty the smidgen (gnome, essentially) rogue home brews illegal drugs. There are lines like “you put an arrow in my favourite boob!” and “We kill a lot of boyfriends! What makes you think we killed yours?”. The Four Daves are called as such because, well, they’re all called Dave.
Laced through all the humour and action is the story of the Rat Queens themselves – not their exploits, but who they are as people – and really, that’s the book’s greatest strength. Between Wiebe’s penchant for natural, believable dialogue and Upchurch’s fantastic ability to convey emotion through his art, it doesn’t take long at all to form a strong connection with Dee, Hannah, Betty, and Violet. They’re more than just some women cracking wise and killing bad guys, they’re people you care about, pretty much from the outset, which just makes the jokes funnier and the action that much more gripping.
This is just the first volume, but plenty of seeds have already been sown to explore each character’s history, and how that informs and motivates them today. More than that, there’s a really strong sense of camaraderie that flows through the whole book. The Rat Queens are at the centre of that, of course, and it’s the lengths they’ll go to for one another are made very, very apparent. But there’s also a really strong supporting cast, with people like the aforementioned Daves, Bagra the Orc, and Sawyer the town watchman all making great use of their relatively limited page time.
As great as it is, don’t get too used to Upchurch’s art – he’s no longer working on the book, having been removed due to domestic violence charges. But don’t worry, because his successors, Stjepan Sejic and Tess Fowler, are doing an even better job.
If you want a fantasy epic that satirises the genre as much as it pays homage to it, that’s hilarious but still full of captivating human drama, look no further than Rat Queens.