Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (2016)

August 15th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Devastatingly Gorgeous Artwork & Intricate World-Building Make Monstress a Must-Read

five out of five stars

To quote the poets…murder is terribly exhausting.

— 4.5 stars —

I pre-ordered Monstress based on the cover alone; and, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became. A steampunk fantasy set in turn-of-the-century Asia, featuring a diverse cast of mostly-female characters, written and illustrated by two women of color? Sign me up!

As it turns out, Monstress is everything I’d hoped for and then some. The story takes place in 1920s Asia, though you might not know it at first glance: this alternate ‘verse is so very different from our own. Humans are not the only – or even the first – sapients to walk the earth. (To borrow a term from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.) We were preceded by Cats, the children of Ubasti: Multi-tailed, talking creatures, who can wield a weapon as easily as a sarcastic comeback. The immortal Ancients assumed the forms of beasts and, like their Greek cousins, enjoyed toying with humans. It is from such relationships that Arcanic halfbreeds were born: some are human in appearance, while most are not; yet all Arcanics possess great powers, powers which can be extracted from their very bones. Last but not least are the Old Gods, of which precious little is known. Some believe them to be monsters.

While humans and Arcanics coexisted in peace for generations, war broke out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. An infernal bomb, which rained destruction down upon the city of Constantine, resulted in a stalemate. Now both races live on their respective sides of the wall. Yet the Cumaea – a powerful order of nun-witches that rules the human federation – is intent resurrecting the war and exterminating the Arcanics.

Enter: Seventeen-year-old Maika Halfwolf, a human-like Arcanic who lost her mother and an arm in the conflict. Freed from a prison camp, Maika now lives in another kind of cage; one of her mother’s making, perhaps. Deep inside Maika dwells a hungry, tentacled monster; one that could tip the scales in favor of the arcanic – or destroy them all. Though it longs to break free, Maika has other plans: find and kill the nun-witch who betrayed her mother.

Monstress doesn’t waste any time: the opening scene shows Maika’s daring infiltration of the Cumaea’s compound in the border city Zamora. I was hooked from the first panel, and quickly found myself immersed in the story. Maika is a compelling and fascinating heroine; you can’t help but dig her devil-may-care attitude, not to mention her steampunk Furiosa mechanical arm. And the little fox-girl Kippa is just the cutest; every time she hugged her fluffy fox tail in fear, I wanted to scoop her up and give her snuggles.

Between the rich colors, the fantastical creatures, the art deco vibe, and all the badass white-haired ladies, the art is simply stunning. I all but devoured it with my eyeballs. Sometimes I have trouble following the action in comic books, especially when two or more of the characters are a little too close in appearance (insert your generic white guy here). But the breadth of diversity in Monstress is just amazing: women of all skin tones, with some diversity in body shape, and a wide variety of lovely and intricate hairstyles. Not to mention all the richly colored robes and masks! The landscape is just all kinds of gorgeous.

What with all the double-crossing and shifting alliances, I did sometimes have trouble keeping track of the plot. It’s pretty intricate, and I felt at times like I should maybe be taking notes. The lecture excerpts from Professor Tam Tam (a totally squeezable blue-eyed cat) proved immensely helpful, though sometimes they came a little late. I suspect that some readers won’t be too keen on the showing-not-telling aspect of these little “cheat sheets.” I’m a fan.

Either way, I feel like Monstress might merit a re-read, to see I might discover any new information the second time around. Hence the 4.5 stars. I eagerly await the Hollywood adaptation (no whitewashing please!), but I’ll settle for Volume 2.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Set in an alternate steampunk version of 1920s Asia – a matriarchal society in which humans, Ancients, and their arcanic “halfbreed” offspring coexist – the cast is very diverse and dominated by women. While many of the characters are Asian, a variety of skin tones are represented as well, ranging from white to light brown to dark brown, hinting perhaps at a mix of ancestries: Asian, European, and African.

Additionally, the witch-nuns Sophia and Atena are lovers.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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