Babylon Steel is the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold’s debut fantasy novel, an ex-mercenary turned madam of a moderately up-market brothel. Desperate for an injection of cash to pay for her girls’ expensive tastes, Madam Steel takes on a commission from suave gambling-den owner Darash Fain to locate a missing girl, and unsurprisingly finds herself up to her neck in trouble, not to mention haunted by a terrible past that is gradually revealed during the course of the story.
I came to this book feeling a little uneasy, given the profession of the protagonist. There’s a tendency in the fantasy genre to romanticise prostitution and stress the willingness of the participants, when in reality the vast majority of women only turn to the profession out of desperation. On the other hand it was refreshing to read about female characters with a healthy, nay enthusiastic, attitude to sex, and there’s a pleasing lack of the rape’n'misogyny vibe that pervades so much fantasy. Also, who can fail to like an author who creates a pair of BDSM specialists called Cruel and Unusual?
Part noir, part sword’n'sorcery, this is a difficult novel to pin down. The “present day” storyline was complex in itself, weaving the plotline about the missing girl with the everyday problems of the brothel, including a sect of creepy puritanical priests who seem bent on driving Babylon out of business. Add in regular tension-filled flashbacks to Babylon’s past as a teenaged trainee priestess and it almost feels like too much story is being crammed into a relatively short book – and yet everything is woven together with a great deal of skill, reminding me of one of Terry Pratchett’s more intricate Discworld novels. Thankfully, after a few chapters I was sufficiently engrossed to read the whole book in four (work) days, so everything stayed fresh in my memory. This is not a book to put down and pick up at intervals!
The setting is not your typical medieval fantasy world, either; it’s just one world—or plane—in a multiverse connected by portals and inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient species, from various human-like races to furry or scaly beings with more or fewer than the usual complement of limbs (or other appendages *cough*). It reminded me a great deal of the kind of SFF I read back in the eighties—Zelazny, Leiber and particularly Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor stories and Robert Asprin’s Thieves World anthologies—and owes far more to the American fantasy tradition than to Tolkien. Which is no bad thing, in my mind; the genre has become a little ossified. At times I felt it was almost too much of a rag-bag of creatures, with fey, vampires and were…somethings rubbing shoulders (and more intimate body parts) with beings that would have been more at home in a Mos Eisley cantina, but it does contribute to what’s basically a light-hearted setting under its sleazy, run-down façade of villainy and vice.
On the subject of race, I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed by the whitewashed cover. On several occasions it’s mentioned that Babylon is typical of her race in having copper-coloured skin, and if I recall correctly she also has a high-bridged nose, which makes her sound more Central American than white. The art appears to be a photo-realistic painting rather than a straight photograph (click on it for a high-resolution version), so there’s really no excuse for changing the character in this way.
Another minor gripe was the fight scenes. In order to convey the immediacy and chaos of combat, the narrative shifts into present tense and becomes disjointed, giving only glimpses of the action. I can see what Sebold was trying to do, but the technique was so blatant that it pulled me out of the story a bit. Of course this could just be me being a typical writer and noticing the skeleton beneath the story’s skin, but it really didn’t work for me.
These small issues aside, it’s an enjoyable book with an engaging protagonist and an unusual setting, and I will certainly be trying to find room on my TBR list for the sequel.