Marjorie Liu’s 2021 Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow collects Monstress: Talk-Stories #1 – 2 and Monstress #31 – 35.
When we left our characters, the (mainly human) Federation of Man was once again at war with the Arcanics, whom the humans consider to be useful magical fuel. Too bad the fuel is contained within monsters who don’t want to be destroyed in processing.
Next on the Federation’s list for conquest: the city of Ravenna. Understandably reluctant to be painfully converted to lilium (the magical fuel), the Arcanics put up a heated defense.
Talk-Stories 1 & 2 are side pieces, set during a lull in the action. Adorable fox-child Kippa and series protagonist Maika Halfwolf exchange stories about happy moments in their past. These only drive home to the pair how much they have lost and how awful their current circumstances are.
Having taken a moment to thoroughly depress herself, Maika returns to war and cutthroat Arcanic politics.
The scene: a family reunion. Personae: Maika, Maika’s aunt, the aunt’s wife (once Maika’s best friend). All of whom dislike and distrust each other. Maika (for reasons that make sense at the time) summons her grandmother, the ancient and powerful Queen of Wolves , to participate in the least-fun family reunion ever.
This pleasant gathering is interrupted when Federation forces are supplied with weapons of mass destruction forged from a dead god’s bone. The question ceases to be “how will Maika deal with her friends and family” and becomes “how will anyone in Ravenna survive to escape?”.
I reviewed this this week because I’m not up to reading tomes (looks sadly at languishing e‑arc of Jade Legacy ). Even weighty graphic novels have the narrative content of a novella. However, I would have also preferred something light and amusing. Monstress is very much not light and amusing. It is unrelentingly grim; at times it is even darker.
Part of the grimness is due to the war. The cabal that runs the Federation is determined to vivisect thinking beings to harvest fuel; unlike other fuel wars one could mention, victims are not merely collateral damage but the entire point. Justifying this requires dehumanizing their victims, something the humans seem eager to do. It does not help that the top echelons of the human command have been quietly commandeered by eldritch horrors.
Part of the darkness is because the characters for the most part seem to be divided into powerful assholes and sympathetic victims. Most of the people with power are convinced the ends justify the means, which granted, makes sense from the perspective of the Arcanics. It’s not clear that their ruthless gambits are getting them any closer to their goals, although they sure are good at expending the lives of red-shirts.
This appears to be yet another example of an epic fantasy whose world would have been much better off were there anything analogous to a relationship counsellor in this realm.
Sana Takeda’s illustrations are beautiful, from the character design to the graphic violence. As well, Marjorie Liu has a knack for plotting, to the point that a character whose whole deal is “ruthlessly untrustworthy” can commit a shocking betrayal and it’s still a surprise. Liu also remembers to provide characters like Kippa and Maika herself, about whose fates the reader will care. It’s a shame so much of the story seems to be a close study of how people acquire post-traumatic stress disorder.
1: The Queen of Wolves is nigh-godlike. She and her peers might be able to end the war with the Federation, if it weren’t that they seem to see it as amusing.