Monstress: A Fantastical Bloody Tale with Cat Lectures
Monstress by Marjorie Liu
Last year I finally took a chance and read Joe Hill’s graphic novel dark fantasy horror series Lock and Key. And a couple volumes in, I was hooked and today I rank it high. It is probably in my top five fantasy books. And since I finished it, my kindle been trying to keep me on the graphic novels train by recommending horror and dark fantasy comic. I’ve been ignoring it for the most part until they suggested this book called Monstress. It seemed interesting and when it went on sale I thought I would give a try. So here is my review of Monstress Vol. 1, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sara Takeda.
What is it about? The story is set in fantasy world that had flavors of early 20th century technology, steampunk, magic and very heavy Asian influences. In this world there are many factions of people. There the Cumaea (who are witches), humans, some religious order, and Arcanics (who are mixed race of human and ancients). The story picks up after a war that has been left Arcanics the victim of racism and slavery. It begins with a slave auction where Maika is sold to very high affluent witch along other Arcanics. But Maika isn’t there to be a slave or to be dissected. She’s there for revenge. She has a powerhouse of power and knows how to kick some butt despite the fact she has a single arm. She frees the other Arcanics and kills her way all the way to the top witch in charge as a little fox girl who escapes decides to tail behind her. (She believes Maike may be safer than traveling with the others.) When she reaches the top witch in change, she wants to know about her mother. Maika doesn’t learn much, but finds a piece of a mask her mother found on archeological dig. She takes it and escapes with Kippa, the little fox girl.
The mask awakens something buried inside Maika. As they travel, she begins to have spells of extreme hunger. Out of the nub of her missing arm, a multiple eye monster of tentacles and hair devours whoever is near. It is an old god trapped inside of her and she can hear it in her head. Then witches are also chasing her to get the mask back. And other Arcanics become involved in the hunt as well to contain the god.
The good? Well lets start off with the art. It is just down right beautiful. It has this very painting like quality and heavily emphasis on Serpia tone like colors. The creature and character designs are reflected in the is art. For instance, Kippa is an Arcanic decended from a fox like ancient, and she’s a little girl with big blue eyes, giant fox ears and oversized fluffy fox tail she carries around like a teddy bear. She is just adorable. Then there’s Ren a multi tailed Arcanic cat is just as cute. Yet at the same time it is has insanely dark details as well. There’s a crazy prisoner slave Arcanic who tries to kill himself and the book does not hold back on the detail. Then the monsters. The old god is a conglomerate of eye balls, tentacle, and hair. Then there’s a character who wears a mask throughout and when she finally takes it off., it’s like holy crap! That is the thing of nightmares. And then there’s details on just the tiniest things. Someone will be opening up a chest and it will have so many little intricate little etchings and decals. Or the armor, or just clothing. It’s so complex. This is miles away from lazy artwork.
Enough about the art. What about the story? Was there anything good there? And I say yes. The world building is phenomenal. And the author is really taking the mythology of this world and running with it. The story is very fast paced and there nothing to bore the reader. Many of the characters are likable. Maika’s tormented past from what she remembers and the fact that she lost memories of her childhood is intriguing. Her internal battle with the old god is great as well. Also the mix of extreme horror and whimsical works surprisingly well.
So the bad? The book just drops you in without any explanation. It feels like there were a few more volumes that prelude this one but there aren’t. When it begins there’s Cumaea. Then some nuns. Then a slave trade of animal people, but Maika isn’t an animal person. Then the witches dissecting some animal people and draining powers from Arcanics but can do it with other witches if she likes. Some magic sword, but that relates to nothing. They have huge guns, but use swords. Some mask is touched and a monster spells out of the girl. Maika is upset because she recognizes someone in a family photo but the reader has no context. Then the dead can be brought back, but are sometimes super crazy. Sometimes they are not, and so on. Right out of the gate, this story throws truckloads of crazy at the reader, and it does not make sense until you read a good ways in. and a good chunk of it is explained in the most random fashion possible. The story will stop and it will show this adorable illustration of a nine tailed cat trying to teach his kittens’ history lessons. And there will be multiple speech bubbles containing his lecture about Maika’s past or the history of the world. These random little cat lectures were pretty gonzo bananas but I was grateful for them because they helped me fill in the blanks. But it really did make me wonder, why did they decided to do it that way? Was that a creative choice or a much needed addition after readers complained about being confused? I’m not sure why it wasn’t originally included in the rest of the story. Also there’s a subplot with Maika and her friend Tuya. And their relationship or why it was even being followed was not exactly clear. This is also a very hard R comic, so this is not for kids and has nudity and lots of gore. There’s one scene is particular where Maika and Tuya are in a bar watching two giant over weight topless women fight, so you have been warned. Graphic novels are pretty visual medium and if you feel sick at the thought of that, then you probably should skip that page. Also the Arcanic origin is strange. When the ancients are revealed to be intelligent upright walking dogs, cats, deer, and what not. It kind of twist my brain in a knot to think about humans falling in love with them. But whatever. If you don’t think about it too hard, you’re fine. If that bothers you, this might not be your thing.
Overall, I was not ready for the crazy book had to offer, but I don’t regret reading it. I mean the art alone is amazing but the story makes the tale that much better. It’s a boatload of crazy that is only comparable (From my experience) to older Final Fantasy games in story. It’s highly imaginative, well realized and original. And it’s not for everyone. Sad thing is you won’t know if it’s worth your while or not until half way through the book and after two or three cat lectures. It starts with no proper introduction or context clues and the blanks are filled in slowly. This is good. No this is actually is pretty phenomenal but I think this is a love or hate it sort of book because it is just so darn strange. But I do have to knock down a point because it shouldn’t need cat lectures to help readers out.
3 smoothies out of Four
Overall Rating: A Fantastical Bloody Tale with Cat Lectures.