The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker
There is something slightly creepy about reviewing the work of an author so recently deceased. While not wishing to write an obituary, I satisfy myself with the bland assertion that I will miss her continuing to write — there are, of course, more books in the pipeline due for publication over the next year or so. When on form, Kage Baker was immensely readable and inventive.
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is a part of the ongoing building of the back-story to the Company oeuvre. Nell Gwynne’s is a companion to the Gentleman’s Speculative Society in which Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax played such a pivotal role. When the two organisations combine, this is a steampunkish exploration of Victorian espionage and great fun. Sadly, there is a slightly wooden quality to some of the writing. In part, this is a result of a failure to acknowledge the extent of the squalor of the real London and the appalling conditions under which most prostitution was conducted. The first section of this novella is a fast-paced introduction to our heroine, Lady Beatrice. It hurries through her early years, glossing over the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army and her survival of the subsequent Battle of Jellalabad. Frankly, I think this was a missed opportunity to explore the traumatic effect of those events both on her as a fictional survivor and on the British nation. It would have given real substance to her subsequent character and, more importantly, given more credibility to her rejection upon returning “home”. Although her family’s selfish reaction in rejecting her is not unbelievable, meeting such a survivor would have forced individuals and the community to confront their shock and horror at Elphinstone’s catastrophic leadership failure. Pubic opinion had yet to establish sufficient distance for objective assessments. She would have been put “put of sight” so that the spectre of Elphinstone could be “out of mind”. As it is, everything is too sanitised and, ultimately, genteel. Although, I suppose her desired intention of writing a fantasy justifies this rose-tinted spectacles view of the world.
The introduction, once done, leads into a slightly more leisurely telling of her recruitment to the upmarket brothel known as Nell Gwynne’s and her first assignment for the GSS. Although I think using antigravity as the primary trope of the story is somewhat over-the-top, it fits into the general wackiness of the scientific achievements attributed to all interested parties. The gathering of the interested parties for the auction of the technology is fairly routine, but finds some of Baker’s sense of humour at play. The mayhem at the end is then well-handled and the whole represents an enjoyable read. While this is not one of her best stories at this length, it nevertheless represents good value from Subterranean Press for those of you who like to see more bricks added to the Company wall. If you are not a Company fan, you should probably give this a miss at this price and wait for it to be packaged into a collection.
As an added note, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s won the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novella. It was also shortlisted for both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Novella.