Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk
Publisher: Image Comics on July 13. 2016
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, 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 and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.
Many critics have called MONSTRESS VOL. 1: THE AWAKENING the best comic of the year and I, for one, couldn’t agree with them more. Sana Takeda’s artwork is absolutely stunning and Marjorie M. Liu’s writing strikes the perfect balance between being sparse and lyrical. This dynamic duo has dreamt up one of the most fascinating, rich fantasy worlds I’ve encountered in comics or in novels.
Set in a steampunkish, matriarchal 20th century Asia, MONSTRESS VOL. 1: THE AWAKENING follows young arcanic Maika Halfwolf as she strikes out on a brutal, harrowing quest for revenge — and answers. Hybrids of humans and ancients, magical beings who take the shape of anthropomorphized animals, arcanics are considered monsters by humanity and garbage by the ancients. In the eyes of the Cumaea, the witchy nuns who minister to human settlements, arcanics are abominations and fuel for chilling experiments to push the boundaries of magic. Maika risks torture, death, and even war when she cons her way into the heart of the Cumaen’s compound, but if Maika doesn’t find the information she’s seeking then she’s dead anyway. Because something terrible is happening to her…something she can neither understand nor control.
This is a dark, brutal, and at times gory comic that examines what it really means to be a monster, what it truly means to be human, and how it feels to be caught between the two. While wrongdoers abound in MONSTRESS VOL. 1, it’s clear that the real evils in the story are war and hatred. For such a slender volume, this comic does a wonderful job tackling tough issues and posing profound questions about judging one another based on what we look like and disregarding what’s on the inside — whether that’s kindness, malice, or an ancient evil being.
But not to worry, this comic isn’t all doom and gloom! Along the way, Maika picks up companions in the form of a two-tailed cat and a fellow arcanic in the form of a young fox girl, adding biting wit and sweetness to the story, respectively. The Cumaea also have their fair share of fascinating characters as layers of the shadowy Allmother and her team of personal Inquisitrixes are slowly pulled back throughout the volume. This is one twisty story, and the hits just keep coming with every few pages, and there are lots of unanswered questions that have me clamouring for volume 2.
Maika’s flashbacks to a time before she struck out on her journey were some of my favourite moments, as they gave us a glimpse into her relationship with her dearest friend Tuya. There’s clearly a lot of love there (the queer is strong with this one, y’all), but the truths Maika uncovers in her search will rock their friendship to its core. I love a strong female friendship in my fantasy media so I’m anxiously waiting to see what happens to the pair!
MONSTRESS VOL. 1: THE AWAKENING is a dark, complex comic set in Asia that features a young woman of colour and a magical cat…and encourages readers to reflect on war, hate, and humanity. What’s not to love? Highly recommended.