Friday, June 19, 2020

Book Review: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

boo cover for Monstress Volume 1 AwakeningThe story starts off with a young woman, missing her left arm below the elbow and with a strange tatoo on her chest, being auctioned off to slavery. But rather than getting sold off to some old man for his sexual fantasies, she becomes the property of the Cumaea, an order of women who plumb the boundaries of magic and science. We soon learn that this is part of the young woman's plan. For she has come here seeking answers and a bit of revenge.

The young woman's name is Maika, and she's come to learn what her mother was researching before her death and why she was killed. Maika is an Arcanic, the hybrid offspring of Humans and Ancestors or one of their descendants. Ancestors are familiar earthly animals with humanoid form, blessed with immortality and magic. Their appearance reminded me of the Egyptian pantheon of gods. Some Arcanics like Maika look fully human, but the majority of them have some animalistic traits (ears, tails, wings, etc.) which belie their parentage. Humans consider them to be abominations. There was a savage war between Humans and Arcanics not too long ago, which Maika took part in, and ended in stalemate after a pitched battle near the city of Constantine left over a hundred thousand dead.

There are also talking cats with multiple tails. Some of them wield swords.

This dark fantasy takes place on a world that mixes magic and steampunk technology. Matriarchal societies are in power and wield it ruthlessly, each trying to gain the upper hand on the other. And, of course, there are whispers of "the old gods," cyclopean horrors bent on submitting the world to their appetites. As befits the title, Maika factors into this last one.

The artwork is fantastic. The nuances in facial expressions from one panel to the next convey so much buried emotion. Art deco influences palacial homes, laboratories, and weapons. It's blended with Egyptian heiroglyphics to adorn subterranean tombs. While some of the Arcanic kids are drawn a bit too anime style for me, Takeda makes up for it with the exquisitely rendered monsters and forbidding forests.

Just as there's a wonderful level of detail in the artwork, Liu matches it with character depth. While this is Maika's story, so many other characters are there to provide other POVs to carry the story along. But none of them seem wasted. Each provides some window into this cruel world whereupon we can learn more of its backstory. There are no good guys here, save for the children. Every adult is capable of terrible things, but to balance it out, Liu grants all but the most irredeemable some way to express their better natures.

5 stars.


Friday, June 12, 2020

Book Review: The Liminal Zone

book cover for the Liminal ZoneNina Buraca, investigator of possible signs of alien life, has heard tales of mysterious events on Pluto's moon Charon, where a science outpost studies extrasolar planets. Facing opposition from her colleagues, she nevertheless travels from Earth to uncover the truth. Once there, she finds herself working with a team of people who have many secrets. To make progress, she has to take sides in an old dispute that she knows nothing about. Can she determine who – or what – is really behind the name "selkies" that the station's staff have given to this uncanny phenomenon?

The Liminal Zone is the third book in Abbott's Far From the Spaceports series, and like the others, it's a standalone. While the first two books (Far From the Spaceports and Timing) featured the same characters, this one introduces us to a whole new cast with a completely unrelated plot. It isn't necessary to read those first two to read this one, but if you like The Liminal Zone, you should check out the others.

For those unfamiliar with this series, humanity has colonized the solar system, and artificial intelligence (AI) has come to fruition. Space travel has improved, it still takes weeks, sometimes months, to travel from one celestial body to another. As such, there's a bit of self-governance each place enjoys, and adults are very much in charge. No dystopia here.

AI entities work alongside humans and have personalities that are barely distinguishable from them. Just as the gods of Mount Olympus suffered from the same emotional shortcomings as humans, so too do Abbott's AIs. As such, people and "personas" work together, live together, and form friendships. They're each other's besties. When Nina announces to her persona, Aquilegia, that she's headed to Charon to investigate the Selkie mystery, the latter balks at going. A fight ensues, and the two of them break-up. As theirs had been a six-year relationship, Nina is devastated and feels very much alone.

All the while that Nina investigates the mystery, her encounters with other people and personas and exploration of the Charon settlement and surface, she can't help but reflect on her feelings. She's the outsider trying to fit in among a group of people. Some are paired up; some work alone. Some are friendly; some stymie her every move to make progress on either the mystery or fitting in. The story is very much an introspective journey as well as an investigative one.

Having a character journey over 30 AUs to find herself may seem unusual, but is it really any different than someone traveling halfway round the world? You go where the path leads you. I confess that I was more interested in the secrets Nina strove to uncover than her personal journey, but I chalk that up to being in a healthy relationship for 26 years. One last thing I'd like to point out is that I haven't read this much about characters drinking tea since Ancillary Justice. I kid. All of this makes for a charming read. Having taken us to the asteroid belt, Mars's moons, and now distant Charon, I'm wondering where Abbott will travel to next.

4 stars