Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

Book Review: “Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresault” by Genevieve Valentine

Cover for MechaniqueIn a time of thousand-page fantasy epics, a little book like Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is easy to overlook. I recommend making the effort to track it down. Mechanique is a beautifully written book. Genevieve Valentine says more with hints and suggestions than some authors can say in a thousand words of blunt narration. There is more truth in Mechanique than in other books twice its size.

Mechanique has been categorized “steampunk,” but it does not indulge in the Victorian nostalgia that marks the steampunk literature that I’m familiar with. The world of Mechanique is a post-war wasteland, where last scraps of civilization survive in walled cities. It is outside these cities that the Circus Tresaulti pitches its tents. Little George, the book’s first person narrator, is the circus’s advance scout, putting up posters and checking the mood of the inhabitants to see if they’re the kind of people who might enjoy a circus — or who would rather enjoy chasing a circus out of town.

The mechanical legs that Little George wears for these excursions are fake, but the core of the circus are its genuine half-mechanical performers. Women with metal bones, men with reinforced mechanical bodies, and, once, a man with mechanical wings. It sounds like a good deal — have your fragile and overheavy bones replaced with light, flexible copper and spend your days on a high-flying trapeze. The Boss doesn’t take just anyone, though, and being accepted by Boss and having the bones installed doesn’t mean you’ll survive being part of the act.

No one joins the Circus Tresaulti who isn’t at least a little bit broken. Valentine’s narrative is equally fractured, slipping from second person to third person, pausing in the present tense and then sliding back into the past. Little George narrates in first person. Elena and a few other characters narrate in third person. The reader also hears whispers and asides from another narrator, the voice of the storyteller, who points out when the characters aren’t quite being honest with themselves. The overall effect is strange, and could be off-putting for many readers. I found it entrancing.

Readers of Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies will already be familiar with stories about the Circus Tresaulti. All of those stories are available as podcasts: Study, for Solo Piano; The Finest Spectacle Anywhere; Bread and Circuses. If you’re unsure whether you’ll like Mechanique, give those a listen. The tone and the style of the narration does not change from the stories to the book. Valentine just pulls the curtain back a bit more in her novel, and lets her readers see things that she only hinted at in the short stories.

Mechanique steps away from traditional adult fantasy literature with its illustrations. I heartily approve of this trend. The artist who did the cover (and the promotional Tresaulti tickets) has done a handful of lovely black and white illustrations for the interior. One picture in particular that stands out in my mind is the drawing of Elena sitting alone in the big top, swinging back and forth on the trapeze and staring away into the darkness.

Mechanique is surreal. The narrative is nonlinear and the magic works because Boss says so. Readers looking for traditional fantasy narratives should probably look elsewhere. Fans of Genevieve Valentine, and those readers who are willing to take a risk, should buy a ticket for the Circus Tresaulti. They have beer in glasses, dancing girls, and mechanical marvels to shock and amaze you.


Escape Pod 302: Flash Extravaganza

Show Notes

Winners of our 2010 Flash Contest!

And we end with a grand “It’s Storytime” montage put together by Marshal Latham.

London Iron

By William R. Halliar

Narrated by Andrew Richardson

Wheels of Blue Stilton

By Nicholas J. Carter

Narrated by Christian Brady

Light and Lies

By Gideon Fostick

Narrated by Mur Lafferty

Book Review: “Agatha H. and the Airship City”, by Phil and Kaja Foglio

I love webcomics. I think Ozy and Millie is better than Calvin and Hobbes. I’m shocked that studios haven’t secured the rights to comics like Questionable Content, Something Positive, or even XKCD (wouldn’t that pair up well with Big Bang Theory). And for years I’ve been following the hilarious but slowly-told story of Sabrina Online. But despite all the webcomics I read, I’ve never taken the time for Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d certainly heard of it; it just hasn’t yet found its way into my Google Reader.

So I think that makes me the right kind of person to review Agatha H. and the Airship City, by Phil and Kaja Foglio*. I mean, I had no idea that this was a “Girl Genius” novel to begin with, after all, until I actually received the book.

Agatha H., in one sentence: it’s a fun book. I immensely enjoyed reading it. It’s a madcap comic adventure combined with steampunk (or “gaslamp”, as the authors say on their site), a little Bas-Lag, and some well-used adventure fantasy tropes. The dialogue is funny and sharply-written — to be expected from authors who make popular comic strips — and the world is complex and fully-realized.

The novel retells the origin story of Agatha Clay, a young woman living in Transylvania in an alternate, steampunk style of Europe. “Sparks” — basically supervillains — held the continent in their grasp until Baron Wulfenbach showed up to impose order by any means necessary. When he and his son, Gilgamesh, show up at the University where Agatha works, a fight in the lab leads to Agatha’s mentor being killed and Agatha herself going on the run. Soon, though, she is captured by the Baron and brought to his castle, where she finds out that the world isn’t as black-and-white as she thought, and neither is the Baron.

I would say that, if this book suffers in any way, it’s that some humor conventions of webcomics just don’t translate into print all that well. Take, for example, the scene where Agatha and Gilgamesh are on an out-of-control flying machine. In a webcomic, you can have an entire conversation over the course of a strip or two while the heroine is plummeting to her death. But in the novel, it seemed as though they should’ve hit the ground long before Agatha attempted to fix the machine. Another instance: the underwear gag. I’ve seen it used quite successfully on television and in other comics, but after the shock of its first appearance, future ones felt somewhat forced.

But while those parts didn’t work, the rest of the book certainly did. I laughed a lot, and I definitely empathized with the characters — although one does pull a heel turn that I wasn’t expecting and really didn’t understand the point of, except to move the plot along. The fight scenes were well-written and well-choreographed, from Agatha’s swordfight with the princess to Von Pinn taking on a pirate queen to the Baron himself against the Slaver Wasps. A few genre conventions are turned on their heads (isn’t that right, Princess?), while others (like Agatha’s physical shape) are cheerfully indulged.

Toward the end, the book got really quick to read, and each time I turned the page I wondered how everything was going to get wrapped up. I felt like maybe there was room for another chapter, like the ending needed a little something more to be fully satisfying… but then, there’s plenty more to be written, especially if further adventures of Agatha are to be retold as novels. And hey, if not, I can always read the comics.

Overall, I like I said, the book was a lot of fun to read. I got through it fairly quickly, owing to the fast pace and the desire to find out just what the hell is happening to Agatha. Plus, the nuanced nature of the Baron added a layer to the story that some adventure novels just can’t pull off. Agatha H. and the Airship City is worth reading, and — at least, in my case — it got me interested in the Girl Genius comic as well.

After all, I have to know what happens next.

* For some reason, I feel like I’m used to seeing them credited as “Kaja and Phil Foglio”, so it seems weird to type it the other way. But Phil’s name comes first on the cover, so that’s how I’m putting it here.