Monstress: Awakening. Writing by Marjorie Liu and art by Sana Takeda. ★★★★
Monstress is a darkly enchanting story told in comic book format. I read a bound version that collected the first six issues into something more akin to a graphic novel. I’m not generally much of a comic book reader (although I’ve picked up a bit of Ms. Marvel), but I just kept hearing such wonderful things about Monstress. And once I read it, I knew it was something I needed to review.
Monstress is a fantasy story, set in a world divided between two principal groups: the humans and the Arcanics. The Arcanics are the half human children of the immortal ancients, grown so numerous in number that they make up their own distinct group, gifted with some of the powers of their parents. Humans have no magic and are under the sway of the Cumaea, a group of priestesses who preach the purity of the human race and cannibalize Arcanics for the magic in their bones. Before the start of Monstress, the humans and Arcanics were at war, but now a tenuous peace exists.
Into this danger walks Maika Halfwolf, a stunning antiheroine. As is common in the fantasy genre, she’s an orphan with a mysterious past. After her mother’s death, Maika became a slave. Although she eventually escaped, she’s now risking everything by letting herself get sold to the Cumaea to learn more about her past. For Maika is not alone in her own skin. Dwelling inside of her is a monster, who’s dark hunger puts everyone around Maika at risk.
Maika may never have wanted to be monstrous, but that’s what she is now. She may try not to be dangerous, but she can’t escape the fact of what she is. And even beyond the monster within her skin, Maika is more than willing to commit acts of violence to meet her goals. She’s someone who has survived in a world of warfare and slavery, and that survival has shaped her into who she is now. While she’s not a protagonist who I’d want to be friends with, she is a very compelling character.
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda populate their fantastical world with a remarkable variety of female characters. Maika is far from the only well written woman you’ll find within these pages. For starters, there’s her companion, Kippa… who I actually thought was male when I was reading the comic. Then I looked at other reviews and it turns out Kippa’s a girl. Oops! Beyond Kippa, there’s all of the Cumaea, the witches who retain control over the humans. The Cumaea are all female, and I get the impression that their society is distinctly matriarchal. While the Cumaea are mainly villains, the story hints that some of them want to change the hostility between humans and Archanics.
Sana Takeda’s art work absolutely blows me away. It’s exquisitely beautiful, and I adore the art nouveau style of many of the panels. The art is just so gorgeous! It’s easily the some of the best artwork I have ever seen in a graphic novel or comic. The art style also worked amazingly well with the story and world being presented. The world of Monstress is dark, magical, and complex. Takeda’s art wonderfully conveyed those characteristics.
If Monstress has one flaw, it’s that I found it a very confusing read. So much happens so quickly that it can be hard to keep up with. I don’t know when I’m supposed to be wondering about something or when I wasn’t catching the plot. Maybe it’s my own fault as a reader? I’m not a usual reader of graphic novels or comics.
Reading Monstress was a spellbinding experience. I was utterly transported to the world of Liu and Takeda’s imagining. For all the darkness of this story – war, slavery, murder, destruction, death – I never once thought about quitting. Monstress has snared my heart, and I will be eager to get a hold of the next collection. I only wonder why I waited so long to read this first volume.