Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steampunk, Monstress tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both.
If I had to sum up my feelings about this book in one word, then that word would be: YES.
All too often, dark fantasy stories happen at the expense of their female characters – rape and death are a staple, and often even the female characters’ sole raison d’etre – whereas Monstress basically blows up that grimdark convention and spits on its corpse, by dint of very being. Because dark fantasy this may be – and oh yes, bloody and gruesome it most certainly is – this story is about women. In this matriarchal society, women are the abusers AND the victims, the heroes AND the villains, the owners, the slaves, the warriors, the academics, the jailers, the servants, the rich and the poor. And while horrible things are definitely happening to the women in this story – war, death, torture, slavery, insanity, you name it – what an amazing difference it is, when those things happen to them in their OWN story – a story not because of, but ABOUT them. And the most dangerous thing in this story’s world, the very thing that threatens to destroy them all, is Maika. Who just so happens to be a young woman. And altogether, that all just made me so very happy to read.
On top of which, Liu and Takeda have created a downright sumptuous world. I’ve long been a fan of this writer/artist pairing (from back in their X-23 days), but here they take things to a whole nother level, with a war-torn, magic infused, alternate history Asia, delivered in sprawling detail. And it is simply breathtaking to behold, from the gorgeously detailed art deco styling (and how Takeda is still alive after drawing all this, I have no idea) to the breadth of scope, as more and more of this world just keeps unfurling – the history of the races, what happened during the war; the present day divisions between enemy and friend, and the fault lines within each faction; Maika’s mysterious heritage, the strange creatures, the different magics – all in all, it’s stunningly epic. And yet still it feels like there’s so much more for us to see, and to understand – and so much more to come.
In fact pretty much the only thing I can say against this story is that, in terms of world building, this book does at times suffer from a tad too much of a good thing, as occasionally the world overwhelms all else, to the point of eclipsing the plot. And while I didn’t particularly mind, given the richness on display, I do also hope that going forward, this story balances its density a bit more nimbly, to allow the plot to get out of the backseat and take its turn at the wheel.
Oh, but there are so many unanswered questions here, and so many tantalizing possibilities – we’ve hardly scratched the surface of Maika’s terrible power – that here’s hoping Liu and Takeda keep this story going for a very, very long time.
So when does the next issue come out again?
Byrt Grade: A
As Levar Burton likes to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
The first volume’s density is both to its benefit and detriment. Monstress is a fully realized universe replete in jargon and terminology that can be confounding on an initial reading, but nonetheless rewards the patience of returning readers.
Monstress: Volume One is a brilliant, beautiful read filled to the brim with layered storytelling and captivating art. It’s as confident a series as you’re like to see, and one we’re confident belongs in your bookshelf.