Babylon Steel (2011) is the debut novel from Gaie Sebold. It is a swords and sorcery tale featuring a multiclass warrior/madam who runs an extremely progressive brothel in the big city at the center of the universe. Pulpy in the C.L. Moore and Fritz Leiber sense, Babylon Steel probably shouldn't be overthought, but the book is imbued with an earnestness and swashbuckling enthusiasm that makes it a lot of fun to read.
Babylon Steel is essentially three complete adventures: Babylon's past in a 'dead-end fantasy dimension' (which I think is a more emotively compelling place than the central city), a 'detective story' with Babylon hunting down a missing princess and a big epic adventure when Babylon's past comes back to haunt her.
The first of the three - Babylon's backstory - comes off, by far, as the most significant, and rightfully so. The hunt for the princess is little more than a walking tour of the city and the big dramatic resolution to Babylon's past fizzles a bit for being rushed. [Editor's note: judging by the blurb for book 2, the princess winds up being a big deal later on.] Back in the good ol' days, when fantasy books cost a nickel and we walked uphill in the snow to get them, Babylon Steel would've been a trilogy in its own right.
The greatest asset of Babylon Steel is the genuinely strong female lead - a woman who is actually genuine, strong and female. She's not a bloke with boobs, River Tam or an insecure-wunderkind-who-just-doesn't-know-what-a-special-snowflake-she-is. (Lizzie Barrett covered this quite well when the book first came out.) Steel is defined by her tumultuous past, with Ms. Sebold explaining clearly how her formative years turned Steel into the woman (and heroine) that she is.
Steel's relationships with her staff and her clients (blush), are also linked to her upbringing. Ostensibly, this is because Steel is a former priestess of a goddess of war and sex. But as the book unfolds, it becomes clear that her life has been a perpetual search for trust and safety, and, although it is a little odd, she has found both in her current role as a madam.
[On not overthinking it: this all makes sense in the context of the book, which is what matters. Steel is powerful and sex-positive; trying to interpret it as a real-world scenario only interferes with what is largely positive messaging. The whole thing is very brave, not prurient and well-rationalised with the world and the character. But it is a risky area. To be honest, I'm not sure I'd be keen on reading about a warrior/madam were she written by a male author. What's that mean? I dunno. Consider this an open invite for discussion. ]
Magic, gods, dimensions, lizard people - they're all exciting elements, there to support a stirring tale. But they aren't the actual point of the story, which, to me, is a good sign. Gaie Sebold world-builds in the right way by keeping the focus wholly on the characters, and, when given space to breathe, there are several good stories included as a result.
I'm also not sure if Babylon Steel is super-contemporary or incredibly retro, but I really like that confusion. I'm still not bought in to the whole 'new pulp' thing, but, if I had to throw books into that particular basket, Babylon Steel would be a perfect fit.