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Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City

GirlGenius1Author: Phil and Kaja Foglio
Publisher: Titanbooks
Cost: £7.99
Review by: David Stonehouse

Ok folks, you’re going to need to pay attention because this is going to get complicated. This is the first book in the Girl Genius series and there is a hell of a lot going on. First off, we’re in an alternative steampunk reality somewhere in the Transylvanian part of the giant super-state, Europa. The world has been over-run by the bizarre creations of ‘Madboy’ scientists. There are gifted creators called ‘Sparks’ who have the ability to give life to their harebrained part-living, part-mechanical inventions. Sparks are rare and the most powerful ones have risen to become tyrannical rulers enforcing their control with armies of their deadly creations.

Our heroine, Agatha Clay, is the Girl Genius of the title. She begins the story as a research student at the Transylvania Polygnostic University as the assistant of resident nutcase scientist Dr Beetle. Despite all her best efforts Agatha can’t get any of her creatures to work and is beginning to despair that she has any talent at all. Unfortunately, her studies are suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Europa’s ruler, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach and his son Gil. Chaos ensues, the lab is destroyed and before the dust settles Agatha has been whisked off onto Castle Wulfenbach, the Baron’s vast airborne fortress, where even more freaks and wierdos await.

The human characters are endearingly mental, with mad scientists, snobby students and smug spies all present but the real fun comes from the non-human cast. We have giant clockwork robots, mutant killer species such as the slaver wasps and landsquids, Jagermonsters, constructs (sort of Frankenstein’s monsters revived from parts of corpses) and even a talking super-cat.

Most of the characters are little more than sketches but, fortunately, Agatha is very well drawn. She’s witty, brave, quirky and has a nice line in wise-cracking. She also has a suitably Victorian modesty and one of the book’s nicest running gags is that she is endlessly thrown into situations where she is inappropriately dressed. Her character arc sees her develop from being a bemused prisoner dragged along for the ride to a confident and feisty heroine leading the charge against the monsters.

The plot, such as it is, involves a mysterious ‘hive engine’. This is a deadly device that spawns mutant ‘slaver wasps’ and the big question is whether this hive is left over from the Revolutionary Wars years before or, more worryingly, evidence of a new enemy creating deadly weapons. There are also questions about Agatha herself. She’s an orphan, so who is she really? What strange things does she get up to in her sleep that she can’t remember when she wakes? Although, in the end the solutions to these ‘mysteries’ are so well flagged that there’s very little surprise when they are revealed.

To be honest, ‘plot’ is being a bit generous. The book’s structure involves crashing the bemused Agatha from one bizarre scrape to another. Entertaining chaos is the order of the day and for the most part it is damn good fun. The writers work hard at the humour. There’s a lot of comedy in the ridiculous situations, one-liners and innuendo while the knowing parodying of genre conventions provides some nice in-jokes for the fanboys (and girls!).

Phil and Kaja Foglio have created a wildly inventive and imaginative world and this deluge of ideas is at the heart of all the books most enjoyable moments. However, it is also the source of the more frustrating aspects of the book. The problem is that everything races along so fast that it feels like many of the ideas are never fully explored. There was a war a few years ago, apparently, but we never really gain any insight into how it has formed the world we’re in. Steampunk alt-history worlds need some cultural and historical context to make them real. I don’t want pages of pages of painstaking fake history but I do want something that will help anchor me into the world. And then there are the creatures. The Jagermonsters, for example, are enormous fun with their strange behaviour and funny voices but what are they exactly? Oh, we’re never told. Ok, then.

One character is minor royalty and a brief mention about her interactions with the others suggests a complex class system but we never learn anything about it. Hostages are mentioned, but who they are and why they are taken is never made clear. It’s frustrating. The most important thing seems to be keep the pace so frenetic that the reader can’t pause to think about anything. Events crash into each other so rapidly that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on. It would be better to vary the pace. Slowing down between action set-pieces would allow the reader a bit more detail making the experience that bit richer and building the tension again would add new impact to the action.

Girl Genius has a great deal of potential and there’s a lot of fun to be had. It just seems a shame that so many creative ideas are glossed over in order to keep the pages turning in a frenzy. Actually, it is so vividly visual that you can see why it works so well as a graphic novel . The striking cover art gives an idea of how attractive that would look and there are some lovely comic book pages online.

The second book, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is also available now and will be reviewed here soon. Hopefully book 2 will add a bit more flesh to the bones of all the great ideas on show here. In the meantime, for readers who can’t get enough there is plenty of Girl Genius content online at www.girlgeniusonline.com which is lots of fun and well worth a look.