Monstress was a beautiful and deadly introduction to the world that Marjorie M. Liu created and Sana Takeda illustrated. After an apocalyptic event, lines were drawn between the Humans and the Arcanics. We follow Maika Halfwolf and her companions as they try to find what exactly happened on that day and how Maika is connected to it. Maika has secrets of her own and sometimes it’s best that they remain hidden.
For the most part, I couldn’t get enough of Monstress. There were moments when the story was a bit slow because the author needed to introduce concepts or characters to the reader, but as a whole, it started immediately in the action and didn’t stop. We learn that there are the Arcanics, who look different from the humans (often appearing half animal) and who are not considered human ever since the events of the war. Treating them badly is commonplace, although not every human is like that. The Cumaea, a sort of witch-nun, are after Arcanics for their Lilium, a substance that they can harvest from Arcanics they’ve captured. They’re powerful enough that they can do what they want, and no one can stop them. This is a world that had steam-punk influences, but also maintained that it was a fantasy world where gods exist.
One of my absolute favorite parts of Monstress was the fact that nearly all of the characters–the protagonist, one of the companions, the villains–were female. There were men, but the story was not driven by them. I love that the protagonist, Maika, was harsh and didn’t want to step into the shoes of a heroine when others pressured her toward that direction. She remained firmly rooted in her own motivations. She wasn’t unwilling to change, however. One of my favorite things to read were her actions with Kippa and Ren, because it really showed how traveling with them was changing her from this tough, prickly person to someone who was still tough and prickly, but she was willing to extend her drive to survive to protecting them. Maika is an unlikely caretaker, but nothing is more natural than her slipping into that role for Kippa. The characters in this are also extremely diverse. Because there was an apocalyptic event in this world, it seems like everyone who survived came together and built what they could. There’s not any room for prejudices, unless you’re an Arcanic.
Liu has a knack for pacing her story out for her readers. We start in the action, so there’s a lot of things that we’re unaware of at first. The backstory of this world and of Maika’s place in it is given to us in bits and pieces. It allows for slow world-building that ultimately really pays off, particularly in the motivations of the potential villains of the series. I say potential because although we’re given their motivations, Liu has already proven in each part of Monstress that what you expect is not always what is true. By the time I finished Monstress, I was more aware of what was going on in the world but there’s still so much more going on that we haven’t been told yet. We know that some people are keeping secrets from other people. As readers, we’re lucky to be in the know. I’m really looking forward to what will happen when those secrets become common knowledge to the people it’s being kept from, because it will make for some intense moments and illustrations.
The illustrations. Oh my gosh. I would love to have prints of some of the city and wilderness scenes. It is absolutely stunning. I love that there are moments where it looks brushed on the page. I won’t lie, when the story dragged a bit the art is what drew me through the story. Takeda was able to illustrate facial expressions perfectly that even when there wasn’t text I was immediately able to understand what the characters were feeling. There were so many lovely wide-shots of the world that really let me take in what it was like. It was a way to introduce readers to the world without words, and it worked perfectly when there were large, detailed panels. I’m so glad that it’s in full color, because Takeda is incredibly talented. I would definitely buy an artbook for this series.
The one thing that may deter readers is the violence. I didn’t find that it was excessive or anything like that, but it was there. I felt that it was necessary to the story. This isn’t a kind, post-war setting. Things that happened during the war have decided what the world will be like, such as who will be in power and who will not. I wasn’t too grossed out by any of it, as it was mostly blood or stylized in a way that didn’t make it gruesome.
I’m definitely a fan of the art and intrigued by the story that Liu presented in the first volume, so I want to check out the rest when I can. I’d definitely recommend it for readers who like fantasy with a bit of a dystopian feel.
I received a copy of Monstress from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.