I’ll admit it: I picked up Monstress after hearing about Marjorie Liu’s historic Eisner Award for Best Writer. I hadn’t heard much about the comic before that, if at all. The comics world is mostly unfamiliar to me. Previous to Monstress, the only western comic I’d read in recent years was The Wicked + The Divine (which will probably get its own review in due time). And honestly, I regret being absent from the comics sphere. If I’d been more involved, I might have read Monstress sooner. There’s a reason, I discovered, that it swept the 2018 Eisner Awards and also took home two Hugos this year.
Monstress, Volume 1 throws you into a new and unfamiliar world and takes few pains to explain it to you. The main character, Maika, is an Arcanic, a race of people with somewhat magical abilities and often inhuman physical traits. Within the opening pages, she is bought as a slave for an organization called the Cumaea, which resides in a walled, steampunk-like city. We learn of the world’s history slowly—sometimes through dialogue, other times through bonus content. The world is replete with witches, talking cats, demons, a blend of magic and science, and flashbacks of war.
Maika is one of the most angry, vengeful characters I’ve encountered—and she has good reason to be. Between the literal torture of her people, her deceased mother, and the betrayal of her closest friends, Maika will stop at nothing to get revenge. Ultimately, the plot of Monstress revolves around Maika’s anger and her attempts to recover from it. The series is grimdark and without levity aside from a few sarcastic quips. The characters are distinct and complex, and the majority of both the protagonists and antagonists are women (many of whom are nonwhite). If I had to direct a writer or reader to an example of a diverse, predominately female cast where each character has rich character development and differing personalities, this would be the first book that comes to mind. Maika herself is extremely well characterized and somehow likeable despite—or perhaps because of—her feistiness, her headstrong attitude, and her rage.
Sana Takeda’s art style is an alluring blend of Western comics with Eastern manga, and I couldn’t look away. Every panel contains intricate detail and complex coloring, most often with a dark, blue- or purple-based palette. Takeda’s style strikes a delicate balance between beautiful and menacing. I’m almost disappointed that I bought the first volume instead of the individual issues; the covers on the issues are gorgeous enough to frame.
Still, despite the wondrous characters, magnetic art, and intriguing story, I found the pace at which information about the world and various characters’ backstories to be a bit slow. I also have mixed feelings about the use of end material to explain various aspects of the world with characters in a “classroom” setting. I felt like I missed a lot of worldbuilding details on my first read and will likely read it again not too long from now. But even though the worldbuilding wasn’t exactly to my tastes, I can’t help but give Monstress, Volume 1 4.5/5 stars. It’s simply an amazing book, and anyone looking for grimdark literature should give Monstress a read. I can’t wait to read the next volume.