I had no idea what to expect from Babylon Steel. I'd read the synopsis and thought the premise sounded interesting. What I found was a novel that has a strong central character, and a fun and well-constructed plot, which was a blend of fantasy and thriller with a dash of humour. There's also some pretty good social commentary. This is a very good debut, and I really hope we see more of Babylon Steel, and certainly more from Gaie Sebold.
Babylon Steel is an interesting novel. There are three distinct acts, but also an additional, `historical' thread of chapters that alternate with the main story set in the `present'. It's a little difficult to go into too much detail, but the search for the missing girl is only part of the overall story, as Babylon and her companions (also her employees) find themselves mixed up in some local politics, and Babylon's own past catches up with her.
The setting is an interesting one. In Sebold's reality, there are multiple "planes", connected by various portals (some stable, some not), and Babylon's home is on a plane situated on an intersection between a number of them. As a result, the place is populated by a large number of intelligent and morphologically different species. I'm not sure if this would technically make the novel Sci-Fi or still fantasy... I suppose both? The technology levels remain low - for example, people still fight with swords and not guns.
Usually, I find the alternating-time-periods structural device frustrating, but the way Sebold has written the novel, I found myself getting invested in both threads equally. The importance of events in the historical chapters becomes clear relatively early on (not explicitly, but it's easy to figure out where the story's probably going), and informs the final act of the novel.
The historical chapters also gave Sebold the space to add layers and complexity to Babylon, to explain her evolution from orphan to tough-as-nails warrior-madam. The young Babylon (not yet going by that name) was selected to join a religious order by an Avatar of one of her plane's gods. She is one of a few chosen, and through her eyes and the other initiates' experiences, we get an examination of the predatory, manipulative nature of relationships between the "low-born" and members of an elite. Sebold gives voice to teenage frustrations, confusion and emotions very well, in a way that I think anyone can relate to: it's written from a female character's perspective, but I imagine only the most confident and arrogant teen male has never had similar insecurities. I thought it was handled very well, without any pretension or gloss. Babylon of this time is so tragically naïve. Ultimately, I really liked the way the two threads wove together, allowing us to get to know Babylon on a deeper level. It offers a great contrast between the older and younger heroine.
Sebold's writing is very good, with fluid prose and a steady pace to the story. Her sense of humour lacks the frenetic "look, I'm being funny!" feel that some debut authors seem to suffer (even Terry Pratchett's first few novels were a bit much), and instead Sebold deploys it when necessary and to maximum effect. It's calm and observational, more than quippy (though there are some good quips, too). The levity peters out about a third of the way into the novel, as the story takes on a more serious tone to match events. The humour in Babylon Steel is more likely to make you chuckle or smirk than laugh out loud, but I thought that was perfect, and therefore liked it a hell of a lot. Also, given my rather more conservative tastes when it comes to sex scenes in fiction, I was glad that Sebold keeps them short and restrained, never descending into over-description or exaggeration.
Along with her superb writing style, Sebold has a gift for characterisation. For example, each of the employees at Babylon's brothel - be they entertainers, security or the cook - is colourful, realistic and often good fun. They have quirky names (the bondage twins, for example, are called Cruel and Unusual; one of the guards is called Previous; and the cook is called Flower, because he's big and green). More minor characters are equally well-conceived and realised on the page.
Babylon Steel ends on a relatively upbeat note, which suggests there may be more adventures to come for the eponymous heroine. Given how much I enjoyed this, I really hope there are more novels.
Highly recommended, Babylon Steel is a fun novel, from a very talented debut author.
For Fans of: Amanda Downum, Gail Z. Martin, Kate Elliot, Karen Miller, Terry Pratchett (sort of), Will King, Michael Sullivan, Anne Lyle, Scott Lynch, Juliet McKenna