Book: “Monstress (Vol.1): Awakening” by Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda (Ill.)
Publishing Info: Image Comics, July 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Review: When I first heard of “Monstress” by Marjorie Liu, I was pretty compelled by the description. Hell, I even put it on one of our Highlights lists last year around the time it came out. The premise definitely sounds like it would be right up my alley: a girl is part of a group of creatures called Arcanics that are oppressed and hunted down after a war, and she is possessed by an ancient monster. And while it was fantasy, a genre that I am very picky about and have very specific preferences in for it to appeal to me, I thought that it sounded enough like ‘dark fantasy’ that it would suit my tastes. Monsters, wars, dark magic and lots and lots of violence, all of these things piqued my interests, and I can say that “Monstress: Awakening” delivers all that and much much more.
Maika Halfwolf is our protagonist, and we meet her just as she is being sold off for experimentation. As a member of the Arcanics, but as someone who can pass for human, she is a hot commodity for her buyer, a woman who is a Cumea. Cumea are sorceresses who absorb the life energy from Arcanics to keep their own power levels up. So right away we are shown the brutal world that Maika and others like her live in, and how it is to be in a society where they are constantly beaten down and treated as less than, so far as to be slaughtered so that others may gain from it. Intricate themes to be certain, and some that I was very pleased to see in this story. It was also really neat to see a group of female protagonists, and very nuanced and complex women at that. Maika, of course, has a lot of sides to herself. She’s violent and driven by a need to avenge her dead mother, Moriko Halfwolf, but she also has moments of compassion and empathy, as well as glimpses into a time period where she wasn’t as jaded and cynical about the world she lives in. We also get to see the power of female friendships in a time of trauma and war, as she forges bonds with a couple of female characters, some part of her new life, others part of her old one. But inside of her is a monster that is hinted at being one of the greatest evils in the history of the world that she lives in. However, it isn’t quite clear just what this being wants yet.
We also get a compelling group of villains within this world that Liu has created. I like the idea of female sorceresses being seen as nun-like, their entire lives devoted to their powers. The hierarchy of power was cool to see, and I liked the very intimidating Inquisitrixes, those sent out to find Maika and her group after she escapes. You also get a sense of the corruption that the Cumea have inside their system. Nothing says feminism to me like having fascinating female villains, and the Cumea are definitely a well rounded set of villains. But the most charming group in this are the cats. Yes, there are cats in this series that have many roles, from sidekicks to warriors to professors, and I really, really enjoyed that.
The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It has influences from manga, steampunk, and art deco styles, and they all meld together to make a sumptuous feast for the eyes of the reader. I was blown away multiple times by the details that went into it, and how there were so many intricate things inside of the art, from the details on the clothing to the etchings of the backgrounds.
But, sadly, at the end of the day, I can only give this six stars. And that is because this is definitely a bit too high fantasy for me. But I want to really emphasize that the rating I am giving it is one that I have for it, personally, just because this isn’t really my kind of story. That said, people who really like high fantasy and intrigue to go with their monsters and mayhem would probably like this a lot. In fact, looking at how a few of my friends have rated it, I can safely say that my rating is my own, and that it should NOT deter anyone from reading this if you think that all of these things sound great. Hell, I’m probably even going to keep on going in the series, because I like Maika so much and want to see what is going on with this monster inside of her. And the themes, too, are going to bring me back for more, since feminism, racism, and colonialism can be found in their own ways in this world and are explored very well. Again, fantasy fans, take note of this one. It’s dark and it’s violent, but it’s also gorgeous and will probably completely suck you in.
Rating 6: A little high fantasy for my tastes, but the characters are great and the art is beautiful. The themes that Liu explore are dark and complex, and I think that they really give this story a little more than other series like it may.
Find “Monstress (Vol.1): Awakening” at your library using WorldCat!