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Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold

Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold
Book Name: Babylon Steel
Author: Gaie Sebold
Publisher(s): Solaris Books
Formatt: Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Release Date: Nomber 2011

When you’ve been reading within the fantasy genre for a while, you tend to familiarise yourself with the tropes and even find yourself looking for them as you read through a new novel.

Well, if you try that with Babylon Steel you will find that you’ve set yourself an almost impossible task. Babylon Steel is a book that takes a number of popular tropes in fantasy and puts a great twist on them. This results in a book that not only feels unique, but is also able to continually keep you guessing as the plot twists and turns through the pages.

The most impressive aspect on the novel is the quality of the first person narration. Our protagonist is a highly experienced courtesan and provides us with a narrative style that is not only full of sass, but open, honest and at times touching. Of course, Babylon is a woman and although this is not unheard of in fantasy, it is relatively rare. In addition, having a female character that enjoyed sex and violence was something that felt very fresh to me and something I’d like to see more of.

So, as well as being a courtesan herself, Babylon Steel runs her own brothel. This brothel has run relatively successful over the years having gaining a reputation for the skills of the residents who can provide you with anything from an intense, romantic evening through to fairly heavy sadomasochism. The characters that provide these services are also very interesting. I myself took a liking to Laney, a fey whose powers are somewhat limited by her presence on the world of Scalentine. The way that the author, Gaie Sebold, weaves a believable level of innocence and sweetness into this character was admirable. In addition to Laney though, you also have Flower who is an Orc like creature that specialises in housework and cooking. You have Previous, a short stout female, who works security on the door. And you have the twine, Cruel and Unusual, who serve the more adventurous clients. The brothel’s resident workers then are certainly an interesting combination of characters, but the dynamic they have and the love they share for one another will completely warp your view on how an establishment such as this operates.

Moving on from the characters though, what on Earth is this book about? Well, it isn’t on Earth for a start. Scalentine is a world that has two moons and a number of portals that enable entities to cross between worlds. What this means, is that Scalentine is inhabited by a wide number of characters, all of whom have their own ideas as to what constitutes the right way to live. Whereas the majority of people living on this planet are fine with Babylon and her brothel, there are those who are disgusted by its presence. A group known as The Vessels of Purity have taken to standing outside of Babylon’s establishment, driving away customers and this, in addition to the fact that Babylon pays out too much money – to keep her staff well-fed and establishment to the highest possible level – means that she is struggling financially.

Then, just as it looks like she may have to close down her beloved Red Lantern, Babylon Steel is offered an out by the stunningly handsome and yet very mysterious, Mr Darask Fain. Fain offers her more than enough money to keep the establishment up and running for at least another year. All she needs to do is help him track down a missing girl.

Sounds too easy, right? Well, of course it is. Bodies of working girls have been showing up in seemingly random order across Scalentine and Babylon needs to work out whether this is connected or something completely different.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, a number of shady characters appear on Scalentine that start a separate plot thread into Babylon’s past. Questions are raised about just who Babylon is, how she learnt to fight as well as she does and the past that she has hidden from even her closest friends.

The way that Gaie Sebold unravels the complicated past of Babylon, merges it with the present and makes it believable is one of the most impressive feats I have seen a reader achieve in recent memory. By the end of the novel, I was left feeling very, very sympathetic to Babylon and highly supportive of her as a character. You are taken through every kind of emotion; one moment you will be laughing along with Babylon, the next you will wince at the cruelty she has experienced and the next you will be swinging your fists, in a bid to help her out of a precarious situation.

The setting that Babylon explores is a great blend of fantasy and sci-fi. Rarely does this kind of world work, but Sebold seems to have nailed it. The multiple planes are connected, as previously said, by portals that means things never feel ‘safe’. You are very aware throughout the novel that anyone could come and anyone could go. Although I felt this element of the world was under-utilised in this novel – i.e. only a few times are portals mentioned – the ending means that this is likely to be a very important element in the future, and that is thoroughly exciting. In theory, because of how travelling through the portals stops you taking certain powers with you, Babylon could walk into these portals and end up anywhere from a fey-world through to a world that is technologically advanced. The great news is that we are likely to see more exploration in future books because of how this one ends and Gaie Sebold has already announced that she had pretty much finished a sequel, which excites me a great deal!

In summary, there is not a moment in this novel where you will feel bored. The pace is just blistering. Whether Babylon is investigating and driving the mystery element of the novel forwards, revealing the increasingly disturbing secrets of her past or flirting/fighting with a newly introduced character – you’ll be flicking through the pages at an almost unprecedented speed. I think Gaie Sebold is an absolutely wonderful author who should be warmly welcomed alongside some of those authors pushing fantasy into new directions.

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  1. It is the only book I asked for a refund on, and I am not too ashamed to say it.

    While I understand the author needs a voice and their vision should never be destroyed, constant flashbacks ruin the pace here and take away the momentum and power of the character we should have some interest in.

    There was a lot of missed chances in the first few chapters to build some amazing character, and instead it was filled in with some substandard telling.

    Sure, will it appeal to people? Yeah, I can see it. Will everyone like it? Nope.

    I’d be happier to see another novel from this author where there isn’t a lot of jumping in the vital moments of the book, the beginning is too precious and key to keeping interest in order to hook your reader.

    That’s the other side of this book, and something to keep in mind if you aren’t expecting the issues at hand.

    • Overlord says:

      Sorry to hear that Leif. I guess the great thing about literature is that we can all agree to disagree and still be friends 😉

      For me, the flashbacks really worked. They helped control the pace of the story and gave back-story as and when you needed it. Also, because they came at the end of every chapter – I expected and looked forward to them.

      Flashbacks are not always a bad thing. I think this is a good example of their usage and Scott Lynch done a very similar thing with his Lies of Locke Lamora series too… again, people either loved or hated that =)

  2. Dan D. Jones says:

    I haven’t read this and have no opinion on it, but since you said “… having a female character that enjoyed sex and violence was something that felt very fresh to me and something I’d like to see more of…” you might want to check out Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, particularly the Phèdre Trilogy (Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, Kushiel’s Avatar.)

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