… yeah …
I think I made it pretty clear when I wrote about the first volume of Monstress here just how impressed I was with both the incredible artwork by Sana Takeda and with the pulls-no-punches story by Marjorie Liu. If it’s possible, I am even more invested now. This second volume has fewer light moments (and there weren’t that many in Awakening) and continues its descent into the way-dark pasts of both Maika Halfwolf and her world, but, like some sort of complex puzzle box, the story keeps opening out in a way that has me absolutely hooked.
In this instalment Maika, Kippa and Master Ren must travel to the ominously named Isle of Bones in pursuit of the truth behind what Maika’s mother did to her daughter. Naturally the journey doesn’t go quite to plan, and more enemies are discovered along the way. Maika also confronts some of her memories of her mother and her upbringing. Maika is a difficult heroine (anti-heroine, I suppose) to outright adore. She is incredibly tough and determined and, at times, positively vicious. I don’t think there’s a heart of gold in there, but she is understandable. She is damaged, sure, brought up by her mother to kill and to withstand pain, but still she wonders privately if her mother ever loved her.
Kippa, on the other hand, is nothing but adorable. She is the embodiment of innocence and compassion, and that Maika protects her is a big part of what makes her such a compelling character. She is not yet so far gone that she cannot value genuine goodness. And that Kippa insists that Maika is not a monster, despite the Monstrum inside of her, says a lot. I’m putting a lot of faith in Kippa being a good judge of character.
I started to appreciate in this volume the various relationships between the many factions baying for Maika’s body and blood. With the many different races and the tangled politics between them all, it takes some time to begin to unravel it all, but what really hit me was how many of the people hunting and/or betraying Maika are her family. Her grandmother and her aunt. Her goddess-father. Her (I think) best-friend. Which then leaves me wondering about her father, of whom we’ve heard nothing at all.
And then there’s the Monstrum, Zinn. I am one hundred and ten percent here for Zinn. What on earth possessed Maika’s mother to use her daughter as a vessel for such a creature? What did she think to gain? Zinn seems to be getting stronger, or at least more aware of itself, and is starting to remember things after its long, long sleep. It remembers the Shaman-Empress, and its sister-brother Hajin from when the Monstrum first arrived on the world of the story. I want to know everything about where they came from, the argument Zinn and Hajin were having, Zinn’s relationship with the Shaman-Empress and how it came about. I don’t think I can even rationalise my need to understand all this. I just need to.
The other thing I noticed reading this second volume was just how intense an experience this story is. Some of that is down to trying to follow the narrative, which moves about a fair bit and doesn’t slow down so you can keep up; some of it is because of the beautiful complexity of the world Liu and Takeda have created, which takes some concentration; and a large part of it is down to just how dark it all is. As one of the characters says:
“The past is never dead. But that is why it is so perilous.”
And I feel that this is something Liu has sewn into the very bones of her tale. I had to sit for a while after I’d finished reading this and just … let it settle. It’s an incredibly immersive world.
So, as I did with volume one, and in the least spoilery way possible, let me share with you just a few of my favourite bits: The pirate city of Thyria! (I want to live here!) The brothers Imura! Bad-ass pirate Captain Syryssa! (I want the name of her wardrobe mistress!) Kippa learns to swim! Rift Hounds! Kippa’s mechanical knowledge! The ghosts and sea ghouls of the Isle of Bones! The Ferryman! The Blood Fox! Illusions! Zinn is hungry! One last memory!
And I shall leave you with a few of the questions that I’m left with:
What’s the significance of the Ghoul Killer in Thyria and what’s with the organ removal?
Who is the man in shadow?
Is Areka (the fish-boy from the photograph) dead?
Will there be more Master Ren in the next volume? (He was quite low key in this one and I want more).
Where to next?