Babylon is the madam of a brothel in Scalentine. Scalentine has two moons, and is a hub of the multiverse, with portals to many other worlds. As such, a madam of a brothel who is also a good swordsman is fairly straightforward and ordinary compared to lizard races, a werewolf chess playing police captain, and a panoply of other races and characters. As a trading city for the multiverse, intrigue and adventure are all around the corner, or can be imported from another world on demand. And oh, it is.
However, Babylon is keeping from everyone a big secret from her past: Her origins, and all that implies. And it is a secret that will threaten Scalentine, Babylon herself, and those she cares about.
Babylon Steel is the debut fantasy pulp novel from Gaie Sebold. In alternating chapters, in a close first person, the author gives us Babylon’s rather hectic current-day situation, and a flashback to her origins, in a dead end corner of the multiverse, allowing us to see the arc of how she comes to be who she is.
Besides Babylon’s secret and the consequences of it, there are a thicket of plots in the present day. A god bothering religious cult deciding to put the screws to Babylon’s business. Check. A missing noblewoman who Babylon is hired to find? Check. The flowering into adulthood of a nobleman’s son and an amateur poet, who gets tangled up in doings with the Brothel (a plot very reminiscent of a particular Firefly episode). Babylon’s business woes? Check. Oh, and both moons of Scalentine are waxing to fullness. This does not promise a time of peace and tranquility…
The chapters set in the past is, by comparison, a much more straightforward telling of Babylon Steels origins, and is written in a less frenetic and more linear style. The only issue I had with this is that the end result is too quickly and directly telegraphed, as a reader what was going to happen seemed obvious far too early and so this flashback eventually became a bit onerous as a result.
The best thing about the novel is the character of Babylon Steel herself, from the ground up. Being in Babylon’s mind, in both time frames allows us to really get to know her as a character, from the ground up and in the present. Thusly, the author forges Babylon as a character fairly well between the two threads, and its easy to see how the young girl of the flashback chapters eventually grows into the role that she takes on in Scalentine. And I do give the author credit for a sex-positive and sex-enthusiastic heroine who does not come off as a cliche, sex doll or anything else. There is, as you might expect for a city of portals, and the madam of a brothel, inter-species sex as well.
I did like Scalentine as a city. I’m a sucker for multiverse fantasy, and a city at the conjunction of multiple planes reminds me of places like Everway, Sigil, and other such cities in fantasy and gaming. Scalentine is very much like Sigil in that magic is depressed here, giving the city a low-magic sword and sorcery feel to it that I am sure is intentional. It makes for Babylon’s private investigation efforts to feel very noir as she delves into shady corners of the city of portals.
However, I had some significant issues with the execution of the concept that readers should be aware of.
The novel has some serious pacing problems. Perhaps its the first person perspective, but in the present day chapters, the various plot threads are a game of hot potato that goes up and down depending on Babylon’s mood and attention. It got frustrating for me especially as the tension finally started to ramp up, the build-up to same is a bit too leisurely done, too.
While none of the plotlines are particularly forgotten or lost in the shuffle a couple of these variegated plotlines resolve rather unsatisfactorily and perfunctorily as the Big Plotline goes into full flower and dominates the remainder of the action, and that feels wrong, too. And there appears to be somewhat a bit too much of coincidence and artifice in how some of the plotlines tie into each other.
And I am less and less enamoured these days of multiple time stream narratives that use relatively cheap cliffhangers. It only encourages me to read the section ahead quickly, but not well, to find out what the cliffhanger is all about.
So is Babylon Steel worth it? Maybe. A more critical reader than I is going to really dislike the structure and execution problems that I disliked, too, and have them overwhelm the premise. I do think that the question of whether or not to read this book falls squarely on how excited you, the potential reader are by the premise of a city at the conjunction of planes, a trading hub with many worlds, and a protagonist who runs a brothel in said city. Readers anything less than giddy with the thought of Scalentine and the characters therein are probably going to find the weaknesses not worth the merits of the book. And readers who prefer a Fade to Black approach to the sex in the books they read shouldn’t touch the book at all. The sex doesn’t get that excessively graphic, but it is there.
I do hope that the author’s next effort (I understand she has signed up for a sequel) will tighten up some of these concerns and deliver more fully on the premise shown in Babylon Steel.