It takes place during the Ottoman incursions into Europe in the 16th Century (specifically between the Battle of Mohács and the first Siege of Vienna) and revolves around Knight of St. John Gottfried von Kalmbach and female swashbuckler Red Sonya of Rogatino, who strike up a partnership after surviving the fall of Mohács and trying to escape from the feared Tartar warrior Mikhal Oglu, also known as the Vulture, sent by the Sultan to bring him Gottfried's head.
Sonya is notable for serving as the blueprint for Red Sonja, who was created by Roy Thomas for the Conan comics. She debuted in the 1973 Marvel-published Conan the Barbarian issue #23 which adapted The Shadow of the Vulture and setting in Hyboria instead of our Earth, with Vienna being replaced by the city of Makkalet, Gottfried replaced by Conan, Sonya by Red Sonja, Suleyman by Yezdigerd the Turanian Emperor. Mikhal is the only one left unchanged except he is Turanian rather than Tatar.
The Shadow of the Vulture provides examples of:
- Action Girl: Sonya is a skilled adventurer and musketeer who saves Gottfried's life several points during the story.
- The Alcoholic: Gottfried is a drunk and is shown completely hammered out of his mind by the time Oglu and his men find him.
- Animal Motifs: Oglu wears a dark costume with a pair of vulture wings that fell across the floor.
- Antagonist Title: The Vulture refers to The Heavy Mikhal Oglu.
- Been There, Shaped History: Gottfried is accidentally responsible for making the Ottomans withdraw from Vienna under siege when he goes an druken tirade after arguing with Sonya.
- Big Bad: Suleyman the Magnificent.
- Cain and Abel: Red Sonya's sister is none other than the Sultan's favorite concubine Roxelana (also known as Hurrem Sultan). While they are in the opposite sides of the war with Sonya supposed to be the good one and Roxelana the evil one due to being the Big Bad's Dark Mistress, we never really see how Roxelana feels about her sister, while Sonya refers to her in a very insulting way everytime she talks about her and is the one most eager to kill her:Gottfried: Why did you wish for the Sultana Roxelana for a target, my girl?Sonya: Because she's my sister, the slut!
- The Cavalier Years: The very start of them, in the 16th century.
- Classical Anti-Hero: Gottfried. He is a disgraced knight who spends much of his time drunk, needs his ass being saved by the resident Action Girl and the plot only happens because of something that happened in the heat of the previous battle. Nevertheless, he manages to save Vienna, albeit completely by accident.
- Co-Dragons: Ibrahim and Oglu to Suleyman. The former serves as his grand vizier and adviser while the latter is his muscled enforcer.
- The Dreaded: Oglu whose very name was a shuddering watchword of horror to all western Asia.
- Disproportionate Retribution: The reason why Suleyman sends Oglu to pursue and kill Gottfried: the knight managed to bash him on the head and he wants payback.
- Evil Redhead: Roxelana is red-haired like her sister and is considered an absolute bitch by both Sonya and the Sultan's own vizier Ibrahim.
- Historical-Domain Character: Suleyman the Great, his Grand Vizier Ibrahim and Roxelana were real people.
- The Heavy: Oglu serves this role to Suleyman, who is the Big Bad but doesn't sully his hands with any dirty job.
- Hordes from the East: Oglu and his men are Tartars in origin. Truth in Television since the Ottoman Empire employed them as vassals like the Crimean Khanate.
- The Lad-ette: Sonya is said to "drinks the strongest head under the table and outswears a Spaniard". An German knight snarks that if the Tartars had kidnapped and taken her to Suleyman's Royal Harem, he'd almost pity the Sultan for having to handle her.
- Made a Slave: It's mentioned that Sonya's sister was kidnapped by Crimean Tatars and dragged off to the Sultan's harem where she became his favorite concubine.
- Spanner in the Works: Gottfried completely sabotages the Ottoman conquest of Vienna by charging into a drunken stupor against the sneaking Turks.
- Villainous Breakdown: The story ends with Suleyman experiencing one when he sees Mikhal Oglu's head in place of Gottfried's, made even worse by the mocking note left by him and Sonya.