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Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
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Book Name: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening
Author: Marjorie Liu (author) and Sana Takeda (illustrator)
Publisher(s): Image Comics (US)
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Horror / Steampunk
Release Date: July 19, 2016 (US) July 21, 2016 (UK)

In a gorgeously painted world, humans and arcanics exist in an uneasy truce. The war between them isn’t over, merely on hold. And since the humans have a habit of harvesting the arcanics for parts, you can see why they don’t get along.

Monstress, Volume 1 - Awakening (cover)One arcanic, Maika Half-Wolf, allows herself to be captured by human slavers in order to infiltrate a secretive research facility. We soon learn that Maika is suffering from a terrible curse, though not in quite the form you might have guessed.

And that’s as much setup as I should give you for Monstress, Volume 1. The unfolding mysteries and deepening lore are key to its allure.

Monstress is a graphic novel, so let’s talk about pictures. The art style is an exquisite blend of Art Deco and manga, two visual flavours that look great together.

Monstress delights the eye with incredibly ornate machinery, dyed silk and peacock feather robes, gold leaf, decorative filigreed masks, and a fashion designer’s idea of military uniforms. The more mystical events are accompanied by imagery that looks to have come from an ancient Egyptian tomb by way of a 1920s fever dream.

Almost all of the characters are painfully beautiful and many of them have the long flowing hair and tall, spare frames that typify Art Deco figures. The manga influence is shown most strongly in the arcanic characters—big-eyed fox-girls, raven boys, oni, and even more characters with long flowing hair. The setting itself also seems very manga, with its warring races, martial arts battles and cute mini lore-dumps from a cat professor called Tam Tam.

Monstress, Volume 1 - Awakening (art 2)

Then there are the deliriously evil villains, the troubled protagonist and the shades-of-grey morality, which all combine to create a feeling of dark fantasy. Let me qualify that statement, since dark fantasy can mean anything from a grim and gritty pseudo medieval world where the orcs are particularly vicious to a complex love triangle between a bounty hunter, her boss, (who’s the devil himself), and a hunky vampire king. So, to be clear, Monstress has the trappings of epic fantasy but is, at heart, a horror series.

Yes, it plays out in a secondary world full of non-human races, strange gods and magic. But it features brutal violence, people being burned alive, implied sexual assault, physical and psychological abuse of children, cannibalism, slavery, war crimes, genocide, post-traumatic stress, and the slow, piece-by-piece harvesting of sentient beings for parts (again, including children). (There’s a bit of nudity and swearing too if that bothers you.)

It’s not the horror of ‘oh no, what could be hiding under the bed?’ It’s the horror of ‘oh no, this is what people are capable of doing to each other’. The horror of prison camps and bigotry and systematic dehumanisation. The fact that the young characters all have that adorable anime cuteness makes the crimes committed against them even more traumatic. If you tend to empathise a lot with the characters in a book and if you’re feeling a bit fragile due to the ongoing global crisis, you might want to pace yourself with Monstress, because it will hurt you.

Monstress, Volume 1 - Awakening (art 1)But then some long-haired, beautiful person with an elegant katana or electro-axe will sweep into the scene and unleash a martial arts beatdown, or something cute will happen and you’ll almost forget what the creators just put you through. And, of course, it’s no bad thing, in these times of extraordinary politics, for fiction to remind us what the dividing of people into types and tribes leads to.

Anyway, did I mention the cats? They can talk. And some of them have swords. And one of them becomes a sort of father figure to a sad little fox-girl. And their style of magic is called nekomancy. (I just can’t even.)

Another plus is this is a refreshingly female-centric story. Gender rights are never discussed, and it’s not implied that there’s any inequality between the sexes. The action just focuses on female leaders, scientists, soldiers, warlords, and villains. Love between women, romantic and otherwise, is a common theme as well.

The main antagonists (there are plenty more) are the Cumaea. Best described as scientist-warrior-witch-nuns who use religious propaganda to justify the slaughter and harvesting of arcanics. Their dogma is a blend of religion, fascism, mysticism, and science; they’re terrible people but certainly interesting with it. Other dangers and new factions unveil themselves over the course of the book as we learn about the history of arcanics, the dark forces that slumber within their world and the many unanswered questions of their past.

And that’s Monstress Volume 1: Awakening. I’ll admit it was a tough read at times due to its cruel themes. But I definitely want to learn more about the history and nature of this world.  And I really cannot overstate how ravishingly beautiful the art is.

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