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.

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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+