Review: Monstress, Book One, by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda


A review of Book One, which comprises Volumes 1-3, or Issues 1-18

  • Volume 1: Awakening (2016)
  • Volume 2: The Blood (2017)
  • Volume 3: Haven (2018)

Monstress is a full-blown fantasy epic, set in a complex secondary world of roughly renaissance or early modern times, and full of arcane magic. A very popular comic, having won multiple Hugo awards. Maika, a young woman, is the main character and the story does not start, as so many epic fantasies do, with some slow kitchen-boy (or maid, in this case) to hero journey. No, we start right in the middle of a very dangerous mission. In the aftermath of a terrible war between the non-magical Human Federation, and the shamanistic “Arcanics”, the arcanic Maika is taken as a slave girl, and is sold to an institution of sadistic witch-nuns on the wrong side of the border. It’s part of Maika’s plan: to get face to face with a powerful matriarchal head-witch who can tell her more about the fate of her mother. 

Arcanics are not seen as human, and while some of them have animal aspects like a fox tail or bird wings, they are people. Our main character Maika is Arcanic, so the unjust demonisation of Arcanics in this world is apparent through how she is treated. The war against them is seen as a Holy War, and the witches, a Bene Gesserit-like institution called the Cumaeans, take their power from captured Arcanics. The witches immediately recognise Maika for an Arcanic and imprison her for their experiments. Maika battles free when her magical powers are unleashed in self-protection and fights her way to the matriarch for answers. Thus the story starts. A good start.

Sana Takeda’s art and the choice of words such as arcanic give this series a strong steampunk flavour. The art is full of art-deco embellishments and gleaming bronze. People wear European style uniforms a century out of date, but Takeda blessedly refrains from giving the characters top hats and goggles. The artwork is very pretty, very detailed, but the hair and faces look a lot like manga in style which I found a bit off-putting. Also in line with the steampunk theme, most female characters wear some sort of body-hugging BDSM outfits, and since 9 out of 10 characters in this story are women and all have the same generic static faces, it was sometimes difficult to keep all the power-hungry sadistic doms apart in my head. On the other hand, there are huge eldritch monsters in this story that are awesomely styled with big eyes, feathers and tentacles. 

There’s much to like about this story. There are phantoms of giant creatures which sometimes show up, which Maika has a connection to, but nobody knows who they are. The Cumaeans think they are the souls of dead gods. There is a sassy talking cat with two tails who loves to quote poets. There are fragments of an ancient mask that is terribly important for unknown reasons. In short, it is clear from the very first chapters that writer Marjorie Liu worked out the story and the world to a deep level before the first issue was written. The story is compelling and fast paced from the start and slowly brings in all these elements of world-building, so your understanding keeps expanding. Unfortunately, as we shall see, that pace and excitement started to wane for me. 

There’s much that I didn’t like. While the world and story are satisfyingly expansive, we are moved from city to city and court to court without getting a good feeling for how this world works or what’s important or not. It made me feel like I was reading this drunk. It has a world map with locations like The Forest of Peril, The Danger Swamp, the Sea of Sorrow. I don’t know, I am making this up, but it is simple like that. Not like a lived-in world. Action scenes are also confusing with lots of swirly lines and energy beams and whatever and it is hard to make out what happens. To hurry the exposition along, esteemed professor Tam Tam, a cat with four tails, occasionally shows up to explain more in huge infodumps, which were a nightmare to get through. They halted the story in its tracks every time it happened.

I had a greater problem with the way mood and emotional undertone were handled. The way the bad guys – bad matriarchs I should say – are portrayed is very one-dimensional and very Young Adult. All these women are just menacing and vicious all the time for no real reason. Whatever potential for real drama or emotion is present in the storyline, I feel like it is being shouted over by the constant bitchy attitude of every character towards everyone else. Even the huge monsters and ancient gods have a tendency to talk like edgy high schoolers. There is something wrong with a giant monster using the word fuck to sound forceful.

All the characters have only one or two emotions and one or two facial expression, like angry and stoic, or scared and sad. It’s one set or the other, and it makes the story emotionally flat. There’s also a side-character tagging along with Maika, Kippa, a little half-fox kid, and she was made so scared and so vulnerable and so innocent and so precious that it kind of annoyed me, because there’s nothing else interesting about the kid. It’s just an archetype. The cat was alright at the start, but from volume 2 onwards, he’s always angry. Come to think of it, I didn’t really like any of the characters. 

For me, the comic never really rose above the level of YA world-building, squinting dom bitches, kawaii samurai kittens and people with long hair and wings who always looked like they were posing for trading cards. Characters were posing so much with their costumes that they didn’t look each other in the eye properly. They also had masks that obscured the eyes, so they couldn’t see anything, really. The dramatic narration in Maika’s head is that kind of semi-profound mumbling that sounds deep-felt but obscures everything behind vagueness. But those are arguments from my aesthetic preferences and you might like these things instead. Purely looking at the story…. Maika’s struggle with the eldritch monsters is the most interesting part of it, and the secrets that are slowly being unveiled about these monsters and how her mother was involved in all of it. The answers to the questions are not all that complicated but the narration makes it confusing and the story smears everything out so that Maika has to traverse half the world to find answers. Most of the chapters are just people in elaborate costumes engaging in mediocre dialogue with heavy-lidded stone faces and a strangely aggressive undertone, and thus the plot slowly glides onwards. See figure 1 underneath.

So yeah, by the third volume, more and more elements started to grate on me, so it is best to call it a day now.

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17 Responses to Review: Monstress, Book One, by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Good thing you didn’t try to read the individual issues, eh? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I had, I would have quit sooner. I started to lose interest somewhere around the beginning of the third volume, and that just made me more and more annoyed with the remaining stuff.

      I still have volumes 4-6 electronically. They were part of a cheap bundle of online comics. But I was happy to quit the series. Maybe I should have read Groo.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek says:

    I quite liked volumes 1-2, pretty pictures and a story that isn’t very sophisticated or original, but engaged me. But yeah, full of tropes, rather flashy than deep, I can see why it started annoying you… but I might read a bit more, when in the right mood 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dawie says:

    We also have this kn the shelf i need to get to it still….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have the first three volumes as paperbacks (not ready yet to commit to something more deluxe until I’ve tested the waters) and I only know that people praised it for its artwork a lot. Now, what worries me, especially with your review, is how the story is handled and all the YA-feels that it might give off… I do hope I’ll have a good time with this when I get around to it though. Great review, Jeroen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lashaan! The first three volumes is enough material for a good impression of where the story is going. Like Wakizashi said, it’s all surface and no depth. But I hope you will like it. The first volume is not bad at all. I really liked how the story started. It might work for you, who knows.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wakizashi33 says:

    I agree. There was so much hype by the “critics” when this was first out, so I picked up a few issues and the first volume. It was all surface and no depth. As you say, pretty pictures, but a serious lack of character development, stakes, excitement, and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Paul Connelly says:

    This has a surface-to-depth ratio similar to what I was getting out of Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Dr. Strange back in the 1960s, and I am enjoying Monstress about as much as I enjoyed those Marvel comics back then. Meaning, quite a bit. The Marvel strips had multi-issue storylines, character flaws, and artistic choices that made them seem more “advanced” than the DC comics I had been reading before, but (let’s face it) they were still comic books for adolescents and younger. My expectations of Monstress were not radically higher than what I would have rereading an old Fantastic Four omnibus, so maybe that’s why the experience is less grating for me. And I am curious to see if the story makes sense in the end. 😉

    Another series that reminds me of certain aspects of the Marvel 1960s line-up is the Malazan books. I realize that they’re strongly based on a role-playing game that the authors were involved in (which I’m not familiar with), but the need to keep upping the stakes with the next super-villain who is even more super than the last, the occasional insertion of portentous philosophical ruminations, and the need to make the plots more and more grandiose while barely sketching in who most of the characters are, seems to run through both Erikson’s and Esslemont’s first sets of books. Which I also enjoy. So maybe expectations were a factor there too, especially since the books were not as well known when I read them.


  7. Anonymous says:

    I would recommend the Ed Brubaker books, Reckless. They are crime fiction and once you start reading them, it’s hard to stop. He also wrote the supernatural tale: Kill or Be Killed–another fun, must read along with some of this other work.

    Liked by 1 person

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