Welcome to the latest installment of my comics review column here at Skiffy & Fanty! Every month, I use this space to shine a spotlight on SF&F comics (print comics, graphic novels, and webcomics) that I believe deserve more attention from SF&F readers.
This time out, I’m taking a look at a work that certainly isn’t exactly under everyone’s radar, but that most definitely deserves more attention, if only because of the eldritch abominations that’ll eat you alive if you don’t stay sharp — Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress Volume Three. (This review contains spoilers!)
Monstress Volume Three
Marjorie Liu, writer
Sana Takeda, artist
Rus Wooton, lettering and design
Jennifer M. Smith, editor
Ceri Riley, editorial assistant
I’ve gone back and forth, as I’ve been writing these reviews, about what constitutes a comic that merits more attention from SF&F readers. Not so much in terms of my threshold for what has a sufficient level of awesomeness, but in my sense of what works do and don’t already have a significant degree of recognition.
For instance, a series that’s already won two Best Graphic Story Hugo Awards – won back-to-back Best Graphic Story Hugo Awards, in fact – surely that’s a work that has plenty of attention from science fiction and fantasy readers already, right?
But winning a Hugo, especially categories that not everyone votes in like Best Graphic Story, doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who would and could love a work has read it, not yet.
So yes, this month, we’re talking about the recently published third volume of Monstress which collects issues #13 – 18 of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s harrowing grimdark epic fantasy/steampunk comic.
Monstress Volume 3 has the most darkly ironic subtitle of any of the series to date, and maybe of any graphic novel in human history. Volume 1 was Awakening, and yeah, there was definitely some of that going on. Volume 2 was Blood, and boy howdy, was there ever a lot of blood all over places it shouldn’t be.
But Volume 3 is entitled Haven, and that borders on the cruel, because if one thing is clear as the story continues to unfold, it’s that there is no safe harbor, no respite, and no refuge that will not be lost, betrayed, subverted, or destroyed.
That unfolding story is – not unsurprisingly because this is Monstress – deep, textured, and complex. I want to use the word dense, with the caveat that I mean that mostly in the positive senses of the word. Mostly, but not entirely. If Volume 2 was the one where the richness of the narrative pulled me in, Volume 3 is where the sheer number of dangling threads and spinning plates became such a challenge to follow that I was pushed just a bit back out.
Just a bit. This is still an engrossing, deeply rewarding story. But there were moments where found myself bouncing off the sheer number of gambits at play, or when I wondered “Who is that again, and who do they hate and who are they trying to kill now?”
I’ll try to illustrate with an oversimplified summary, which might go something along the lines of… Maika Halfwolf, along with Zinn, the eldritch abomination she uneasily shares a body with; Master Ren, the cat, poet, philosopher and spy; and the fox-child Kippa, who’s surprisingly cheerful and kindhearted considering all the trauma she’s experienced, reach temporary safety in the city of Pontus, previously untouched by the war. While their enemies scramble to reach them and retrieve the fragment of a powerful artifact that Maika holds, she’s tasked by the city’s leaders with using her strange powers and affinity for her ancestor, the Shaman-Empress, to repair the city’s failing defences before war comes to Pontus to destroy its people and the refugees who are streaming in by the day. Meanwhile, Maika’s long-lost dearest friend and lover Tuya is building alliances with Maika’s family, but not to Maika’s benefit, Kippa displays ever-growing levels of wisdom and insight and seems to be of increasing and ominous interest to the powers of the world, and Master Ren is trying to play all sides against the middle. Oh, and there are at least two other factions we see in fragments who are on two entirely different murder sprees and who I haven’t figured out yet, plus the other eldritch abominations, who want to kill everyone else, including Zinn, and hints that the long-dead Shaman-Empress planned for all this, and…
That’s the oversimplified summary, yes. This is a dense work. Sometimes challenging, always rewarding. I love the closer focus in this volume on Ren, on his increasing conflicted loyalties and his love for Kippa. I love that Kippa is growing stronger, and her realization that she needs to become stronger yet, and her readiness to walk away from Maika and Ren in the hope of finding her family, and helping her people.
I don’t entirely love that Kippa may be More Than What She Seems, and bound up in the story’s prophecies and whatnot, but this is Monstress — nobody is entirely What They Seem. And I trust Liu to make this more than a comparatively simple Chosen One bait-and-switch.
So although I was a little thrown, by those dangling threads and spinning plates, and also by the unrelenting darkness — the tagline for Monstress might as well be “Everything is terrible, this is why we can’t have nice things, and also a tentacled abomination is eating your face” — I’m still deeply engaged with the narrative, and I need to know how it plays out.
Sana Takeda’s art continues to be, in short, just astounding. Deep and evocative, giving a profound sense of character or place with every detail. There were a few moments, just a few, where the tonal darkness crept into the visuals in a way that made the action difficult to follow, with a palette so tilted towards the dark that it made for actual confusion, not just deliberate alienation, or a concretization of mood.
But again, a comparatively minor concern, and one that the strengths of the visual storytelling more than overcame.
No volume of Monstress is entirely appropriate for those who prefer less grim and dark in their fantasy; the story began with brutality, oppression, and war crimes, and nobody except Kippa has gotten any nicer. Volume 3 is no exception. Everything gets worse, much worse, for everyone. And it’s beautiful.
If you haven’t read the series yet, you’ll probably want to start with Volume 1. You may want to take breaks in between volumes, to catch your breath. But Monstress Volume 3: Haven is sad and powerful and beautiful and scary and intense and wonderful to read.
I recommend it strongly.
Acknowledgements and Disclosures: I would like to acknowledge that Toronto, and the land it now occupies, where I live and work, has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island. I am grateful to have the opportunity to live and work in the community of Toronto, on this territory.
I have no personal or professional relationships with the creators or publisher. I purchased my own copy of the graphic novel for review.