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Babylon Steel
Gaie Sebold
Solaris, 544 pages

Babylon Steel
Gaie Sebold
Gaie Sebold was born in the US but has lived in the UK most of her life. She grew up in a country village near Oxford and now lives in a moderately dodgy bit of South East London. She works for a charity, reads obsessively, grows vegetables and sometimes runs around in woods hitting people with latex weapons. She has won a few awards for poetry (her collection, Urban Fox, was published by Tall Lighthouse), has sold some short stories and has been known to commit performance poetry.

Gaie Sebold Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Babylon Steel is Gaie Sebold's first novel. It combines a bit of an Urban Fantasy feel with a more traditional fantasy setting. It's set in Scalentine, a city which seems to be most of its "plane," sort of a universe among multiple universes, accessible from other planes by multiple portals. (Scalentine seems to be a sort of neutral ground for multiple races from different planes.) The eponymous heroine is that old cliché, a whore with a heart of gold. (Well, that's not quite fair -- she's really a madam, and an accomplished warrior as well ...) The book opens as Twomoon approaches -- a conjunction of Scalentine's two moons, during which magical powers are increased, and, in general, chaos reigns. Babylon is recruited to help rescue a politically prominent girl from another plane who seems to have been kidnapped just prior to her marriage, which for obscure reasons must happen prior to Twomoon.

So the main thread seems to be fairly straightforwardly about Babylon's search for this missing girl. Of course, she is sensitive to the possibility that the girl took a runner because she didn't want to marry whoever her family wanted her to marry. But quickly other complications arise -- it seems, for example, that the plane from which the missing girl comes is riven by strife between her race and another intelligent race, long enslaved. Another concern is that a cult called the Vessels (of purity) might be implicated in some brutal murders of prostitutes, which of course strikes close to home with Babylon.

Already things seem somewhat busy, but there is another thread, detailed in mostly alternating chapters. It follows the growth to maturity of an orphan girl on another plane. We soon gather that this girl, Ebi, is Babylon Steel as a child. These chapters follow her young life as a servant, her time working as a caravan guard, and, most crucially, her selection as one of the Chosen of Babaska, one of the missing gods of this plane. Babaska is the goddess of whores and soldiers, which of course explains a lot about Babylon. But the gods of this plane, in their absence, are represented by Avatars, who have godlike powers, but who aren't quite gods, Ebi and her fellow Chosen seem to be on a path to become priestesses of Babaska, but... where is Babaska's Avatar?

All these threads really do, more or less, converge, and they all have a bearing on the ultimate direction of the novel. But I did have a sense that the whole thing was just a bit too busy, too involved. This isn't to say things were dropped. Indeed, this is a complete novel, with an honest resolution to all the issues it raises, even though at the end it seems potentially also a setup for future Babylon Steel adventures. There is a mystery plot (or two, really) -- and both are resolved satisfactorily, if not precisely surprisingly. There is the social justice plot involving the two races on the missing girl's plane, and there is the whole issue of Babylon's back story, and what's going on in her plane. These too are resolved reasonably well.

All these plot details miss a lot of what the novel is about, however. Much of the book concerns Babylon's relationships, mostly with her variegated set of employees -- whores, a cook, guards -- and also with people like Scalentine's Chief of Militia. These people all impact the advancement of the steps of the threaded plots, but the real interest is in their characters, and how Babylon interacts with them -- and this works fairly well.

So how does the book work in toto? It's an enjoyable enough read, for sure. But it's not brilliant. There are some neat ideas, especially regarding the nature of gods and avatars on Babylon's home plane, but lots of the other details, though colorful enough, come off a bit overfamiliar -- a bit too much of a cliché. So too is Babylon's voice, which is pretty pure contemporary PI, female version, in tone. And the action is well enough executed, but never surprising. In sum, not a bad effort, one that repays the price of admission, but not a book that really thrilled me either.

Copyright © 2012 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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