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Graphic Novel Review: Monstress by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

Friday, August 26, 2016 - 12:00

Having downloaded the Comixology app in order to read Heathen, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was about to start reading more graphic stories. I've been hearing a lot of praise for Monstress, so it was a natural choice for my next set of purchases. Monstress is set in a secondary world built with a flavor of several Asian cultures as well as original invention, and a somewhat steampunky esthetic. Two conflicting peoples: one superficially "human", and one the "Arcanics"--descendents of human-Other lineage, manifesting in a variety of "monstrous" physical forms, many with zoomorphic characteristics. Arcanics also share a hazardous property: their flesh can be harvested and processed to produce "lilium", a mystical substance with various uses. That harvest can be done in whole or piecemeal, so many of the Arcanics in captivity are portrayed as maimed. At some point in the past, peaceful relations between humans and Arcanics broke down, horrendous wars were fought, and the land was divided. Arcanics in human lands are treated as dangerous but useful animals. In this world, a young Arcanic named Maika sets out on a quest...

What I liked

The art is breath-taking. The story-telling punches all my favorite buttons for being plunged into a world with no explanation and revealing details with no coddling or hand-holding. Up until the last page of this first volume, you're learning new things about the characters and events you thought you'd figured out. The plot twists and turns like a snake, destroying your understanding of what's going on even as it reveals. The focus on female characters similarly hits my sweet spot, as do the plentiful same-sex relationships. I love how the story combines familiar, but not over-used tropes from non-Western cultures, while still being an entirely invented secondary world. The stakes start high and get stratospheric.

What I didn't like

I'm  really not attracted to stories with lots of gratuitous violence, dismemberment, casual slaughter, and the like. This is a very intense story where it's not a good idea to get emotionally attached to any particular character. Content warnings for graphic, gory violence, dismemberment, child abuse and death, and threats of sexual violence. Maika is strugling against a literal monster inside, and often loses that struggle. I find this work heartbreakingly beautiful and at the same time repulsive. It's beautiful enough and engaging enough (not in the "cute and pretty" sense of engaging--more in the "fish hook in your flesh" sense of engaging) that I will almost certainly continue reading the series, but some may find it too intense to enjoy.