Sunday, September 11, 2011

Agatha H and the Airship City: A Girl Genius Novel by Kaja and Phil Foglio [Review]

Agatha H and the Airship City: A Girl Genius Novel

I’ve had a hard time writing this review because I’m a fan of the Girl Genius webcomic, and it feels like I’m speaking ill of the series to offer up criticism on the novel.  It has taken me a while to decide that not all great comic heroes have made a graceful transition into novelized forms, and this book falls into that category.  Don’t get me wrong:  The book is a fun and entertaining read, but it is so because the original story has these qualities.  This book offers very little that is new to the Girl Genius world, and if you’re looking for a summary of volumes 1-3 of the comic reprints, or you don’t want to read the comic but want to be brought up to speed in a prose form, then this book is for you.  I enjoyed reading it, and wouldn’t have any problems recommending it to others, but this novel is simply a capable retelling of what has already transpired in the weekly strip.  If you really want to read this story, buy the graphic novel.  If you want the CliffsNotes, or absolutely must own everything Girl Genius you can get your hands on, then buy this book. 
The story begins with Bill and Barry Heterodyne, who are attempting to identify a way to destroy a powerful threat.  The source if the threat is mysterious, but they’ve abducted Bill’s wife and son and disappeared, and he’s desperate to find them.  Bill, a powerful ‘spark’ and scion of the Heterodyne family, is trying to get to the bottom of things.  Bill’s brother Barry has also inherited the spark genetic trait, and the brothers are powerful inventors and scientists that have fought to bring order to their part of the world.  Now Bill is obsessed by a desire to avenge the loss of his family and to bring his people relief from the perpetual destruction caused by renegade sparks in the region.

The story then picks up over a decade later.  The “Heterodyne boys” have both disappeared and their good friend and partner, Baron Wulfenbach, now rules over the region with an iron fist.  The story begins with Agatha Clay, who is being raised by her foster parents Adam and Lilith.  All her life Agatha has had visions of invention and creation that ended with debilitating and excruciating headaches. Despite this, she has enrolled at Transylvania Polygnostic University under the watchful eye of Dr. Beetle, who keeps her on despite her repeated catastrophic failures to create anything that actually works.  Then one day, while on her way to school, Agatha is mugged and the locket that Lilith insists Agatha wear every day is stolen; Adam and Lilith are strangely panicked by this, and move to relocate.  While the pair is gone making arrangements, a tired Agatha lies down for a moment to rest and, when she wakes up, she discovers that she may have built a machine in her sleep.  An incredibly powerful machine has caught the eye of Baron Wulfenbach, who consolidates his power by isolating new sparks whenever one is found.  But the Baron makes a tactical error: He thinks the spark is the man who stole Agatha’s locket, and that Agatha is merely a girlfriend.  The Baron takes the pair up to his floating capitol, the airship Castle Wulfenbach.   

On the airship Agatha is finally free of her headaches and, even though she doesn’t understand why yet, she has too much to deal with to give it any thought.  The Baron’s son, Gil, is also on the ship, and he knows that there is more to Agatha then his father is able to see.  He is the one who identifies her as a spark, and keeps that information from his father so he can recruit her to help with his projects.  Agatha also learns that the Baron often forces the families of his vassals to send their children to live on the airship for the majority of the year as insurance for good behavior, which is why the Baron abducted her—he sees her as a way of controlling his latest spark.  Agatha begins making friends with these fellow hostages while she tries to figure out who she is and why she keeps waking up in the morning in only her underwear and with machine grease all over her hands. Eventually, Agatha learns that not only is she is a spark, but the daughter of Bill Heterodyne.  Since her father and uncle are missing and presumed dead, she is now the last scion of her family and a target for all the ruling sparks, who will want to control the populace through her.  She can either submit to the Baron, or she can escape in the hopes of restoring her family and solving the mystery of what happened to her parents.

One of the reasons I was somewhat disappointed with this book is because it offers so little additional information about Agatha or the world she lives in.  Agatha suffers terribly from incapacitating headaches for most of her young life, and her attempts to create, which fulfill a deep-seated instinctive need, are constantly frustrated.  This condition is definitely presented as a problem in the book, but her headaches seem to be more of an inconvenience than a major crippling roadblock to her development.  I ‘get’ that Agatha’s self-esteem and inability to self-actualize has been seriously compromised throughout her life, but this reality is presented in a way that feels cardboard and two-dimensional.  This is acceptable in a comic because of the limitations of the format, but I expected more internal dialogue and complexity from Agatha. A novelized format certainly allows for greater exposition and detail, and this just didn’t happen. 
This criticism applies to Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, Agatha’s potential love interest.  He’s the son of Baron Wulfenbach, who took over the area Agatha lives in when she was a child.  Gil honestly believes himself to be different from his father, and his relationship with Agatha informed by her inability to trust that this is truly the case.  Gil is constantly tested by the Baron, which he resents, but at the same time this has caused him to pick up many of his father’s opinions and attitudes.  This is an area where a novelized version of this story could really shine to create an ambiguous and complex character, but Gil never quite develops. As a result, Gil is a caricature that falls flat.  It feels like a missed opportunity for additional content that might not fit into the comic format, and deprives both Gil and his father Baron Wulfenbach of the ambiguity that would help this story transcend from just a copy of another format into a version in its own right.
I feel even more strongly about this after having asked Kaja Foglio at a recent convention if she and co-author Phil had gained any new perspective about Agatha through the writing process.  Kaja responded that no, they pretty much understand who Agatha is as a character and there were no additional refinements in the writing process.  This begs the question of why bother with writing the novelized version of the story then?  If story is complete in its graphic form, it seems to be needlessly redundant to create a novelized version that is simply a retread of what these authors have already done better in a previous text.
I will repeat my opening statement that this was a fun read, and I enjoyed it, but the novel never moves beyond just ‘ok’ to something more interesting and thought provoking. It also doesn’t help that the story suffers because the artwork, which is a powerful component, is missing altogether in the prose narrative.  The comic succeeds because of the engaging art and, without it, much of the charm and heart of the story simply never appears on the page. I sincerely hope that Kaja and Phil have been paying attention to what their readers are saying about this book, and are taking this feedback to heart.  I know that I will buy the second novel in the series, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess, when it comes out in Spring 2012, and it will be nice surprise if this new novel adds value to the series.

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