No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, October 07, 2017

2017/83: Babylon Steel -- Gaie Sebold

Previous coughed, and said, “So. You’re sort of an ex-goddess of war, then.”
“Not quite. Avatar. And ex, yes. Definitely ex.” [loc. 7,430]
Former mercenary Babylon Steel (not the name she grew up with) runs the Red Lantern, the best brothel in Scalentine, a cosmopolitan city that sits at a cosmic crossroads -- it's accessible from multiple planes, and thus is inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient beings. The Red Lantern's motto is "All tastes, all species, all forms of currency", and all its employees are there because they want to be: it's a safe space, despite the Vessels of Purity (misogynist religious fanatics) who have been protesting in the street outside.

But it's a week until the festival of Twomoon, some working girls have been attacked, and an heiress is missing too: and Babylon, already concerned by the disappearances (and by the Lantern's cashflow: she's behind on her taxes), is engaged by the devastating Darask Fain to find the heiress -- whose very existence could start a religious war on her home plane.

Turns out that Babylon's past is catching up with her, too: before she came to Scalentine she was recruited by the Avatars of the absent gods of her home plane, Tiresana, which she left under something of a cloud. The Avatars are keen to see her again, but Babylon is far from enthusiastic about the prospect.

Sex, religion and a complex and colourful setting give this novel an almost comic-book feel, but there's plenty of depth in its entwined plots, and though the religious elements are generally negative, Sebold does balance them out to some extent. Babylon is an enjoyable protagonist, too, practical, good at people, and courageous: she's very much the focus of the novel, and we see the other characters -- several of them quite intriguing -- through her eyes.

Hard to say whether Babylon Steel is SF or fantasy: hard to care. It's sweet and well-paced and often funny; it's sex-positive, features families of choice, and the ending is open enough that I'll look forward to the second novel without feeling that I know what to expect.

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