Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review - Monstress, Volume One: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Short review: Maika gives herself over to her greatest enemy to find out about her own past. Things more or less go downhill for almost everyone from there.

Nothing but a girl
But maybe so there's much more
A monster within

Full review: The most important thing to know about Monstress is that it is, quite simply, a beautiful book. Yes, it has an intriguing story. Yes, it has a collection of interesting characters. Yes, it has an exotic and almost ethereal setting. But the one defining feature of this book is that it is full of some of the most beautiful artwork to be found in a graphic novel. It is also a brutal and gripping story about a young woman who is more than she seems, and the harsh and unforgiving but beautiful, and at times dazzling, world that she lives in.

As the first book in a new series, Awakening is heavy on world-building and character development, and somewhat light on plot development. That isn't to say that there isn't a story here, it is just that the story is, for the most part, used to give exposition and background relating to the overarching conflict to set the stage for the story of the main characters rather than delving into the stories of the characters in the book. The basic framework is that the world is divided into two regions, one controlled by humanity and the other controlled by the mystical "arcanics" who are essentially a collection of various mystical beings, some of which look almost human, while others have wildly exotic forms. Humanity is dominated by the Cumea, a religious organization of warrior -nuns possessed of mystical powers whose mission seems to be to rid the world of arcanics, while the arcanics are divided into two ostensibly allied groups: The Dusk Court and the Dawn Court. The two sides were at war in the past, but are now settled into an uneasy, watchful peace kept mostly because the Cumea were frightened by a powerful weapon the arcanics used to end the last conflict between the races.

Complicating matters somewhat, there are a trio of other races in this world, the most prominent of which is the sneaky and inquisitive cat race, identifiable by the many tails. The cats believe themselves to be the oldest (and most important) race, although most everyone else in the story seems to think of them as dangerous nuisances who are not to be trusted. One of the interesting conceits of the story is that every so often the book steps away from the narrative for a little time in the classroom with a cat professor giving a lesson on the history of the world and its inhabitants. The other two races in the setting are the beast-like Ancients and the enigmatic and terrible Old Gods. The Ancients seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to ancient Egyptian deities, and their indulgence in human sexual partners is apparently the reason for the existence of arcanics. The Old Gods are Lovecraftian entities, inscrutable and horrific who were driven from the world in ages past, much to the relief of all of the other inhabitants of this fantasy realm.

The opening page of Monstress shows the story's protagonist, an arcanic named Maika, naked and seemingly vulnerable, about to be sold as a slave before one of the warrior-nuns of the Cumea claim her and several other arcanics for sale as "donations". This apparent helplessness is deceptive however, and serves as a metaphor for much of the book. Maika is, in actuality, the most dangerous person in the room, possessed of a secret that makes her a threat to everyone around her. This theme is replicated in several other points throughout the book - the cute and cuddly looking multi-tailed cats are actually crafty spies, wise lore masters, and deadly assassins, the Cumean warrior-nuns despise arcanics and yet depend upon them for their abilities, and so on. Time and again, what is presented on the surface is inverted when one looks below the surface, a fact that looms large when one realizes exactly what Maika's secret is, and what it might mean for both her and the rest of the world around her. One might note, however, that these are only impressions: One gets the feeling that none of the viewpoints in the book are entirely reliable, and some are clearly engaged in outright deception.

Despite being a beautifully illustrated book, Monstress is quite a dark story. The book's tone isn't quite "grimdark", but it is just shy of it. The Cumea are quite ruthless as villains, and there are several sequences that are not merely violent but are over the top in their savagery. What makes these scenes truly chilling is that they are often undertaken by the characters in an almost casual manner - highlighting the fact that for the Cumea, for example, dissecting arcanic children and harvesting their organs is simply another task in a routine day's work. But it isn't merely that the villainous Cumea are given to vicious actions and offhand betrayal of their own, but so are their opponents, raising the question of whether any of the competing factions in this fictional world are actually "good guys". To be blunt, this book pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the depravity to which people will sink if they believe that their enemies are not even people. Even Maika displays an almost shocking level of callousness at times, and of course, the dark secret she holds is deadly to those around her - a fact that she hides even from many of those well-disposed to her, with some fairly tragic consequences. This isn't a story for the faint-hearted or for those looking for some light entertainment. It is a book about a terrifying monster who behaves like a terrifying monster and is still the most admirable individual in the story.

In the end, however, everything about Monstress comes back to the artwork. The story is brutal and dark, the protagonist morally suspect, the villains horrific, and the scenario makes everything seem dire, but it is all done so beautifully that it is impossible not to be carried right into the story. The lush depictions create an atmosphere that pervades the book with an almost perfectly ghastly allure that is both enticing and repellent at the same time. All of the elements of the story are well-done, but without the feeling of desolate magnificence that results from the depicted scenes, the parts would merely add up to an average final product. The artwork, however, elevates this book well above the ordinary, filling it with an ominous sense of dread that is both frightening and delicious.

Subsequent book in the series: Monstress, Volume Two: The Blood

2016 Hugo Award Winner for Best Graphic Story: The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams, III
2018 Hugo Award Winner for Best Graphic Story: TBD

List of Hugo Winners for Best Graphic Story

2017 Hugo Award Finalists

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  1. Very nice blog!

    I gave your blog a follow, and I would truly appreciate it if you could check out my book reviews blog located at and possibly give it a follow as well! Looking forward to reading more of your reviews!

    - El

    1. @El's Book Reviews: I hope to be able to post more reviews in the near future. I have a backlog of about a half dozen books that I have read but not completed reviews for. I also have some short fiction reviews that need to be posted, and I am hoping to be able to get those up in the next couple of days as well.