Monstress: Awakening

The award-winning and critically lauded Monstress series by an MIT professor and a Marvel illustrator caught my eye with the promised expansive world-building and layered characterisations. Set in an alternate matriarchal Asia, the steampunk-meets-kaiju graphic novel follows an Arcanic (a human and Ancient half-breed) wreaking vengeance for her dead mother.

The inherent advantage of graphic novels is that, because a single panel can impart so much more information than the average sentence, few introductions are needed. And in Monstress, readers are thrown straight into the war-torn bowels of a genocidal cult, a slave camp, and two enigmatic Arcanic Courts. The very first panel is a full-page illustration of Maika, our protagonist, stripped naked and being auctioned off for parts, sex and other unspoken horrors.

On the flip side, some authors rely too heavily on this convenience, tipping the balance too far towards ‘showing’ (without actually showing us much). They fashion ambitious worlds, but fail to supply compelling cultures and histories. Worse, in some novels, you have no idea what those cultures or histories even are, or what the heck is going on half the time. Disappointingly, Monstress belonged to the latter group.

Too many invented terms and technologies and species were slung in at once, with few effective definitions or demonstrations, despite the aforementioned option of just drawing it out. Details of characters’ lives and relationships were so haphazardly littered throughout the volume, I had no clue which ones were actually significant and which were just fillers. I was often plagued by the feeling that the panels were spliced together by some Machiavellian mischief-maker who cut out the important moments for petty torture. As the convoluted plot progressed, my questions only multiplied. I’m not sure I’m bothered to look for answers in the second book.

Maybe the characters really were more nuanced than your typical comic book heroines. The last graphic novel I read was Maus in Year 10, so I do not have much to compare them with. But compared with traditional novels, given how poorly the illustrations conveyed information, Maika’s identity crisis and emotional turmoil only succeeded in being a tad contrived.

The Art Deco-manga art was stunningly intricate. A shame that the elaborate detail did little to carry the actual narrative.

Rating: 2/5

The Girl with the Windup Heart

The other two books pictured (also read in this month) are My Life on the Road and The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two.

The fourth and final instalment of the Steampunk Chronicles, The Girl with the Windup Heart, interweaves two storylines: Finley’s quest to rescue Griffin from a mysterious dimension accessible only to those who have recently died, and the determination of Mila, an ex-automaton, to discover what it means to be a human. The primary antagonist of the preceding novels also returns, despite having been killed in the previous book.

From the third chapter onwards, I was already far more captivated by the plot revolving around Mila, even though Cross clearly intended both to be equally intriguing. Perhaps the drawn-out, blatantly obvious passages from Finley’s point of view were too tiresome, with clichéd declarations such as: “She was not going to cry, no matter how much her eyes burned… Griffin didn’t need her tears, he needed her help. So, no – she was not going to throw herself on the bed they shared, bury her face in his pillow and sob herself dry. She would not bawl and snot and pray for him to return to her.” In primary school, we were always encouraged to show, not tell. And although I am often frustrated by an uncompromising adherence to this ‘rule’, which can lead to pretentious and irritatingly vague prose, this was certainly a case of excessive telling. The characters’ slews of rhetorical questions from their shock at their own emotions (yet the reader remains unmoved, since the romantic developments are completely predictable) only added to the melodrama.

Another reason for the uncharacteristically less-than-riveting storyline may be because this time, the antagonist’s actions were driven simply by a sadistic desire to torture, rather than any meticulously planned attempts to rule Victorian England. Consequently, there was a yawning absence of the usual element of mystery. In the previous books, the characters – and the reader – had to slowly piece together the ingenious schemes of the antagonist before it was too late, but this novel left no room for puzzles or plot twists. Even the final showdown with a new enemy felt empty and anticlimactic because it was solved in – quite literally – an instant, thanks to one character’s supernatural abilities.

Nonetheless, Cross did attempt to address the timeless construct of ‘humanity’ through the development and internal dilemmas of Mila, drawing parallels between her and Pinocchio. As she struggled to grasp the unfairness of the patriarchal society and the concept of propriety, the reader was able to explore the wonders and flaws of human beings from a fresh perspective. Additionally, ardent fans of Finley and Griffin will not be disappointed. But I must admit that Cross’ habit of splitting all of her main characters into neat pairs continues to irk me, maybe because it seems to suggest that happiness can only be found by people in romantic relationships. Or maybe the complete absence of any single characters was just too blindingly unrealistic.

Favourite quote: “Is that what’s got you in such a state? The fact that you were never a baby? You just skipped a very messy step on the evolutionary ladder, I reckon.”
Rating: 2/5

Photograph by Christy Lau.