Children of the Different -S.C. Flynn

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“‘We’ve got to go back,’ she said.

‘Back where?’ Narrah looked shocked.

‘Into the Changeland.’

‘What? Why?’…

…’If we go back into the Changeland, perhaps we’ll find what we need while the memories are still strong.'”

***

Source: Review Copy

Publisher: The Hive

Date of Publication: September 10, 2016

Print Length: 227 pages.

     When the world ends, it ends in madness, leaving few survivors and even fewer still considered human.  Those who survive with their humanity intact live in fear of the technology believed to have caused the apocalypse and of the roving packs of cannibalistic “ferals” that comprise the rest.  Yet life goes on, diminished but not defeated, if only in small settlements such as the one near the outskirts of Perth, Australia, where survivors have banded together into families of necessity, rather than biology.

Young Narrah and Arika have never known another life than this, neither a time when technology worked, nor a time of safety beyond the walls of their settlement.  They’ve also never known a time without “the changing”, a coma-like sleep children fall into upon puberty, from which they either die or return changed, whether into mindless ferals or beings with bizarre and wonderful powers of the mind.  Their friends Wirrah and Toura have already been to the” Changeland”, as it is called, one returning with an unnatural sense of danger, the other as prophetess whose prognostications are infallible.  Yet Narrah and Arika are unique even in a world of the special, sharing a psychic link they refer to as “the path”, an ability inherited from their long dead parents.  Fraternal twins who once shared a womb, they utilize this ability to communicate, whatever the distance between them.

While in the Changeland, Arika finds herself in a reality made up of memories of those who lived before the fall, and meets a malevolent creature who has taken the form of an echidna that preys on those undergoing the changing.  It’s only through the intervention of Narrah (who is able to enter the Changeland by way of their psychic link) that they are both able to escape.  When she awakes, Arika gradually discovers she can mimic the senses and abilities of myriad animals.  Locked up by the settlement’s inhabitants for fear she may become feral, Arika uses her newly found powers to escape and flees with Toura to find Narrah, who has been kidnapped by the City people (those who still believe in science and technology).  Little does she (or Narrah) know, but he’s essential to them by way of the gift he receives on his own journey to the Changeland.   Arika and Narrah, with the help of their childhood friends and the City People, will embark on a journey to unlock the past to save the future.

***

When evaluating whether I’ve enjoyed a novel, I like to imagine the process as akin to a balance, with one arm representing the mechanics of the prose (how well it’s written), the other representing the plot (the framework of the story), and the fulcrum upon which they rest as my resulting enjoyment.  Topple the balance one way or the other and as a reader, I come away dissatisfied.  It’s an especially tricky tightrope to walk (just like mixing metaphors) when the novel has been self published.  In such cases, my balance is relatively flexible, in that I’m willing to forgive rough prose or a loosely developed story as long as its counterpart shifts the balance into equilibrium. Such is the case with S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different.

The dystopian novel is a well-worn genre in literary circles, whether it be the post apocalyptic world Stephen King’s The Stand, or perhaps more appropriately to our subject, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids*. In Flynn’s case, he’s travelling well trodden dystopian ground, what with the apocalyptic plague of madness, the loss of technology (and irrational fear of it), the hero’s journey, exemplified in both Narrah and Arika and their individual storylines that inevitably converge, and of course, the idea of the chosen one (or two)  whose path may lead to salvation.  Yet these obvious tropes are manipulated with skillful effect to engage the reader (at least this one) in Narrah and Arika’s exploits, and at the end of the day, leaves the reader wanting more of their story.  It’s not that the plot remains unresolved, but that much of the story falls outside the margins of what we’re allowed to see.  There’s much more to the history of the madness and what led up to it, more of the tale of the twin’s parents and their special connection, and especially, more of Arika and Narrah, whose story is both resolved—yet  not—at the end of the novel. Personally, I’d like to know it.

The other end of the balance is where Children of the Different finds some hurdles to overcome.  At times the author can be overly verbose, specifically regarding the chase scenes, which tend to come across as overlong.  It’s a situation where the use of a professional editor would be useful to tighten the pacing and guard against the aforementioned verbosity while retaining the author’s voice.  Yet it is a quibble rather than criticism, as Flynn’s story more than makes up for the deficit of brevity.  However, as a reader, I must admit to a certain bias regarding concise writing, preferring an economy of words, especially with regards to Young Adult novels, for fear of intimidating the reader.  So it’s a subjective rather than objective criticism, and in the final analysis, the balance between writing mechanics and entertaining story is kept.

Children of the Different is a Young Adult post-apocalyptic novel by S.C. Flynn, an Australian ex-pat currently living in Ireland.  He maintains a blog at scflynn.comChildren of the Different is his debut novel, and I look forward to his future endeavors.

 

*note to self—sit down and read your copy of The Chrysalids.

Finn Fancy Necromancy-Randy Henderson

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Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: January 1, 2015

 

Finn Gramaraye is a most unusual ex-con.  He’s a talented necromancer and one of a group of magically gifted humans known collectively as the Arcana, living surreptitiously among the “mundane” population.  His crime—assault on a creature of the fey—and his punishment is exile to the Other Realm, the place beyond the mists the fey call home.  There he’s forced to relive his most intimate memories for their amusement.  Those exiled to the Other Realm feel no sense of the passage of time and when his sentence is completed, 15 year old Finn is transferred into his now 40 year old body.

Normally, such a sentence wouldn’t constitute an insurmountable culture shock to an Arcana.  Finn’s body has been loaned out the past quarter century to a changeling who will catch him up on the life he’s missed.  His parole underway, the transfer ceremony runs smoothly right up to the moment someone interferes using dark magic.  Finn survives the attack but the transfer is incomplete, and he ends up without those crucial memories of his life since incarceration.  For someone stuck in an 80’s frame of mind, 2011 is going require some major adjustment.  As if that’s not enough for his still adolescent mind to deal with, he’s just been framed—again—this time for the murder of the same witch he was convicted of assaulting all those years ago.

Now he’s got 72 hours to not only exonerate himself but to unravel a conspiracy that threatens the uneasy peace between Arcana and Fey, a conspiracy that someone—or something—will do anything to keep him from solving.  Concurrently, Finn finds himself dealing with an older brother who just might want him dead, a younger brother who thinks he’s a waerwolf, a zealous enforcer who isn’t particularly interested in due process, and not one, but two romantic entanglements from his past.  For Finn Gramaraye, exile is not looking so bad any more.

Finn Fancy Necromancy is a novel that took several attempts to fully immerse myself in, perhaps owing to the present state of the genre.  Since J. K. Rowling exploded on the scene, a sort of “Harry Potter Effect” has manifested as publishers chase the phenomenon.  It’s an unavoidable side effect of Rowling’s success–a glut of knock offs and wannabe’s, all published by an industry desperate to replicate her success while the subject is hot.  Upon cursory reading, I feared Finn’s story was going to fall into the “wannabe” category and set it down in search of something else.  Revisiting the novel a few months later, I discovered the folly of my initial impression. Neither Randy Henderson nor Finn Fancy Necromancy deserve the “also ran” moniker. 

Randy Henderson’s novel has all those things you’ve come to expect in Urban Fantasy: Mundies (those regular folks, clueless to the magical world around them), Arcana (those gifted with magical abilities, living un-noticed by regular society), Fey (magical creatures such as Gnomes, Sasquatch, Witches and Waerwolves), all of them maintaining an uneasy truce while they pursue their own goals.  Of course, with all these competing factions, there’s need of a magical police force, the Enforcers, tasked with keeping the peace, or at least some version thereof.  All very standard fair in your typical Urban Fantasy, but it’s also got that certain something that makes a particularly good fantasy story stand out.  Whether it’s the interspersed humour, the compelling characters, or an intriguing mystery, Henderson has found the storyteller’s sweet spot.  Add to that plenty of action, whether in the form of Sasquatch fights, Warlock rumbles, or a mission impossible into the heart of an Arcana vault by Finn and company and you’ve got a winning combination.

There’s also action on the emotional front.  Finn’s tale is a coming of age story, as he tries to recapture both his lost youth and his estranged family and finding out neither may be possible.  Having no experience with the foibles of teen relationships, when he runs into his former girlfriend (now a mother with her own teenager), he’s ill equipped to recognize that though she may be the girl of his dreams, that’s possibly all she ever was.  Nor does it help that the mundie girl he used to pal around with has grown into a beautiful women who’s no longer shy in demonstrating her affection for this clueless boy in a man’s body.

Finn’s relationship with his family is also complicated, considering the eclectic nature of their personalities.  His older brother Mort is consumed by jealousy of Finn’s necromantic abilities and fears that Finn’s re-emergence may usurp his position within the family necrotorium.  Finn’s younger brother Pete adores him, unaware of Finn’s participation in a youthful prank that may or may not have turned him into a lycanthrope.  His father has lost his mind but not his ability to conjure, and his sister is literally allergic to magic, a decidedly unhealthy malady for someone from a family whose business revolves around the one thing she can’t be near. 

All in all, it’s a magical blend of Six Feet Under and the Addams Family upon which Randy Henderson has placed his personal stamp, and an excellent debut to a series which continues in Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, out this February.  Randy Henderson maintains at RandyHenderson.com.

Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+

The Court of the Air – Stephen Hunt

CourtOfTheAir“We’re the ghosts in the machine, Oliver, keeping the game straight and hearts pure.  The only thing they know about us is the name Kirkhill gave us – the Court of the Air; the highest bleeding court in the land.”

About five years ago, a title leaped out at me from the shelf as I walked through my local bookstore.  The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, described on the dust cover as, “A fantastical tale of high adventure, low-life rogues, and orphans on the run.”  Now I’m a sucker for both fantasy and adventure novels, especially those with a historical feel, and a quick read of the synopsis suggested that this novel could be all those things, with the added bonus of being Steampunk.  At the time, I set it back down, thinking to pick it up at a later date–and then promptly forgot it.  Flash forward a year and the same title once again leaped out at me while strolling through another bookshop.  It also leaped out in hardcover for an absolutely reasonable price.  So, I bought it, set it on the shelf with the intent to read, and there it sat until earlier this year.  When I finally got around to reading it, I realized that I’ve been missing out on the Steampunk equivalent of J. R. R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin.  I also realize that if I missed out on this for six years, you might too, and we can’t have that.

So, synopsis please, and we’ll go from there. 

The Court of the Air is nominally the story of two orphans, one being the foundling Molly Templar, a street urchin left to the care of the Sungate workhouse in Middlesteel, capital of the nation-state of Jackals.  The other, one Oliver Brooks, is also an orphan after an Aerostat crash into the feymist (magical faerie mist is the only way I can describe it) that blankets parts of Jackals killed his parents and left him alone in the world except for his uncle Titus.  Life is hard for both Molly and Oliver.  She goes from job to job, the proceeds confiscated to pay for her care at the workhouse until she comes of age and finds a career, while he is ostracized by the community and forced to register with the worldsingers (a type of magician) every week to prove the latent mystical powers they suspect he has as a result of his time in the feymist have not manifested.  When everyone in Molly’s workhouse is slaughtered by a mysterious assassin, and Oliver’s uncle is murdered in his house and he subsequently framed for the crime, both go on the run and into a series of adventures that will eventually bring them and their stories together—and may possibly rip both the state of Jackals and literally their entire universe apart.  That is, unless they can find a way to stop it.

The Court of the Air is a novel of intrigue within intrigue, with many factions on the trail of the two orphans, some to protect them, others to stop them from fulfilling a destiny they aren’t even aware of.  It’s also a masterful blend of both Steampunk and something somewhat unique to the genre.  Sure, it was quite obvious in the opening pages that there would be the traditional Steampunk fare: Autonomous Steam Men, Aerostats (also known as Zeppelins), Pneumatic Buildings and Subterranean Cities, but what piqued my interest was the addition of magic.  Elements such as the Feymist (faerie) creatures, the Special Guard (those augmented by their exposure to the world beyond), Worldsingers (magicians who utilize the power of the earth in their arts), even the militia’s muskets relying on crystals grown for use as a sort of magical gunpowder, all add a mystical element to a genre that (I think) is not generally known for it.

I would be remiss at this point not to mention the Court of the Air itself, an organization whose existence is whispered amongst the people but rarely seen.  A shadowy league, influencing significant events from behind the scenes for their own altruistic–or nefarious–purposes.  A cabal to whose attention Oliver and Molly have unwittingly come.  

There are times in which The Court of the Air can be a tricky read.  Stephen Hunt has managed to create a universe with its own particular accent, especially with regards to the language.  The novel is chock full of Jackelian slang.  As an example, Crushers are police, Wordsingers are magicians, even the honorifics mister and missus become Samson and Damson.  Many times while reading The Court of the Air, I wished for a dictionary of Jackelian vernacular, but much like a Dickens novel, you get used to it, and it gives the novel a particularly strong air of authenticity.  Speaking of Charles Dickens, Hunt’s work has much the same feel, writing of orphans and workhouses, characters with a hidden destiny, a gentrified society of haves and have-nots, and all wrapped in wonderful prose of a decidedly Victorian flavor.

Hunt’s Universe is also very obviously a blending of English history and Steampunk fantasy, what with the Kingdom of Jackals being nominally a constitutional monarchy that has neutered the power of the King after a conflict reminiscent of the English Civil War.  Even the troops carry weapons that nod to their historical counterparts.  The New Pattern Army of Jackals recycles a variation of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, and its soldiers are loaded out with a musket called the Brown Jane, recalling the real life Brown Bess.  Calling the militia Redcoats simply completes the picture.  However, the automaton Kingdom of Mechancia and the evil shadows of the Wildcaotyl bring both a Steampunk and fantastical element to Jackals history.

Even the political ideologies of the major factions are patterned on historical examples.  Jackals is a social democracy where parliament rules with a king as figurehead only, while their enemy, the Commonshare of Quartershift is an obvious allusion to both the former Soviet Union and the ideology of Communism.  Within Jackals itself, there is a debate between the accepted state of society and the criminalized works of Benjamin Carl, a Marx-like figure whose treatise, “Community and the Commons,” sparked a failed revolution years earlier. 

This spectacular novel does take a while to become fully immersed in, what with the learning curve of both the colloquial slang and the sheer size of Hunt’s universe. In the final analysis, The Court of the Air is a novel that you don’t so much read as you do explore.  And that makes for a wonderful novel that deserves to be the standard to which other Steampunk novels be compared. 

 

A++

Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess–Phil and Kaja Foglio

GirlGenius2“It’s ‘over.'” She snorted. “You speak like a child.  The Baron’s people will be back, or if not, there will be others like them.  You must be ready!”

Agatha looked at her angrily. “What makes you say that?  It’s a perfect plan.  They think I’m dead!”

“There is a serious flaw in this ‘perfect’ plan of yours…you’re not really dead now, are you?”

Beginning shortly after the events of Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City, Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess chronicles the story of our titular heroine, Agatha Heterodyne, and her feline familiar Krosp 1, (Emperor of Cats) Krosp1as they flee the forces of Baron Klaus Wulfenbach across the Wastelands of Europa. The Baron, essentially Emperor of Europa, has quite the history with the Heterodyne brothers and wants to keep any offspring of his former rivals under his thumb.  Agatha is also fleeing the attentions of the Baron’s heir apparent, Gilgamesh, who is not only the son of her nemesis, but a possible suitor.  Having recently learned she is heir to the Heterodyne dynasty, Agatha is headed for Mechanicsburg, the ancestral home of the Heterodynes, in hopes of finding answers regarding the disappearance of her parents and uncle.

The land across which she is fleeing is called the Wastelands for a reason.  A hazardous place, it’s full of nasty surprises, the result of various experiments and previous wars by some of Europa’s most gifted—and craziest—Sparks.  Abandoned—but otherwise functional and deadly—war machines roam the forests, as do various unnatural creatures, hiding in wait to scoop up the wayward traveller as a snack.  Anyone traversing the Wastelands spends most of their time fighting off the various dangers along the way.  Owing to a bit of luck, Agatha and Krosp come across Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure, a travelling road show of various performers and artisans, plying their trade from city to city and banding together for safety while on the road.  Realizing that a Circus would be a good way to keep both her anonymity and security, Krosp and Agatha join the circus after proving their worth, Agatha, by virtue of her natural affinity for all things mechanical—she is a Spark, after all—and Krosp by merely being a talking cat.

Within the travelling circus, they soon meet a series of interesting characters, such as the vain and talented actress Pym; Abner, Pym’s paramour and right hand man to Master Payne; and Lars, circus hand, reluctant hero, and possible love interest.  Agatha also meets the dour and decidedly dangerous Zeetha, a warrior princess of the lost city of Skifander, and soon is taken under her wing to learn the warrior skills she never needed while working in a lab, but definitely does in the real world.

There’s still the problem of Gilgamesh’s pursuit, but the members of Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure are nothing if not inventive, and masters of misdirection.  One faked death later, and Agatha is out from under the scrutiny of the Wulfenbachs.  During the course of their journey, Agatha manages to gather a following in the form of three Jagermonsters, sworn protectors of the family Heterodyne.  Jagermonsters are Hyde like creatures—formerly human—who use their superior strength and martial prowess to keep their lady from harm.  They’ve also been looking for the Heterodyne heir for the past ten years, and when they find Agatha, become her self-proclaimed heroes.

Agatha also proves herself to be a natural actress, playing the role of Lucrexia Mongfish (Bill Heterodyne’s wife) in many of the Heterodyne Brothers plays put on by the roadshow to entertain locals in the various cities they travel through. Luckily, a lot, if not all, of their plays revolve around the Heterodyne brothers and their various quests to save the townsfolk of the realm from unhinged Sparks and their nefarious creations. Unbeknownst to the other players, Agatha is the long lost daughter of Lucrexia, making her acting all the more believable.

The story comes to a head with the arrival of the circus at the stronghold of Sturmhalten, the ancestral home of the Sturmvaraus family.  The present rulers of Sturmhalten, Tarvek and Anevka—the titular Clockwork Princess–recognize the potential in Agatha to further their own dark designs, and take Agatha captive at the first opportunity.  From there, it’s up to Krosp and the members of Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure to rescue Agatha—before the forces of Baron Wulfenbach descend upon Sturmhalten and take her back into custody—and before Agatha succumbs to the will of the most malevolent being to have ever threatened the people of Europa—a.k.a. THE OTHER.

ggGirl Genius: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess reads much like an old-time serial, those weekly installments of great classics like Flash Gordon one might see at the theatre week by week.  Understandably so, since Girl Genius is based on the serialized web comic by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  It’s extremely entertaining to be able to flip back and forth between comic and book to compare one’s inner conception of the various characters with the author’s own visuals.  This sequel also helps to flesh out a bit of the back story behind the events of the first novel.  However, it is useful to have the Girl Genius Wiki on hand, as the sheer number of characters can make for confusion.

With this second volume, we also discover some interesting aspects of the Heterodyne family—namely that until Bill and Barry changed their image, the Heterodynes were feared throughout the realm and generally regarded as the worst of a bad bunch.  Hence the instinctual fear everyone seems to have when confronted with the terrifying visage that is your average Jagermonster.  (Note to readers: Jagermonsters are my favourite!)

One notable aspect of both Girl Genius novels is the demonstration of a number of strong female characters, ranging from Agatha herself, a young lady plunged into a situation in which she has to rely on her natural talents, to Zeetha, the lonely, yet dangerous warrior woman, and extending to some of the more villainous characters.  Even the OTHER, the epitome of villainy in this Steampunk world–is a female.

There’s also a strong comedic element to the story, usually embodied in Agatha and her reactions to new experiences, or the comedic relief of her feline familiar.  Sometimes bawdy, sometimes slapstick, there is generally a lot of humour to counterbalance the darker aspects of the characters experiences as they move through a world that hides danger around every corner.

The biggest drawback to this novel is that it’s so very, very, looooooooonnnngggg!  Granted, Girl Genius is translated to print from the web comic and comic story arcs can last for years, but at 590 pages, the novel could be a strain on the attention spans of younger readers.  Honestly, this novel wouldn’t suffer a bit if they had cut out a hundred pages (at least), and I wonder if their intended target audience–bear with me, I’m assuming young teens–would be willing to invest so much of their time. The Foglio’s previous novel topped out at a more manageable 300 or so pages.

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is a lot of fun, although it seemed to take forever to get through.  The payoff is well worth it though, and I do hope to see further print installments of the series.  That, I imagine, will depend on how well the first two books of the series sell.  Agatha’s story has barely begun—and I know I’d like to read the rest of it.

Mogworld-Yahtzee Croshaw

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“Me, I’m just here for a nice clean death, and Dub said he can give me one.  I don’t care who ends up running the world.  I just want it to stop being my problem.” ~Jim Bottomroach.

Life was so much simpler for Jim Bottomroach when he was dead.  Being undead, now that was a trick.  Killed during a skirmish between St. Gordon’s Magical College and the warrior schools of Stragonoff over a mystical stone that doesn’t exist, Jim was quite satisfied to join the stone in its nonexistence.  His two years of magical college hadn’t amounted to much.  Learning just three spells, the most useful—and by extension most entertaining—being one that would turn a rival into a rabbit (momentarily).  Just that would be enough to turn anyone off the magic business.  Jim had begun to seriously regret his career choice in the moments before a training war hammer knocked his soul right out of his body.

And that’s where it should have ended, all bright light and life reflection and then nothing.

However, things never turn out how they should, as Jim quickly learns (well, okay, 60 years later is not all that quick) when he’s resurrected by the necromancer Dreadgrave, who seeks to create an undead army to pillage the land around his impenetrable “Doom Fortress”.  Jim is quickly impressed into this undead army of the unwilling and put in charge of the rat pit, a rather unsavory fate–or savory, from the rat’s point of view–for any adventurers caught raiding Dreadgrave’s (impenetrable?) compound.  Distraught at his fate, Jim promptly jumps from the first tower he can climb.

Imagine his surprise to find that yes, he can die again, but no, it just won’t take.  Sure, his body is in worse shape, an eyeball here, a lung over there, but his consciousness is as intact as his body isn’t.  From then on, Jim’s goal is to search for a permanent means of death.  In the meantime, unlife goes on, until that fateful day a horde of angels descend from the sky and delete the Doom Fortress, Dreadgrave and all, yet somehow missing Jim and two others.  Meryl is an overly earnest young woman (she’s been dead as long as Jim, but she died young) and Thaddeus is a religious zealot who considers himself and the others to be a blasphemy against God.

It’s no small irony that only when they’ve stopped running and have a moment to think, Jim realizes his missed opportunity to end it all.  During the course of their flight, Jim discovers that while he returns to his body in a slightly more damaged state, for the past fifteen years, anyone else who dies is resurrected in a new body, a phenomenon people have come to call “The Infusion.”  Nobody dies permanently, not people, not cows, not blades of grass.  However, no births occur either.  So life goes on, perpetually and death doesn’t have the cache it used to.  Especially when you’re not granted a new body, and technically aren’t alive.

But fate isn’t done kicking Jim and his cohorts around just yet.  There’s a new Vicar in town, name of Barry, and he’s been endowed with almost God-like powers by the great God Si-Mon.  He’s also got it in his mind that Jim and his fellow undead are an aberration that Si-Mon requires be deleted to make the world right again.  At this point, Jim realizes that he’s not just fleeing aimlessly; he’s on a quest.  Defeat Barry and the great God Si-Mon by restoring the laws of nature, and by extension, find a way to die permanently.

Jim is helped along the way by a rogue adventurer/dolt by the name of Slippery John, who suggests his best bet to correct the natural order lies with the Magic Resistance, a group of sorcerers whose motivations parallel his own.  Especially the necromancers, who are finding it hard to get good help when no one stays dead.  Slippery John has his own motivation for tagging along, namely to find a cure for his beloved Drylda, who’s suffering from a malady known as the “Syndrome.”  The Syndrome only seems to attack adventurers, causing them to strike heroic poses and become obsessed with completing quests, right up until they become catatonic.  However, some might say Drylda’s catatonic state explains Slippery John’s “date rapey” interest in her.  So, add finding a cure for the Syndrome to Jim’s to-do list.

As a final obstacle to their quest, the adventurer’s guild has sicced a pair of stone cold murderers on their trail to find the Magic Resistance and stop their efforts.  Questing is good business, after all. Summing it up, Jim simply has to find the Magical Resistance, enlist them to help him change the laws of nature while dodging the attentions of the Adventurer’s Guild and simultaneously find a cure for the Syndrome.  If he weren’t already dead, I’m sure Jim would wish he was.

One other thing—every time Jim dies, he sees words in the air, disturbing words that make him question existence, or what he thinks it is.  Once he finally realizes what’s going on, what existence really is, that’s when the book really pays off.  It’s also a spoiler I’m not willing to reveal.  You’ll figure it out, especially if you figure out what MOGWORLD really means.

Reading MOGWORLD, I’m reminded of Tom Holt, Christopher Moore, Robert Asprin or maybe A. Lee Martinez, all authors who’ve put their stamp on the genre of comedic fantasyMogworld has the same quirky sense of humour and horror I found while reading any of the above authors, but especially Tom Holt, an author for whom reality is usually just a mask disguising what’s really going on.  Both hilarious and touching, Jim’s exploits to become “just” dead reveal a character that’s not nearly as nihilistic as he’d like you to think.

Just look at how he interacts with his fellow travellers.  Jim’s outward disdain for Meryl cannot mask his concern for her well-being.  Given several chances to leave her to her fate, he never actually does.  Time and again he suggests Thaddeus lay off all the “smite this” and “aberration that” but never kicks the former minister out of the party. Drylda and Slippery John really aren’t his problem, nor is finding a solution to the Infusion when he can simply let Barry delete him, but his desire to die permanently is always put behind the welfare of the world.  Jim chooses time and again to dodge the death he claims to welcome in his quest to fix the world.

Yahtzee Croshaw’s debut novel is hilariously entertaining.  I went into it thinking it was just going to be an interesting take on the sword and sorcery genre, focusing on a character that generally doesn’t get the limelight, just like Star Trek’s redshirts, or any super villain’s henchmen. You won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re a fan of the underdog, or find yourself rooting for the zombies at the movies.  If you’ve ever spent hours down at the arcade playing Gauntlet or long nights of misspent youth at D & D sleepovers, then this novel is for you.  If not, well, it’s still for you, because it’s a delightful look at the henchmen whose job it is to make the heroes look good.

As Jim put it himself, he doesn’t want to be a hero, just a protagonist.

A++

Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City–Phil and Kaja Foglio

Girl Genius

“But I don’t have the Spark. I seem to have the opposite.  Nothing I build even works.”

Krosp sighed in exasperation. “What do you think you DO at night?”

Agatha looked wary. “I don’t know. I’m asleep.  What do I do at night?”

‘You build things.”

“But there’s never anything there when I wake up.”

Krosp folded his arms.  “”They always run away.”

Agatha Clay (or is it “H”?) is a frustrated teenager. Essentially an orphan, she lives in the care of Adam and Lilith, friends of the family who promised her uncle years before that they would care for her while he was away. It’s been eleven years and counting.  They’re also “constructs”, the result of some mad scientist (and there are many in Europa) finding a needle and thread and some body parts to stitch together.  A student at the Transylvania Polygnostic University, Agatha works as a lab assistant to the Tyrant of Beetleburg, the aptly named Dr. Beetle.  Yet try as she might, none of her experiments ever work out.  Create a clank (mechanical construct) and it falls to pieces within a few steps.  Try to apply her mind to a problem; the result is splitting headaches.  In a world lit by Sparks–I’ll get to that in a minute–Agatha’s light is much diminished.

It’s especially hard to shine in a time when those that have an almost magical ability to wield science–the aforementioned “Sparks,” create a multitude of wonderful, and sometimes dangerous, constructs.  When the construct is flesh and blood, you end up with her ersatz parents, or the monster soldiers (Jagermonsters) that patrol the streets of Europa.   When it’s mechanical, you end up with Mr. Tock, the giant clank that guards the front gate of the University.  Agatha yearns to fulfill her potential, but fails miserably every time.

A brief word about Sparks: generally, their talent for all things scientific manifests itself at puberty and can be quite disconcerting.  Some go crazy.  Others are just a bit odd, hence the moniker “Madboys” that gets tossed around in any discussion of a Spark.  Being a Spark is a dual edged sword.  They are generally capable of great accomplishments; however, those accomplishments more often than not wind up killing them.

On her way to school one morning, Agatha is waylaid by a couple of destitute soldiers, one of which steals her necklace.  The locket attached is irreplaceable, containing the only picture of her parents she has.  Late to the lab and rightly upset, she discovers that the Tyrant’s Tyrant, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, has made a surprise visit to the university, bringing with him a cadre of soldiers and a righteous anger.  Years before, a villain known as “The Other” terrorized Europa, wiping out various members of the Spark gentry and enslaving their subjects before disappearing around the same time as the legendary Heterodyne Brothers, two Sparks famed for their ability to take care of just that sort of problem.  The means by which the Other subjugated the people were known as Slaver Wasps, mechanical insects that sprang from Hive Engines to either kill or enslave the populace.  Dr. Beetle has managed to find a dormant hive and in a moment of incredibly bad judgment, tried to keep knowledge of it from Wulfenbach.  Next you know, Dr. Beetle is dead, the town is occupied by the Baron’s troops, and Agatha has been dismissed from the university.

Distraught after this series of unfortunate events, Agatha retreats back to her foster parents and retires for the night. She’s always been a restless sleeper, dreaming of all the things she wants to build.  The next morning Agatha wakes to find that a clank the size of a steam tractor—perhaps formerly the steam tractor Adam was overhauling–has rampaged through town and brought both the Baron and his son Gil–accompanied by a mob of Jagermonsters–to her doorstep.  Even worse, one of the thieving soldiers has dropped by, wanting to know why his brother died after handling her locket for less than a day.  As for the Baron, he’s excited at the prospect of harnessing the power of a new Spark, and before anything can be sorted out, both Agatha and the soldier have been gassed and whisked away to the Baron’s stronghold.

When Agatha awakes, she’s informed by Moloch (the soldier) that they’re hostages on the Baron’s Airship City, and that Wulfenbach has mistaken Moloch for a nascent Spark.  Moloch knows the truth of Agatha’s abilities and needs her to play the role of his assistant while they find a way to escape.  As for Agatha, she’s beginning to realize she can create things that actually work, that the headaches accompanying her attempts at concentration have disappeared, and that she’s in a lot of trouble.

Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, heir apparent to his father’s tyranny, has taken notice of her.

From there it’s one adventure after another as Agatha explores the floating city, meeting its many denizens, malevolent and benevolent alike, trying to keep her secret from the Baron while looking for a way to escape his clutches.  Luckily, Gil seems a bit smitten with her and wants to encourage her development, even if it’s just to spite his father.

***

I’ll grant this description doesn’t live up to the contents of Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City, but it’s a daunting book to describe.  I’ve omitted a lot in my brief synopsis because there’s simply so much going on that it’s impossible to encapsulate everything in a few paragraphs.  Luckily, there’s a Girl Genius Wiki online to keep everything straight.

Clearly a Steampunk novel with great aspirations, Girl Genius is based on the Web comic of the same name by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  When first sitting down to read it, I worried that Girl Genius was going to be a  Harry Potter knock off, what with the main character being a student at a school for gifted children in a land divided into those who are normal and those who possess a special talent, this time an innate talent for science rather than magic.  However, aside from the fact that she’s a university student and that magic has been replaced by science, there are very few similarities between the two novels.

Actually, that’s both true and untrue.  The more I think of the Other who disappeared years ago after wreaking havoc on the realm, the more I see the comparison to Voldemort of the Potter series.  However, the story of a girl taken from her home and plunged into a strange and wondrous world begs comparison to Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, although in this case, the world seems filled with tin men.  Once I got beyond the inevitable comparisons, I was able to sit back and enjoy a thoroughly entertaining tale.  The Foglio’s have done a bang up job of creating their own Steampunk universe and inhabiting it with various interesting and unique characters.  My personal favourites were the Jagermonsters, an army of Hydes (of the Dr. Jekyll variety).  Ferocious and intimidating, they are also endowed with a certain childlike charm.  They also add a nice bit of comic relief, even in situations that wouldn’t normally seem to warrant humour.

Is this a young adult novel?  That’s a hard question to answer, as some of the scenes are (from the perspective of this forty year old) somewhat racy, although there’s really no more hanky-panky than a stolen kiss.  It’s definitely not limited to teens, being a fun filled romp for anyone with a predilection towards the Steampunk genre.

Fair warning: Agatha H and the Airship City is certainly not meant to be a self-contained novel.  Rather, it’s more of a prologue to a larger story, introducing the main characters and the world they inhabit without resolving the greater issues introduced.  Where are Agatha’s parents?  What of the legendary Heterodyne brothers and the mysterious Other that once terrorized the realm?  Why are the Jagermonsters so obviously smitten with Agatha?  Why does Agatha seem to be so important to everyone around her?  These are a few of the questions that will hopefully be addressed in the sequel: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess.  This teaser novel has definitely got me hooked.

B+