The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes–George Mann

TheCasebookofNewburyandHobbes

Source: Review Copy

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date:  September 24, 2013

I was first introduced to the World of Steampunk a few years ago when I happened upon a copy of Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman A wonderful read, it’s the story of a young man named Orphan living in a Steampunk Victorian England and trying to track down “the Bookman”, a terrorist responsible for the death of his paramour.  My interest stoked by this delightful tale, I then took a chance on the works of Stephen Hunt, who, with The Court of the Air deserves (as far as I’m concerned) the title of King of Steampunk.  However, if Hunt is the reigning King, then George Mann may very well be known as the Crown Prince.  From The Affinity Bridge to The Executioner’s Heart, Mann has created an alternate Victorian England populated by characters heroic and sinister—and sometimes both—and created an investigative duo whose exploits rival those of a 221B Baker Street’s consulting detective and his trusty biographer.

Over the course of four novels, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have combatted foes both technological and occult, serving as agents of the crown to protect and foster the interests of her majesty, Queen Victoria.  They’re not alone in their endeavors, at times enlisting the help of, at other times being seconded to, Sir Charles Bainbridge, chief inspector of Scotland Yard.  Yet we’ve never heard Newbury’s (or Hobbes for that matter) origin story, and The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is Mann’s way of fleshing out their back story during the periods not chronicled by the novels.  It also reveals a ghost of the past in the person of Templeton Black, Newbury’s former assistant, and introduces the future in Peter Rutherford, a member of the British Secret Service who will go on to create his own legacy.

The collection consists of 15 eclectic stories, so let’s run down the list:

  • The Dark Path –Wherein Newbury and his former assistant Templeton Black discover the virtues of smoking and an old witch discovers the perils of over-enthusiastic horticulture.
  • The Hambleton Affair –Wherein Newbury relates his account of the disappearance of an old school mate’s wife and his discovery of the extent a man may go to to preserve his marriage.
  • The Shattered Teacup –Wherein Newbury and Bainbridge investigate the suspicious death of Lord Carruthers and discover the fowl truth of the matter.
  • What Lies Beneath –Wherein Newbury takes a constitutional at the home of an English “gentleman” and discovers the gentleman is anything but.
  • The Lady Killer –Wherein Newbury meets his match in the form of the lovely Irene Adler Lady Arkwell and discovers that while women are the fairer sex, this particular lady is not willing to play fair.
  • The Case of the Night Crawler –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes enlist the help of a certain consulting detective’s biographer to hunt down a mechanical creature bent on revenge.
  • The Sacrificial Pawn –Wherein Sir Charles Bainbridge finds himself an unwitting participant in Newbury’s game of chance with a cult by the name of The Cabal of the Horned Beast.
  • Christmas Spirits –Wherein Newbury finds himself unintentionally re-enacting a popular Dickens’ tale on Christmas Eve while in an opium daze and discovering that not all spirits bring redemption.
  • Strangers from the Sea Wherein Newbury comes across a long-lost note from a colleague, and the prescient warning contained within while reminiscing about a not so merry trip to the beach.
  • The Only Gift Worth Giving –Wherein Sir Charles lends a hand to Newbury and reinvigorates his spirit with a challenge.
  • A Rum Affair –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes discover that punch can be spiked with much more than rum.
  • A Night, Remembered –Wherein Peter Rutherford makes introductions to both the reader and Maurice and discovers the most disturbing truth behind the sinking of the S.S. Titanic.
  • The Maharajah’s Star –Wherein Rutherford meets Professor Angelchrist and discovers that the Maharajah’s Star is more dream than reality.
  • The Albino’s Shadow Wherein Rutherford consults with Ms. Veronica Hobbes in his efforts to hunt down one of the most wanted men in the Empire, a peculiarly pale criminal mastermind by the name of “Mr. Zenith.”  Little does he know, Zenith is just as interested to meeting him.
  • Old Friends –Wherein Angelchrist relates the events leading to his association with Newbury and Hobbes and Rutherford brings a smile to an old man’s face.

According to the author’s notes, each of these stories can be found in other venues, but this is the first time they’ve been compiled into a comprehensive collection.   Overall, it’s an excellent addition to Mann’s Steampunk universe, filling in some of the details of Newbury’s past and looking forward to the future of his “Ghost” series of roaring twenties novels, set in a Steampunk inspired New York.  Stand out stories include his Sherlock homage, The Case of the Night Crawler and his tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Strangers from the Sea.  My personal favourite is The Shattered Teacup, which brings to mind the best of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.  It’s a fun murder mystery with obvious Steampunk influence in the clockwork owl that proves essential to solving the case.  The only story that falls flat (for me, at least) is What Lies Beneath, but honestly, that owes more to my distaste for epistolary writing than anything Mann did with the story.

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is a seamless blend of Victorian detective story sprinkled with Steampunk elements and a dash of the occult.  Mann seamlessly captures the flavour of Victorian mystery fiction usually identified with Arthur Conan Doyle while adding his own flourishes to it.  It’s a great addition to the universe of Newbury and Hobbes mysteries, fleshing out the series for those fans that want to see a bit more.  An added bonus is the inclusion of several new characters, from Templeton Black to Peter Rutherford, and of course, an arch nemesis for Newbury in the form of Lady Arkwell.  However, if you haven’t been a follower of Newbury and Hobbes from the start, this may not be the book for you.  Simple solution for those who are unfamiliar—get yourselves to a bookstore and catch up on the series before delving into this wonderful back story of Newbury and Hobbes, agents of the crown and occult detectives.

B

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Ack-Ack Macaque–Gareth L. Powell

AckAckMacaque“Do you know what you have to do?”

Ack-Ack Macaque grinned, exposing his teeth.

“Same as I always do, right?”  He snapped the reloaded Colt back together and spun the barrel.

“Blow shit up and hurt people.”

Last week, as I sat on a picnic table during a break at work, a co-worker strolled by and saw the title of my latest read, Ack-Ack Macaque, at which point he derisively exclaimed, “Ack-Ack Macaque?  What the hell is that?”  My reply was oh so very NSFW (not safe for work) and involved a bad pun about sucking “Macaque.”  We both groaned at that lame response and went about our business.  I’m not relating this story just to prove my ability to come up with horrible puns, but that little incident made me think about how we choose the books we choose to read and how sometimes it simply comes down to a good cover or an amusing title.  Frankly, the title Ack-Ack Macaque was what prompted me to read the back cover of Gareth L. Powell’s futuristic novel about a monkey flying ace with attitude.  I’ve always been fascinated with flying and fighter pilots—throw in a monkey and some German ninja parachutists—and you have something I just HAVE to read, even if it turns out to be ridiculous.

And then something funny happened—and I don’t mean, funny “ha-ha.”  Here I was, reading a book with a monkey in a flying cap wielding a couple of six-shooters on the cover and discovering a book that was more William Gibson than Terry Pratchet.  So, a quick synopsis:

Set in the year 2059, Ack-Ack Macaque is in reality three intertwined stories that merge into one narrative by the climax of the novel.  The first story is that of Victoria Valois, a former correspondent recuperating from an accident which resulted in the majority of her brain matter being replaced by a synthetic version known as “gelware.”  She’s come to London to bury her estranged husband, and possibly investigate the unusual events surrounding his death.  Not only was Paul murdered, but during the course of the crime the culprit removed his brain, and with that, his soulcatcher, a piece of hardware implanted in every citizen to create a recording of their personality that lives on for a short time after death.  After coming face to face with the killer—and in the process having her own soulcatcher stolen (kidnapped?)—Victoria discovers that Paul’s death is in some way connected with his employer, Céleste Industries.

The second story involves His Royal Highness, Prince Merovich, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France—the two countries having been merged for a century—who gets tangled up with the illicit activities of his girlfriend Julie.  She’s a rights activist, and with a small cohort of friends, they are about to raid Céleste Industries in the hopes of freeing what they believe to be the first sentient artificial intelligence, that of a pistol packing, spitfire flying, whiskey drinking Macaque by the name of Ack-Ack who is the central character of an on-line virtual reality game.  Merovich is crucial to Julie’s plan, by way of his being the son of Céleste Industries owner, her Grace Alyssa Célestine, herself Regent of the combined commonwealth due to a terrorist act that left the King incapacitated.  Merovich also has a connection to Valois in the shared accident that resulted in her augmentation.

The third story is of what—or rather who–Merovich and Julie find when they infiltrate the facility.  I think by now you may have an idea about who that might be.  Together, they uncover the sinister plot of a cult known as the “Undying” involving androids, the first terraforming probe to Mars and possibly the end of the world through nuclear annihilation, unless Victoria, Merovich, Julie and a seriously pissed off macaque named Ack-Ack can find a way to stop them.

With Ack-Ack Macaque, Powell has proved himself an adept world builder, creating a convincing near future world in which the idea of a sentient monkey is not so far-fetched, which, to my mind is a pretty tall order.  He’s also added Steampunk elements to an alternate history novel that is not necessarily Steampunk, but will appeal to fans of the genre.  The ubiquitous skyliners (modified zeppelins) are there, but updated to be more demonstrative of real world technology.  No steam–all nuclear, and a realistic look at the direction technology can take us.  Artificial intelligence, huge leaps in medical technology, the idea of a back-up consciousness housed in a cranial hard drive, seamlessly blended into the background of a world that could very well be mistaken for our own—just projected another fifty years or so down the road.  The idea of a history in which France and England merged into a larger commonwealth with a shared monarchy does not seem an unrealistic possibility either.

As for the characters, Powell manages to capture Victoria Valois’ frustration and determination in the face of what was a debilitating accident, and her dogged resolve to solve Paul’s murder and bring the culprits to justice.  Merovich is a smart, yet somewhat naïve young man, rashly allowing his girlfriend to lead him into situations that an older man might think twice about, but with the wisdom to recognize when the situation calls for a more serious approach, likely the result of his experience in the incident that maimed Valois.  Julie comes across as a true believer with her own rigid moral code, willing to risk her own safety to free an independent intelligence that may only exist on a flash drive, while Ack-Ack—well, let’s just say he’s got a mean disposition and a very good reason to want to blow some shit up.

Actually, there’s more to Ack-Ack Macaque than just a grumpy monkey.  Here’s a character that has to contend with the knowledge that everything he’s ever accomplished, the people he has cared for, are simply part of a computer simulation.  In other words—he has to deal with knowing his life has been a lie.  In learning the truth, he’s also been set free to pursue bloody vengeance against those who treated him as a toy.

If there’s any complaint to be had with Ack-Ack Macaque, it’s that we don’t really get to see the villain fully fleshed out.  It’s evident early on in the novel who their common foe is, but without a narrative from the villain’s point of view, I found myself wanting to understand their motivation a little better.  The opponent is mentioned many times and the protagonists deal with the villain’s minions on several occasions, but when the reader finally meets the antagonist, it’s so brief they feel like a plot device rather than an important character.  Having said that, this lack of motivational description doesn’t detract from the novels best features, namely a bunch of wounded characters (literally and figuratively) pressed together by circumstance to accomplish the same goal.  You know—saving the world.

A-

Gareth L. Powell is the author of Ack-Ack Macaque and its forthcoming sequel Hive Monkey.  He maintains a website at www.garethlpowell.com and both Gareth and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found on twitter, engaging in hilarious conversations.

The Affinity Bridge–George Mann

The-Affinity-Bridge2“One thing is certain.  There doesn’t appear to be a simple solution to any of this.”  Veronica shrugged, folding her hands on her lap. 

Newbury smiled.  “There rarely is, my dear Miss Hobbes.  There rarely is.”

A few weeks ago, Titan Books offered advanced copies of George Mann’s The Executioner’s Heart for review.  While mine is in the mail, I thought I’d better play a little catch up, starting with The Affinity Bridge, first of the Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk mysteries.  Mann’s Steampunk adventures have been on my “intent to read” list for a while now, and this seemed a good opportunity to meet Sir Maurice Newbury and his plucky assistant, Ms. Veronica Hobbes, following their exploits around a reimagined London, where wondrous airships inhabit the skies, deadly revenants plague the streets, and murder is in the air—or at least the back streets of Whitechapel.

The year is 1901, and Victoria is still Queen due to the ministrations of her personal physician, who has artificially extended her lifespan through the wonders of both modern medicine and engineering.  Sir Maurice Newbury is one of her foremost Agents of the Crown.  An academic at the British Museum, dabbler in the Occult, and occasional laudanum addict, Newbury brings his inquisitive mind and deductive ability to any situation the Queen demands.  He also finds himself on loan to Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge from time to time, utilized on cases requiring a unique perspective.  At the moment, Newbury is consulting on The Case of the Glowing Policeman, wherein a series of murders in and around the Whitechapel district has baffled the regular police force.

Naturally, every good detective needs a stalwart companion, and in this case, the honour falls to Newbury’s newly hired assistant, the comely and intelligent Ms. Veronica Hobbes.  She’s not so much an assistant as she is a partner in his investigations—a modern woman determined to make her mark in a world dominated by men.  Her sharp wit and deductive skills compliment Newbury’s own, and her femininity puts those who might otherwise be reluctant to talk at ease.  Manners, after all.  She also has a few secrets that we as readers are privy to, but which Newbury will have to discover on his own.

The Affinity Bridge is no simple murder mystery—glowing policeman notwithstanding—for as an agent of the crown, it is Newbury’s duty to be at the beck and call of his monarch, and when an airship crashes in central London with numerous casualties, that call comes.  Her majesty is concerned, as the airship was piloted by one of Chapman and Villiers astounding automatons, artificial pilots claimed to be foolproof.  Was the accident proof that they aren’t, or was it foul play?  Their investigation will lead them into a diabolical tale of murder and mayhem through the fog ridden streets of London and eventually above, culminating in a flight above those same streets in an out of control airship.  Of course, there is the matter of the Affinity Engine, but since it bears directly on the resolution of several mysteries, you should be allowed to find out about it on your own.

Sir Maurice Newbury is an intriguing character.  Like the iconic Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of observation, yet slave to his appetites.  Whereas Holmes used cocaine recreationally in an attempt to alleviate his boredom between cases, Newbury uses laudanum in an attempt to forget the horrors he has seen, perhaps elicit a breakthrough when stymied by a case, or even to breach the boundaries between reality and the spirit world.  He sees his addiction as a necessary failing, yet propriety keeps him from either seeking help or acknowledging the weakness. Like Mr. Holmes, Newbury has some skill with both his fists or a blade, prerequisites of an agent of the crown, recalling the image of a Victorian Bond.  No word on his license to kill, however.  Newbury is also a dabbler and believer in the Occult, something Holmes was generally incredulous of.

Veronica Hobbes brings her own intrigue to the novel.  Seemingly just a feminine version of Dr. Watson to Newbury’s Holmes, she’s very much as canny as Newbury, and has her own secrets.  Hobbes is much more grounded than Newbury, and takes it upon herself both to protect his image and subtly keep him from harm when the laudanum takes over.  She’s a relatively strong female character, holding her own in a time and place where man’s chauvinism still runs deep.  I suspect as the series progresses, we’ll see Veronica come into her own as both an investigator and possible paramour for the brilliant, yet troubled Newbury. 

One cliché, or rather trope, of the Steampunk genre is the idea of the “Agent of the Crown. ”  Trope/cliché it may be, but it’s a rather fun idea that runs throughout Steampunk culture and honestly, never gets old.  Both Ulysses Quicksilver, of the remarkably wonderfulUlyssesQuicksilver Pax Britannia series by Jonathan Green, and Richard Francis Burton of Mark Hodder’s Adventures of Burton and Swinburne share the title with Sir Francis Newbury.  In fact, Green’s Quicksilver could realistically be described as a descendant of Maurice Newbury, or at least of the Universe which he inhabits, what with his introduction as an agent of Queen Victoria, who has managed to extend her reign through means mechanical and medicinal to the year 1997.   Alas, Ulysses Quicksilver’s story is for another time.

The Affinity Bridge is the first in a quartet of Steampunk novels by George Mann, and if the rest prove as delightful as the first, then I suggest a foray to your local bookstore in search of the adventures of Newbury and Hobbes.  Preferably by Steam Carriage.

A-

Bloggers note–While finishing my own draft of this review, I managed to breeze through Mann’s sophomore Newbury and Hobbes novel, The Osiris Ritual and if anything, it’s better than the first.

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++

The Buntline Special–Mike Resnick

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead

“A lot of people think Ringo’s the best,” said Holliday.  “And if you’re going to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

“Think of the damage you two could do to the Cowboys if you were on the same side.”

“We would never be on the same side.  Sooner or later we’d have to meet out in the street.”

“Even though he’s a zombie?”

Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special introduces us to a world in which the U.S. government (circa 1881) has contracted Thomas Edison to utilize his talent for invention in what would today be called a “Cold War” with the Indian nations over the future of the United States.  In pursuit of this goal, Thomas and his good friend Ned Buntline (who, in this universe is an engineer rather than a dime novelist) are tasked to discover a remedy to the magic of medicine men such as Geronimo that has thus far stymied government efforts to realize their manifest destiny of creating a nation that stretches from sea to sea.

However, the native medicine men are fully aware of their efforts, employing a number of assassins to take Edison (Buntline may be a wonderful engineer, but lacks Edison’s talent for invention) out of the picture.  To protect their interest, the government has employed the Earp Brothers (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan), and they in turn have called upon the special talents of both Bat Masterson and a consumptive, yet lethally effective, Doc Holliday.

Based in the town of Tombstone, itself on the edge of “Indian Territory”, Buntline and Edison have brought electric light to the city and the horseless stagecoach to the region.  Armored against Indian attacks by Buntline’s signature invention (bullet proof brass of all things), the Buntline Express has severely dented the local horse trade (both honest and illegal) and gained him the wrath of the Clanton-McLaury gang.  Since Edison and Buntline have a synergistic relationship, the Earps find themselves tasked with protecting these two amazing minds from the magical forces of Geronimo and the more pedestrian efforts of the Clanton gang.

During the course of their investigation as to which medicine man is targeting Edison (the original consensus is Geronimo), Bat Masterson runs afoul of the native warrior and finds himself on the receiving end of a particularly nasty curse.  By day, he is a man; by night—a man sized bat.  Meanwhile, Holliday finds himself stalked by Johnny Ringo, the gunslinger hired to kill Edison—and possibly Doc’s equal with a pistol.  Ringo’s also been dead for awhile, so good luck killing him.

Told from the viewpoint of Doc Holliday, The Buntline Special finds its strength in the dialogue, specifically in Doc’s quick wit and devil may care attitude.  It’s quite easy to become immersed in the Steampunk Universe Resnick has created, mainly due to the affinity one feels for Doc.  Here’s a man who lives every day as if it were his last, in a world where magic and science duel for supremacy, yet unable to avail himself of either.  He’s just as dead as Johnny Ringo, it being a matter of time before consumption gets the better of him, and that leads to a fatalistic honesty in his everyday dealings.  Of course, he’s not quite DEAD dead, and still has to deal with the aforementioned revenant.  How does one kill a man who’s already dead?  The answer lies with the Buntline Special.Buntline special

Now this isn’t the foot long version of the Colt Peacemaker made famous by the real Ned Buntline.  Remember, this is a Steampunk novel.  Therein lies the magic—or fantastical science—which makes this first of the Weird West Tales such a delight to read.  If anything detracts from the story, it’s the fact that while Resnick does take liberties, The Buntline Special still plays along the same lines as the real history of Wyatt Earp.  Morgan still gets killed. There’s still the shootout at the O.K. Corral.  Pretty much everything that took place in real life is covered, leading the reader who knows their history to be able to predict what’s going to happen.  However, while those things are necessary to maintain some semblance of continuity, it’s the masterful blending of history and fantasy that keeps you reading to the end.  For the hardcore Steampunk fan, this novel is a straight shooter.

B+

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.

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+