Book Review – Girl Genius: Agatha H And The Airship City

By Phil and Kaja Foglio
Published by Titan Books

Girl Genius is a comic book series turned online webcomic written by the Foglios and drawn by Phil, and this book is a novelisation of the first storyline. It has a steampunk setting with an alternative world history but the authors additionally describe it as ‘gaslamp fantasy’ to differentiate it because of the other elements in the story – Frankensteinian resurrectionism, soldier monsters, a talking cat – which differentiate it from the relatively straightforward steampunk trappings.

Warfare has nearly destroyed the world after the Industrial Revolution, but Europa is now controlled by tyrannical Sparks – mad scientists who rule through their clockwork armies and bizarre inventions. One man has taken charge: Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, one of his generation’s greatest Spark and friend to the Heterodyne Brothers, the famous Spark adventurers who disappeared and their stories turned to folklore; the Baron has created a ‘peace’ of sorts, the Pax Transylvania, with his Jägermonsters and clanks (steampunk-styled robots) removing aggressors and enforcing the rule of ‘no more fighting’.

Agatha Clay is a student at the Transylvania Prognostic University, working as a lab assistant for Dr Beetle, the Tyrant of Beetleburg. She is a frustrated builder of machines, which are prone to disaster and causes her to have headaches when she tries, and things don’t look good for her future. However, things change when Baron Wulfenbach comes to Beetleburg and Dr Beetle is revealed to have been hiding something he shouldn’t have, and Agatha finds herself on Castle Wulfenbach, the massive airship city that is the floating capital of the Wulfenbach empire, and she starts to discover not only a much larger world than she’s known but things about herself that alter the world around her.

This book is the origin story for our lead character and, as such, has a lot of ground to cover and facts to download. This perhaps explains the sluggishness of the prologue chapter and the first half of the first chapter – it’s slow and feels disconnected from the rest of the book, and I had to re-read them after finishing the novel because they seemed so disparate. However, after the story has got underway, it finds its feet and doesn’t let up.

We are introduced to an interesting and enjoyable world – the Foglios have created a diverse and fascinating little universe, which mixes steampunk with supernatural elements and a good dose of humour: Agatha’s foster parents are called Adam and Lilith, the Jägermonsters speak with a comedy accent (‘Oh vell, he’s a schmot guy’, ‘Iz you okeh?’, ‘Dis is a varning!’), there’s a running joke about Agatha always ending up in her undergarments in front of other people, the son of Klaus Wulfenbach is called Gilgamesh, who has a butler called Wooster and a little clank called Zoing, there is a condition called Post-Revivification Trauma in people who are returned from the dead into constructs, there is a man who fights against the Baron who actually introduces himself as ‘I am Othar Tryggvasen – Gentleman Adventurer!’ (with emphasis on the exclamation point), and the chapters start with fun asides such as the traditional folk saying, ‘When the lightning hits the keep the wise man does not sleep’.

Agatha herself is a very intriguing character, and it’s good to read a strong female character who is all about her brain. It’s a delight to see her come into her inheritance and her developing relationship with Gilgamesh. The Foglios are really good with their characters – they should be used to them after making the webcomic for so long – and they are an interesting cast of people, from the youngsters Agatha is kept imprisoned with to the assortment of monsters and constructs who come in and out of the story.

The story is essentially the first chapter in the ongoing Agatha saga, but it does have its own beginning, middle and end, so you get narrative satisfaction from reading the novelisation, as well as a desire to read the further adventures of the Girl Genius. It also provides a deeper characterisation of the world and everyone involved than can be afforded by the webcomic. This is a funny, charming, exciting, ideas-filled ‘gaslamp fantasy’ that is an enjoyable read, once you’ve got past that prologue and the first chapter.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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