Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Monstress Volume One: Awakening

by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress is a dark, intense story of fear, cruelty, and hatred set in a gorgeous Asian steampunk-style world universe which juxtaposes great wealth with abject misery. The war between humans and the arcanic people is over, and a wall divides the two sides. But on the wrong side of the wall arcanics, who are people with the characteristics of various animals, are enslaved by humans. The worst fate of all is reserved for those who fall into the hands of the sect of witches known as the Cumaea, who are known for their barbaric practices.

The story centres around Maika Halfwolf, a teenage arcanic with a missing forearm and a curious brand. She is in captivity, but unlike many of the other unfortunate victims of the humans she has brought it on herself because she's trying to find someone and to uncover answers about her past. Maika has a monster inside her, and it's one she struggles to control at times. For all of the darkness in this story, Maika may be more afraid of herself than she is of anything or anyone else.

The mood is intense and terrifying, with gruesome scenes and death never far away. Sometimes the narrative switches back to the past, whether to the recent war or to more peaceful times, although there's a sense of foreboding and mystery that overshadows these flashbacks. There are few, if any, jokes. The only thing that lightens the story are the cute children, particularly the part fox girl called Kippa. However, the presence of adorable children doesn't mean that they're immune from getting hurt or killed, and very early in the story we're shown that nobody is safe. All of the above means that the tension varies between high and through the roof.

The art is fabulous. The colours are mostly washed out and muted, but the dress and surroundings are beautifully intricate. Sana Takeda's attention to detail is a delight, and the characters' faces are clearly distinguishable from each other even though many of them are conventionally pretty. There's a lack of men due to a matriarchal society, which is noticeable because in a graphic novel aimed at older readers it's such a rarity to see women playing so many roles. Here they get to be heroes, villains, oppressors, sidekicks, and much more.

If Monstress has a flaw it's that a few of Maika's adversaries lack nuance and seem to be relentlessly evil without any indication of what's behind their hatred. So the story is very dark, with a high emotional impact. However, it's also layered with metaphor, and there seems to be a serious message behind it. The creators are using magic and monsters to discuss themes of difference, war, propaganda and fear, and this resonates with what's happening in the modern world. So in spite of a handful of over the top characters, most of the characters in the story are much more enigmatic. This is a rich book with sumptuous art, and there's far more to it than is obvious on the first reading.

26th August 2016

Book Details

Year: 2016

Categories: Books

  Female Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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Source: own copy