Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!
Whoa, whoa, whoa. People, I have thoughts about Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening, issues 1-6. First, that I didn’t read the flap copy nor did I know much about it except that it was highly recommended, which challenged me to formulate the details of the intricate world as I was reading (thanks Professor Tam Tam!), and second that the art was beautiful. Takeda’s artwork is an inventive combination of Art Deco architecture, steampunky science, manga-style characters icon magic inspired by Arabic or Egyptian myths, set in an alternate world Asia. It’s a stunning feast for the eyes and the cover alone is a showstopper.
Maika Halfwolf is a teenage Arcanic and former slave girl, with a missing arm and a past she can’t remember. Arcanics are a mixed breed race resulting from humans and the immortal, animal-shaped Ancients. Some of them, like Maika, look human barring a slight detail like animal ears, others have paws or a fox’s tail (Kippa! My innocent lamb!). Monstress, Vol. 1 is set in the city of Zamora on the edge of truce lands, with a bloody history of violence between the magical Arcanics and the scientific “witches” of the Cumaea (humans) who experiment on them. Maika’s story starts with revenge, and a quest for answers, all with the teenage angsty anger I love and a monster living inside her.
Personally, my mind jumped immediately to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I read in my early twenties and became formative in my deciding what kind of fantasy I like. Monstress, while set in a wholly different world and in a different format, touches on similar themes and conflicts: a girl main character with a mysterious past and game-changing magical powers; an ongoing, extremely violent war between races, one of which has animal parts; an interesting religious overtone/alternate creation story; sumptuous world details in every way possible; hamsas all around; what makes a monster. If you like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, you’ll really like this.
But on the other hand Monstress is its own ball game. It’s epic in scope, and there are 10 more volumes and counting. It’s predominantly matriarchal and there are very few male characters, at least in the first volume. In interviews, Liu has mentioned basing some of the stories of war, slavery, torture and trauma on her Chinese grandparents’ experiences in World War II, and the very fact of its alternate Asian setting makes it a clear commentary on racial politics, feminism and identity. Even if the Arcanics “pass” as human, they’re still seen as beasts, subject to constant abuse and scientific experiments.
Ultimately, even with the gorgeous setting and peeled-onion worldbuilding, the series is centered around Maika—her rage, her power, and her agency. She’s flawed, defensive, and can’t always control the monster within her, physical and metaphorical. And that makes her perfect. (But bonus points for Master Ren, who can now make my list of top 10 fantasy cats!)
Faye Bi works as a book publicist in New York City, and is a member of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.