Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is simultaneously the most famous and least known of the many women warriors Robert E. Howard wrote during his career. Her name is known thanks to the character played by Sandhal Bergman in the 1982 Conan movie, who was a combination of the two most prominent women in Howard’s Conan stories – Valeria and the pirate queen, Belit. The movie gave its version of Valeria the romance Conan shared with Belit, while giving her the name and mercenary background of the pulps’ heroine.
This has done the original Valeria a disservice, as she was hardly the typical Conan heroine who was instantly enraptured by the barbarian’s muscled form and eagerly resigned to satisfying his lusts. Whereas Belit offered Conan a place in her bed after watching him fight but once, Valeria was hardly impressed with Conan and rebuffed his advances at every turn until the very end of Red Nails – the final Conan story written by Howard and, in the minds of many fans, the best he ever wrote. Howard was fond of strong women like Valeria and many feel Red Nails was the most true of the Conan stories, as Howard wrote it free of his need to add in the fan-service he often included so as to get his stories on the cover of Weird Tales.
We learn little of Valeria’s background from Red Nails, beyond her having recently left the mercenaries known as the Free Companions because their leader thought she’d be better as a concubine than a soldier and she had no desire to try and fight her way out of the camp. Before that, she dove overboard and swam for the Kushite coast rather than give in to the advances of the pirate king, Red Ortho. How Valeria came to become a master of the sword and a member of the most infamous pirate gang in Hyboria is never explained but it was enough, for the story of Red Nails, to confirm her skill as a warrior and her lack of patience for anyone who thinks of her only as a pretty face.
Meredith Finch gives Valeria that backstory in Age of Conan: Valeria #1, though it is hardly the most unique one. It is, however, a good story – a classic tale of revenge with Valeria studying to become the greatest sword master in the world, as she hunts the mysterious man who killed her older brother. It’s not the most original motivation, admittedly, but if it’s good enough for Inigo Montoya, it’s certainly good enough for Valeria.
Finch’s script explains Valeria’s backstory with a modicum of exposition and perfectly captures the spirit of Howard’s heroine. Valeria will not tolerate disrespect from anyone but she differentiates herself from Red Sonja in that she’s less inclined to kill needlessly when she can disarm or humiliate an opponent instead. Finch also captures the flirtatious side of Valeria’s personality, showing that while she won’t tolerate an insult, she is not opposed to the romantic attentions of a man who shows her respect.
The artwork by Aneke is pitch-perfect. Aneke is an old hand at this sort of story, having illustrated Marguerite Bennett’s Red Sonja: The Falcon Throne and that skill and experience is shown here. The action-sequences are well-choreographed and the character designs unique and memorable. Aneke also manages the neat trick, surprisingly rare among sword-and-sorcery artists, of drawing Valeria as a woman who is sexy without flaunting her sexuality. The colors by Andy Troy are also worthy of praise, adding a level to the finished art that is both vivid and visceral.
If you’re a fan of Robert E. Howard’s heroine, Age of Conan: Valeria is a worthy origin story. If you merely like stories about strong women with a more realistic edge, it will suit that purpose as well. Highly recommended to all lovers of high adventure, even if they don’t usually enjoy the fantasy genre.