Babylon is the Madam of the Red Lantern in the city of Scalentine, a tall attractive woman with no head for figures but a good arm for fighting – and a strong judge of character. When she’s asked to hunt down a missing girl, Enthemerlee , she ends up tussling with religious sects who see her as a sinner, helping to create the myths of an alien race and facing up to the past she ran away from over a decade ago – all in the space of a week or so.
The key to the enjoyment of this book is Babylon herself. It’s not that you haven’t seen this character in other fantasy novels before, but she’s always been a bit too perfect or ends up becoming the victim in some way. Smart but not a genius, attractive but not beautiful, strong but still vulnerable, Babylon is very, very human – nicely rounded out with complex motives and emotions and never unbelievable. Her voice is open, dry, self-aware and pulls you into to her inner thoughts and life without an obstacle.
While grounding us in such a realistic character, the author also lets us meet many different races in Babylon’s search through Scalentine, a Portal city that opens up to as many worlds and dimensions as you can imagine. Sebold deftly sketches distinct races for the reader with a few key characters introduced as potential suspects or witnesses. She showcase different cultures, languages and appearances, hinting at a depth that will invoke comparisons with Mos Eisley. That is, if Mos Eisley contained brothels and dual-phallused lizard sex. This colourful romp through the vibrant city is contrasted with tales of Babylon’s tutelage in Tiresana, a depleted land where the gods’ Avatars rule the people through small acts of magic.
This juxtaposition gives a good structure to the book, flipping between events happening on Scalentine and Babylon’s origin story - how she came to have such a strong instinct to protect women and why she seems so entranced by ‘fucking and fighting’. Her backstory is in fact one of the major strengths of the book, and I could have read an entire novel about her growing awareness that the Avatars may not be all they appear. As it is, the chapters are neatly divided. Sebold generates enough interest in both stories to not make you unhappy when you leave one for the other, yet keeps the chapters short so it doesn’t jar when you move back. Babylon’s voice when narrating her time growing up is wry; a mix of longing for the simple days of innocence and a nostalgia for the fool that she used to be, further endearing her to the reader with her lack of self-pity.
If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that there seems to be an awful lot of wandering around Scalentine asking people if they have seen Enthemerlee – which doesn’t make Babylon out to be the best detective on paper. A couple of plot strands seem to die out with their resolutions being played off page, which feels a little strange. There is also a romantic interlude towards the end that comes out of nowhere. It seems hurried, rather than being given the space to proceed at a more natural pace. But when the author is showing you the delights of her new town via such a fun, dry voice, it’s hard to take any umbrage to these minor issues.
Babylon Steel is the kind of book you want with you on holiday. Fast-paced, exciting and amusing with scenes of a sexual nature (good ones), I'm happy that there is already a sequel scheduled for next year. Sebold is a confident new voice in female-centric fantasy, and Babylon Steel deserves to stand out in a market filled with unrealistic heroines.
Lizzie is the Publicity Officer for the British Fantasy Society and lives in London with her fiancé and three cats. She prefers fantasy books and sci-fi films, which you can argue with her about on Twitter at @alittlebriton. She believes books to be a viable form of currency.