Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Agatha H. and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha Clay is a student at the Great university of Beetleberg. Her parents, Adam and Lillith Clay, are both employed in the city, Adam as a machinist, and Lillith as a piano teacher. In this world, the Industrial Revolution led to a world of steampunk excess. Those with a genius for invention are known as "Sparks", and each Spark was to protect an area of their own. But when an alien intelligence known as "the Other" attacked and killed some of the leading Sparks, the balance of power in Europe shifted dangerously, no more so than when the Heterodyne Boys, the genius inventor/adventurers disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

With the shift in power, a few men, also Sparks, decided to take over Europe. Beetleberg, and indeed, most of Europe, is ruled by the Baron, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach. The Baron has ruthlessly taken down the few Sparks that remain in his lands, making them work under him and adding their klanks, or mechanical men, and other inventions of war, and added them to his own forces. And now, he is coming to the great university to meet with the head of the college, Dr. Beetle.

Agatha has always had dreams of creation, but she doesn't appear to have the Spark, as her creations are always flawed in some way and end up not working. When she is awake, she is troubled by intense headaches that come on her when she is in high emotion or tries to create. After waking from a dream of how to build the perfect creation, she tries to build it, but a headache interrupts her.

Dashing to the college without any breakfast, she is set upon by two ex-soldiers who steal her locket, the only thing she has left from her true parents. Because the Clays only took her in because her Uncle Billy asked them to. And while they have raised her with love, she is still waiting for her Uncle to return. But she hasn't heard anything from him in years. At the college, she does the impossible and cleans up the room that her advisor asks her to clean up an extremely messy lab. But when Dr. Beetle goes crazy and attacks Baron Klaus, she is the only one who tries to defend Dr. Klaus. Unfortunately, Dr. Beetle is killed, and his replacement sacks her from the University.

With nowhere left to go and nothing left to do, she returns home, but when she tells her adoptive parents, the Clays, that the Baron is in the city, they tell her that they all must flee. They are very upset also when they find that her locket has been stolen, and the Clays go out in the city to try and find it for her, while they leave Agatha to pack for them and clean up the house. She does so, knowing she must leave most of her treasures behind, but falls asleep while she waits for her parents to return.

She only wakes up when one of the soldiers who stole her locket, Moloch, grabs her by her hair. She finds herself, clad only in her underclothes, in her father's shop, which is in a shambles. She assumes Moloch has wrecked the place, but he didn't. He is there to take revenge for Klaus, the other soldier who robbed her, who is now dead after stealing her locket, which had some kind of mechanism in it that Moloch is sure led to his friend's death.

Meanwhile, outside in the city, a new Clank has been sited, and the Baron is eager to find it and whoever made it. He and his son, Gilgamesh, are looking for the Spark who is the inventor. Gil was with the Baron at the school, and found himself attracted to Agatha, but he was willing to forget about her. When they find the Clank and reverse its programming, it leads them back to Adam Clay's workshop, and the man who they are sure is the Spark who made it: Moloch! Assuming that Agatha is Moloch's lover (because of her state of undress), they ship both of them back to Baron Wulfenbach's Airship City, Moloch to create more things for the Baron, and Agatha to control Moloch. If he refuses to help the Baron, they can threaten her.

But Moloch isn't a Spark- he's just a mechanician who can repair some machines. He tells Agatha that she is the one who created the Clank, but given that all her machines so far have failed catastrophically, she finds herself completely unable to believe him. However, her time on the Airship may prove to Agatha that she has the Spark, and the touch of Madboy scientist in her after all. But why does she keep waking up in wrecked labs with nothing to show for all the work she has supposedly done? And why is Gilgamesh Wulfenbach so interested in her, and is he really interested in her or in her Spark? And can she escape the Airship City to find her parents or her Uncle when the Baron is so interested in keeping her to control Moloch? Why does the Baron keep all the Sparks he has defeated, and why does he have Olaf Tryggvassen, Gentleman Adventurer, a prisoner in his airship?

I recently became interested in Steampunk. both as fashion and movement, and this book is definitely completely in that mold. It's a rewriting of the first adventure of a series of graphic novels and a webcomic written and drawn by Phil Foglio and his wife, Kaja. I remember Phil Foglio back from his days of "What's New with Phil and Dixie", a comic he drew for the old Dragon magazine, which I loved (it is also available as two graphic novels, though each month's comic was complete in itself, so it's not a continuing series like most Graphic Novels today).

Here we are introduced to Agatha Clay, failed inventor. But it's during the course of the novel that we learn her true parentage, and her existence as a Spark, as well as why both were hidden for so long. Agatha, whose parentage is not exactly hidden by the title of the novel, must come into her own as an inventor,and learn why she must hide who she is from just about everyone. Those not out to kill or capture her for being a spark would do the same merely for her parentage.

After reading the book, I also took the time to seek out the webcomic. It's a little different- the book has some fleshed out scenes and many fleshed-out characters, but the biggest change was that, in the first adventure, Agatha was depicted as blonde rather than red-haired, while in the novel, she has red hair from the first, and the jumpsuit she wears on the cover art covers her much more completely in the comic, whereas in the cover art, she is barely decent.

Regardless, it's an excellent novel and an extremely fun read. This is the sort of novel that could compel you towards a decent love of steampunk, and a fascination with its aims and fashion, design and outfits. It differs from some Steampunk in that it is much less about the innocence of the love of design, pointing out that a lot of this stuff could and did kill people. But I loved it and would definitely love to see more, and read more. It's hard not to get sucked in. Highly recommended.

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