Monstress, Book One1 collects the first eighteen issues of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s epic secondary-universe fantasy manga.
The semi-magical Arcanics are descended from godlike beings. When properly processed, their body parts can be transformed into the extremely useful substance Lilium. The humans, in particular the witches of the Cumaea, see the Arcanics as beasts fit only for slavery or for slow, painful conversion into Lilium. The Arcanics disagree. Hence the seemingly endless wars between the Arcanics and the Federation of Man.
The most recent war ended when the entire city of Constantine and all within it were burned from the face of the planet. Believing this was a work of a new Arcanic weapon, the Federation agreed to peace … for the moment.
Which gets us to one-armed Maika, an Arcanic who when we first meet her is about to sold into slavery or worse.
Book One covers three story arcs:
Maika has had very bad luck, it seems; she has been sold to the Cumaea. Other humans might use her as a sex slave or work her to death. The Cumaea will keep her alive for as long as possible while amputating various body parts to be converted into Lilium. It would appear that the Cumaea delight in making the process as horrific and painful as possible.
Maika, however, is a Trojan horse. She sold herself into slavery to penetrate the slave city. The slavers remove every visible weapon from their victims but Maika has a secret weapon, a monstrous weapon, hidden within her.
She unleashes it on the slavers.
It would have been nice if the Cumaea had been entirely obliterated, but they were not. The remnants are regrouping. In the meantime, Maika finds a clue to her late mother’s history that leads Maika and companions set off on an expedition to the Isle of Bones in search of answers. It’s a mysterious island surrounded by shades of the dead. Horrors and worse await on the island itself.
Maika makes her way to Pontus, a refuge city for Arcanics. It was protected by a powerful Shield, but the Shield-generating machinery is broken. Can Maika and her secret buddy solve the problem?
And what will happen if the Cumaean Mother Superior’s ambitious plan to return divinity to the world succeeds?
Thus far Monstress has won
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Writer
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Continuing Series
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Publication for Teens
2018 Eisner Award winner, Best Cover Artist
2018 Harvey Award winner, Book of the Year
2018 Hugo Award winner, Best Graphic Story
2018 British Fantasy Award winner, Best Comic/Graphic Novel
2018, 2016, 2015 Entertainment Weekly’s The Best Comic Books of the Year
2018, Newsweek’s Best Comic Books of the Year
2018, The Washington Post’s 10 Best Graphic Novels of the Year
2018, Barnes & Noble’s Best Books of the Year
2018, YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens
2018, Thrillist’s Best Comics & Graphic Novels of the Year
2018, Powell’s Best Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Graphic Novels of the Year
It’s possible I am not the first person to read or recommend Monstress.
If you’re looking for comforting secondary-world fantasies, this is very much not the work for you.
Maika’s secret buddy is a Lovecraftian horror whose touch can wither living things. Using it has cost her an arm so far and it is likely that worse is to come.
The Federation has cheerfully acquiesced to the enslavement and torture of thinking beings.
The two courts that rule the Arcanics are steadfastly classist and seemingly incapable of mounting an effective defence against the humans.
Liu reported drew for inspiration on the Second Sino-Japanese War, in which the Japanese militarists caused the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese. That amounts to approximately one Hiroshima every two weeks for close to a decade. This is not the soil from which happy flowers grow.
In this series, not every human approves of slavery and torture, although enough are that they can determine Federation policy. Not every Arcanic is a sympathetic character, although enough are that readers care about their fates. But even unsympathetic characters do not deserve to be enslaved and tortured. This is not a “on the one hand, but on the other hand” setting. There are black hats and white hats.
Sana Takeda’s art is lush and detailed; pity that it so often depicts gushing body fluid and flying body parts. Still, if you have a stomach for unrelentingly grim revenge tales, in which an entirely reasonable desire for payback may well be risking the end of life as the characters know it, this is the shades-of-dark-gray-versus-black comic for you.
1: Note that previous, shorter omnibuses were divided into volumes, each of which contained a third of the stories collected in Book One.