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I keep meaning to read more graphic novels, but somehow it's mostly during the Hugo season that I actually do, and that's because of the Best Graphic Story category. I've enjoyed several of the specific volumes I've read for the Hugos, but somehow I rarely follow up on the multi-part stories.

Monstress Volume 1: The Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, is another of those graphic novels that was enjoyable while reading - though also deeply disturbing - but I'm not at all certain I'll be continuing to read it (unless more volumes are nominated for Hugos in future years). Not because it isn't a good story, because it is. But after lots if attempts, I've come to understand that I shy away from reading graphic novels because it is physically difficult fir me, and few stories are compelling enough to override that.

Some of those who read these reviews know that I have severe multiple chemical sensitivities and am bedbound due to multiple disabilities. What this means is that I can't read anything printed on paper - it's too toxic for me, especially paper with lots of ink, like graphic novels. So everything I read must be electronic. But because I spend all my tine lying in bed, everything I read, I read on an iPad. Any other device is too heavy. And I have arthritis and poor eyesight. There's no reader out there that allows me to read graphic novels without a lot of pinching and swiping around each page to get all the important dialogue and visual detail. And by the time I've read a few pages, my fingers and my eyes hurt. So.... I tend to shy away from graphic novels. Nonetheless, I will do my best to read those nominated and not let my circumstances bias me against the medium. So.... On with my thoughts on Monstress.

Visually, Monstress is a stunning piece of work - intricately drawn, dense but never 'busy,' a feast for the eyes. Takeda blends artistic traditions to create marvellous images, though she is at her best with inanimate subjects - architectural designs and atmospheric backgrounds, clothing, machines, furniture, and so on. Her living characters seem curiously unfinished, rather like dolls.

The narrative is complex and disturbing, set in a post-war, almost post-apocalyptic world where two enemy civilisations, still opposed but not actively at war, appear to be recovering from a cataclysmic event. On one side, the human federation in which considerable power lies with the all-female sorcerer-scientist order of the Cumaea; on the other, the non-human Arcanes, rumoured to have access to powers or beings known as the monstrum.

The story focuses on Maika, an Arcanic, a former slave of the Federation, living with other escapees and dispossessed arcanics in a sort of demilitarised zone between the two nations. She possesses powers she cannot use at will or control, though they appear when she is in great distress. She is connected in some way to the catastrophic event that ended open warfare between humans and arcanics. And she is seeking the truth about her mother and herself, a truth that she believes can only be found among the Cumaea.

At the beginning of the story, Maika has allowed herself to be captured and enslaved by humans. She and several other Arcanics, all children, have been claimed by the Cumaea as slaves, but from almost the beginning it is clear that the Cumaea - like other humans - see the Arcanes as animals and so fit subjects both for torture by those who seek pleasure in the children's pain, and scientific experimentation by those who seek to know more about the Arcanes and their power.

The story is hard to read, even harder to look at. Takeda's brilliant artwork is often used to portray scenes of humiliation, torture, vivisection, and violence. In an afterword to the first issue, Liu talks about the genesis of the story in her grandparents' memories of war and xenophobic hatred and violence - based on timing, I'm guessing her grandparents would have been survivors of the invasion of China by Imperial Japan, or both. Malka is a refugee, an orphan, an escaped slave, an amputee, a victim of war and violence and racial hatred, and she carries within her the power to wreak vengeance, or to simply spread violence indiscriminately as survivors of trauma often do. She has the capacity to be a monster, and it stems from her suffering and pain. It's one hell of a story, relevant in all times of violence and war, about what these all too common pursuits of humanity can do to our souls.
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It seems that there has been a recent rebirth of the novella. I've been finding all sorts of books that are collections of three or four novella-length pieces - most of them in the urban fantasy and paranormal romance categories. Also, some publishing houses, notably Subterranean Press and Aquaduct Press, have been publishing a number of works in the novella to short novel range. And one finds novella-length pieces on various author and magazine websites all over the net. In the list below of novellas I've devoured this past year, if a novella was not acquired as a standalone publication (paper or edoc), I've tried to indicate the name of the book, or website I found it in/on.

As for the novellas themselves, there's quite a range. Many of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance novellas are much of a muchness. I was delighted to find a novella by Michelle Sagara set in her Cast universe, and found the novellas by Yasmine Galenorn and C. E. Murphy interesting enough that I intend to explore their novels.

On the other hand, I was very excited to read more tales set in Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam - Abigail Irene Garrett is a character I am very fond of. The same is true of the late and much lamented Kage Baker's steampunk sequence of novellas associated with her Company books. And I do like Diana Gabaldon's Lord John sequence of novels and novellas. And my devouring of Margaret Frazer's published oeuvre would not have been complete without the domina Frevisse novella.

Marjorie M. Liu, The Tangleroot Palace (Never After)
Marjorie M. Liu, Armor of Roses (Inked)
Marjorie M. Liu, Hunter Kiss (Wild Thing)

Yasmine Galenorn, The Shadow of Mist (Never After)
Yasmine Galenorn, Etched in Silver (Inked)

Mercedes Lackey, A Tangled Web (Harvest Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Moontide (Winter Moon)
Mercedes Lackey, Counting Crows (Charmed Destinies)

Rachel Lee, Drusilla's Dream (Charmed Destinies)
Catherine Asaro, Moonglow (Charmed Destinies)
Michelle Sagara West, Cast in Moonlight (Harvest Moon) 
Cameron Haley, Retribution (Harvest Moon)
Karen Chance, Skin Deep (Inked)
Eileen Wilkes, Human Nature (Inked)
Maggie Shayne, Animal Magnetism (Wild Thing)
Meljean Brook, Paradise (Wild Thing)
Tanith Lee, Heart of the Moon (Winter Moon)
C. E. Murphy, Banshee Cries (Winter Moon)
Sharon Shinn, The Wrong Bridegroom (Never After)

Elizabeth Bear, In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Asimov's)
Elizabeth Bear, Seven For A Secret
Elizabeth Bear, The White City
Elizabeth Bear, Ad Eternum

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Succubus (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Haunted Soldier (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, The Custom of the Army (via author's website)
Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Plague of Zombies (via author's website)

Margaret Frazer, Winter Heart (Smashwords)

Kage Baker, Rude Mechanicals
Kage Baker, Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea
Kage Baker, Speed, Speed the Cable

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The Iron Hunt, Marjorie Liu

I'm picky about my urban fantasy. First of all, I tend to prefer what I think of as first wave (such as Diana Paxson's Brisingamen, Emma Bull's The War of the Oaks, R. A. MacAvoy's Tea with the Black Dragon) and second wave urban fantasy (Lackey's Diana Tregarde, SERRAted Edge and Bedlam's Bard series, Tanya Huff's Victory Nelson and Keeper series) to the overwhelming flood of BTVS-influenced urban fantasy that I think of as third wave urban fantasy.

The Iron Hunt is squarely within the parameters of third wave urban fantasy, but it is not exactly a typical third wave urban fantasy, and its protagonist, Maxine Kiss, is not exactly a typical third wave urban fantasy heroine.

Yes, there’s the trope of the Chosen One who gains her powers only when the previous Chosen One dies – made more emotionally fraught here by making the role of Chosen One - in this case, the Hunter – hereditary, passed from mother to daughter down through the millenia.

And there is a somewhat overcomplicated and yet at the same time familiar back story about an ancient war between evil powers – in this case, demons – and the forces of good who manage to lock away the evil, at least for a while, and then create guardians to defend humanity against demons whose influence can still extend beyond their confines, in the shape of humans possessed and turned into zombies.

And of course, the seals are weakening and something resembling Armageddon or Ragnarok hovers on the horizon and unexpected allies begin to gather around Maxine, who may be the last Hunter and who is naturally special, different in some way from Hunters who have gone before.

But despite the elements of the formula, there are also some striking new twists and interesting questions that remain unanswered at the end of this, the first volume of a series. It’s enough that I’ll be looking for the next volume.

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