Thursday, March 24, 2016

Agatha H series: A Brief Review

I greatly enjoyed the first three novels of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius series (2011, 2012, and 2014). Kaja coined the term "gaslamp fantasy" to describe the genre of this series. It is a combination of alternate history and "mad science" that incorporates elements of steam-punk. The story takes place in a world controlled by mad scientists called Sparks and the various crazy, usually deadly monsters (Constructs) and machines (Clanks) that they build. I loved the settings, characters, and themes. The plots are exciting and distinct. The sense of humor is spot on. I really liked the "editorial" footnotes as exposition in the second and third books. In this review, I'll focus on the characters.


Agatha Clay is a satisfying female character who exhibits both intelligence (common sense and academic engineering) and a strong moral compass, the latter of which repeatedly sets her apart from other Sparks, who are not above human experimentation, creating Frankenstein-like monsters, and designing Clanks to kill people in particularly gruesome ways. She makes friendships easily, and, even though others are constantly trying to manipulate her once they know her true identity, she trusts others easily as well. I found her to be a very believable character, and a likable one.

My new copy of Agatha H and the Voice of
the Castle
. It is the third of the series.
Love the cover art by Tom Kidd!

Other characters are also well rounded. Gil has a fully-fledged back story complete with past friendships, adventures, betrayals, and a lineage reveal of his own. His relationship with his father is complicated, but not resentful or angry. Very few flat characters exist in the Foglios' world, but the story is never bogged down by the past. The information all works towards the seamless integration of Agatha into their lives. 

The Baron

The Baron was also a satisfying character. Although arguably the antagonist of these books (The Other is certainly worse, but she doesn't present a continuous threat yet.), he is a reasonable ruler. His empire was built by soundly beating any Spark who attacked him and then absorbing his lands. He gives these Sparks useful tasks and protects ordinary citizens from the dangerous inventions they produce. There are many people who call him a tyrant and avoid him (for good reason), but the expansion of his empire is always in reaction to an attack, and his rule has provided stability. Granted there is still human experimentation done by the Baron himself, but that seems to be a side effect of being a Spark. Even Agatha does some on willing subjects. 


I would definitely recommend this series for anyone interested in steam-punk or fantasy. The Foglios wrote graphic novels starring the girl genius first, so check those out, too, if that medium interests you!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Brokedown Palace: A Brief Review

Apparently, Tad Williams (international bestselling fantasy and science fiction author) said, “Steven Brust might be America’s best fantasy writer.” The cover art for Brokedown Palace was done by Alan Lee, and the back of the book boasted Brust as the bestselling author of Dragon and Issola.

Perhaps I should have read one of those.

Brokedown Palace was only mildly entertaining and wildly confusing. The plot was disjointed; the characters, unrealistic; and the themes, muddled. Granted, Brokedown Palace was published in 1986, and the fantastical fiction genre has come a long way. I’m sure Brust has grown as an author since then as well, as he is still publishing. As far as Brokedown Palace goes, though, I have trouble even summarizing it. It seemed to be about a palace that needed to be rebuilt or replaced, but some people didn’t want to do that because of reasons. All the motivations were really unrealistic and hard to identify with.

No Antagonist

Sympathetic characters can often result in nuanced antagonists. Brokedown Palace, however, did not have a clear antagonist at all. King László acted out of denial. He could sometimes admit there was a problem, but forbid anyone from creating solutions and repeatedly tried to kill his younger brother Miklós for trying to start such a conversation. The Demon Goddess was also against replacing the decrepit palace, but it was never clear why. Sándor, the wizard, was the king’s loyal advisor, who worked hard to help protect the kingdom. He even offered to make Miklós his apprentice, but for some inadequately explained reason this was bad. Captain Viktor planned to usurp the throne, and thought the king was an idiot for denying the palace’s problems, but during the climax, just before he betrayed the king, he was brushed aside as unimportant.

They all end of dead in the end. The king commits suicide. The goddess’ is killed by a few drops of blood landing on her face. Her death at Miklós’ hands was unclear (She died when a few drops of blood landed on her face. Maybe she didn’t die, though, it’s kind of unclear.) and slightly disturbing since Miklós seemed to be the main character and there was never an explanation of why it was either necessary or justified. She seemed to be the kingdom’s protector. Sándor falls to his death because he can no longer access his Power for some reason. Finally, Viktor is killed by Prince Vilmos, who strikes him in self-defense.

Other Characters

The relationships are all baffling as well. The talking táltos horse Bölk—some sort of magical beast that may once have been a bull and is reincarnated into a talking staff at the end—is heard to say different things by different people any time he speaks.  As a result, any conversation with him that involves more than one person quickly dissolves into nonsense because each person responds to whatever they think they heard. Yet, Bölk is Miklós’ advisor. The misunderstandings are no limited to the things Bölk says, either. Other characters seem to hear things differently than the speaker said. This makes the dialogue bewildering and a bit pointless, as nothing is communicated. As a reader, I began to doubt the view point characters’ (there were many: Miklós, László, Mariska, Brigitta, Andor, Sándor, Viktor, Vilmos) interpretation of any particular detail.


The lack of a clear antagonist made the story more difficult to follow. It was punctuated by short stories involving the world the story took place in, but instead of making the setting more interesting, it just confused things further. The strange motivations of the characters tended to emphasize the aimless feel to the novel. One of the princes, the second brother Andor, actually flitters through his privileged life looking for something worthwhile to do. When he thinks he has accomplished such a thing, he considers committing suicide. His behavior seems to me to embody the plot.


Miklós traveled to the Mountains of Faerie where he endured some sort of servitude and gained a small amount of Power like Sándor’s, which helps him and allows him to see beautiful patterns in the world. However, his lover Brigitta has more of this power and that is bad because of her ambiguous lineage—her father was a demon?—and she advises Miklós against using the Power or learning with Sándor. In the end, because of her Power, she must leave with their unborn daughter and Miklós doesn’t try to stop her. The old palace was completely replaced, and all the bad guys are dead, but the one over-used symbol of hope and new life is sent away, presumably to lead a good life elsewhere. This, like the rest of the story, is unclear, and thus difficult to interpret. What is Brust trying to say? There is too much going on and too little explained.


Brokedown Palace was not a great book. I kept expecting it to pull the seemingly random threads together, but it never did. I was left with a tangle of string that I feel was supposed to be something like a scarf, but isn’t. I only really liked the character Vilmos because he had pets. I disliked László because he disliked the animals. Miklós liked them, as did the Countess Mariska, so I was more sympathetic towards them. And that was the only redeeming element. My advice: don’t waste your time with this book. Try Dragon or Issola instead.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

District 9: A Classical Monomyth

Theatrical poster for District 9, Copyright © 2009
by TriStar Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Serves as "cover art" to identify the article's topic.
Spoiler Alert. I've been meaning to write this review for a while now. My husband introduced me to the film District 9 (2009), interested if I thought that it followed the American monomyth. I was very interested to find that it did not. District 9 is a very satisfying film about alien who come to Earth as refugees and end up under the supervision of Multi-National United in a slum called District 9 located in South Africa. A field agent named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) contacts a virus that begins to change his DNA, and he must go to the aliens, known as "Prawns", for help.

Unlike the American monomyth, the classical monomyth can be traced back nearly as far as there are stories in every culture. Joseph Campbell writes about it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is characterized by three steps: separation, initiation, and return. Campbell summarizes, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (30).

My article "Do You Belong to a Cult?"
discusses some of the implications
of the American monomyth

Wikus recieves the "Call to Adventure" in the form of the "virus" (for lack of a better term). The Call is always irresistible. Initially, Wikus tries to down-play the changes occurring within his body and to hide them. Failing this, he even attempts to cut off his alien arm. However, he cannot refuse the Call. He is slowly turning into a Prawn.

His "Guide" or "supernatural helper" is Christopher, a Prawn who is working on a plan to take his kin away from Earth. The Guide character, according to Campbell, is often the one who delivers the Call to Adventure and also bestows the hero with "amulets" to help him. Christopher is the one who made the substance that infects Wikus, even though that was not its original purpose. As a result, Wikus begins to change and receives a Prawn arm which can fire the alien weapons and use their technology. 

Wikus is separated from humanity during this phase and enters the world of the Prawns in District 9.


The classical monomyth is all about personal growth. In the Initiation section, Wikus learns a great deal about the creatures he helped to oppress. He becomes more open-minded about their worth as individuals and their culture. He begins to see humanity differently as well. At the climax of the story he is able to set aside his own needs and goals to help Christopher leave Earth.

Often the hero of the classical monomyth undergoes a symbolic (occasionally literal) death. Campbell explains that this death and rebirth symbolize "the familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit" (51). Wikus' death is assumed by the people he was forced to leave behind. His rumored death is the symbolic one Campbell describes. He has changed and when he returns he will be a different man.


District 9 is interesting particularly because it lacks the Return phase of the classical monomyth. The story ends with Christopher leaving Earth, and Wikus has changed completely into a Prawn. However, it is implied that Christopher will come back and bring with him the cure to return Wikus to his human form. It is further implied that Wikus will be able to share the things he learned with the rest of humanity, as a boon. Some of the boon is already being applied through his actions. Multi-National United is being investigated for their actions and people are beginning to view the Prawn more positively.

District 9 is, perhaps, so satisfying as a story because it references the cycle that has been present in human stories for generations. It is especially important because it makes the point that the two worlds Wikus inhabits are the same. He leaves "humanity" and returns to "humanity", but his experiences in this "other" world are valuable and applicable to humanity because he has not really gone anywhere. 

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.

District 9. Dir. Neill Blomkamp. Perf. Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope.  TriStar Pictures, 2009. DVD.