Kage Baker,
The Women of Nell Gwynne's
(Subterranean Press, 2009)

The Women of Nell Gwynne's is a darling display of steampunk harlotry.

Written by Kage Baker, a talented and productive author whose death followed shortly after the publication of this novella, the book is set in an alternate Victorian England and is -- or so I'm assured -- a sort of prequel to Baker's popular series of Company books. I've never read anything from the series, however, and am pleased that this story stands so well on its own.

The tale focuses largely on Lady Beatrice, a child of wealth and privilege whose life is torn apart -- first by a military disaster far afield in Britain's Empire, then by a bevy of affronted kin who seem disappointed she survived at all. Without options, she turns to a life on the streets, where her inner strength and innate cleverness catch the eye -- so to speak -- of Mrs. Corvey.

Corvey runs Nell Gwynne's, an extraordinary bawdy house where the women are all beautiful, talented, gifted ... and spies. Not for a government, mind you, but for the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, a secret organization that makes things happen and gets things done. And the GSS provides Nell Gwynne's with a fascinating array of far-out-of-time tools and inventions on a riff that lovingly capitalizes on James Bond's Q branch.

When a GSS operative goes missing on assignment, Mrs. Corvey leads a quartet of her girls into the field to find him and uncover the plans of a deceitful lord, who is about to sell an amazing new technology to the highest bidder.

The Women of Nell Gwynne's is crafted with excellent grace and style. The characters are elegantly drawn, the dialogue is witty and sharp, the plot is compelling and the mystery is fun. With its high-class brothel setting, Nell Gwynne's manages to be fresh and just a little shocking without ever crossing into graphic or crude territory.

This book was lavishly produced by Subterranean Press, which is as always a double-edged sword. The publisher always guarantees a gorgeous product, a high-quality tome that would grace any library. It also guarantees a hefty price tag and a frustratingly limited press run -- this book, which came out less than a year ago, is already out of print. Fortunately, the book appears to be on the reprint horizon at a more reasonable price, although the new title -- Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy -- is less compelling than the original. On the plus side, the newly tinted cover corrected a glaring error -- Lady Beatrice's signature color is red, not purple -- and Baker's novelette, "The Bohemain Astrobleme," has been tacked onto the end.

It is to everyone's misfortune that Baker didn't survive to expand this new world further. At least we have this brief glimpse into its potential.

book review by
Tom Knapp

25 September 2010

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