Agatha H. and the Airship City (Girl Genius)
by Phil Foglio
Review by Drew Bittner
Night Shade Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597802116
Date: 01 January 2011 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Agatha Clay is a research assistant at Transylvania Polygnostic University. When the ruler of Europe, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach himself, comes to visit, a chain of dominoes starts to topple...with one of them being Agatha's astounding (and secret) history!
In Agatha H and the Airship City, Phil and Kaja Foglio adapt the first part of their Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius illustrated adventures into novel form. The setting is Europe, after an Industrial Revolution (of sorts) propelled by Sparks; Sparks (or what we would call mad scientists) are capable of creating astonishing devices, inventing (or altering) amazing creatures and basically making a nuisance of themselves.
But something went wrong about sixteen years ago. An enemy known simply as The Other waged an effort to exterminate all Sparks, including the legendary Heterodyne Boys, with insidious things like slaver wasps (which turn entire populations into zombie-like slaves, hence the name). Many Sparks were killed. Things turned around when Klaus Wulfenbach, ruler of a small domain, decided to take control...and conquered Europe within a decade. He now rules from a floating castle, with many surviving Sparks as his regents or weapons makers.
Agatha Clay, seemingly an ordinary girl in the city of Beetleburg, is a research assistant. She dreams of fantastic engines but cannot build them, as hideous migraines cripple her ability to concentrate. On the day that Baron Wulfenbach comes to visit--and see a test of a device he bade Agatha's bosses to build for him--her trilobite locket is stolen by two thieves. An unsettling discovery at the University, meanwhile, triggers a death and a seizing of the town by Wulfenbach's monstrous Jagermonsters and clockwork soldiers. Agatha's parents, fearful of this event for reasons of their own, go into hiding and Agatha is taken by Wulfenbach and his son, Gilgamesh, who is a promising Spark himself.
It turns out that Agatha has an unusual secret: she is sleep-engineering incredible devices! This secret may end up damning her...or saving the Wulfenbachs, when a devastating betrayal imperils the airship city itself!
The Foglios have done a fantastic job of translating the start of their lush gaslamp fantasy series into novel form. Their kinetic style makes it an extremely fast and engaging read, with Agatha earning the title "girl genius" more than once. She's a terrific character, plucky and resourceful, who only begins to understand her true capabilities as the story rockets forward.
We are treated to a number of characters, some of them with more "screen time" than others--the Heterodyne Boys themselves open the book, as they search for information that will lead them to the Other, while their ally Klaus is featured through most of the rest of the book. Wulfenbach is likewise a great creation, a tyrant without the massive ego or bloodlust associated with the word; he expects to be obeyed and is resignedly ruthless when need be, but he is mostly exasperated by the fearful expectations others have of him.
Gilgamesh, as a boy who is forced to earn his father's respect over and over again, is a fitting counterpart to Agatha. He has her same inventive zeal, coupled with his own burdens of being heir to a sprawling empire, that make him a complex and fascinating character in his own right.
And of course there are the friends Agatha makes along the way, including the self-style King of All Cats, the helpful Sleipnir O'Hara, the hostile Zulenna and even Mr. Tock, the former guardian of the University gate, not to mention her parents Adam and Lilith (who have several great scenes).
As much as the characters, the Foglios have invented a dazzling setting for their story, with a rich history of Sparks and their deeds (and misdeeds). It is light-hearted and whimsical, even in the most dangerous moments, with plenty of laughs along the way.
If you have not yet encountered Agatha and her world, you are in for a treat. This novel is an excellent place to become familiar, but you might also wish to visit the website to immerse yourself. With nine collections of the comic (and webcomic) now in print, you have a lot of catching up to do.