Agatha Heterodyne & the Golden Trilobite: A Gaslamp Fantasy with Adventure, Romance & Mad Science

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Volume 6 of the printed chronicles of Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius, picks up from where volume 5 left off, with the revelation that Agatha’s mind has been taken over by that of her mother, Lucretia, who is revealed to be The Other – the cause of the greatest war of recent memory. This volume deals with the attempts of Agatha to break free of her mother, the machinations of Prince Tarvek and his sister to overthrow Baron Wulfenbach and the attempts of Agatha’s friends to rescue her.

Despite an awful lot going on at any given time, the narrative never feels overwhelming, and all the threads dovetail nicely. As I’ve said before, I find these graphic novels much easier to read and absorb than the page-at-a-time webcomic (not that it stops me reading that as well) particularly when there are multiple threads going on and with an ever-growing cast of characters.

The story remains enthralling, the art is beautiful and fits the steampunk nature of the story perfectly. I look forward to future instalments of Agatha’s story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856236
Publisher: Airship Entertainment
Year of publication: 2002

Agatha Heterodyne and the Clockwork Princess (Girl Genius, #5)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Agatha Heterodyne is travelling under cover with her companion Krosp (the emperor of all cats) with a travelling circus on her way to her ancestral home of Mechanicsburg when they are attacked by a horde of monsters. They make it as far as Sturmhalten, a town ruled by a minor Spark, where Agatha’s voice is recognised and she is kidnapped for nefarious purposes.

The volume ends with a stinker of a cliffhanger as Agatha seems lost to us, but I knew it was coming up (having read the webcomic online) and knew how it resolves, so it didn’t bother me as much as these things normally do. This volume gives us more details on the J├Ągermonsters and fills in more of the Girl Genius world, while keeping a focus on the characters and the story moves at a decent pace, making it very readable. More is revealed about the Other, the war of recent history and the role that Baron Wulfenbach had in it. The story is well-paced so that revelations and plot resolutions are drip-fed to the reader as new plot threads are added, so it never feels too frustrating at any given time.

Recommended for mad scientists and minions alike (just remember to start from the beginning).

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856397
Publisher: Studio Foglio
Year of publication: 2006

Girl Genius Volume 4: Agatha Heterodyne & The Circus Of Dreams (Girl Genius #4)

By Phil Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

Everyone’s favourite mad scientist, Agatha Heterodyne, has escaped from Castle Wulfenbach and now needs to make her way across a monster- and clank-infested wasteland to her ancestral home of Mechanicsburg. She and her companion Krosp (emperor of all cats) join a travelling circus and this volume tells the story of their journey.

The circus folk are fun, and when it is finally revealed, their secret is pretty impressive. This is the volume where we also meet the loveable (for given values of ‘loveable’) trio of Ognian, Maxim and Dimo, the J├Ągermonster equivalent of Larry, Curly and Mo (although with more in the way of killing).

The story zips along and the art is as lovely as ever. It’s also much easier to follow in graphic novel format than trying to read it a page at a time online.

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856229
Publisher: Studio Foglio, LLC
Year of publication: 2001

The Rapture of the Nerds

By Cory Doctorow

Rating: 4 stars

At the tail end of the 21st century, after the Singularity has resulted in all but about a billion humans uploading into a transformed solar system, neo-technophobe Huw Jones is called up for jury duty. Not for passing judgement on criminals, but deciding whether or not ideas, memes, technology etc beamed (or spammed) down from the cloud should be allowed on earth. It doesn’t start off well, as he is infected with some sort of technological virus and his day goes rapidly downhill from there.

There are an awful lot of ideas in this book. Stross and Doctorow gleefully throw them at you rapid fire and if one or two don’t stick, well, never worry, there’s another one coming at you before you have a chance to think about it. Overnight home gender reassignment surgery and AI genies in lamps are just some of the tamer ideas. The book is very much split into three sections, each of which feels like they were possibly independent novellas before being combined. The first starts with Huw’s original jury duty, the second picks up as he crash lands in the isolated, fundamentalist remains of the USA on the way home and the final part takes place in the cloud, after Huw is forcibly uploaded.

The first section is interesting as it’s introducing the world and the idea of this council for protecting earth from unwanted technologies, the third has a pretty strong story but I found the middle bit unsatisfying. The ideas just didn’t really gel for me and Huw was altogether too passive as our PoV character which I found frustrating.

Still, there’s lots in here to enjoy, particularly in the final section, as the authors indulge in a little existential philosophy, about what makes up an individual, what happens when it’s possible to fork off copies of yourself, diff and merge and the ethics of shutting down instances. There’s a whole lot of fun in the book, but you may have to swim through the deluge of ideas to find the gems.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781167441
Publisher: Titan Publishing Company
Year of publication: 2012


By John Wyndham

Rating: 4 stars

Young Matthew is going through a phase of having an invisible friend, or so his parents think. Then he starts doing things that he couldn’t do before, such as counting in binary. And so the story of Chocky comes out – a person living in Matthew’s head who only he can hear.

Most of this book, told in the first person by Matthew’s father, is about parental worry. That of worrying if their child is normal, if he has psychiatric problems and of protecting him from unwanted fame. The worries and attitudes of the time shine through, particularly with Matthew’s mother, although the idea of a police surgeon accepting a glass of whisky while on duty also raised a smile.

Chocky herself remained an enigma for most of the book, with more becoming clear at the end. She’s not always the most likeable of characters, but she’s always interesting. It’s not, perhaps, the most action-laden book, but in some ways this adds to the tension as you wonder what the next episode of Chocky-inspired chaos will be. In the end it turns out to be a remarkably sedate story. Perhaps I might call it a ‘cosy catastrophe’ on a family scale, but I suspect that the Gore family might dispute the adjective ‘cosy’.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140031218
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1968

Ringworld (Ringworld, #1)

By Larry Niven

Rating: 3 stars

On his 200th birthday Louis Wu is travelling the world, when he is intercepted by an alien who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to travel to and explore an unknown destination and come back with the fastest stardrive in Known Space.

I felt like I should have liked this book more than I did. It had everything I love in this sort of novel: high concepts, mind-boggling scale and a deep mystery, but it just didn’t entirely come together for me. I did enjoy the book, just not quite as much as I would have expected. Maybe the writing was slightly flat, or maybe it was the characters or it could just have been me, but I didn’t engage as much as I wanted to.

The Ringworld itself is as mysterious and interesting as you would like, and you feel the disappointment of the explorers as they explore it and find that its civilisation has fallen. Louis’s realisation of what the mountain Fist-of-God is, and its use to escape from the Ringworld is ingenious but should have felt more of an event than it did.

The characters are interesting, especially Nessus, the Pierson’s Puppeteer who is the guiding light behind the mission and its (disputed) leader. This species is one I found particularly fascinating, although possibly a little caricatured. Although, in saying that, their ‘cowardice’ did lead to one of the undisputed highlights of the story: the Fleet of Worlds, which is almost more mind-boggling than the Ringworld itself!

The Puppeteers’ meddling in both human and kzinti genetics is also fascinating, especially the final result that is Teela Brown. Teela remains a cipher for me throughout the book but as we’re seeing the world through the eyes of Louis Wu, to whom she also remains a mystery, perhaps this isn’t surprising.

So definitely a worthwhile read and one full of good ideas, but it perhaps need another buffing to make it as shiny as it should have been.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857231694
Publisher: ORBIT
Year of publication: 1970

Grandville (Grandville #1)

By Bryan Talbot

Rating: 5 stars

Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard is investigating the death of a diplomat, a mystery that takes him to Paris, known as Grandville, the greatest city in the world, and what he finds could shake the French empire to the core.

I loved this steampunk alt-history with anthropomorphic animals. The basic back-story is that Britain lost the Napoleonic wars and became part of the French empire for 200 years. But about 20 years ago, following a campaign of guerilla warfare and civil disobedience, Britain gained its independence, but relations haven’t been great since then.

LeBrock remains mostly a mystery throughout, albeit a fun one (for example, the bellboy lugging his bag up the stairs to his room looks on in horror as the DI casually opens it to lift out several dumbbells). His sidekick, the dapper rat Detective Roderick Ratzi is also great fun, and I’d love to find out more about these two characters.

The art is stunning, with strong lines and colours throughout. There’s a stunning fight sequence that goes on for several pages at one point without a single word. It’s a joy to behold. Don’t let the art style deceive you though, the book can be awfully violent at times, but it never feels gratuitous or forced, but just a byproduct of the world that LeBrock inhabits.

So an excellent story, and I look forward to future adventures of DI LeBrock, not to mention the fallout from the events of this one, with great pleasure.

Book details

ISBN: 9780224084888
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 2005

The Selfish Gene

By Richard Dawkins

Rating: 4 stars

This book sat unread on my bookshelf for nearly a year because I have something of a mental block when it comes to biology and genetics. I thrive on popular books on physics and, to a lesser extent, chemistry, but I’ve always had trouble with biology. Richard Dawkins’ seminal work does its best with me, and I found it to be very readable and understandable. His clear use of analogy, switching back and forth between genes, individuals and analogies as required, is a testament to good science writing.

By the end, I think I’ve got a decent, if blurred, understanding of the subject. How long it will last, and how accurate it is are up for debate, but this is my problem, not Dawkins’.

The most famous concept to come from the book is that of the ‘meme‘ – a cultural and mental analogue to the gene. Although this only gets a single short chapter towards the end of the book (the final chapter of the original book; my 30th anniversary edition has an additional two chapters) it’s an idea that has spread (so to speak!) and the chapter provided a good description by analogy to gene reproduction and mutation.

My knowledge of the field is limited, so I don’t know how much of this 30+ year old book has been superseded (although the notes at the end, added in the 20th anniversary edition did help update it a bit) but as far as I can tell, the selfish gene theory is still current and a respected method of explaining the mechanism of natural selection.

Book details

ISBN: 9780199291151
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Year of publication: 1976

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