Thursday, August 12, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee (and Nebula winner), novella: The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker (Subterranean)

Kage Baker’s been one of the most highly regarded sf writers of the past decade, and her Company series has been on my reading list for some time. Unfortunately, she died earlier this year of cancer at the age of 57.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s was one of her last works. It’s a limited edition illustrated novella, and it’s already won the Nebula. Wikipedia has it as a standalone Company story, but I have no idea how it connects.

Basically, it’s a story of steampunk cyborg superspy Victorian prostitutes. How’s that for a pitch? We begin with the origin story of one of the operatives, the aristocratic Lady Beatrice. After being raped and brutalized in the Afghan War, Beatrice is cast out of her family as a fallen woman. She turns to prostitution to survive, and, since she’s fierce, resourceful, and educated, she’s recruited by the brothel called Nell Gwynne’s, which is really an intelligence gathering operation of the mysterious Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. The Society has a lot of steampunk spying technology, which they share with the girls in a scene straight out of James Bond. The rest of the novella focuses on a single mission concerning more steampunk super-technology.

It’s a very entertaining story, though I’m not sure it quite lives up to its potential. The mission itself is a bit routine – again, it’s straight Bond or Avengers material, despite the unique setting, and the girls don’t get to make that much use of their special equipment and talents. There’s also not as much exploration of sex and class as the beginning seems to promise. The relationship between the Society and Nell Gwynne’s seems rather exploitative, for instance, and I’d like to see more on that dynamic. It’s good, and I’d recommend it to steampunk fans especially, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been more. I look forward to reading more of Baker’s work though.

Since it was issued as a limited edition book, it’s not easy to get hold of at the moment (I’ve becoming a supporting WorldCon member, so I got a .pdf copy as a voter). It will receive a larger print run this fall though.

Grade: B

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