Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Phil and Kaja FoglioAgatha H and the Clockwork Princess by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Girl Genius #2
Published by Brilliance Audio on 4/1/12
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk

Story: B-
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

A fun audio although a surprisingly slow build-up to the climax and an overly large cast of characters sharing page time with Agatha made this book, while still entertaining and worth the listen, a bit of a letdown in comparison to the first audiobook in this series. The narration continues to shine, conveying the colorful and inventive world and strong, often amusing, characterizations with assurance and energy without sliding into caricature.

The Plot:

Book two of the continuing saga of the “Girl Genius” and her steampunk-flavored alternate history finds Agatha on the run for her life. After escaping from the floating citadel of Castle Wulfenbach and its Baron, Agatha Clay (now revealed as the missing Heterodyne heir and daughter of Lucrezia Monfish and Bill Heterodyne) and her companion Krosp, the talking cat, set out on a journey to return to her home in Mechanicsburg. When their stolen dirigible crashes in the Wasteland, they happen upon Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure and after saving the circus from a rampaging mechanical construct, Agatha and Krosp are invited to travel with them as they wind their way towards Mechanicsburg.

Baron Wulfenbach is determined to capture the last of the Heterodynes and he dispatches his son Gilgamesh and the psychotic airship captain Bangladesh DuPree to find her and bring her back. Agatha, with the help of the circus folk, evades capture and soon begins immersing herself in the life of a performer. The circus troupe puts Agatha to work repairing the caravans, an old calliope, and various mechanical devices and she also makes friends with a sword-mistress named Zeetha, who takes Agatha on as a student and is soon running her ragged with training. The fires of a budding romance with the actor Lars are fanned as she takes the stage playing Lucrezia Mongfish opposite his Bill Heterodyne but as they travel on towards Sturmhalten Keep, a danger from Agatha’s past looms before her.

My Thoughts:

This was a good audiobook with a lengthy but cohesive story and it progressed the overall arc of the series significantly. As the novelization of a web-comic series, I was surprised that book one didn’t reflect the episodic nature of that medium. With book two, some of that underpinning becomes apparent. It wasn’t so much that the audiobook was long (many of my favorites are) or that the story was disjointed but rather that the action bounced between the Baron, Gil, and DuPree; Agatha and a detailed group of circus performers; the shady goings-on of Tarvek Sturmvoraus and his sister Anevka at at Sturmhalten Keep; and smaller snippets of time spent with Jägermonsters and the newly introduced Geisterdamen. All of it was interesting but spread the story out too thinly to offer much drama prior to the conclusion of the book. It also had the effect of delaying some significant developments in Agatha’s character until the end, leaving her a very static player for much of the listen.

Although that’s a lot of complaining, I did enjoy this book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a follow-up to Agatha H and The Airship City. The cast of characters is amusing and diverse, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is shown in a new perspective, the circus people are well-constructed supporting characters who demand their own stage time, there are several new people introduced who both complicate Agatha’s life and will likely be significant in future installments, and while not as consistently engaging as book one, it’s still a lot of fun.

The Narration:

The narration by Angela Dawe was excellent and while I generally suggest going audio over text, with this one it’s a particularly strong recommendation. There is a wide cast of characters who are not only easily distinguished by pitch and tone but also by a bewildering variety of accents that Ms. Dawe seems to keep up with effortlessly. The pacing is good although an extra (and distracting) beat of silence occasionally sneaks in but the energy level is high and the dynamic delivery will suck you in to the story. The voices of the Jägermonsters and Bangladesh DuPree are reason enough to seek out the audio version but it’s a strong performance in total.

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja FoglioAgatha H and the Airship City by Kaja Foglio, Phil Foglio
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Girl Genius #1
Published by Brilliance Audio on 1/25/11
Genres: Fantasy, Steampunk

Story: B+
Narration: A

Sometimes I like a book because the writing is evocative or a character resonates with me. Sometimes the descriptions are so eloquent I can’t help but be in awe of the writer’s skill. Sometimes there’s a breakneck current of action that sweeps me past any less-than-stellar-writing rocks. Sometimes, I come across a book that is just plain downright fun. Agatha H and the Airship City is that kind of audiobook. It is chock full of mildly amusing lines that are delivered with more than mildly amusing vocal attributes and inflections as part of a very accomplished narration and it all takes place in a fantastic world that invites the listener to sit back and watch events go by.

In an alternate-history world where some people have the Spark (think mad geniuses) and can create amazing mechanical constructs, Agatha Clay is a less-than-accomplished student at Transylvania Polygnostic University. The worst day of her life begins when she loses her locket (a gift from her long-absent uncle) in a mugging. When Baron Klaus Wulfenbach arrives at the university with his heir Gilgamesh, Agatha’s boss ends up dead and she is banned from TPU. The Baron takes over the city of Mechanicsburg and Agatha soon finds herself removed from her home, taken from the constructs who have acted as her parents for the past sixteen years, and ensconced at Castle Wulfenbach, the Baron’s airship stronghold. There she falls in with a group of youth who are being held as hostages to ensure the good behavior of their parents or other family members, all of whom are using their Spark in the employ of the Baron. It soon becomes clear that there is more to Agatha than meets the eye and the core adventure of the story begins.

When I picked up this audiobook several months ago, I was aware that it was based on a comic book/webcomic series named Girl Genius but other than that and the book description, that’s all I knew about it. I mention that because I can’t speak to how the book varies from the comic and can only offer the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the whole series. The story portion has a lot to recommend it. There’s a plucky heroine with a nice blend of smarts, some insecurity over her inability to create things, otherwise decent self-confidence, and an admirable practicality; a large cast of interesting and varied characters whose motivations never boil down to a simple case of good or evil intent; plus nifty world-building with a nice “gaslight fantasy” vibe and a dash of romance. The pacing is excellent and although I was initially a bit lost as to how the pieces of the world fit together, everything soon lined up nicely in my head. The ending wasn’t a cliff-hanger but there were a ton of loose plot threads that were left flapping in the wind. I can console myself with the fact that I can always turn to the webcomic but I’m really hoping for another audiobook.

I would have enjoyed this as a dead-tree book but as a listen? Angela Dawe knocked it out of the park with this one. Although this was written as a long-form story, I think the vibrancy of the narration took the place of the illustrations that a comic/graphic version would have included and added that extra something to the story. Differentiation between characters (and there were a lot of them) was the most varied I have heard in a single-narrator audio: from Othar Tryggvassen (Gentleman Adventurer) and his bigger than life egotistical super-hero-like voice, to the Jägermonsters with their Germanic accents who always talk like they are delivering bad pick-up lines, to Krosp, the cat construct who speaks like, well, like you’d imagine a cat would if he could talk – smug and with a hint of a meow to many words. The voices of the younger kids in the story, often a problematic narration point for me, were excellent. There was a cornucopia of accents (American, English, East Indian, German, French, Irish) and I enjoyed every one. The humorous lines had just the right snap to them and the delivery of the narrative was nicely paced.

Quite frankly, this book could have been a thousand times longer and I would have been content to listen to the continuing story for the next year.

Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook

Heart of Steel by Meljean BrookHeart of Steel by Meljean Brook
Narrator: Faye Adele
Series: Iron Seas #2
Published by Penguin Audio on 11/1/11
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Steampunk

Book: B+
Narration: B

I’ve spent entirely too long trying to write a review of this book and I’m finding it oddly difficult so I’m going to try a more general / flow of consciousness / conversational review style. The best I can give you in terms of a standard review (if there is such a thing) is to tell you that this is a fun audiobook set in an incredibly detailed and fascinating world and I liked it. It’s the story of Yasmeen and Archimedes and how he pursues her while trying not to give her a reason to kill him before he can convince her to fall in love with him. Along with the romantic pursuit there are zombies, treasure, rebellion, airships, assassination attempts, bar fights, fabulous mechanical constructs, and a lot of flirting. The narration was good with lots of accent work and characters were clearly differentiated from each other.

Intellectually, I’d like to take this book home and make babies with it. Emotionally, I wasn’t really able to connect with it. Usually I can identify why but I’m at a loss with this one and that connection is a part of what I take into consideration when rating a book. Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, just that I finished it with the feeling that something was missing from my listening experience. I’ve read all of Meljean Brook’s novels and while I can’t claim any one of them is in my list of favorite books, I can say that she writes my favorite female protagonists. I rarely find an author who can create such unique characters who differ so much (with the exception of each heroine having or finding an inner strength) book-to-book and have realistic reactions and emotions. Yasmeen is no exception. In point of fact, there’s a bit of a role reversal in this book. Archimedes is a confident, smart, adrenaline-seeking treasure hunter so he’s clearly a good candidate for a Steampunk Romance hero. He’s got more than a bit of an Indiana Jones aspect to him and when we last saw him (in book one of the Iron Seas series, The Iron Duke) he was thrown overboard from Yasmeen’s airship Lady Corsair and tossed into a canal in zombie infested Venice because he tried to commandeer her vessel at gunpoint. Yasmeen, though, is one tough-as-nails heroine. She’s extremely practical and is more than willing to do whatever it takes to maintain control of her airship crew, from hanging people overboard naked if they pose a threat to that control to killing them outright. She drinks, smokes, brawls, and is faster and stronger than Archimedes. This poses a bit of a problem for him because although the adrenaline rush he gets from the danger she presents to him is addictive, he also has to figure out how to prove to her that he doesn’t want to take over, he just wants a chance to let his fascination with her turn into love (so he can see what that emotion feels like) and watch her back while he’s at it. Yasmeen is perfectly content to let him break his heart against hers. In essence, we’ve got a beta hero and an alpha heroine but I almost hate to use those categorizations because it doesn’t necessarily reflect the complexity of the characters.

So, obviously Archimedes survived being tossed overboard but the Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a flying machine that he discovered took off with Yasmeen and Lady Corsair. That sketch was intended to allow him to pay off a costly debt so he tracks down Yasmeen, drugs her, and retrieves the sketch but soon after he leaves her airship with it, disaster strikes and Yasmeen is left without a ship to captain while Archimedes has the sketch stolen. The two of them join forces to get the sketch back and when a rebel from Archimedes’ past offers an opportunity for them to gain access to the city where the sketch has been taken, they agree to help with a treasure hunt intended to fund the rebellion.

One of the things I really love about this book is that these are adult characters who act like it. They are very self-aware and interact with each other in a realistic manner, acknowledging how their past has shaped them, not agonizing over it, and compensating for that as they learn how to work together. Archimedes likes Yasmeen just the way she is and Yasmeen is perfectly fine with being a strong woman with a blood-thirsty streak. Watching Archimedes lay siege to Yasmeen’s distrust by a slow campaign of openly admitting his intentions while refusing to consummate their attraction was very enjoyable. The internal angst is all about Yasmeen deciding whether a man even exists who won’t make her appear weak in front of an airship crew, let alone whether Archimedes is that man. There is plenty of external conflict between our protagonists and zombies, between Yasmeen and the captain of the Ceres (the airship they are taking on the treasure hunt), and as Yasmeen and Archimedes follow the trail of those responsible for their troubles. The world building in this book (and definitely combined with that in The Iron Duke) is nothing short of phenomenal. There’s a nice leavening of humor as well and between that, the romance, and the action, this book pretty much has it all.

Faye Adele delivered a strong performance in this audiobook. If you’ve ever listened to a book narrated by Emily Shaffer/Suzanna Duff and enjoyed the performance then I think Faye Adele’s narration will be right up your alley as they have a very similar sound in both tone and male character voice style. It took me about an hour and a half to become accustomed to the brief pauses in some sentences but I stopped noticing them and settled in to the story. I did find it odd, however possible in real-life it is, to have a male protagonist with a higher-pitched voice than the female. I loved Yasmeen’s voice but I kept hearing more Russian than Turkish in her accent (she was raised in Constantinople, albeit an alternate history version of it) but since I had to dig up some Turkish accent samples on the Internet to even justify making that comment, my ear may just need tuning. Ms. Adele’s other accents seemed perfect to me and I was impressed by her ability to smoothly navigate the multitude of them. Her delivery of much the narrative portion was done in almost a confidential tone, as if she was in the chair next to you and leaned over to make a quiet comment, which wasn’t ideal for me but still kept my interest. Overall she is a narrator I would listen to again.

A good story and narration make this a worthwhile listen.