Today I Read…Agatha H and the Airship City

Agatha H and the Airship CityToday I read Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio. This is the novelization of the first three volumes of the comic Girl Genius, which can also be found as a web comic here.

Agatha Clay is definitely not a Spark. Known for their genius, and madness, and obsession, and often their body count, Sparks are dangerous, unless they have been tamed and work for Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, former companion of the heroic Heterodyne Boys, Bill and Barry. Agatha’s inventions, on the other hand, never work, and only explode when they’re not supposed to.

Then one day a soldier steals her locket, the one with her parents’ pictures that she’s worn every day of her life, and suddenly things start to change. Instead of the crippling headaches she has had all her life, she keeps waking up with working machines (and often very few clothes). Now Agatha has to deal with Baron Wulfenbach, his brilliant and handsome son Gilgamesh, the Jagermonster soldiers who keep insisting that she smells nice, a talking cat, an insane ‘hero’ who keeps trying to rescue her whether she wants it or not, a psychotic murdering barbarian princess airship captain, Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure, and finding out that everything she thought she knew about herself, her parents and her family is a lie.

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I really liked this book and the sequel, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess (review to follow). Since it was originally a comic, there’s a strong sense of imagery to the novel. It’s very easy to picture Agatha and her world in your mind.  Phil and Kaja Foglio call it a gaslamp fantasy, instead of steampunk, since biology is a technology as well as mechanics.

Agatha is a strong-minded young woman literally discovering who she is. Her family has lied to her for her entire life, and her beloved locket, that she thought was a memento of her long-lost parents has actually been controlling her mind, giving her terrible migraines and preventing her from being able to think clearly so she could not figure anything out about herself. It is only when the locket is stolen and broken that she can finally think freely and come into her own considerable power and talents. While it was all for her own good, to hide her from her family’s enemies and help smooth her transition into being a full-fledged Spark (traditionally difficult, especially for all the people that the emerging Spark’s inventions kills), she is naturally very conflicted about the whole thing. It only gets worse when Gilgamesh Wulfenbach decides that he loves her–he may be handsome and rich and brilliant, and even respectful of her talents and work, but he can also be as ruthless and arrogant as his father.

This is a great, well-layered adventure story, full of the mystery of Agatha and the Heterodynes and the Other, the great enemy who vanished so many years ago. The tagline for the series is “Adventure, Romance, Mad Science!” and it lives up to all three.

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Massaging her brow, Agatha found her progress was suddenly slowed by a crowd of people clustered in front of her. Focusing, she saw that she was in front of the familiar windows of the local booksellers. The display inside explained the crowd, a new Heterodyne Boys novel had arrived, and people were in line waiting for the shop to open. A card in the window displayed the title: The Heterodyne Boys and the Mystery of the Cast Iron Glacier. That sounded promising. Agatha made a mental note to put her name down on the request list at the university library. Agatha’s parents disliked the Heterodyne Boys novels, and refused to permit them in the house.

People in the bookstore line were eagerly discussing the book, analyzing the cover art, or just reminiscing about the actual Heterodyne Boys themselves.

Passions were easily aroused by this, even though the Heterodyne Boys had vanished over fifteen years ago. Things were a lot quieter now, the older people constantly reminded the younger generation, but before the Baron had imposed the Pax Transylvania, all of Europa had been a crazy quilt of kingdoms ruled by Sparks, embattled royalty, or any number of improbable and unstable combinations thereof. If a mad scientist wasn’t at war with at least two of his neighbors, it was because he had his back to the sea, and even then he had to watch out for an invasion of intelligent sea urchins. The populace at large was used mostly as soldiers, laborers, bargaining chips, or in some of the worst cases, monster chow. Into this nightmare world had come the Heterodynes, a pair of Sparks who had taken on the Sisyphean task of stopping the more malignant despots, a task which seemed to involve battling an endless stream of monsters, clanks, armies of various species, and the insane madmen who’d created them.

Now there was a legitimate school of thought that held that the Heterodynes did not actually accomplish all that much. They were, when all was said and done, just two men, two incredibly gifted Sparks accompanied by an ever-changing coterie of friends, assistants and fellow adventurers to be sure, but they could only do so much. The world produced a never-ending supply of dangerous creatures, as well as the scientists who had spawned them. But the point wasn’t that they had taken down the diabolical Doctor Doomfrenzy and his giant moss-bees, it was that there was someone actively out there, in the world, trying to make said world a better place, and in some small, measurable way, succeeding. They gave people hope, when hope was in desperately short supply.

And because of this, people remembered them as heroes. Almost everyone over a certain age could recite an incident that had, in some way, touched them personally. As she moved through the crowd, Agatha heard the old arguments about how the world would be better if the Heterodyne Boys were still around, as well as the fervent assurances that one day, Bill and Barry would return and make everything better, starting with the price of oats.

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Herr Ketter’s tractor had some leaks. Adam was pretty sure he knew where. A small collection of probable replacement parts were neatly laid out on a small bench by his side.

Adam liked this sort of job, as it didn’t involve dealing with madboy technology. Whereas Sparks were able to design and construct bizarre, physics-skirting machinery, their devices were never really able to be mass produced or even reliably duplicated by regular people. Even trained machinists eventually suffered nervous breakdowns if they were forced to try.

One of the Wulfenbach Empire’s groundbreaking ideas had been that instead of exterminating rival Sparks after defeating them, Klaus hired them. He kept them happy by keeping them supplied with materials, tools, and food, and a dedicated staff that made sure they ate it. They found themselves free of the petty concerns that had plagued their lives, such as what to actually do with that small country once they had proved that they could conquer it with nothing more than a navy composed of intelligent lobsters. He also gave them challenges, adoring minions, and on a regular basis, a large dinner celebrating their accomplishments along with a beautiful calligraphed award expressing the sincere thanks of the Empire in general and Klaus in particular.

As a result, almost any one of the Sparks Klaus had defeated over the years would have disintegrated you if you had seriously attempted to offer them their freedom, and they gleefully built and repaired the airships and the armies of clanks as well as the other terrifying monstrosities that supported the Pax Transylvania. This easily made up for the tightly guarded warehouses full of devices that made ants run backwards or could remove the rings from Saturn that they occasionally delivered in their free time.

And of course, regular science marched on, if only in self-defense.

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“When a monster flattens your home, it doesn’t matter who built it.”

—Peasant saying

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“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. But wait, I thought, why not give it the ability to spit acid? Or a few extra claws? Or, yes! A total disregard for the sanctity of human life! That will show them!”

—A typical last entry from the journal of an emergent Spark

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