A common misconception in fantasy literature is that the Red Sonja fictional character was entirely created by Robert E. Howard. The fiery red-headed swordswoman is often affiliated with Howard's own hero, Red Sonya of Rogatino, a female swashbuckler that was featured in the 1934 short-story Shadow of the Vulture. However, the Red Sonja (note the “J”) character didn't appear until 1973 and was created by Roy Thomas Jr. (Ghost Rider, Conan the Barbarian) and Barry Windsor Smith (Wolverine).
Influenced by Howard's Red Sonya of Rogatino, the Red Sonja character made her debut in Marvel Comic's Conan the Barbarian #23. Since then, the character has become a pop-culture icon appearing in numerous comics by multiple publishers and series. Along with graphic novels, action figures, television appearances and a 1985 theatrical film, Red Sonja was also a short-lived paperback series published by Ace. The debut, The Ring of Ikribu, was published in 1981 and kick-started a six-book run of paperback novels with covers by Boris Vallejo. The books were authored by fantasy authors David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney.
The Ring of Ikribu is a powerful gem that can crush or create kingdoms. A powerful sorcer named Astoth is pursuing the ring in hopes of ruling a portion of the Hyborian kingdoms. His search for divine power brings him to the city of Suthad. Off page, Astoth and his army decimate Suthad leaving their King Olin and a thousand soldiers fleeing from the city. It's in this part of the book that Olin meets Red Sonja.
Through alternating chapters, the authors retell Sonja's origin story originally presented in Kull and the Barbarians #3 (1975). Before being raped repeatedly, Sonja watched invading marauders murder her family. After wandering into the forest, Sonja is empowered by a spirit/deity that provides her an uncanny, supernatural swordsmanship. The curse is that she can never love anyone unless they can best her in swordplay. Swearing vengeance, she is now a drifting adventurer that conveniently serves as a blank page for creators to craft countless stories and adventures around. Just like Conan. After hearing of King Olin's losses at Suthad, Sonja teams with the brutish warrior to retake Suthad.
The Ring of Ikribu is similar to a traditional western tale - an action-packed road trip that features a lone hero assisting the downtrodden to overthrow the town bully. In this case, the bully is a sorcerer that conjures plagues of undead combatants, ghoulish worm creatures and phantom ghosts. Sonja rides tall, speaks the truth and shoots straight. Only with a lightning quick sword instead of the six-gun. The authors weave a romantic notion that Sonja and Olin can truly fall in love, but the concept drowns in a murky black swamp (you'll never guess who dies!).
Paperback Warrior covers very little Fantasy, but we seem to be drawn to the pulpy, men's adventure styling of heroic icons such as Conan and Red Sonja. While serving as pillars for the Fantasy genre, the characters themselves could seemingly be interchanged with Ben Haas's Fargo, Jon Messman's Trailsman or Barry Sadler's Casca. The Ring of Ikribu displays the same literary style. If you have avoided the series due to the sword and sorcery wrapping paper, I urge you to rethink your position and try again. Red Sonja can be as badass as Mack Bolan.
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