Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #72: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Lands of epic fantasy have one big continent, with an irregular coast. There may be islands off the coast here and there, but there's only one continent, only one world. There's one kind of people on one side of the continent and another kind over on the other side. Those groups don't get along all the time, of course -- and, if we're telling an epic fantasy story, it will be during a time when they're spectacularly not getting along. Maybe there's a big wall slicing across the middle of that continent, Robert-Frostly trying to make good neighbors out of warring parties. It won't work, of course. We want our epic fantasy story, and that requires blood and death and devastation, pain and sorrow and misery, and heroic figures that feel all of that pain and yet find ways to transcend and transform their world, in the end.

But we're not at the end. We're at the beginning, with the one continent and the big wall and the two nations of very different people, about to go to war and kill untold numbers of both of them. And an epic fantasy war, like an epic fantasy story, can be expected to go on for a long time.

This particular example is Monstress, a stylish comic written by lawyer/novelist Marjorie Liu and drawn by manga-ka Sana Takeda. The first collection is called Awakening: it has the first six issues. The war hasn't even started yet by the time we hit the last page in this book, which is also typical for epic fantasy. I've seen this world described as "Asian-inspired," and it may be, but it looks like pretty standard to me: humans on one side, "elves" on the other. The "elves" are here called Arcanic, and are explicitly half-breeds of humans and the immortal used-to-be-godly Ancients, but they're even divided into Seelie and Unseelie Courts -- pardon me, Dusk and Dawn -- to make the parallel more obvious.

There are also Lovecraftian Old Gods, who lurk in spaces between worlds and have bodies that don't fit the humanoform plan. So far, though, while they may be called evil monsters who want to destroy the world, the one we see is in practice somewhat more reasonable and amenable. (And there's talking cats, because epic fantasy.)

An epic fantasy heroine must be someone secretly special, but seemingly inconsequential. A young girl, perhaps, who lost an arm in a way we don't yet know. But actually the daughter of a major figure in the world. But actually the keeper of huge secrets. But actually the host of an Old God. But actually possessing perhaps the most powerful magic of her world. But actually special.

This is Maika Halfwolf: she's seventeen when the story begins. A major war between Arcanic and human forces ended a few years back with a huge magical event that the humans think the Arcanics deliberately triggered. The war was otherwise inconclusive -- the borders are in the same place, and the humans are still pushing those borders, led by the obligatory all-female order of religious zealots who also have not-magical-via-a-footnote powers. And the Arcanics are much weaker, in many ways, than the humans suspect. Maika may have the key to winning a new war, for one side or the other. But, right now, she's looking for revenge on the humans she blames for her mother's death, and for a way to control that hungry Old God within her.

So: big continent with a wall in the middle, races ready to go to war again, lots of specific magic and looks-like-magic powers, decayed former gods and ominous forces from outside the world. Looks exactly like epic fantasy.

Liu musters the tropes well -- Maika is a strong, interesting character, headstrong in all of the usual epic-fantasy-protagonist ways while still being an individual. The world around her is big and complicated, and even the minor "villains" have depth and quirks. Takeda's art -- I think she's working in watercolors over ink, since she does the whole thing, pencils to color -- is equally rich and detailed, with instantly recognizable people and amazing spaces and fantastic objects for them to fight with and race through.

This is a good epic fantasy, in a medium that hasn't had much good epic fantasy. I personally have read more than enough epic fantasy in my day, but I guess there's always room for a little more if it's done with style and verve. Monstress does that.

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