Thursday, May 28, 2015

Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle, by Phil and Kaja Foglio

This week I'm completing my steampunk...month...ish, with reviewing Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle, the latest in an ongoing novelization by the Foglios of their graphic novel series. This particular volume picks up where the previous novel, Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess, left off, starting with volume seven of the comic series, Agatha Heterodyne and the Voice of the Castle, and going up to about halfway through volume ten of the comic series, Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse. Based on how the comic series has continued, I firmly suspect that the next novel version will go from volume ten up to volume thirteen, Agatha Heterodyne and the Sleeping City, but that's just between you and me and the rest of the internet.

Anyway, for those of you who haven't heard this particular rant before, Girl Genius is by far and away probably one of my most favorite series just because of the sheer amount of awesome packed into it. This is a series that's been going on for fifteen years now and there's still a ton of material we have only the merest inklings about. The thing I really like the most about this series is the fact that the Foglios sat down before they even began this series and planned out their plot and all the different details ahead of time so they have an actual roadmap of where they're planning on taking the series and what's going to happen later on. (Although they've been frustratingly tight-lipped about certain details, much to the irritation of us fans desperate for hints.) This actually makes Girl Genius a pleasure to reread as well because then you start to pick up all the little details and hints that the Foglios scattered through the story that you might not have noticed before. It's really a well-crafted body of literature and it has earned three, consecutive, very well-deserved Hugo Awards in the past. (To the point that the Foglios had to remove themselves from the running because no one else was winning the graphic story category.)

Now I'm sure your question, which was certainly my first question, if the story already exists in a graphic novel form, why do we need a novel form as well. According to the Foglios, the purpose of the novels is to provide more background details and lore that, while not necessarily connected to the main plot, are certainly at least entertaining to fans of the series. Although I can definitely see where the Foglios have also expanded the story a little beyond the original graphic novel, which I'm also in favor of. Aside from the extra world lore, I also really like these novels because it provides an easy way for me to refresh on details. I've been following Girl Genius as a webcomic for something like eight years or so now, at the rate of about three comics a week. Although I've occasionally archive-binged since there's now fifteen years of comics it becomes more and more difficult to go on said binges. Of course, I could buy the graphic novels in print form, and I'm slowly working on doing that, but that's still a long-term work in progress. So the novels, which cover more story material for less initial cost for me are a great way to go through the archives and refresh myself on details which I may have forgotten. (And believe me, there are a ton of details.)

I will admit I haven't gone into any of the plot of this particular book and the reason simply is because of the spoilers. There are just so many spoilers. And I don't want to go into them because this series is so good! And you can go read it! For free if you want! On the internet! And aside from being well-planned out and crafted, this series has a lot of appeal. You like romance? There's romance! I mean, I personally could take it or leave it, but romance! There's mad science! People like mad science, right? Well I certainly do. You like adventure? There's plenty of that and some ridiculous pulp action involved. And boy do I like my pulp. You like strong, well-developed female characters? There's a ton of them in this series! Well, at least more than one. Several, as a matter of fact! It's great! You like fantastic hats? ...oh. No. Just me then? Well there are hats. Hats are important! non-hatted people. If my obsessive fanboy gushing has not convinced you at this point I don't know what short of me poking you with a pointy stick will convince you to go read this series. Whether it be the graphic novels or the print novels or audiobooks. Seriously, it's a great series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rust: Death of the Rocket Boy, by Royden Lepp

All right, all right, so this one's technically dieselpunk, but I like to think that dieselpunk and steampunk are related as genres! Anyway, so I finally got around to the third volume of the series Rust, this one titled Death of the Rocket Boy. Apparently this book had actually come out a year ago and I had not been aware of this fact for some time. Anyway according to the blurb on the back of this book, Death of the Rocket Boy is the penultimate book in this series, meaning that we have only one book left in this series to go. (Whenever that one will come out.)

To recap, the story takes place on the Taylor family farm where oldest brother Roman works to try and keep things running for his family. Roman believes that if he can repair and reprogram some robots leftover from the war, he can really get the farm where it should be economically. The sudden arrival of Jet Jones on his farm shakes things up a little bit, and begins to reveal that some of these robots may not be as benign as Roman thinks they are.

Death of Rocket Boy has two main roles in the story of Rust, at least as far as I can tell. First, it finishes off all the loose ends I think we're going to have revealed to us in this story. We know quite a bit about Jet's backstory, as well as the secrets of the technology that won the war. Obviously not every question I could possibly posit is going to be answered. We're probably never going to learn what started this war, how long it lasted, and such, but it seems like everything Lepp wanted to reveal within this story has been revealed so far. Of course, some of these are questions which I'd like to have answered, goddamnit, but it doesn't mean the story is deficient without that information.

The other main role of this book is that it has taken us to our lowest point within the story, creating dramatic tension that has to be resolved in the final book. The first book established the characters and setting, as well as establishing the conflict for the rest of the story. The second book expands the conflict, which continues into the third book. By the end of the third book the story has reached its lowest point, with all of our characters being in very bad situations. As such I can't really say whether this story's been good or bad because it still has to have its denouement which will hopefully come in the final book.

My main concern with this story, though, is that it's been very, very bare bones. There's a handful of characters like Roman, his brother Oswald, Jet, and the girl next door, Jesse, but I don't feel any particular attachment to those characters. Most of the narrative has been told through the perspective of Roman and his letters to his father. So I feel like I know Roman the most as a character, but I still don't feel any strong attachment to him. And these are pretty long for graphic novels. They're close to two hundred pages each, but a lot of that has been action sequences or characters acting without dialogue. Granted, there are ways to tell stories without dialogue, but there's just so little to work with that it's unsatisfying to say the least.

And really, this has the potential to be a great story. Especially because it sort of brings up the question of if machines can become human, which has always been one of my favorite sorts of stories. (I have a fondness in my heart for the short story Bicentennial Man. Not the movie, though. That's just garbage.) But the story's just been so sparse that it feels like the skeleton or basic outline of a story. It feels like it needed more. I'll see what the last book brings, and hopefully there's at least a satisfactory conclusion.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, by David Barnett

Okay, everybody, as promised last week, this is the first review of Kalpar's Steampunk Month....three weeks. Whatever. And we begin with the book responsible for this little diversion: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon. Some of my long-time readers may remember that about a year ago I reviewed a book titled Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, the first book in what I'm now calling the Gideon Smith Adventures. Anyway, the first book ended with quite a few loose ends and I was at the time uncertain if the series was going to continue or if this was meant to be a continuing adventure sort of thing. Fortuitously, while perusing a book store some time ago I came across the book I'm reviewing today, which is the second installment. And thanks to me finally deciding to go look it up, it appears that a third book Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper is scheduled to come out later this year. But, first thing's first, let's talk about Brass Dragons.

Attention Dear and Gentle Readers, due to the serial nature of these books spoilers are a tragic necessity of this review. However, I shall endeavor to keep them to a minimum.

At the end of the last book the clockwork girl Maria and the brass dragon Apep had been stolen and taken across the Atlantic ocean to America. After a brief respite Gideon Smith, the new Hero of the Empire, has been tasked by the Crown to retrieve both and ensure the safety of the Empire. Gideon's adventures take him to the skyscrapers of New York, the plains of Texas, and the hills of California, with plenty of adventures and challenges along the way. And a fantastic cast of supporting characters and cameos come along as well, ensuring there isn't a dull moment. Rowena Fanshawe, the fabled Belle of the Airways, Louis Cockayne, Yankee gunman and scoundrel, and Aloysious Bent, journalist of dubious utility. Throw in a steam-powered cyborg Charles Darwin, a very angry Tyrannosaurus rex, a Zorro expy known as El Chupacabra, and, I kid you not, a Japanese steampunk mecha, and I don't know whether to be mad at Barnett for throwing every trope he can in there or applaud at the sheer audacity.

This book manages to be another fantastic, fun, and exciting pulp adventure. And as anyone who's read this blog long enough can attest, I am an absolute sucker for pulp adventures. Especially when the title is in the format of Main Character and X. I know I said in my review of the first book that I had been a little frustrated with all the references and characters thrown into the story, but on rereading it I found I actually kind of liked it. Sort of like Barnett took a bunch of nerdy awesome things and put them together to create a new, bigger, awesome thing. I did feel towards the end that there was so much stuff thrown into this book that a lot of it really wasn't as developed as well as I would have liked, but that's not really my main problem with this book. And believe me, I have a problem.

As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, albeit sort of in an obscure fashion, was that Maria suffered from some really bad vaguely sexist tropes. Specifically Maria made a really big deal, at least in her internal monologue, about how she had occasionally been a prostitute in her past life. It had bothered me that there had been a lot of emphasis on that specifically, when our glimpse of Maria's past life showed she had really only done it from time to time when she was a few shillings short for the rent that month. And honestly, can we judge someone doing what the can to get by? My point is, in Maria's past life she had been a shopgirl who occasionally slept with people for money because she's got to pay rent. No big deal. In the second book almost every description of Maria's past life was, "She was a prostitute. Oh. And also a shopgirl. But totally a prostitute." Obviously not in those words, but it seemed like Barnett had some weird fixation on prostitution or something. The fact that Steamtown, one of the main locations in this novel, has a very large prostitution industry does not help my concern as well.

In addition, Maria spends a lot of the book as little more than a "Sexy Lamp". For my readers unfamiliar with the term, "Sexy Lamp" is used to refer to a female character in a work who is so irrelevant that she does nothing to affect the plot beyond perhaps being something for the male characters to fight over, that she could be replaced with a sexy lamp and the story wouldn't change at all. I actually calculated this and Maria spends precisely 64% of the book unconscious, doing absolutely nothing. Nearly two-thirds of the book she could be replaced with a sexy lamp and nothing would change. And in the remaining third of the book she just doesn't get a lot of development as a character. There's her love story with Gideon, but that also feels poorly developed and I found myself wondering why they were in love with each other. In the first book they really only spend a few scenes together and a lot of it is Gideon being awkward about her being made of gears and pistons instead of flesh and blood. It's almost as if the plot is saying "Hey. These two belong together. I HAVE DECREED IT!" And with Maria spending two-thirds of the book as a sexy lamps does absolutely nothing to help develop their love story. It just feels forced.

And the reason I take such issue with all of these sexist tropes tied to and floating around Maria is because I know, I know Barnett can write strong female characters because he has three between the two books! You've got Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a charming yet powerful vampire, determined to avenge the death of her husband, Dracula. Rowena Fanshawe, a gutsy airship pilot who doesn't let herself be restrained by other people's expectations of how a woman's supposed to act and embraces the freedom that the sky brings. And in the new book Inez Batiste Palomo, a rapier wielding Spaniard determined to defend her home and inspire her people. I will admit that all three of these kind of fall under the Action Girl trope, but I'm actually kind of okay with that because these books are pulp adventures and so almost everybody gets in on the action. Just stands to reason. So it just makes you wonder why, why on earth is Maria so poorly developed? The disparity between her and the other characters is so pronounced that it really bothers me. Maybe Maria will get more development in later books, but I really can't say that right now.

My only other complaint, and that's because I'm someone who looks at maps, is the blatant errors of geography made on the map of the United States in the front of this book. San Antonio, Nuevo Laredo, and New Orleans are precisely where they're supposed to be. However, San Francisco (which is now Nyu Edo) which is explicitly to be stated where it is in real life, is suddenly a hundred miles north of where it should be. The worst offense, though, is New York City suddenly appearing on the coast of North Carolina. And the book says New York is located on the island of Manhattan. Which last I checked was located in New York State, a good five hundred miles north. Listen, I hate to be utterly pedantic about this since I really like maps, but this is really basic geography that can easily be researched. And no, I will not stop complaining about it.

I did like this book, I really did. Although the sheer abundance of tropes and references did make me want to alternately congratulate or slap Barnett. I just got really frustrated with Maria being such a poorly developed character, compared to practically anyone else in the cast. I would suggest any fans of pulp adventures read this book, though. Despite its flaws.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Priests of Mars, by Graham McNiell

Hello, dear and gentle readers, I'd like to preface this review by saying it was my intent to have May be a Steampunk theme month. Well, okay, two steampunk books and a dieselpunk book, but they're closely related! Anyway, I was left with three books that would tie into the theme and four weeks in May. What was I to do? Well, read something from the Warhammer 40,000 universe, of course!

Well, okay, maybe that isn't initially apparent to most people, but I had been hankering to return to the grim darkness of the forty-first millenium and this seemed like as good a choice as any. Priests of Mars follows the adventures of an Adeptus Mechanicus explorator fleet that is planning to travel beyond the known edges of the galaxy in search of lost archeotech. A translation for those of you not versed in 40k lore: A group of guys who worship knowledge and technology are putting a fleet of spaceships together to try and find long-lost technology beyond the edge of the known galaxy. I will say that there's a lot of appeal because the techpriests do not often come to the fore of the 40k books, being strange and mysterious types content to keep to themselves and their machines most of the time. So I was a little excited to get to see the adventures of these guys. In addition, this book is written by experienced 40k author, Graham McNeill, author of the much-lauded Ultramarines books.

Despite these advantages, this book is actually kind of a disappointment for me, and I think the central reason is we spend about half the book getting to know the cast of about twenty or so characters and their various motivations. Ranging from the Archmagos Lexell Kotov, head of the expedition, to Rogue Trader Roboute Surcouf, to Reclusiarch Kul Gilad of the Black Templars Space Marine Chapter, to Abrehem Locke a simple dockworker who gets impressed to labor in the engine rooms of the Speranza, there is a wide range of Imperial viewpoints included in this book. There's even a Titan Legion with its own inner turmoil and the growing insanity of its lead princeps. So while the book establishes a wide cast of characters with conflicting motivations, the result is we never really get to spend a lot of time with any one member of the cast and a handful of cast members actually get less attention than others. The expedition proper doesn't even leave the star system it's starting out from until we're almost halfway through the book, the end result being a lot of time and space spent on meeting a bunch of people before any actual action happens.

Because you have so many characters to keep track of large casts become harder to manage than smaller casts, and there's very few writers who can do it well. It's definitely a marked contrast from McNiell's earlier work with the Ultramarines that focused largely on just Captain Uriel Ventris and the challenges he faced. While those books were engaging and highly readable for me, I just kept finding this book being really, really boring and I think the large cast did not help.

In addition this book did end on a cliffhanger and is continued in Lords of Mars, with a third book planned as well. So it does leave room for the hope that the following two books will help expand and get the action going now that we spent all this time getting to know the cast of characters, but until I read it I really can't say. It does make me think that maybe this would have been better off as one really long book instead of three smaller ones, but only time will tell.

I will say to McNiell's credit he manages to write the weirdness of the Techpriests and Space Marines in a very convincing manner. A lot of the Warhammer 40,000 books I've read focus on the Imperial Guard, who are people more or less like us, just living thousands of years into the future. Space Marines and Techpriests, by contrast, are just inherently different from normal humans and a lot of people find them plain damn weird within the 40k universe. Space Marines are genetically-engineered warriors who have been modified since the cusp of puberty to become the very best of the Emperor's Warriors, steeped in warrior traditions of honor. Space Marines may have only a vague memory of what it is to be afraid or feel pain, at least in the sense that we normal humans feel it. Most regular humans do their best to maintain a respectful distance from the Adeptus Astartes for this very reason. Techpriests are also well beyond what we might consider normal. Their fascination with technology and pursuit of knowledge is understandable enough, but Techpriests also seek to remove practically every element that makes them human as well. Mechanical modification is common, and in fact encouraged, and even the lowest-ranking Techpriests often have hormones and emotion removed from their bodies, resulting in coldly logical beings. Although incredibly necessary to keep the Imperium functioning, Techpriests are just plain damn weird to the majority of other Imperial citizens. McNiell manages to write both the Space Marines and Techpriests as convincingly different from regular humans.

Once things got moving this book was pretty enjoyable. I just hated that it took half the book for it to finally break orbit, both figuratively and literally. I'll probably check out Lords of Mars to see if the adventure gets any better, but this one can probably be safely skipped for now.

- Kalpar