Fantasy · Graphic/Illustrated

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

Well, this is my first ever “real” graphic novel. I mean, I’ve read a couple others (Persepolis and Good Talk) but both were nonfiction/memoirs. So, while I really enjoyed them both, I feel like they didn’t full represent the medium completely. Maybe that’s a misperception on my end, but there it is. And the point is, I was still kinda nervous and unsure going into this traditional graphic novel reading experience. Also, as we are reaching the end of the year, I’m going to stretch this to fit the Reading Women Challenge 2020, prompt #18: a book under 100 pages. It’s not actually that short, as far as number of pages, but the media made it a really fast read so…yup, slant fit.

Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie M. Liu

(illustrated by Sana Takeda)

“They call us monsters because it makes it easier to hurt us. But monsters are people, too.”

“There’s more hunger in the world than love.”

Monstress, Vol 1: Awakening starts the story of Maika Halfwolf, who has just survived a horrific war between humans and Arcanics, during which (as we see during a few flashbacks throughout this novel) she suffered a number of traumas and losses. Although the war is over, the enmity is not, and Maika, a halfbreed, finds herself hunted by all sides… Though she too is hunting for something, for answers, about both her past and the thing, the monster, that seems to be awakening inside her.

From a plot/story view, this is completely up my alley: matriarchal societies, magic, a “marked” MC with strong badass female vibes, monsters, steam-punk-ish setting and lots of the traditional fantasy tropes like human vs non-human conflicts and the search for a forgotten past and a major magical power struggle. There’s no treading lightly with regards to trauma and violence, which can be tough at times, but accurate to the story, so I appreciate that reality. And the exploration of monsters and humanity/inhumanity (and what that looks like) is a well-explored major theme. Also, if you are a cat person, the representation of cats in this world will definitely appeal to you.

From there, I think it kind of becomes impossible to speak more about my thoughts/reactions without addressing the medium. First of all, this volume was gorgeous. Takeda’s art is visually stunning, intricate, and truly brings to like the Asian steampunk setting and vibes. I loved the way the world-building and story creation is enhanced by the added visual aspects of the graphic novel style. I really felt like I was there – it was all so clear in my head because it was so completely portrayed there by the art – the atmosphere the reader finds themselves in is just spectacular and immersive. It was a bit of an adjustment for me to fully read and realize the story in this context though. There are many slides where the actions are “told” less by the dialogue and narration (which is necessarily limited by the format) and much more by the illustrations. I definitely had to adjust my normal “reading” to make sure I picked up on all the details in each scene. It wasn’t a difficult adjustment, just something that I did have to concentrate on for the first couple chapters. And then it really became impressive to me how much background and detail and world-building the reader gets with such a short volume and with so few words. I love what the visual creativity can do and what full/deep atmospheric affect it can have! (And oh my goodness, how long must illustrating these types of graphic novels take?!)

Relatedly, there were some points where the transitions weren’t as clear or the exposition felt choppy, but I think that’s more on me as an inexperienced graphic novel reader than it is on the graphic novel itself, so do take that with a grain of salt. Along those same lines, I think the character development, the depth of the characters, was, for me, what suffered the most in this context. Although the setting and action was enhanced by the visual pieces, the limited ability to convey inner thoughts/descriptions of the past/drawn out interpersonal interactions, etc. made me feel like all the characters were very surface-level, almost like caricatures. I found myself sort of filling in feelings towards/about them based on other fantasy that I’ve read, which perhaps is part of the point? I don’t know. And I know this is a series, so that’s part of it as well; I assume we get more about Maiko and her companions and antagonists as we read further volumes. And, for the record, I am absolutely invested enough in this story, and in further experiencing graphic novels, that I plan to continue reading the series to see what happens next.

So, basically, this first dive into the world of true, traditional graphic novels was a great experience. I was really into and appreciative of the visual aspect and I do plan to read and look forward to getting more character and story development in the next volumes of the series.     

15 thoughts on “Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

    1. Thank you! And yes it was just…visually stunning. I loved that aspect so much. And I’m just so impressed by it and would be super interested to know how long it takes, because there is just so much detail!

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  1. Thanks for the review! I’m just starting to branch out into graphic novels and this one sounds like a great way to start!

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  2. Oh man! I’m so happy you read Monstress and that it’s your first comic book. I’m not well-versed in comics and graphic novels, but I tend to call these (like Monstress and Saga) comics and ones like Persepolis and Good Talk graphic novels. But some folks use the terms interchangeably.

    I read the first issue of Monstress first instead of the volume and in it Marjorie Liu mentioned that her her grandparents’ experiences surviving WWII in China inspired her to write this story about surviving war and the effects of it. I think she did a great job, but I agree with you that there doesn’t seem to be much depth to the characters, at least not in the first volume. I also LOVE the art in it and the art deco influences to it. So gorgeous. I hope your experience reading comics and graphic novels continue to go well. 🙂

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    1. Oh wow – I didn’t read much into the background of Liu and her inspirations, so that is so fascinating. I’m going to go look up more now, thank you! And I appreciate your time with this review and insight into language, etc. as well. I am definitely looking forward to reading more! This was absolutely a positive first experience with the medium/genre!

      Liked by 1 person

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