Marjorie Liu’s “Monstress (Volume One: Awakening)” is a compelling and beautifully illustrated tale revolving around the broad themes of vengeance and violence, war and conflict, as well as class statuses and slavery, yet it is the intricate characterisation – especially the main trio of Maika Halfwolf, Kippa, and Ren – and the relationships which emerge between these characters which stands out. The three of them are not always on the same page and they each have distinct, often conflicting traits (with Maika being cold and mistrustful and Kippa, my favourite character, being innocent and optimistic, for instance), and the moments of uncertainty and danger are therefore marked by raw feelings of doubt and fear, but as the story progresses their bonds only strengthen.
This first volume of the comic collects the first six issues of 18, and in addition to the main narrative – of Maika’s quest for revenge against Yvette Lo Lim, who betrayed her mother, and of her making sense of her past and a monster which is trapped in her left arm – a series of flashbacks and vignettes provide the background against which the story is set, detailing in particular the historical tensions among the different races: The Ancients (now split into the courts of Dawn and Dusk), the Arcanics or Halfbreeds (the offsprings of Ancients and Humans), the Cats (often nekomancers or poets), Humans (some females possess mental powers which mimic the Arcanics), and the Old Gods (who were once powerful and destructive, but now exist as harmless apparitions).
It is, in this vein, clever storytelling. Because “Monstress” remains focused on its main protagonist and the trials and tribulations which fall her way, and Liu uses the aforementioned devices to provide the information readers need to make sense of the developments. Events in the beginning, to some extent, can be confusing confusing, and the relevance of some of the plot or character elements – Maika’s past relationships and the chain of events leading up to her present circumstances of predicament, in particular – remain unclear, though there is plenty of action: As Maika battles her way out of situations or confrontations, as she is presented with impossible choices, and as she interacts with the monster inside her and with characters who may be more powerful than her. And this wonderful combination of the mystery and the promise of further climaxes only leaves the reader wanting more.