After a few pages of When Hell Laughs, I came to the conclusion that the book's authors, David C. Smith and Richard Tierney, were inspired by the 1981 theatrical film Escape from New York. In that film, all of Manhattan is surrounded by a wall and inside are the worst hardened criminals, each sentenced to life terms on the prison island. Inside the walls, it is a total martial law with prisoners having complete freedom to do anything they choose. No guards, no cells, just total anarchy.
In this Red Sonja novel, the Isle of Os Harku, situated on the Shirki River in Aquilonia, serves as a giant prison isle. The worst traitors, thieves, and murderers are sent to life sentences at Os Harku. The island's prisoners are ruled by the prisoners themselves with a survival of the fittest way of life. In particular, readers are introduced to the novel's chief villain among villains, a Shemite sorcerer named Athu. He learns that a portion of the island is a shunned hillside called Swordskull. It is here that Athu makes a pact with an ancient god to free him from prison. In exchange for corpses and blood, this god will create a way for Athu to escape.
On the river, Sonja is enjoying some rest on a passenger ship sailing down the Shirki River. In these early pages, the character is perhaps the most “human”, enjoying comfy quarters and an actual bed. Further, she looks in a full body mirror to examine her figure and eats at a large buffet table with wealthy aristocrats. It is a really interesting aspect to the character that is rarely seen. But, the contrast plays into the narrative later as Sonja debates the posh life versus the unruly nomadic one. The ship's festivities come to a violent end when a storm, created by this ancient god, crashes the boat onto the rocky coast of Os Harku.
Although it borrows from other stories, and the premise of Escape from New York, the concept of this ship and its passengers becoming trapped on an island of psychotic maniacs is really clever. As the ship washes up on the shore at night, the authors describe what the passengers immediately see – shadows with knives running in the horizon, figures walking towards the boat, crazy men with crude weapons falling on top of the boat from the darkened trees. Obviously, this is atmospheric survival horror at its best.
As the panic begins to ensue, Sonja realizes she is the only one with a weapon. Eventually, the narrative expands beyond the confines of the ship to incorporate two rescue crews, internal strife between key villains, and Athu's frightening promise coming to fruition. The finale is rock-solid as Sonja and survivors fight a giant mud monster.
Needless to say, the body count is extremely high with gory action and suspenseful adventure befitting of the book's ominous title. From the story's exciting premise and concept to Red Sonja's human elements being presented in a new way, this book is worth every penny. It will fetch a higher amount on the market, mostly for Boris Vallejo's cover art, but don't let that steer you away.