From Goodreads: Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steampunk, 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.
I don’t remember what I was looking for in the Comics section of the media borrowing app, Hoopla, but I didn’t find it. While I scrolled through the various offerings I came across a piece of cover art that caught my eye. Curious, I clicked on the description. Once I saw the words ‘steampunk’, ‘art-deco’, and ‘matriarchy’, I was intrigued. It wasn’t until I saw the recommendation by Neil Gaiman that I decided I had to read it. I mean, when Neil Gaiman says something is a remarkable, beautifully told story it’s almost a moral imperative to read whatever he’s commending.
This story is amazing.
It’s a complicated world, filled with multiple races- humans, arcanics, and cats among others. While the races once lived in peace, historical events tore them apart during terrible war that resulted in a wall being built across the land, dividing the humans from the other races. That was long ago.
The story picks up in the middle of things, plunging the reader into a world that is often confusing and continuously mysterious, full of magic, paranoia, and divided loyalties. The heroine, Maika, is on the verge of being sold as a slave before she is ‘donated’ to a scientist along with several other arcanics. The arcanics are part-human and part something else, and often have animal features such as wings, tails, or fox-ears. They are often murdered by the human scientists so they can study the animal-like features.
Maika is determined not to end up as part of a science experiment, though, and she has a terrifying plan to escape and take back the item she traveled into the human lands to find. But is it a wise idea for her to search for this item, or is she making a mistake that could destroy the world as she knows it?
Though there are only a few points where the world of Monstress is explained, the world unfolds elegantly with ideas, histories, and culture placed in such a way that you can understand, but without allowing the world or its people to give up their secrets all at once. And despite the story changing from one set of characters to another to another, I didn’t feel that the pacing suffered for it. This is a complex, beautifully rendered world filled with complicated characters who are believable within that world. Its vital history is hinted at without being over-explained, and while the matriarchal setting seemed a little strange at first, I quickly got used to it until it wasn’t at all strange to find army units entirely made up of women.
And the artwork. That gorgeous, amazing artwork. There isn’t a frame of this story that is poorly drawn or colored or is inconsistent. Like any good comic or graphic novel, at least half the story is told through the artwork. In this case, it might be more than half. Marjorie Liu’s writing and world-building is impressive, but it is Sana Takeda’s artwork that sells the reality of it all. It is so complicated and so delicately rendered- in ink, watercolor, and probably with pencil drawings and CGI, as well- that it seems like it would take a team of artists to accomplish it all. I wish I’d heard of Sana Takeda before this week, as her illustrations remind me of Yoshitaka Amano’s work in Neil Gaiman’s The Dream Hunters.
Monstress is not for everyone, though. It earns its ‘Mature’ rating with violence, language, and nudity. But if you can handle that, Monstress is an enthralling work of fantasy storytelling both because of writer Marjorie Liu’s compelling world and story and Sana Takeda’s breathtaking illustrations.