Monstress: Demands complete attention, careful consideration

Monstress by Marjorie Liu (author) & Sana Takeda (artist)

MONSTRESS VOL 1Every now and then, a story will tip you into a strange new world without any attempt at exposition or context, leaving you to catch up on events in the most exhilarating way possible. You either sink or swim, and Monstress is one such graphic novel, demanding complete attention, careful consideration, and at least two re-reads in order to grasp all of its detail.

We first meet Maiko Halfwolf as she’s put up for auction as a slave – a pretty clear indication of how dark this story can get, even when it becomes apparent that she’s more in control of the situation than first appears. Piece by piece, we get an understanding of Maiko’s history and what she’s attempting: that this is a girl searching for answers to her past in a world on the brink of war.

I’m reluctant to say too much, as most of the enjoyment in reading Monstress comes from the fact you have little idea of what to expect. Marjorie Liu has crafted a story with plenty of twists and turns, and illustrator Sana Takeda depicted a world of steampunk horror, art deco styling, and Egyptian/Asian aesthetics that is a feast for the eyes. Every panel is filled with incredible detail and colour – you could pore over them for days.

It’s also notable for its range of female characters – nearly every main character is a woman, each one different in age, race, and affiliation. An advantage to this is that the conflict isn’t a straightforward “women vs men” battle of the sexes, but which instead pits women of varying motivations and agendas against each other. Some are sympathetic, others are loathsome, and making the plot revolve around them neatly removes any unnecessary gender politics that might have otherwise distracted from the story.

That there is a rich history here is apparent, though it’s doled out in careful measures, with only a few pages of exposition (framed as university lectures) and conveyed mainly through conversation and oblique background references. This is a world of witch-nuns, shaman-empresses, half-human hybrids, ancient gods, many-tailed cats, ruthless inquisitrixes – all of which serves to form the underlying structure of this world and its many divisions.

It’s also not for the faint of heart, as Monstress depicts beheadings, slavery, vivisection, torture, mutilation – you get the picture. But this volume (which contains the first six issues of the comic books) is still a story to be savoured and enjoyed more than once, if not just to untangle the myriad of characters and their ongoing schemes.

I think I’ve just talked myself into reading it again.


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for this great review. I agree that this series is a solid 5 stars. I also agree that this series not only merits, but requires, multiple readings. A novel of words only could never develop such complexity of characters and such a fully realized world in so few pages. It’s amazing for this feat alone.

    At the moment, volume one is on sale on Comixology for $3.99! That’s quite a deal considering issue one sells for $4.99.

  2. I was really impressed with the artwork and the complexity of this story when I read it. I found it was a bit dark for me, and I think Brad nailed the reason; the combination of image and word created a powerful impact. It’s been nearly a year and I MIGHT be ready for a re-read… I really do want to read it again, and read the next one.

  3. You’ve certainly talked me into buying this book sooner than I was planning to. :)

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