Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Agatha H and the Airship City

Agatha H and the Airship City is the debut novel by husband and wife team Phil and Kaja Foglio. The book is largely a novelisation of the 1st 3 volumes of the couple’s successful webcomic Agatha Heterodyne: Girl Genius (the webcomic has won the last 2 Hugo Awards and Phil and Kaja have withdrawn it from contention next year to allow another concept to win it). It’s a lovely presentation from Nightshade. Interestingly, despite being artists, the Foglio’s didn’t have anything to do with the jacket design or cover art. The art really fits with the book, it recalls old pulp publications and matinee movies, while still giving prospective readers an idea as to what resides within the book. I picked my copy up at Worldcon and was fortunate enough to have Phil Foglio sign it, he even did a little sketch of Agatha just inside the cover!

A brief prologue gives readers some background, mainly about the legendary Heterodyne Brothers and their fight against tyranny and oppression.

The first chapter introduces us to Agatha Clay, a promising, but somewhat disorganised young lady pursuing her studies at Transylvania Polygnostic University (most of the action is in and around Transylvania, which in this universe appears to be somewhat Ruritanian). Whilst on her way to school she is waylaid by two soldiers who rob her off her precious trilobite locket. Things don’t really improve for Agatha once she does arrive at university. The feared and mysterious Baron Klaus Wulfenbach kills her benefactor, and his forces proceed to take over the town. Agatha’s parents disappear, and she’s kidnapped by Wulfenbach and held on his airship city.

The Baron keeps a veritable army of technological whiz kids (often referred to as Sparks or madboys) on his flying city, they range anywhere in age from about 8 to their late teens, and are overseen by the formidable construct nanny/bodyguard Von Pinn. The idea of having whiz kids on a giant flying machine piloted by a mad scientist reminded me a little of the Australian children’s show Professor Poopsnagle’s Steam Zeppelin, and Von Pinn made me think of a robotic nanny in one a Michael Moorcock story I read many years ago. Agatha befriends most of the kids and annoyingly also obtains the admiration of Wulfenbach’s unfortunately named son; Gilgamesh. Agatha uncovers her hidden talent, revealing herself as a Spark and her true lineage. By the end of the book she’s accumulated her own set of allies (including an intelligent talking cat by the name of Krosp, trust me it makes perfect sense in the novel) and gained a few enemies along the way. The book gives the impression that the story is just getting started, and considering that the comics are now up to Volume 10, that’s definitely the case.

Comics don’t always make a good transition from one medium to another (Bill Willingham’s Peter & Max is one notable exception), but that’s not the case with Agatha H and the Airship City. I went into this with only the briefest of knowledge about the webcomic and was not lost at all. The happy outcome is that I now intend to bring myself up to speed with the comic and hope that the Foglio’s continue to put out Agatha’s adventures in novel form. Not having read the comics I’m not sure how deep they’ve now gone into the world that they have created, but the possibilities are absolutely huge.

Agatha H and the Airship City was lots of really silly fun. It’s one of the most flat out entertaining things I’ve read this year. The novel format allowed for a deeper exploration of the characters than the drawn comic format does and I enjoy reading well developed characters. The dialogue between Agatha and Gilgamesh, and to a lesser extent Moloch really sparkled and I enjoyed the love/hate relationship between the developing Spark and the sometimes arrogant scion of a tyrant.

The setting and the concept are very obviously steampunk, although it is sometimes referred to as Gaslamp Fantasy The reason for this is at the time the Foglios started to put Girl Genius out there was already a comic called Steampunk, so to avoid confusion Kaja coined the term Gaslamp Fantasy, because there are gaslamps and also fantasy. I quite like the term, it has a certain elegance about it that fits with what they’ve created.

A lot has been drawn on to create Agatha’s world. I’ve mentioned the almost Ruritanian setting of Translyvania and Othar Tryggvassen (Insane and Indestructible) Gentleman Adventurer could have stepped right out of the pages of Prisoner of Zenda, he’s almost like an over the top caricature of Rupert of Hentzau. The constructs have a Frankenstein Monster’s feel to them and Adam ‘Punch’ Clay put me in mind of Victor Frankenstein’s original creation (this is the one from the book by Mary Shelley, not the movie version which most people associate with the term now). I couldn’t place the Jagermonsters who were used by Wulfenbach as shock troops, but serve mostly as comic relief in the book. They were a cool idea and well described, but I found their over exaggerated Germanic accents tiresome (I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of using accents in written narratives), as they often forced me out of the story to decipher what they were saying. The Clanks (mechanical soldiers) were great and at times really cute (the possibilities for these things are almost endless), and although he’s not quite a Clank, I seriously want a Zoing of my own (cutest sidekick ever!).

Like I said I had a heap of fun with Agatha H and the Airship City. I’m off to catch up with the webcomic and hope that the response to this book encourages Phil and Kaja to keep on with the project.

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