27 June 2016

Dangerous Gifts

A review of Dangerous Gifts by Gaie Sebold (Solaris, 2013) – originally published in Interzone

Dangerous Gifts is the sequel to Gaie Sebold’s first novel, Babylon Steel. Not only does it carry on in the same tone as its predecessor – a fast-paced fantasy adventure written in the first person from the perspective of her central character, Babylon Steel – but it continues more or less where the first novel leaves off.

Babylon was once the avatar of Babaska, a goddess of war and lust. Now she is the madam of the best brothel in the city of Scalentine having previously spent some years working as a mercenary. In the first novel, due to financial embarrassments, she allowed herself to be hired by Scalentine’s shadowy Diplomatic Section to find and protect Enthemerlee, a young visitor from the world of Incandress.

Incandress is inhabited by two apparently distinct races: the dominant, humanoid Gudain and their servants, the reptilian Ikinchli. However, Enthemerlee is living proof that that the two races are in fact one. For some generations the Gudain have been declining in numbers while the Ikinchli have been increasing. Enthemerlee’s return to Incandress promises the emancipation of the Ikinchli and a possible answer to the barrenness of the Gudain. Inevitably, vested interests would prefer to maintain the status quo by assassinating her. So, Babylon is persuaded to act as her bodyguard at least until she has undergone the rites that will set in motion the changes so desperately needed by her people.

Babylon’s task is complicated by the intervention of a group of xenophobes from Scalentine who are conspiring with conservatives among the Gudain. To make matters worse, the conspiracy is being manipulated by a very nasty capitalist who wants to use Enthemerlee’s assassination as a part of a plan to make a financial killing. On top of all this, Babylon is distracted by the knowledge that most of her brothel’s money is tied up in a silk shipment currently on its way to Scalentine via Incandress and she is anxious about her relationship with Hargur, Chief of Scalentine’s City Militia.

It has to be said that Dangerous Gifts is very much a sequel. Much of the character development has already been done in the first novel, so while this novel could certainly be read on its own, the reader would get a fuller idea of the main characters and their relationships by reading Babylon Steel first. Having said that, Sebold has not allowed her story to suffer the fate of many mid-series novels. There is a clear and satisfying resolution of the story lines that were posited at the beginning of the novel.

At the same time, there is promise of more to come. Scalentine’s Diplomatic Section clearly have their claws into Babylon now, and it seems unlikely that they will leave her alone. In both novels, Sebold has teased us with intriguing hints about the abilities of Darask Fain, the Section’s representative; there is certainly scope for her to expand on those hints. Babaska clearly believes she has unfinished business with Babylon. And Babylon’s friend the mad magician Mokraine is giving her cryptic warnings of arcane dangers that lie ahead.

I enjoyed this novel almost as much as its predecessor. Gaie Sebold continues to offer us well-paced action and vivid descriptions. And Babylon Steel is a very engaging narrator who lightens the story with amusing one-liners about the characters and situations she finds herself involved with. In summary, Dangerous Gifts is an enjoyable and satisfying read.

No comments: