17 Mar

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu, uses a unique fantasy setting to tell the epic story of a magically inspired war. In it, readers are instantly thrust into a world of strange creatures, unique magic, and an unexplained conspiracy which gets more and more interesting with every page. Liu does a fantastic job in crafting a world with a lore so dense that it feels like we have only just scratched the surface of everything there is to learn. This is a compelling series pushed forward by strong, yet beautifully flawed characters making their way through this world and uncovering aspects of it which we are only just beginning to understand. The end result is a graphic novel that doesn’t just appeal to fantasy lovers, it also appeals to anyone interesting in epic stories set in detailed and elaborate worlds. Before even getting into the actual story behind this series, the sheer scope of the worldbuilding present here must be addressed. Liu has created a society with a rich history of war and development, that has a number of strict rules for the storyline to follow. There are multiple distinct races; magical elements, whose properties remain surprisingly consistent; and a full history behind every character, location, and artifact. Discovering all of this becomes one of the reader’s biggest objectives and gives them something to look forward to with every page they read.

On the surface, Monstress is the story of a teenage girl named Maika Halfwolf who is what’s known as an ‘Arcanic’, a sort of magical creature with features that borrow from both humans and animals. Maika is lucky in that she passes completely as a human, but other Arcanics don’t fare as well, possessing everything from giant feathered wings to fox-like ears and tails. Passing is a problem, given that Arcanics are hunted as food and sold into slavery by the “Cumaea,” an order of witches who gain their power by consuming Arcanic flesh. Unsurprisingly, the Arcanics and Cumaea have been at war with one another for hundreds of years, and Maika is caught in the middle, set on killing the Cumaea who murdered her mother. But there’s a problem in Maika’s plan for revenge. Her body – or, more specifically, the stump of her severed left arm – is possessed by a giant, Elder God-type creature that is able to emerge and take over if Maika doesn’t ‘feed’ it the energy of her fellow Arcanics. The god is mentally linked to Maika, making her devastatingly powerful and dangerous, but the cost – and the potential risk to any of Maika’s allies, is almost too great to make that power worth it.

Stories about persecuted outsiders aren’t exactly new in terms of western comics – the X-Men basically defined the genre for a generation by way of difficult-to-miss metaphors about mutants challenging the status quo set by humans, but where Monstress excels is in taking that metaphor to its next logical extreme. The war between the Arcanics and the Cumaea will resonate with Marvel fans as much as their favorite X-Men epics, but it accomplishes this by turning the dynamic on its head. Both the Arcanics and the Cumaea hold power that is innate to themselves, either as magic or as physical mutation, and both are bolstered by the bureaucracy and political systems developed by their respective kingdoms. The Arcanics are unlike mutants in that they’re not hated or feared by the Cumaea, but prized and hunted, and the Cumaea are unlike humans in that they’re reliant on their own magical abilities to ensure their superiority. Of course, these slight differences also make for an almost endless amount of grey space between the two sides. Arguably the Arcanics are the heroes, if only because Maika the protagonist is an Arcanic, but neither side has clean hands – something that Maika struggles to cope with as she sets out on her journey. This adds yet another layer of complexity onto Monstress‘s already sophisticated narrative, providing virtually endless possibilities for reveals and character arcs. The potential for revelation about exactly who is in the right and what their real motivations may be adds a level of nuance that would be right at home in the most classically beloved epic fantasy novels.

But that doesn’t mean that Monstress is too high concept. It manages to avoid feeling too dense or too self-involved by playfully highlighting Maika’s flaws as a hero. She’s anything but a traditional protagonist and her journey is anything but valorous. She’s selfish, sullen, usually crass; reluctant to trust new allies and quick to judge new enemies. Her bad temper and rude behavior is tempered by her unwitting sidekick, Kippa, a young fox-like Arcanic girl, who evolves into a sort of moral compass for Maika’s bloody crusade. Kippa’s unapologetic naive and innocence provide a perfect – frequently hilarious – counterpoint to Maika’s swarthiness. And her habit of clenching her giant, fluffy fox tail like a security blanket is just downright adorable. The only aspect of this series which may not delight everyone is how confusing it can be, at times. Right from the start, characters and narration use a plethora of terms which readers do not yet understand. In fact, readers do not fully understand most of the terms on the book’s first few pages until they finish the entire book. For some, this could be frustrating, however I thoroughly enjoyed it. Being tossed into this enigmatic society with zero bearings allowed for a journey of discovery which only added to my sense of wonder while reading. I also feel as if it allowed Liu to write in a way where no part of the story is boring, as she did not waste time on simple introductions. By doing this, the entire graphic novel is interesting and rereads are even more rewarding.

One of the most instantly recognizable aspect of the Monstress series is the mindblowing visual style. Stunning characters and robust landscapes pack the book, as artist Sana Takeda creates the world of Monstress. Precise detail can be found on each and every page, enough that readers can spend hours just soaking up how nice the backgrounds look. Not to mention, Takeda’s colors match the rest of her work perfectly in developing a thematic style for the book which brings out the magic in this mysterious new world. It is safe to say that this is a visually stunning book that will leave everyone impressed. This artwork isn’t just pretty though, it also is incredibly imaginative and descriptive when it comes to showing exactly what is going on in this brand new world. Steampunk cities and weaponry blend with a medieval setting to create the basis for a world that is foreign, yet familiar, right from the start. It makes the book feel like something readers have never seen before, while also feeling like something that has been around for ages; as if it were a new take on a childhood fairy tale. Throw in a host of breathtaking cities, strange animals, and horrifying monsters, and you have the setting for a world any reader would be interested in learning more about. This positively enhances the reading experience by as much, if not more, than the story does and makes this already impressive book even more so.

The end result is a story that fits happily between the lines of comic genres all while maintaining the dramatic forward momentum of the best classic high fantasy stories. From its gorgeous styling to its modified superhero tropes, Monstress has managed to find the best of each world it borrows from and build them into something greater than the sum of its parts. In this tremendous fantasy epic, readers will witness the beginning of a war, uncover a hidden mystery, and learn about an incredibly detailed and elaborate new world. Every aspect of this book is interesting, from the intense action sequences to simply uncovering the story’s mystery, and will constantly have readers on the edge of their seats. Along the way, deep and meaningful themes are explored and allow readers to use this fictional world to reflect upon the real one. This is a great book for readers who enjoy fantasy or anyone who likes books with plenty of world building but, at the same time, despite the grandiose environment this is still a book about people: people who struggle to maintain things like power or friendship in the face of a world working against them. This is by no means a simple fantasy book, so those looking for more will easily find it.

One Response to “Monstress”

  1. reptilianmonster April 5, 2019 at 6:52 pm #

    Monstress, along with Isola, are my absolute favorite recent works of graphic fiction. I hope to see it continued.

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