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.

Bonds of Justice by Nalini Singh

Bonds of Justice by Nalini SinghBonds of Justice by Nalini Singh
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Psy-Changeling #8
Published by Tantor Media on 9/20/11
Genres: Paranormal, Romance

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Sophia Russo is a J- Psy (Justice) who has the ability to pull memories from people and project them to others. Max Shannon is a New York cop with a high case solve rate and natural mental shields that make him impervious to Psy mental manipulation. The two have crossed paths before but when they are both assigned to assist Psy Councilor Nikita Duncan in tracking down a killer in her organization, they are forced to confront the attraction between them. Both have emerged from very difficult childhoods with scars but both have also developed a tremendous inner strength and as they learn to open up to one another I found myself completely drawn in to the developing relationship between the two. The romance is nicely woven between the dual investigations taking place and, perhaps because it is a Psy/Human pairing rather than Psy/Changeling, has a very different feel than previous books in this series.

The romance angle and the threats to Councilor Duncan are only a part of the story. There is also a serial killer who is toying with Sophia and Max as he taunts both them and the justice system with offers to reveal where he has buried his past victims. Also in the mix is Sophia’s degenerating psychic shields (common to J – Psy, who tend to burn out early and need frequent “rehabilitation”), the ongoing political upheaval in the Psy Council, and a minor story-line regarding Max’s brother.

This is book eight in the Psy/Changeling series and it was a turning point for me in a couple of different ways. My initial enjoyment of this series had started to fade by book six but book eight really renewed my interest and started developing more over-arching series plot points.  Having read the entire series in paperback, I went to the audiobooks for a “re-read” and found that even some of the books I didn’t like as well as others took on new life and new enjoyment in audio form. I loved the first two audiobooks and liked the third but I had some issues with pauses in the narration in books four through seven. With book eight, I think Angela Dawe turns in her best narration of the series. Of course, this happens to be my second favorite book in this series so that helps too.

This book is also where I came to really appreciate the way that Nalini Singh juggles multiple suspense story lines, the political sub-plots, the primary romance, hints for future plot lines, and catching us up (briefly) with characters from previous books. There is a very seamless flow to the story lines and they all pull together nicely. This book also gave me some needed insight into Nikita’s feelings towards Sascha and this was the first time Kaleb Krychek hit my radar as a possible lead character for a later book.

Max and Sophia’s primary focus is the case they are working and there is a bit less (which isn’t to imply it’s not prevalent still) romance/sex in this one. That worked to solve one issue that I noticed after listening to the audiobooks in such close temporal proximity to one another – there is quite a bit of repetition in the phrasing used during the sex scenes.

Since I listened to this book on vacation, I had a lot of time to consider the narration of this book, especially since there seems to be a very distinct division in opinion regarding that. Plus, lots of driving time with my brain in neutral leads to lengthy reviews so….

I have enjoyed the narration for this series but, in part, I chalked that up to a preference for (or at least not a dislike of) more subdued narration. With this book I started to analyze other reasons I might find the audiobooks so successful at delivering the story and as I listened to Bonds of Justice, I realized that to make the Psy interesting to listen to, they have to be given a blunted affect, not the blank affect they are described as having. It would provide too great a contrast if the non-Psy characters were given dramatic voices so structurally, the narration is pretty well thought out. In addition, as we catch up with Lucas and Sascha in little snippets in this book, the growing increase in emotion in Sascha’s voice is rather delightful to hear.

I also found myself interested to note another characteristic of Angela Dawe’s narration. I could invariably tell when the sentence following a spoken line of dialogue was going to refer to the character’s voice as husky, or strained, or generally altered in some manner because the voice that was delivered was so distinctive in that characteristic. I actually found myself mentally composing that descriptive sentence each time the line of dialogue was ending. That seems a no-brainer because shouldn’t all dialogue be delivered with textual accuracy?  But it was so very ear-catching in this series. I think this is a reflection not just of a very tight adherence to textual voice descriptions but the fact that all other dialogue was managed primarily through a narrower than anticipated range of modulation and a more steady cadence of speech than normal, which I suspect has the effect of leaving some listeners unmoved by the narration.

My only qualm with the narration of this book is that at times, I found myself confusing Max and Sophia’s voices at the start of quiet dialogue between the two. This is because Sophia is given a slightly husky voice in a lower register but I really liked her voice so my ability to be confused is a minor quibble.

This was a very good audiobook and on the whole, I would recommend the series (excluding Mine To Posses) in audio format for a first read or a re-read.

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna SheehanA Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Published by Brilliance Audio, Candlewick on 8/9/11
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

I stumbled upon the audiobook of A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan (narrated by Angela Dawe) by chance and am glad of it because I found it to be a compelling listen. It is one of those audiobooks that my mind kept returning to days after I had finished it. It falls in the genre of YA Dystopian fiction (although it could also be termed speculative fiction or soft sci-fi) but is very different from any in that category that I have read and is my favorite read in the genre so far.

Rosalinda “Rose” Fitzroy is awoken (a la Sleeping Beauty) after 62 years in stasis and although the world she wakes to is a future landscape altered by plague, genetic plant modification gone awry, and the monster of UniCorp, the story is not about the Dark Times the world has undergone but about Rose, the gradual revelation of how she ended up in stasis, and an exploration of what happens to those “Sleeping Beauty” left behind during her long sleep. There were some action scenes but so much of my enjoyment with this story was the slow peeling away of the layers of Rose’s past and to reveal any of them in this review would, I feel, diminish the enjoyment of anyone who hasn’t read the book. I admire Ms. Sheehan’s ability to drop the reader into a story with a lot of unanswered questions immediately in play and let the story organically unfold in a manner much more engaging than if she had dropped clues leading to a big reveal at the end.

Rose is a character I could easily have found irritating but instead found sympathetic as she begins to grow and evolve. The flashbacks to her past are perfectly paced throughout the story and give the patient reader a growing understanding of how Rose’s character was formed. In fact, I can’t think of another novel where flashback scenes are more skillfully and less obtrusively employed. There are parts of this story that provoke the reader to consider some typical dystopian themes such as large corporations and the power they wield, genetic manipulation of plants and people, ownership of intellectual property, social infrastructure and its potential failure but at its heart I found this book to be a disquieting meditation on parenting (or rather dysfunctional parenting). It also posed a situation that made for a disturbing metaphor for parenting via medication and what that may teach a child about methods of coping.

My initial thought on the narration was that Ms. Dawe was able to stand aside and let the story speak for itself but really, I think that is a disingenuous analysis of the performance in its implication that little effort was needed/taken by the narrator. This was a very skillfully delivered audiobook. A large part of my sympathy for Rose during the beginning of the story was due to Ms. Dawe’s ability to voice Rose with the weight of her entire past present in her character, even though the listener is unaware of the events that shaped her until much later and will only subconsciously recognize the vocal characterization… or maybe I’m just trying too hard to explain that most narrators would give Rose more whine and a poor-me tone based on her circumstances at the start of the story and I’m glad that wasn’t there. The narration captures the characters’ vocal tics as described by the author and I was particularly pleased with the natural sounding voices of YA characters and the delivery of the lines that encapsulate the uncertainty and emotional exigency of youth.

Character-driven, compelling, and disquieting; this was an excellent audiobook.