Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: Girl Genius Volumes 1-13 by Phil and Kaja Foglio

cover art for The Beetleburg Clank, featuring Agatha, a white girl with blonde hair wearing a green suit and holding a small mechanical device with arms and legs cover art for The Airship City, featuring Agatha wearing nineteenth century underwear and holding a large wrench

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

OMG YOU GUYS GIRL GENIUS IS SO AWESOME why did it take me this long to come back to it whyyyyyy it's got mad science and people exercising their awesome powers of invention and none of the characters are all the way good or evil they've all got great depth and they face challenges and sometimes they make poor choices but sometimes they make up for those poor choices so that's good and hey did I mention the MAD SCIENCE it's basically like magic except they use it to make machines and THOSE MACHINES ARE SO AWESOME LIKE AGATHA HAS A SENTIENT CASTLE THAT TALKS I AM WAY TOO FOND OF BUILDINGS THAT TALK and also I really like Gil I'm probably Team Gil although I wouldn't exactly be upset about Team Threesome either and of course Agatha really only needs a dude if she decides she wants one which it seems like she does except no wait she wants two and like I said I'm okay with that and ooh there's a talking cat and a girl with green hair and y'all maybe don't know this about me but I'VE ALWAYS WANTED GREEN HAIR and also there are AIRSHIPS and AUTOMATA (which are called clanks but that's okay) and oooh not everyone in this alternate Europe is white which is GREAT though it must be said most of the main characters are white and most of them are still fairly skinny albeit with larger thighs but anyways it's awesome y'all it's so great you need to go read it please you can thank me later maybe with chocolate or just an enthusiastic tweet it's up to you just READ IT AND BE ENTERTAINED.

The Semi-Sensical Version:

The Hugo Awards haven't just given me the opportunity to read the stories I missed last year; they've also provided an excuse to catch up on some series I've neglected.

GIRL GENIUS is foremost among these. I read the first six volumes several years ago at Lynn's urging, then moved to the other side of the world and forgot to check my new library1 for more.


Anyways, the most recent collected volume, AGATHA HETERODYNE AND THE SLEEPING CITY, is nominated for a Hugo, so I figured I'd best dive back into the series so I could fairly evaluate it.

Best. Decision. Ever.

cover art for The Monster Engine, featuring Agatha holding an electric sword. A white boy with brown hair, Gil, stands behind her. Cover art for The Circus of Dreams, featuring Agatha standing behind a green-haired white girl, Zeetha, holding a sword and wearing blue leathers.

Agatha Clay can't seem to master even the simplest science. The wondrous contraptions she sees in her head refuse to become honest-to-goodness machines in her workshop--a pretty major disability in an alternate Europe where mad science holds sway. Agatha figures she's destined for a life as a lowly lab assistant until the fearsome Baron Wulfenbach and his son, Gilgamesh, arrive in town and mistakenly spirit Agatha away to their airship city.

Where all hell breaks loose.

Because Agatha's seeming incompetence is just the byproduct of a device intended to keep her from realizing her full potential too young. Freed from its influence, she proves the hidden heir to an ancient mechanical legacy, with all the attendant problems.

Awesomeness ensues.

I'll warn you, the story does take a little while to pick up steam. While there's action from the get-go, the first few volumes are mostly setup. We learn the basic premise behind this world--an alternate nineteenth century Europe where mad scientists, more commonly called sparks, use their magical grasp of technological principles to control vast swathes of the continent--and meet some of the central characters, but the story is just getting started. And it'll continue to start for the next three or four volumes, depending on your perspective.

If GIRL GENIUS fails in one major area, it's pacing. Multiple volumes sometimes span only a handful of days, something I'm sure we can blame on the episodic nature of webcomics. GIRL GENIUS is an ongoing project with new pages published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each page has to deliver a punchline of some sort, and punchlines require setup, and setup slows things down. Enough stuff happens that the pace isn't glaringly obvious when you're right in the thick of it, but when you step back from the story you maybe start to wonder if we shouldn't be a little further along after thirteen full volumes.

Like I said, though, it's a matter of perspective. GIRL GENIUS is alternate history rife with magic-as-science, but it's structured very much like an epic fantasy. The Foglios clearly know exactly where they're going with this. They've laid a crapload of groundwork and remain in complete control of their world and its antecedents. Each volume features extensive foreshadowing that often pays off in a big way down the line.

But, as is the case with most epic fantasies of this length, it's possible to go multiple volumes (which is to say, years and years of readerly time) without the answer to a burning question or eight. A hint planted in Volume Three might not come to fruition until, say, Volume Seven. As of Volume Thirteen, we're still waiting on more than a few big revelations from earlier in the series.

If you must have speedy validation, you'll likely be frustrated. If you're okay with this sort of structure, though, you're gonna have a blast.

Cover art for The Clockwork Princess, featuring Agatha, book in hand, behind a mouthless female automaton with her hands raised over a crystal ball cover art for The Golden Trilobyte, featuring a scantily-clad Agatha hovering above a castle. In the foreground, a red-clad Agatha with an evil smirk on her face stands with a red-haired white boy, Tarvek, with a coterie of pale warrior women directly behind them.

The twisty structure is a lot of fun, at least from where I stand, but it's the characters who set GIRL GENIUS apart. Agatha herself is my favourite sort of protagonist. As soon as she gets a good grasp on her abilities she's off and running. She's smart, capable, confident, fiercely proud of her talents, willing to admit when she needs help, disinclined to take crap from anyone, beyond enthusiastic about anything that catches her fancy, and genuinely concerned with protecting the people she feels responsible for. I love her.

She has a sentient house, too. Sentient houses are the best, just so long as they refrain from killing you. Or trapping you in a perverse psychic web. Or otherwise causing you physical and/or psychological harm.

Maybe "best" is the wrong word...

Agatha is the star, but she's far from the only fabulous character. This cast is populated with interesting, multidimensional people. Agatha's particular friends include the aforementioned sentient house; Zeetha, a green-haired warrior princess who's decided to teach Agatha to fight while she's waiting for a lead on her lost homeland; and Krosp, the genetically engineered Emperor of Cats who can't make any of his subjects listen to him. (Cats are such an unobliging bunch.) She also falls in with some young hostages who aren't entirely upset with their situation, a circus full of low-level sparks who're determined to live on their own terms, and the citizens of Mechanicsburg who harbour approximately one million secrets about their city.

Then there are the Jägerkin--warriors who swore fealty to Agatha's family in exchange for certain monstrous benefits, including near-immortality. They're perhaps happiest when engaging in murder, mayhem, and generally evil shenanigans, but they're willing to be the good guys if their current Heterodyne commands it. And for all their bloodthirsty tendencies, they can be genuinely sweet in their own way.

They're also weirdly fixated on hats. I approve.

cover art for The Voice of the Castle, featuring Agatha hunched over an elaborate coffee maker with manic glee in her eyes while an airship and a lightning storm hover in the background cover art for The Chapel of Bones, featuring a determined Agatha standing on a pile of skulls before an inhuman skull with glowing red eyes

I'll warn you, though: the Foglios write the Jägers' Transylvanian accents out phonetically. They visit this treatment upon almost. Every. Word.

I don't usually mind phonetic spellings; after all, there can be a big difference between "going to" and "gonna," or "darling" and "darlin'," and the use of one over the other can tell us a lot about where a character comes from. I think it's possible to take things too far, though, and to my mind the Jägers' dialogue surpasses what's necessary. Almost every word is phonetic, so all their Ws become Vs and they say things like "hyu" instead of "you." The reader gets a clear sense of their accent, yeah, but it can be difficult to wade through. I'd have preferred an approach that relied on syntax with the occasional phonetic spelling.

The dialect isn't exactly a minor detail, but the Jägerkin are so delightful that I'm mostly willing to look past it. I hope you can do the same.

On the not-so-fond-of Agatha side of the equation, we have such delectable, multifaceted folks as Klaus Wulfenbach, whose position as despotic overlord of Europe should plunk him firmly in the villain camp. Except it doesn't! Klaus does less than admirable stuff, yeah, but he's not malicious about it. Mostly, he makes difficult choices to preserve the peace and keep the European sparks from transforming the continent into a bloody ruin. He doesn't kill people for kicks or target anyone without (what he considers) just cause. He does take hostages to ensure the European leaders' cooperation, but he treats them well and gives them plenty of space to invent things and form alliances with each other. Really, he's not such a bad guy other than his determination to wipe Agatha out--and even that is only because he thinks she's and evil menace who must be stopped before she destroys the world.

I really like Klaus. I hope nobody has to kill him.

The true villain of the piece is the Other, a mysterious spark with a thirst for domination. They, too, are well-defined and equipped with a definite stake in the game, albeit one that's somewhat less shades-of-grey than everyone else's. I'll let you discover them for yourself, just as the characters do.

cover art for The Heirs of the Storm, featuring Agatha in a lab coat before Gil and Tarvek, both of whom have turned blue Cover art for The Guardian Muse, featuring Agatha, hair streaming, hovering before a pale automaton with white wings

Back on the Team Agatha side of things, we have love interests! (The comic's tagline does promise romance alongside adventure and mad science.) As I mentioned in the short gushy, ungrammatical version, I'm probably Team Gil (though I could go for Team Threesome if the opportunity presented itself.) Gil has his issues, yeah--like, he totally decides he and Agatha are gonna get married mere days after they've met, and she's like, "Dude. No."--but I feel like he's capable of working around them. Agatha doesn't take crap, and it seems like Gil's learning how to avoid handing it to her.

I love how much he and Agatha like each other, too. They're just transparently happy whenever the other comes up in conversation. They get excited about each others' accomplishments, and they gush over science stuff, and they get totally manic when they invent something together. (Though, to be fair, they get totally manic when they invent something on their own, too. Totally manic is basically a spark's natural state.)

Plus, I'm so frickin' worried about Gil right now. As the comic currently stands, he's in a bad state indeed. One hopes Agatha gets him him out of it, because smart as Gil is, I'm not sure he can fix this one on his own. Good thing he's got a super-genius almost-girlfriend in his corner.

I love worrying about fictional characters. I love it, I love it, I love it.

Over in the realm of paranoid speculation, I'm terribly worried Gil will turn out to be Agatha's secret brother. It does seem awfully like there must be a secret brother out there somewhere, and it'd make for a more dramatic story if Agatha knows him already, and Tarvek looks too much like the rest of his family to fill the role. (Not that I want Tarvek to be her secret brother either.) One hopes the Jägerkin would've smelled it on Gil if that were the case, but Klaus is a tricky bastard. He could've found a way around all that.

cover art for The Hammerless Bell, featuring Agatha standing beneath an enormous bell with a skull on it. She holds two wrenches crossed before her. cover art for The Siege of Mechanicsburg, featuring Agatha wielding a staff while Gil and Tarvek grapple below. A green dragon hovers in the background.

Oddly enough, Gil isn't the Bad One amongst Agatha's potential beaus. (I usually root for the Bad One. I have a Bad One problem.) That honour belongs to Tarvek, the sneaky-ass scion of Europe's hereditary royal house. Tarvek initially seems like as fine a villain as one could wish for, what with his many devious schemes and his family's longstanding devotion to the Other's cause, but the jury's still out on whether he's actually as bad as all that. He grew up in a seriously messed up household after he was kicked off of Klaus's airship city for spying, and the Foglios keep us guessing as to how much of his father's evil ways he's actually absorbed and how much is a public persona. He obviously cares about Agatha, and he takes steps to ensure the safety of a cousin he supposedly hates, but he does aid the Other, and it seems to me he's conveniently forgotten to mention a rather crucial service he performed for them. So we'll see which side he comes out on.

I might be Team Gil (might; I try not to ship things because my team almost always loses and I end up CONSUMED by WOE), but that hasn't kept me from liking Tarvek ever so much. He's interesting, which is the very best thing a fictional character can be. And he, too, is in a terrible state as the comic currently stands, but I'm rather less worried about him because I figure he's stable for now. (Plus, he's smarter and more devious than Gil, which renders him more likely to get himself out of his mess.)

Oh, friends. I could probably gush about GIRL GENIUS for another thousand words, at a conservative estimate. I mean, I've barely even touched on the setting, or all the mechanical marvels! It's probably best if I let you discover the rest of the series's joys for yourself, though. This is fabulous stuff that ranges from really good (volumes 1, 2, and 6) to dude-I-love-this (volumes 3, 4, 5, 7, and 10) to ZOMGILOVETHIS (volumes 8, 11, 12, and 13) to THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER WHAT ARE WORDS I CANNOT PROCESS (volume 9).

You're gonna have fun with this one. I sure did.

cover art for The Sleeping City, featuring Agatha striding forward through a wall of thorns.

While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned, especially with an indie series like this one. Luckily, you have lots of reading options where GIRL GENIUS is concerned!

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, The Book Depository, or Amazon.

  1. I guess I could've just read the series online like everyone else, but I had a teeny, tiny netbook back then and it was awkward. My current computer isn't much larger, but the screen is still far better suited to webcomics. It's a good thing, too; my library only has the first ten volumes, so I ended up reading quite a bit of the story through the Girl Genius website.

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