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Shadowhawk reviews Gaie Sebold’s debut novel for Solaris Books, the first in a new series.
“Inventive but flawed, Babylon Steel is a rollercoaster with unfortunately too many lows than highs.” ~The Founding Fields
As a reviewer, it sometimes happens that you really anticipate reading a book and when you finally do, the experience leaves you disappointed, or underwhelmed, or sad (in a not-good way), or a mix of all three. Babylon Steel is definitely one of the novels that left me feeling the first two of those emotions, and came quite close to the third as well. Thing is, like I’ve said before in several of my reviews this year, I like trying out new things and this novel happened to be in that list of new experiences. The novel just doesn’t match to my expectations though, which is why I was disappointed with it, and in the end, quite overwhelmed.
The novel is about the titular heroine Babylon Steel, the madam of one of the city of Scalentine’s best brothels, investigating the disappearance of some noblewoman of another city and ultimately confronting her own dark past. On the surface, the novel has a lot of promise, especially where Babylon is concerned. The protagonist is someone who would be, in most other fantasy novels, be only the love-interest of a male protagonist or just a side-show character otherwise. That more than anything decided for me that this novel had to be a must-read.
Thing is that the novel doesn’t really deliver on the promise.
Yes, Babylon Steel is portrayed as a strong, and often confident character, given both her background as a mercenary-for-hire and her current status as a madame, but it is simply not enough in the end. What makes a protagonist a strong one in my eyes is someone who can both stand on their own two feet and also is supported by a rich and strong cast of other characters. That is not the case here because Gaie Sebold’s supporting characters are all interchangeable and lack a narrative distinction.
They all serve to big up Babylon and none of them are developed in any way that tells me: “hey you, these characters are awesome”. And I feel let down by the fact. Part of the problem is that not enough time is spent on these characters in order to develop them so that they aren’t just foils to Babylon. The narrative is too fleeting to lavish that kind of attention on them, not to mention that the author’s use of first person perspective here doesn’t help either. We see these characters through Babylon’s eyes throughout, and considering the racial variety of these characters, that means it is just another disappointment.
We have a Fey-whore, a Werewolf chief of the city guard, a Troll-cook, a Vampire-wizard, and…. so much more.
One of the other reasons for the lack of strong supporting characters is that there are so many of these minor characters! When the author introduces us to them, it is in a rush of description and prose that leaves you reeling because there is so much being packed in to those paragraphs. There is even a feeling with Babylon’s internal exposition that her thoughts are suddenly all random and that she is getting side-tracked from the larger narrative by telling us in detail about the history of these characters. And it all really distracts, and brings me to my next point.
I said earlier that the narrative is quite fleeting. What I meant by that is not that the pacing is fast, but that it meanders along slowly, giving you the feeling that you are about to go to work on a Monday and that you’d rather just stay in bed. That sounds rather more judgemental and negative than I intend to, but I’m not sure how else to explain it. There are several plot-threads going on in the novel and given the short, alternating chapters, it becomes a jumble of things. The novel also takes far too long to get to the meat of things, around the half-way mark is when things pick up considerably but then drop back down.
Babylon Steel is divided into two types of chapters: the first is the on-going current narrative in the city of Scalentine, and the second is Babylon’s various flashbacks when she was a little girl and was chosen to become an avatar of a Goddess, the goddess of soldiers and prostitutes no less. An interesting combination to be sure. Anyways, the flashback chapters really, really distract from the main narrative. It is all backstory, entirely backstory, and while it helps us in understanding more of Babylon’s past and explains some of her motivations for the things she does, it is all just unneeded. Mostly because the “hook” of these chapters is telegraphed way too early and you know exactly what is going to happen by the time those chapters climax and even the reveal of how it all happens is diluted in its impact because it has been so long in the coming. It’s like, in a way, seeing the trailer for Avengers (movie) a year before release, and then seeing variations of it in the months thereafter. These flashback chapters are the major weakness of the novel where I’m concerned.
And all the separate plot-threads that are going on? It seems that they rise and fall in prominence and priorities for the characters, as if they can’t decide what they’d like to do. In that respect, Babylon is too frustrating a character. Her loyalties and her priorities are too divided to be able to deliver on a coherent plot.
Don’t get me wrong, the novel really isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be. It’s just that it doesn’t work for me all that much. There was just enough interest in it for me to stick with it till the end. When Sebold gets into the intra-city politics, between Steel’s brothel crew and a sect of priests who oppose prostitution/courtesan-work and with the involvement of the city guard thrown in, that’s the high point of the novel. That section, and the plot-thread, is all about defending your identity and standing up to the people who want to, effectively, destroy your way of life. The novel could easily have been all about that aspect of life in Scalentine and it would have been great.
Something that grated on me at times are the sex scenes. Babylon Steel is very much an adult novel and the author doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to her sex scenes, although she does reign in the more graphic imagery, but my issue with these scenes was that they were too incidental. They appear to be nothing more than “here’s a nice little reward for the reader” and “they have to be there because Babylon is a courtesan/prostitute herself”. In effect, they are shoehorned in from what I can tell.
It just doesn’t work like that you know? Perhaps this just wasn’t the type of material for me?
Under different circumstances I’d talk more about this novel. But the thing is that the more I think about it, and given some recent conversation with my friend Stefan who runs the Civilian-Reader book blog, I’m mellowing towards the novel bit by bit. Not enough to really make me want to read the second novel in the series, coming out early next year, but appreciating the novel on it’s own.
However, as things stand now, I can’t recommend this novel. It just didn’t work for me. The very few positives, Babylon’s characterisation, the whole setting of Scalentine, and the political plot-thread that directly involves Babylon just don’t outweigh the negatives.