Decoratively knowable

Monstress is really getting cracking now. Volume Three: Haven is clearly still well within the originary story arc, without any of the far-fetched desperation typical of series that have been running too long. Of course much of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s opus is in many ways extremely far-fetched, but everything in the story so far feels like a logical consequence of its premises. It’s tautly plotted, well-characterised, and an engagingly inventive fantasy.

There’s some hyperbolic guff on the cover about it being ‘…as ambitious as George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien’, which is plainly not the case. There is no intellectual effort equivalent to Tolkien’s world design here, or even to Martin’s: both those writers’ worlds are tapestries, while Liu and Takeda’s is a patchwork, cut from the same mosaic cloth as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. I say this not because it features talking animals, but because it is put together from whatever elements presented themselves as useful, and there is no single unifying linguistic warp to the weft of Liu’s names and terminology. This is not a criticism, although I would argue that greater linguistic consistency or specificity would make the setting more immersive; it is just a different sort of fantasy.

Monstress is, briefly, set in a visually steampunk (The Difference Engine it ain’t), matriarchal world, peopled by both human beings, and magical, animal-like ‘arcanics’. Its themes include gender, race, violence, women’s solidarity and friendships, but its symbolic core is the ‘monster’ that lurks beneath the surface of its protagonist. Liu quite carefully manages mystery and revelation through the narrative, but by this volume it is becoming relatively clear what this ‘monster’ is – which is a shame, because whatever something known (or knowable) is, it is never a monster. And by this stage a story which looked as though it might be directly concerned with fantasy’s key structuring principle, with the boundary between the fantastic, monstrous, unknowable other and the prosaic, appears more interested in power politics. The ‘monster’ is a proxy for the dehumanising effects of war and trauma, and as a character it is just an individual member of a particular non-human species.

I’m not complaining, because it’s a story well worth telling, but I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been a little more fantastical. It is however rendered by Takeda in a wonderfully decorative style, which combines elements of manga and American comics, and which invests the narrative with all the mystery and magic the reader could desire. Takeda is an extremely skilled storyteller, with an expert understanding of pacing, and she overtly modulates the level of detail in her panels to maintain narrative momentum. Clearly she doesn’t want the reader to stop in the middle of an action sequence to admire her penmanship, but there are plenty of panoramic panels, and plenty of wonderful covers, in which her talent for gorgeous, detailed patterning is allowed free reign. The pleasure I’m taking in this technically and creatively accomplished series is probably more down to Takeda than it is to Liu, but it’s a true collaboration, and it’s probably not really worth trying to separate them. Either way, Monstress is beautiful.

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