I reviewed the webcomic Girl Genius produced by Phil and Kaja Foglio and asked that all two of my readers go and check out this awesome webcomic. (And you still should, because the Foglios and Cheyenne Wright, their colorist, are still producing fantastic work.) However the Foglios have decided to expand their creations through the Agatha H series of novels. The first novel, Agatha H and the Airship City, tells the story of the first three issues of the Girl Genius comic in book form and the second novel, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess, covers the next three issues. And due to the complex story of Girl Genius you definitely have to start at the beginning if you're going to understand the plot.
An excellent question that even I have asked is, why should we even read the novelizations of the comic? The comic should be able to stand on its own as a work and not rely on a number of supplemental materials to make sense. Fortunately, the comic does stand on its own and there are plenty of fans who have only read the comics on the Foglio website. In my opinion what the novelizations provide is depth to the Girl Genius universe which is entertaining, but usually bears little to no relevance to the plot. Facts like Dimo knits decorative socks as a hobby or that the Ice Tsars recently visited Paris. Interesting tidbits for fans of the series, but pretty much unimportant when we're talking about Agatha's story. And really that's the major appeal of the novels for me, little factoids that make the series feel deeper and more fleshed-out, but don't really add to the plot. And new readers can definitely learn the plot of Girl Genius through the Agatha H novels, but I personally recommend reading the comics first just to get your bearings. Also, if you're constantly broke like me, buying a couple of novels is a lot cheaper than ordering the growing number of graphic novels so it's a nice way to support the Foglios on a budget.
I do have a major complaint with this book which was the presence of typos in (mostly) its latter half. For the most part is seemed to be an inability to decide if Balan's Gap should be spelled Balan or Balen, as well as a confusion of who's and whose. (Although there were a handful of other typos as well.) And I understand that this sort of thing sometimes happens in first editions but it still made me a little disappointed. So please, if Phil and Kaja ever read this, please go through it again before the next print run.
Overall, I really liked this addition to the wonderful world of Girl Genius, even if that was probably a foregone conclusion considering I'm a bit of a fanboy. The Foglios have crafted a wonderfully complex plot and they know exactly where it's going, so I don't expect it to loose steam or direction anytime soon. Their world populated by mad scientists and monsters is imaginative, and a cast of characters with complex motivations makes it all the more interesting. Perhaps most importantly, Agatha is a prime example of what I consider to be a good heroine. She doesn't need the men in her life to solve her problems for her because she's smart and strong enough to tackle them on her own. But perhaps more importantly, although Agatha has romantic feelings for Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, she doesn't follow him around all doe-eyed and rely on him to fix everything because she has her own motivations and goals as a character which come into conflict with Gil's own goals and motivations. It's a refreshing change of pace from all the so-called "spunky" heroines who seem to cling to whatever muscle-bound alpha-male they can find.
The other major thing I loved about this book was the addition of footnotes which give overly-long and hilarious explanations on minor points of the Girl Genius universe. It's definitely an homage to some of Sir Pratchett's books (the Foglios are major fans of PTerry, much like myself) and something that I really loved. It can be hard to do that sort of humor well, but the Foglios manage to do it and for that I was extremely thankful. I also really liked that the Foglios can not only make us laugh, but also make us care about their characters and cry with them. Clockwork Princess contains two of the most heart-rending scenes in the Girl Genius narrative and show that even ruthless fighters like Maxim and devious snakes like Tarvek can feel loss like the rest of us. Pile on layers of intrigue and Agatha's ongoing quest to survive and become recognized as the Heterodyne heir and you have a truly fantastic story.
Basically, if you're already a fan of the series and want to know more little details about the universe, the Agatha H series is a great way to accomplish that. But if you've already read the comics and don't really have an urge to learn those sorts of little details then you can safely pass the books by. For people new to the series starting with Agatha H and the Airship City and then Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is a great way to catch up, especially if you don't have the time to go through the extensive comic archives, but I still say you're probably better off reading the comics first. Definitely a must-read for anyone interested in romance, adventure, and mad science.