Less than a week into the year, and 2012 already had one if its brightest and most exciting debuts on the racks. Babylon Steel isn't a perfect book. But it's imperfect in the best possible way. Gaie Sebold's reach slightly exceeds her grasp here, but what a reach. She writes like someone who's never been told they can't shoot for the moon if they damn well please, that readers like only certain kinds of stories and not others, and if she were told those things, her response would be a brief raising of the brow before going on about her business. There is so much creativity and charm in this novel that it really pulls you up short and makes you aware of what a dearth of those qualities too many contemporary fantasies have. Babylon Steel is a magical, mischievous bottle rocket of a book, showering readers in a radiant explosion of action, mystery, whimsy and good old-fashioned heart.
Fantasy ought to be a literature of pure imagination, where nothing but your talent and ambition hold you back from telling whatever story you can dream into being. As we're all too aware — and accept all too complacently — what gets written and published are mostly stories that adhere to tried and true formulas, where the only interest lies in seeing if the author has the chops to stay on the correct side of the thin line separating "beloved trope" from "shopworn cliché." In her first outing, Sebold simply stakes out her own territory. She has a gift for reinventing the familiar so that it feels as fresh as the things she does invent.
Here she gives us worlds set among countless planes, parallel universes linked by portals, teeming with myriad sentient and insentient species, creatures, and demigods. Her principal setting is Scalentine, a city whose brightly lit streets and delicately sculpted buildings fairly burst from the page with life. And it's here that her heroine, Babylon Steel, makes her home.
Babylon is the madam of The Red Lantern, a brothel that's classy, but not so classy that the cast can't have an earthy appeal that lends the story warmth and humor. We open with some sitcommy scenes that had me a little dubious at first. But in no time, a richer and more layered story, hinting at dark secrets of the very best kind, unfolds. Despite its prestige, the Lantern is short on cash, owing creditors and back taxes. And a bunch of masked, misogynist cultists calling themselves the Vessels of Purity have taken to harassing her clients and scaring away some of her vendors.
Then the day is saved when a dashing officer from Scalentine's Diplomatic Section asks Babylon for help in locating the missing daughter of a prominent family from a neighboring plane, all of whom were in Scalantine for the girl's wedding, arranged for the upcoming Twomoon holiday. Unable to turn down the offer of enough compensation to put her business back in the black, Babylon pursues her inquiries. But it isn't too long before her search links her to her own forgotten past, and a life she believed she had successfully escaped, and to which returning could mean almost certain death.
Sebold's gift for creating marvelous characters seems to have arrived fully formed. Babylon's crew at the Lantern — from Flower, the giant troll master chef, to the hot little fey girl upstairs, to the twins who do BDSM in the basement — are funny and appealing without feeling fake or forced. And what sex the book has — Babylon herself has no problem with crossing the species line — is handled with the utmost tastefulness, coming off as sex-positive and healthy in its attitudes without needing exploitative titillation.
Babylon's own dark backstory is a sublimely executed piece of slow-burn suspense. Interwoven with the often more light-hearted chapters of the present-day narrative, the contrast in tone gives the book a devilishly nerve-wracking feeling of portent. The effect is exceptionally immersive.
But what made Babylon Steel such a compelling read for me was the way it turned into a story about the fraught relationship between religion and personal freedom and human rights. There are, essentially, three narrative threads braided together here. In two of them — Babylon's past, and her present conflict with the Vessels — religion is the clear antagonist, an institution allowing a powerful, privileged few absolute rule over the cowed masses, enabling and shielding evils instead of vanquishing them. In the story of the missing girl, the ancient beliefs of a sentient non-human race could provide the catalyst to end a shameful history of bigotry and oppression. Sebold manages to articulate these themes without resorting to easy stereotypes or simplistic moral messages. That we're all supposed to ignore the man behind the curtain where religion is involved is a message we've heard before, and one that never seems to lose its timeliness, but Sebold's spin on it is invigorating enough that you don't feel you're hearing the same old story again.
At almost 550 pages, I do think the book is a bit overlong, more sprawling than it had to be, with some awkward narrative architecture in places. (For instance, one major story thread is resolved halfway in, with whatever questions the reader had dangling answered with a "while you were out" bit of exposition in the denouement.) But there's one thing you won't be able to deny when you're done: Gaie Sebold damned well knows how to write a fantasy novel. She even knows how to write two or three at the same time. I'd say she can level up whenever.