Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold
Sometimes publicity succeeds by inducing such an incredulous reaction in the reader that it makes the product irresistible. So it was with Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold. The first email I received from Solaris had the subject line “Hello boys! What’s your kind of fantasy?”, presumably intending to signal that this is the sort of book for people who like looking at Eva Herzigová’s breasts. The subject line of the second email was even more to the point, promising “Epic fantasies fulfilled! Girl on lizard action!”. Blimey. Then there is the name of the titular heroine herself. It is a pretty bold move to name a character in a secondary world fantasy after a four thousand year old Akkadian city. It is an even bolder move to give her a name of such blunt nominative determinism that it roughly translates as Whorey McSword. Congratulations to the Solaris publicity team, I was hooked. Who could pass up the queasily fascinating offer of a novel about a Wonderbra-wearing mercenary-turned-brothel-keeper who has sex with reptiles?
We’ll get back to the sex in a minute but first the plot and, perhaps more importantly, the setting. Babylon runs the Red Lantern in Scalentine, a hub city that is linked to myriad other worlds through portals. It is sort of place where the Chief of the Militia is a friendly werewolf who is happy to lend you a couple of quid to cover your taxes. It is the sort of place where you might bump into a Barraklé – “not unlike a human above the waist, not dissimilar to a sort of giant furry caterpillar below, with four arms, four breasts and more than enough of other things as well, apparently” – or a dozen other different species.
Bablyon is persuaded by one Darask Fain to find a missing girl (a girl but not a human). In a book by a man, Fain – the ravishing spy who lives in a casino – would probably be the hero. Here he is totty, “the most devastating thing on two legs in Scalentine” with a voice “like velvet-glad fingers running down one’s naked back.” Babylon needs find the girl before the conjunction of the twin moons, although this turns out to be a bit of a red herring. At the same time, we learn through flashbacks to her time as a disciple of the goddess Babaska how she came to pursue her unusual dual career. It is a bit of a mess but a lot of fun (although modern publishing strictures dictate that it is 200 pages longer than it should be).
Because appearances can be deceptive. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I wouldn’t read it on the train and the blurb is enough to put anyone off. Inside it is extremely enjoyable fluff with enough smarts to keep the bubble intact. Even Babylon’s silly name turns out to be a semi-plausible nomme de guerre. The marketing bunf is even more misleading, both because there isn’t actually much sex and when it arrives it is firmly female-focused.
The first sex scene is on page 46 and is with a client because, even though Babylon owns the Red Lantern, she is not afraid to roll her sleeves up and get stuck in. Of course, he is a very nice man; of course, she finds him attractive; of course, he requires nothing outside of her rather vanilla horizons. It is all good clean fun and she even has an orgasm. Obviously this bears no resemblance to actual prostitution; it is a fantasy in more ways than one. But Sebold has made enough of a sidestep that it is hugely less problematic than you would expect. (If anything is troubling, it is the dodgy Johnny Foreigner accents deployed by many of the alien species.)
With its political intrigue and god sex, Babylon Steel resembles a version of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin where the po-faced angst has been dialled right down. Both novels push the attitude and tropes of paranormal romance into epic fantasy but, given the huge popularity of these two sub-genres, I do wonder why the approaches haven’t mixed more already. Why there isn’t more erotic epic fantasy being published? Surely there is a gap in the market for bringing the sauce of one to the sweep of the other? It would certainly stand in stark contrast to the prevalent Third Wave fantasy mode (characterised as ‘gritty’, if you are a fan, and ‘grimdark’, if you are not). Perhaps unsurprising for a subgenre where the primary form of human interaction is murder, it has a reputation for being more than a little rapey.
I’ll give the last word to Babylon herself:
“As for sex… it’s a sacrament, don’t get me wrong. Always was, always will be. It’s one of the most powerful forces there is. And misused, it’s devastating. But sex is also intimate, essentially faintly ridiculous and very, very human.”