20 June 2016

Babylon Steel

A review of Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold (Solaris, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

At first glance Gaie Sebold’s debut novel is a piece of traditional fantasy. It certainly has many of the trappings of high fantasy: strange, magical creatures; swords and sorcery (though the latter is somewhat limited in Scalentine, the city/world at the heart of the novel); gods and demons. However, she is not averse to shaking things up a little. For example, the best chef in Scalentine is a large green troll-like creature by the name of Flower.

The novel is very much about its central character, Babylon Steel, a whore with a heart of gold (a trope with tremendous potential for cliché that Sebold nimbly manages to avoid) who runs a high-class brothel in the city of Scalentine. She also happens to be an ex-mercenary and, in another world, was once the avatar of a goddess of whores and common soldiers.

Sebold actually presents us with several interlocking stories in this volume. It opens with Babylon facing financial difficulties. She has a large tax bill to pay and a religious sect is frightening away her clients. So when the mysterious Darask Fain offers to pay her to look for an aristocratic runaway from another world she can’t say no. Meanwhile a serial killer has started targeting prostitutes in the city. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Babylon’s past catches up with her, and she is eventually forced to deal with certain things she has been running away from.

Babylon’s past plays an important part in the structure of the novel. In fact, her life up to the point where she escapes from her home world of Tiresana is summarized in a series of flashbacks that break up the main storyline. That could have been irritating, but Sebold handles the material deftly (which is more than can be said for Solaris’s decision to format the flashbacks in italics).

Having said that Babylon Steel looks and feels like high fantasy, it could equally well be described as urban fantasy. The city of Scalentine is far more than a mere backdrop to Babylon’s activities. In a sense, the city is an additional character in the novel. And that character is vividly drawn: to my mind, it came across as a strangely convincing conflation of the London of Dickens and Dodge City! It is believably gritty, a rough trading centre with streets that are most definitely not paved with gold.

Sebold’s world-building skills are impressive. In addition to her very believable city, I particularly like the way the cosmos she has created consists of many different worlds locked together by portals. Another interesting aspect of her world-building is the part played by religion. At one level, thanks to Babylon’s very clear antipathy to religious practitioners, Sebold presents religion as an oppressive fraud. But, at another level, there is something real behind it: the force that ultimately helps Babylon overcome the avatars.

Given that the story is about an ex-mercenary engaged in some freelance detective work and facing up to the darker side of her own past, it is not surprising to find that there is plenty of action, some with swords, rather less with sorcery. And, since Babylon runs a brothel, there are the inevitable sex scenes. These prove to be surprisingly tasteful; they are not smutty, nor are they particularly erotic; they simply form an essential part of the story given what we know of its central character.

I found this a very satisfying read. It may be a first novel, but it is a very assured piece of work. Gaie Sebold is definitely a name to watch in future.

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