Fifty Page Fridays is a new regular feature here at Far Beyond Reality, meant to highlight books I received but usually wouldn’t cover in a regular review. In each post, I’ll start off by explaining why I wasn’t planning to review the book. Then I’ll read fifty pages (hence the name) and give my impression of that sample. Finally, I’ll give a verdict: do I want to read more or not?
The first installment, about Touchstone by Melanie Rawn, was posted last week and includes a longer version of why I started this recurring feature, in case you’re interested in my somewhat rambling thoughts on book reviewing. Today is the second installment: Girl Genius Omnibus Volume One: Agatha Awakens, by Phil and Kaja Foglio.
Why I wasn’t planning to review it: Well, first of all, my main focus for this site is regular books, not comics or graphic novels. That’s not meant in a snobby “it’s not real literature” way, more in an “I’m not an expert on graphic novels” way. I just don’t know that much about this medium. I used to read tons of European-style comics back when I grew up in Belgium, anything from the traditional “bandes dessinées” to things by Moebius and so on. I love Alan Moore (I consider Watchmen one of the great literary achievements of the previous century) and Dave McKean (Cages is wonderful), but that’s about it. I’m a book guy, not a graphic novel guy, so… I was going to skip this one and leave it for the many reviewers who know more about these things. A second, less important reason I was going to skip Girl Genius is that everything about it screams steampunk, and that’s frankly just not my favorite sub-genre. I don’t mind the occasional steampunk novel, but ideally not more than one or two per year, so when this one arrived on my doorstep, I was going to skip it.
My thoughts after fifty pages: Wow. Am I glad I gave this a try. Before you even get to the story, you can tell that Tor went all out with this book. The design is gorgeous, with paper that’s colored like faded parchment and a Victorian, steampunk-y look to everything from the cover to the lettering on the title page and the table of contents. It’s just a beautiful book.
We start off with a page about the legendary Heterodynes (again a gorgeous piece of art, with a faux-leather background and an old-fashioned oval portrait), then a couple of pages about “Characters of Note”, and a note from the “Department of Irrefutably True History”, written by Professors Foglio and Foglio. It’s all done in a stylish and period-appropriate way.
And then you get to the actual story, which at this point follows the life of “girl genius” Agatha Clay at Transylvania Polygnostic University. Since the name of the series is Girl Genius, and her name is given as “Agatha Heterodyne” instead of “Agatha Clay” in the Characters of Note section, we know she is going to be something special, but initially she’s portrayed more as a bottom-of-the-rung student and lowly lab assistant. After she is mugged on the streets and loses the locket containing the only picture she has of her true parents, the story moves to a visit to the University by the terrifying Baron Wulfenbach. From the way he manipulates the University’s staff, it’s clear that the Baron is an immensely powerful genius. We also meet the Baron’s son, Gilgamesh, who is, yes, another genius. So, lots of geniuses early on. It’s clear that the first fifty pages are pretty much a prologue to the real story, and because of this its color scheme is a bit more muted than the rest of the book. I peeked at a few pages from later in the book, and that made it clear that the rest of Girl Genius is much more vibrant in terms of color.
Anyway, if the rest of the book is anything like these first fifty pages, it should be great. The artwork is simply beautiful. The fictional world is a marvel to observe from panel to panel, with little details grabbing your attention, from unique clothing to life on the streets to the various steampunk-like devices and automata ambling around as if they’re nothing special. It all fits together perfectly, creating a place that looks like a comic complete with sound effects and over-acted facial expressions but living and breathing like a real world. Various characters’ speech bubbles have their own shape and lettering, hinting at their nature. There are mechanical constructs and regular people and a set of weird bodyguards or soldiers who looks like a cross between vampires and zombies and speak with an over-the-top Russian/German “vat do yoo vant!” Igor accent. It’s all comical and weird and funny, but you can sense there’s a big story arc being set up too. Fifty pages gave me just a hint of what to expect, but I’m confident (having read the intro and character bios at the front of the book) that it’s only going to get better.
The Verdict: Am I planning to read more of this? You bet your bottom dollar. I had a blast with this snippet of Girl Genius (which apparently started almost a decade ago as a web comic that garnered several major awards and still continues to this day) and can’t wait to read more. If the book stays as good as this, I’ll be on the hook for future installments too. Expect a full review soon!
(And finally… right before this post went live, I found out that I’ll have a hardcover copy of the book to give away here soon, so… stay tuned!)
EDIT: I just found out that the novelization of this graphic novel is currently available as a free download for the Kindle: Agatha H and the Airship City. I haven’t read this. I wasn’t even aware it existed until today. But it’s worth checking out, especially at this price! (Please note: the free offer may be over by the time you read this!)