Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess

As part of an experimental format, I am posting the epigraph and image just before a sort of "capsule" review of the book. The real review will be below the jump. Like it? Hate it? Wish to rant about the sad state of literary affairs in the world? Please tell me in the comments. This blog, as always, is an organic and ever-changing process, and the cooler I can make it, the better off both I and my readers will be.

ALSO: I am going on a longer vacation, so no review next Saturday. I need to calm down so I can concentrate on getting you the best reviews I can, delivered on-schedule and without having to rush and not finish the book all the way. There may also be a renaissance faire involved.

"It is here, with great reluctance, and a full awareness of how a chronicler should report a story without being the story itself, that one of your professors enters the narrative. Surely the tedious whys and wherefores of how he came to find himself in this particular prison at this particular time have no significant relevance to the greater story and shall thus be ignored."
- Professor Philip Foglio

           So, to get the basics out of the way, Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess is the second novelization of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius* webcomic series, a series born from a love of pulp, steampunk, comic fiction, and possibly monsters with teeth bigger than their faces. In it, the main character, Agatha Heterodyne survives an airship crash into the terrifying area of an alternate steampunk Transylvania known as "The Wasteland". To get her safely to the city of Mechanicsburg without being eaten by the terrifying monsters or crushed by steam-powered robots, she joins a traveling circus and hopes to have an uneventful time. But soon intrigues and adventure find her, and she is swept up in an adventure involving her lineage, lost princesses, and insane gadgetry.
          The book is incredibly well-done, though it suffers from a minor lack of context in the opening pages and occasional typographical errors in the edition I own. The descriptions are fantastically detailed, the sense of humor is frenetic but manages to let the reader catch up, and even the momentary self-insert is played self-deprecatingly for comedy. If you have ever wanted an adventure story that is just straight-out flat-out fun; with engaging characters, a good sense of humor, and a self-aware quality that engages the reader rather than ironically detaching them to poke fun at itself, this is your book. I love it, I thoroughly recommend you should buy it, and then once you've bought it, press it eagerly into your friends' hands with only a meaningful look and the words "read this".

(Complete review after the jump)

(And welcome to the fun part!)

           So I'd like to first start out the review by thanking my father, who specifically commissioned this review by buying the book for me, handing it to me, and saying, "I'll get this, but only if you review it for the blog." A better patron for my work I could not have, and I'm grateful for his encouragement and support**.

           It's odd that he'd give me this book, because it's exactly the kind of book we'd used to read together. You see, way back in the dawn of time, my dad used to read to me and my siblings to get us to settle down at night. We started with the Arabian Nights, but as we got older, we requested longer and longer books, eventually getting to the point where we were reading about five pages to a chapter every night. It sort of became a tradition, especially the Redwall books, where he'd do voices for each of the races. The times he read to us are some of the happier memories I've had of my childhood, and ones I've attempted (in various forms) to replicate back when I lived at home. 
          And, while I didn't realize it right away, Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess is that exact kind of book-- a little hard to get into at first, but moving, adventurous, and strange when you get in. And it never lets go. I have loved every second of reading it.

          Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess begins with an airship crash. The main character, Agatha Heterodyne, has just escaped the clutches of the not-actually-evil Baron Wulfenbach and his floating castle only to crash-land in an inhospitable territory known as The Wastelands. As the world of Agatha H. is populated by mad scientists known as "Sparks" (as they possess something called "The Spark"), The Wasteland is where all the nastiest creatures dwell, a supposedly inhospitable area full of horrifying things and dangerous steam-powered robots from which no one has supposedly returned. Agatha and her companion, a talking cat named Krosp, wind up joining in with a traveling circus who make trips through the Wastelands in an effort to reach the city of Mechanicsburg, a place of safe refuge and the former seat of Agatha's family before they mysteriously vanished. While Agatha and Krosp hope to have a normal journey, it would be a very short book if they did, and they are beset upon by all number of robots, monsters, dangerous plots, insane royals, and at least two pie fights as they attempt to reach Mechanicsburg in one piece while pursued by Baron Wulfenbach and his soldiers. If the circus is to survive, Agatha may have to stop running and confront who she is, even if it means sacrificing normalcy for something far more dangerous.

          The first thing that immediately comes to mind that the book does well are the descriptions. The Foglios are highly-regarded fantasy artists with a lot of artwork under their belt, and they've kept that descriptive power in text form by describing everything to the last minute detail. You can actually see the action because every motion, every movement is described with the specific idea of making you see the action as much as read it. This also causes my issue with descriptions of food to arise, because as they describe all the various foodstuffs in just as much detail as the characters and setting, I really want that food***.  The detail overload is staggering, and dwarfs such previous overloaders as China Mieville and Stephen Hunt quite easily. It's the book's strongest suit, and the one that does them the most good. 

           The characters are also commendable. While the plot may be a little hard to get into at first, the characters are all very engaging, each with their own voice. The characters are really the driving force of the book, and that they're very easy to identify and distinguish from each other really helps that out. They also (in a refreshing change from last week's offering) act like actual people instead of fictional constructs**** or pawns the authors can move as they wish. They're all very human, with their own flaws and triumphs, and each action they make occurs organically from the plot. It saddens me that I have to point that out and commend books that actually do that, but this book gets it right, and right all the way. I found myself wanting to spend more time on the characters and their world. If a book does that, you can be absolutely sure that it's done its job.

               The dialogue is great, too. In between the MAD Magazine references*****, the puns, and the ridiculous amounts of wordplay, the narrator's tone is light and breathless, as if someone's telling the story to the reader and doesn't want to slow down for fear of losing the thread of the eight or nine things going on. The lines come fast and furious, and I found myself actually struggling to figure out the epigraph for the review, as there were just too many good quotes to choose from. I also laughed aloud at about half the book, as it tread that line between snarky and absurd that makes comedy (and indeed self-conscious comments) work all the better. My favorites were the Jagermonsters, who talk in a phonetic accent reminscient of either German villains or Scandinavians. Also, I'm a sucker for snarky footnotes******, and this book has about seventy or eighty of those.

               Though the book is flawed, and in two very minor ways. The first is that the lack of context I had going in was hard to get through. The book is densely-detailed and the plot picks up fairly quick, which means that there's no real chance to get the exposition in. On top of which, most of that was covered in the preceding volume, so reading the second one in the series does take a little bit of a crawl without the first volume to support it. But after a while, it settles into its rhythms and brings you along, so there isn't too much of an issue once it gets fully underway and Agatha meets Master Payne's Circus of Adventure. The densely-plotted nature of the book also means that at times, it can get confusing. The biggest example would be near the end, where there are two or three copies of the same person running around, and while it would be easy to differentiate them in comic form, the nature of the medium makes it significantly harder.

             The other problem is that the pacing is off. The book is an adaptation of a webcomic/graphic novel, and webcomics are very episodic by nature-- usually a page every day (or in this case, three days a week), so the story can stop and start as needed. In a book, this makes for some very odd pacing before it gets going, and the plot's very episodic nature means that while twists and turns are preserved, the speed kind of starts and stops for a while before it eventually gets to the action and everything locks together and starts to really move

           But in the end, if you stick with it and get through the opening, you will love this book. There is really no reason not to love this book. So buy this. Recommend it to your friends if you dig it, if you don't, that's okay too. I'm glad I read it, I'm glad I own it, and I thoroughly recommend you get your hands on it somehow, because I'm sure you'll love it, too.

Nothing, as I'll be on vacation.

Noir by K. W. Jeter. 

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
Good Omens

And more!


*And currently the splash page of this comic has an image from this very book, actually.
**I'm still working on my commission model, which he's now responsible for making me think about, too.
*** And what luck, at the beginning of one of the chapters, they provide a recipe for "Those fried cream things"!
****Ironically, half of them are fictional constructs.
***** "Nov shmoz ka pop?" anyone?
******The regulars are going "No, really?!"


  1. Nice stuff- thanks for posting-- and the background on your dad reading to you is awesome (I have a five year old son and two year old daughter myself, so maybe it's something we'll have to start doing soon). Have a nice break!

  2. fyi- I realize you probably have no control over this but the "prove your not a robot" security feature is hard for me to use, I have a hard time telling the e's from the a's...and n's and h's- I usually scroll through, like, 15 of them before I find one that I can read.

  3. Thanks for the comment. As for the "prove you aren't a robot" bit...yeah, sorry, no control over that.