NELL GWYNNE'S SCARLET SPY
by Kage Baker
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In June of 2009, Kage Baker introduced Lady Beatrice, a Victorian era spy who ostensibly worked for a brothel while really helping to keep the British empire safe in the novella The Women of Nell Gwynne's. Published in a limited edition by Subterranean, the book sold out very quickly, but still received a broad enough readership that it managed to earn a spot on the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo ballots, winning the Nebula Award. Unfortunately, by the time those awards were announced, Baker has died an untimely death from cancer. She had not finished telling Lady Beatrice’s story, however, and now Subterranean has issues Nell Gwynne’s Scarlet Spy, a collection of the Nebula-winning story and its sequel, “The Bohemian Astrobleme.”
In my original review of The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, I wrote Baker’s “characters are strong and her setting is intriguing, easily lending itself to further exploration. Although The Women of Nell Gwynne's could easily have been the first in a series, it stands up quite well on its own and highlights many of the strengths of Baker's writing.” Baker does continue that exploration in a very different way.
Rather than focusing on Lady Beatrice’s colleagues, the new story focuses on Ludbridge and his two man crew who have been sent to Bohemia to find a strange naturally occurring red glass that may be useful in creating an energy source. Upon their arrival in the Czech city of Budweis, they discover that finding the red glass, or even samples of it will be more difficult than they thought, made even trickier by the possibility that a member of their team is not particularly trustworthy. Ludbridge eventually calls to London to summon one of the women from Nell Gwynne’s, and Lady Beatrice arrives to save the day.
Lady Beatrice manages to find out the secret of the red glass, and helps Ludbridge work to obtain the source using methods which would not have been available to Ludbridge. Nevertheless, her role in “The Bohemian Astrobleme” does not seem as integral as it is in The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, and Baker leaves the reader with the feeling that the mission could have been carried out successfully with Ludbridge employing other means.
Baker’s story of searching for the source of the powerful red glass is interesting, although it feels a little short, almost as if it were meant to be part of a larger tale. Her depiction of Bohemia in the 1840s is evocative and provides a sense of location which is quite different from the country home depicted in The Women of Nell Gwynne’s. Baker’s follow-up story isn’t quite as successful as her first one, but “The Bohemian Astrobleme” shows the signs of a remarkable and clever series which will, unfortunately go unrealized.
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