Review: The Legend of Bold Riley

Artist(s): Leia Weathington, Various.

The latest book from Northwest Press is a first for them: after books about gay kids or trans superheroes, the spotlight is on a lesbian princess with wanderlust.

Writer Leia Weathington brings us The Legend of Bold Riley1, the eventful life of Rilavashana SanParite, or Bold Riley, as she’s usually called. Set in a fantasy world inspired by various cultures from all over the world, her adventures have all the flavor of classical legends, while featuring lifelike characters.

Bold Riley and her brother, hunting

In the prologue, drawn by Weathington, a young princess has everything she should wish for, riches, culture, girls…and yet yearns for more. Her prosperous country, modeled mainly on India (as well as Morocco and Turkey, from what the author said in an interview), is too small for her, and her parents finally agree to let her go, provided she renounces her right to the throne. And thus a princess becomes a traveler.
The main character begins as a young woman more interested in seeing the world than in sewing clothes, which shows character, but still as someone convinced that the world will bend to her will. Whether that is a product of her upbringing or of her temperament is wisely left for the reader to decide.
Weathington’s art is solid, and the colors carry all the warmth and lushness of the settings. Right from the start, the reader is taken to a vibrant, fully realized world.

The demons surrounding Riley

A world which opens up for Bold Riley with the second story, The Blue God, drawn by Vanessa Gillings and colored by Weathington. Riley finds herself on the border of her country, watching the goats of an old man who’s gone away to care for his son. If it wasn’t already clear in the prologue, the influence of legends and fairy tales on the storytelling of the book becomes obvious, with the goats being attacked by minor but dangerous demons and Riley having to resort to more than brute force to beat them. As for the title, it would be a pity to reveal what it means. Let’s just say those demons aren’t the only supernatural forces around here.
Though the coloring brings a certain resemblance to the two stories, the art is here more detailed, with a better anatomy and varied facial expressions and body language. In short, I must admit I prefer Lea Weathington as a writer than as an artist, though this is more in comparison with the other artists she’s working with than anything else.

A detailed interior scene

The world opens up even more with a completely different setting for the third story, The Serpent in the Belly, drawn by Jason Thompson. After India, South America is the basis for the civilization shown here, with Riley deciding to help women who were all deceived by the same man. A man who’d changed for the worse, a man who might not be who he seems to be.
As you can see from the panel, Jason Thompson’s art is very detailed, with a lot of care given to the recreation of a Mesoamerican culture.
With this story, the writer begins to show that her characters are more than the usual people one finds in myths and legends. There’s a scene especially, at the end, where one of the jilted women acts like a real person, with a complex mix of sadness and strength. It’s a beautiful short scene that elevates a story that had been rather dark and bloody.

Riley meets the tribe

The fourth story is both the shortest and the lightest. The Strange Bath sees Riley welcomed by a nomadic tribe (from the Russian steppes, maybe) who plays a high-spirited trick on her. Marco Aidala’s art is a bit stiff, but it’s also evocative. I think it would have worked better with less strong colors (by Chloe Dalquist), but that’s a question of taste.

Riley and the divine bird

The next story is for me the most impressive, visually speaking. With its dense jungle forest and its stone temple, clearly influenced by Ankgor Vat, deserted by humans though still inhabited by enticing but very weird women, The Wicked Temple is brought to life by Konstantin Pogorelov’s loose and dynamic style, complemented by expressive watercolors. I could stare at those pages for hours.
Riley encounters once more deities and demons and will have the opportunity to prove her dexterity with a sword, since there’s a good reason why humans have left the place. This episode directly leads to the next and last story, the most devastating one for our heroine.

Riley and Ghemuen

The Golden Trumpet, a story with Chinese overtones drawn by Kelly McKlellan, gives us a side of Bold Riley we hadn’t seen yet, as she falls in love with a young woman named Ghemuen, who took her in when the wounds suffered in the stone temple threatened to kill her. While the previous conflicts Riley had to face were exterior struggles, this one is interior. Riley seems ready to settle down in the sacred grove Ghemuen watches over, but Ghemuen has a secret and Riley’s restless nature manifests itself in her desire to know the truth of her lover. Like all great love stories, this one doesn’t end well, but this is clearly where Riley begins to really grow up and leave adolescent dreams to enter the reality of adult life.
The last story in this book is also a return to an art style and colors closer closer to Weathington’s, with a strong attention to faces.

The Legend of Bold Riley is not a light book, which after all is in keeping with the fact that “real” legends and myths are rarely feel-good stories. If I had to pick one theme for the whole book, I’d say that it’s about looking beyond the obvious, trying to discern the hidden nature of people. Gods and demons often hide behind flesh, while Riley discovers little by little whom she might become. That’s of course the structure of classical legends and myths, but this book is inhabited by real people, with complex and often flawed temperaments. It’s a testimony to the quality of the writing that Bold Riley is shown as a believable person in such fantastic settings.

Another point I want to talk about is the point of view present throughout the book, which is a female one. Men are present in stories, but are not central characters, and not only because the main character is a lesbian. Bold Riley is not a stereotyped character, to say the least. She’s also a character who still has a long journey in front of her, both physically and psychologically. Leia Weathington has already announced that she has plenty of Bold Riley’s stories to tell. I’ll gladly travel with her.

  1. This 230-page book is available from the publisher or from Amazon, and as an ibook.

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