Monstress Continued

24426209Last year in November I raved about Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s brilliant first issue of Monstress. The series is through Issue 6 now and you’ll be able to buy the compiled Vol. 1 in July. It’s safe to say I was deeply intrigued after the deluxe first issue (it was 66 pages!), but now I am enthralled. Mostly, I know that folks who are already comics readers have either already picked up Monstress or have heard the buzz, so I’m really trying to reach our readers that maybe typically don’t read comics, but that tend to like the kinds of books that Nicola, Alyssa and I tend to recommend27279102.

Over the past few years I’ve grown to like comics more and more. I love art, I love stories, I love fantasy and sci-fi and comics often blend those qualities in brilliant ways that I adore. Still, I have a bit of a hard time getting into any series that’s just started because I lose focus early and forget what’s happened — this happens to me with books, movies, podcasts… I love a series, but I typically need something significant to dig my teeth into to really get into a series. Liu and Takeda gave me just that, and I am practically addicted to the story.

Monstress is about a young woman named Maika Halfwolf who has a mysterious and ancient monster living inside her body. It times of distress it often takes over and commits atrocities to protect her (and by extension, itself). Maika lives in a world where her kind, the Arcanics, are in an uneasy truce with a race of witches called the Cumaea. While the Cumaea view the Arcanics as a “race,” the term applies broadly to groups of magical creatures that can pass as human, part animal, or even all animal.

27881799The Cumaea, as an organization, are a group of women who are endlessly savage in their acquisition of power. They are beautiful, highly educated and fantastic warriors, but are also vicious, conniving and violent. They have enslaved thousands of Arcanics for their own means, consuming them for 28695374power, using them for manual labor, or conducting heinous experiments on them. In Issues 1-4, we get a pretty good look at the Cumaea, but in Issues 5 and 6 we start to understand more about the “Courts” of the Arcanics, which aren’t seeming much better than the Cumaea, from Maika’s perspective.

I said in my first recommendation for Monstress that one of the most fascinating things about it was that its worldbuilding is primarily based on matriarchal structures, which has an interesting effect on how the story is told…. if only because it doesn’t seem to matter at all. There has been no sacrifice of power or violence to acquiesce to more “feminine” qualities. The female characters in these books are everything good, bad and the dozens of shades in between. It’s exactly these shades of grey that make the series being primarily populated by female characters so unique.

They way Monstress is paced feels a lot like reading a novel. Its themes of war between races (and some things about the “races” themselves) reminds me  of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. I think 29071035people who loved that series for its complexity will adore Monstress. In terms of aesthetics and worldbuilding, I think that people who typically enjoy manga-style artwork will be thrilled by Takeda’s intricate style.

I am consistently floored by how beautiful her work is and have read each issue several times just to look at the pictures again and again. Comic book covers are 29277177often more intricate or artistic versions of the art you can expect to see in the book (they’re meant to draw the reader in, like any book cover, after all!), but in this case, they are simply beautiful renditions of the heart of each issue’s primary conflict or theme. The images you can expect to see in the books themselves are just as stunning, frame by frame.

Overall, I realize this is just the beginning of what Takeda and Liu are trying to accomplish and that thought excites me more than what they’ve already put out. I expect that Maika will only become more complex, that her relationship with the mysterious Tuya will result in more surprises and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of a certain Lord Corvin in Issue 7.

I hope you’ll pick Monstress up if you haven’t, that you’ll pick it back up if you lost track of it and that you’ll love it no matter what.

Allison Carr Waechter’s summer school semester just started, so books with pictures are just the ticket. 

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Zombies and Vampires and Apocalypse, OH MY!

I am an eno15803761rmous fan of a good ‘ol genre mash-up. When done well, it can add fresh perspective to a genre that might be feeling a little stale. I first read Julie Kagawa’s Blood of Eden series a few years ago, but I’ve picked it up again since then and found it just as entertaining as the first time I read it.

So get this, in the Blood of Eden books a zombie virus began infecting the human world, predictably destabilizing civilization and bringing about the apocalypse. Pretty typical zombie/dytopian fare, right? Wrong. During the zombie apocalypse, vampires rose out of the shadows to save their food source. The only way they were able to do this is to build walled cities… and of course enslave humans to treat as walking blood bags.17883441

Outside the walls, those infected with the Red Lung virus turn into rabids, feral creatures able to turn others with their bite. Traveling among them is practically suicidal, but Allison Sekemoto is willing to do so to obtain food for her “Fringer” family. On one such trip out, she is bitten and a mysterious stranger gives her a choice: die now or become a vampire to survive the virus. Allie choses to become a vampire and the adventure begins.

This series has a strong “hero’s journey” backbone and combines tropes from zombie, dystopian and vampire genres with a surprisingly fluid grace. Once Kagawa’s reasoning for mashing the vampire and zombie genres is revealed it makes an amazing amount of sense. Seriously, you’ll have that “AAAAHHHHH, OF COURSE!” moment and feel really satisfied. I should say that this mash-up doesn’t come up with much that breaks the mold for any of its genres with much gusto, but it’s the remix of conventions I think you’ll enjoy most.

13581990The freshness here comes from Kagawa’s characters, that are so well developed that they’re extremely memorable. When I decided to pick The Immortal Rules up again, I found I had remembered the characters vividly, which isn’t always the case for me. Our protagonist Allison is one of my favorite female leads in YA. She’s monstrous and lovely at the same time, kickass and kind (and unbelievably tortured). Her “turning journey” is compelling and heart-wrenching, fraught with worries about family, romance and saving what little is left of the world.

Allison’s relationships with her sire Kanin and her vampire brother are strangely heartwarming, given the ferocious nature of each. Her romance with a human, Zeke, is fairly angsty, but for all the right reasons and his struggles with his understanding of Allie’s identity brings out a romantic storyline that is nuanced. I was most interested in how the push/pull between them ended up helping Allison accept herself fully, even when Zeke doesn’t support her.

Ultimately, this series is focused on finding a secret spot where humans live without vampire rule and finding a cure for Red Lung, and it is one scary   adventure. As many of you know, I’m not a very brave reader, so horror can be a little difficult for me. These books are definitely suspenseful and the zombies are scary (and the series’ villain even scarier!), but I could handle it. I think it takes the vampire scare factor up to near full force, but the zombie scare-factor is at a medium, creating a dark and tense vibe without being overly gory or terrifying.

One of the best things about this series is that it’s finished! All three books are out now, so get thee to the library and zoom right through them. Folks who enjoyed Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth or Mira Grant’s Feed will probably enjoy this series.

Allison Carr Waechter is ready for Spring Break. 


Promise of Shadows

“The darkness agrees with me. It asks me to release it, as loud as a roar and as quiet as a whisper. I remember what my sister said long ago: You must control the darkness. You can’t ever give in to it. But the shadows want to make me happy, and I deserve a little happiness” – Justina Ireland, Promise of Shadows

When I was a little girl, playing pretend, I had the hardest time deciding how to do my magic. It was clear that I was supposed to want to be the princ17869212ess or a good fairy, but let’s face it, witches, dark faeries, and “bad” girls have all the fun. The dark side called to me constantly and I ignored its sweet music for far too long.

Promise of Shadows, by Justina Ireland, was an incredibly entertaining indulgence of my love of mythology’s dark side. Instead of a princess, or golden demi-god, Promise of Shadows’ protagonist is a harpy with a secret. Zephyr Mourning is born into a harpy family that expects her to grow up to learn battle theory, martial arts and magic insofar as it can help them in their mercenary causes. But Zephyr can’t seem to do any of that quite the right way. When her sister is murdered, she unleashes a forbidden power and ends up first in Tartarus and then on the run.

The book is full of familiar mythological favorites from the Greek tradition, though it makes mention of other mythologies as well, indicating that more than one set of gods populate the otherworld. Ireland’s skillful worldbuilding makes it easy to quickly understand the structure of the hierarchies of non-human entities, hidden from human view. True to Greek tradition, there’s a prophecy, a chosen one and a quest to fulfill, all in the modern United States. Ireland’s worldbuilding is fun and creative, it reminds me somewhat of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series in terms of the idea that supernatural beings and their wars are going on all around us. As much as I love that, it’s Zephyr’s voice that made me fall in love.

I read a lot of YA. Some YA is clearly meant to address a broad, but mostly adult audience. Promise of Shadows is like The Accident Season (which I recommended a few weeks ago) in that while adults may enjoy it (I did!), it’s directed at a firmly YA audience. Zephyr is a teenage girl whose mother and sister have died and who’s been imprisoned for a year in a work camp. When her best friends spring her because they think she fulfills an ancient prophecy, she’s naturally reluctant to take up the hero’s mantle.  

Zephyr is unsure of herself as she adjusts to a worldview that includes her being the savior of an oppressed group of mythological creatures. She’s unsure of herself as she learns to wield forbidden power and falls in love with her best friend. She’s jealous and petty sometimes, as well as being willing to give everything to save the ones she loves. In other words, Zephyr reads as a real teenager to me, not as a young protagonist in an adult story.

Honestly, my real concern about this book is that there won’t be a sequel. It ends on a satisfying note, if it’s a standalone, but there are loose ends! There’s more to be done! I want to know what happens next! Let’s be frank with one another, I need more harpy action in my life. I like stories about those that literary history has written into the “dark and ugly” category, though Promise of Shadows’ harpies are far from ugly, with beautiful wings and long, colorful locks (Zephyr has blue hair and I love a protagonist with blue hair!). I’d love to read a whole series about avenging harpies and see if Zephyr ever gets to go to human college.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel, but you can bet that if I don’t get one, I’ll read whatever Justina Ireland has cooking next (her first book, Vengeance Bound is on my Kindle right now — there are FURIES!!!). I think if you liked Brodi Ashton’s Everneath series, you’d enjoy Promise of Shadows a lot. Get thee to the library or book store my darkness-loving, dears.

Allison Carr Waechter is only reading books about supernatural “bad” girls this month. Bring on witches, harpies, and more! Got a recommendation? Give her a shout in the comments.


Love in the Time of Apocalypse

Let me just say up front that while I’m all about urban fantasy, I don’t usually go in for sci-fi, alien dystopia-ish books. Movies are a different story, but it’s just not a genre I’ve ever been very interested in — probably because so many authors in the genre are men writing about male characters, driven by war plots and that’s not really my jam.

However.

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium is not that kind of book. Yes, there’s aliens. Yes, there’s war. Yes, there’s some crazy sci-fi computer glitch23374690 mucking up the narrative (in a completely intentional, awesome way). But it’s not the book you’re thinking of. I want to be clear with you right now, nothing I say about the book will prepare you for what’s actually going on. The reveal at the end is a satisfying mystery. Do you know what happened? Maybe. Maybe not. Not completely, and it’s the not-completely-knowing aspect of it that’s gonna stick with you. As a voracious reader, I can tell when a book is going to haunt me and this is one.

I read Elysium in under 12 hours. I put it down to sleep, eat and pet the cat and that’s about it. The book was nominated for a 2014 Philip K Dick Award and it’s been favorably compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. As someone who’s attempted Cloud Atlas a dozen times and failed to make it past the first 100 pages, I can say that I see the validity of the comparison and I’ll raise you a perhaps controversial, “I think this is better.” Maybe it’s because I was able to finish this one, but let’s chalk that up to my readerly issues and move on.

Elysium does something similar to Cloud Atlas, structurally speaking, in that it weaves many seemingly different stories together, with the stabilizing force of core symbols and characters that give the reader the sense that they are clicking puzzle pieces into place, chapter by chapter. While Cloud Atlas suggests that reincarnation is at the core of the repeating narrative elements, Elysium does something different. The storylines are separated by broken computer code, suggesting a technological explanation for the different narratives.

I don’t want to say much more about how the story is constructed, because part of the joy in reading Elysium is unraveling the mystery and it is a mystery, whatever you think the deal is for the first half is not what the deal actually is. The novel explores the potential of universal love, by putting its main characters Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine in myriad gender expressions and relationships. They’re lovers in some stories, parent and child in others, siblings in yet others and while this seems as though it might be confusing or jarring, somehow it’s not. Once you get used to the idea that whoever Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine are in the moment is impermanent, you’re left to let the apocalypse sink in.

Because while I would argue that the complicated pondering about love is what the novel is about, this is still sci-fi and Brissett does it well. The story of an invasive alien species, which infects and takes over Earth is terrifying and fascinating all at once. This is where the nested nature of the multiple storylines really shines: the reader gets to see the apocalypse unfold from myriad perspectives that are never entirely unfamiliar.

Brissett’s strengths are astonishing for a debut novel –or at all, really. This is literary sci-fi at its best. The worldbuilding is convincing. The pacing is wonderful. The story is dense, but it never leaves you bored or behind. I swear, the book makes you feel smart and that’s all Brissett’s doing.

But perhaps the most masterful part about the novel is Brissett’s ability to pack so much depth of characterization in the short time you get to know each set of characters. Once I caught on to the fact that I wasn’t going to get to “keep” whatever version of Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine I became even more invested in whatever iteration they were currently in; knowing I might never see them again made them precious to me. Somehow, in the midst of all this Brissett manages to pull together a truly human view of humanity, in that she effortlessly incorporates diverse characters into what you’ve probably gathered is already a densely woven text.

I read so many reviews that called this book “ambitious” and I’ll be honest, whenever reviewers use that word I wonder if there’s the subtext “but misses the mark” behind it. So I’ll say it loud and clear for you, Brissett’s Elysium is ambitious and unflinchingly hits its mark. Readers looking for diverse books in sci-fi/spec-fic will be pleased, as will fans of cerebral, apocalyptic texts.

To read an excerpt of the book, click here. Otherwise you can find more information about Brissett’s other work and Elysium here.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, reader and teacher of business writing. It’s the end of the semester and she sees the light at the end of the tunnel. If you want to distract her, tweet loud, she’s probably listening.