Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold
When I was small, one of the most exciting aspects of going to shops was the chance to watch the cash collection systems in operation. In the smaller local shops, the owner would have a till or drawer in which the cash was kept. It was all very informal. But where there were several people serving and the owner could not supervise all, there were three ways of moving the cash to a central till where the owner, a relative or trusted employee would handle the cash. The most boring was pneumatic. The sales person would insert the cash and an invoice into a tube which was then carried by compressed air to a central point where change was dispensed. But the real delights were in the wire carriers and the balls. Using a spring and mechanical switching to propel the container along a wire, the sales assistant would pull upon a chain to release the container which flew along the wire like it was powered by electricity — a real miracle of science. However, there was nothing to beat the sloping rail system which carried the balls by gravity from one part of the shop to another. I remember walking around shops following the balls as they went to and then returned from the cashier. The modern system in supermarkets where the shopper scans the goods, and swipes or taps a card for payment may be efficient, but it has no soul. All the fun has been taken out of the act of payment. Now all you’re left with is the pain when you get the bank statement at the end of the month.
I start this way because the experience of reading Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold (Solaris, 2011) is not unlike watching one of those wooden balls run with ever-increasing speed down the tracks to the cashier. This is a book that rolls along with such fluent ease, it transports you to the end without any sense of effort. You just arrive there and feel grateful for the experience of being parted from your money. Now we pause for a moment of reflection. I’m actually faintly surprised by my reaction because, in most other examples of this narrative structure, I end up feeling annoyed. This needs explanation. My usual preference is for linear storytelling. Yes, this is intensely boring but I do prefer to start at the beginning, go through the middle and come out at the end (ignoring the obviously excretory connotations, of course). But what we have here is a twin narrative structure where current reality is interrupted on a regular basis by the backstory. Our heroine’s past could have been Part 1 — a moment of thanks that this did not become the first book in a trilogy although, truth be told, the ending is left open for one or more sequels. Modern publishers seem to think three’s a charm. But I was hooked by the prose and read on regardless, switching back and forward in time like an old pro. Well, I am an old pro, after all, so there’s nothing particularly special about it. Anyway, the real point of all this is that Babylon Steel is simple, unpretentious fun as the backstory slowly becomes increasing relevant to the current situation. Too often, fantasy-based science fiction gets all excited about its own cleverness and loses its way. This contrives to get to the vital revelation about four-fifths of the way through and then it’s just pure excitement to the end.
Here, we have a multi-dimensional environment where different species can mingle by passing through portals. We start with the relatively boring humans, reptiles and the less definable. Some species possess magical abilities or are inherently magical being fauns or one of the fey. Others have aspects we would call godlike in that their powers surpass the usual limits of magic and enable the effects of the commands to be felt over wide areas of the current reality. The interaction between all these groups depends on a diplomatic service to smooth over any cultural improprieties or actual disagreements. Since different beings can pass into other dimensions for the purposes of trade, including those of a sexual nature, they could just as easily export crime or import war. So the diplomatic service is, of necessity, interested in keeping the peace both in and between the different dimensions. As a final thought, let’s say there were once beings of genuinely godlike power. After a time, they withdrew but, to give their worshippers comfort, they left avatars who could assume a small portion of their originals’ powers. Even on a small scale, these avatars could wield much power simply because of the status in the belief system. Obviously, it would be for the good of all if these avatars were benign. If a demigod were to be cruel, it would reinforce the worship through fear‚ a less than ideal outcome.
So, to sum up. There’s an element of bait and switch about which direction the plot will take but, once Gaie Sebold makes a definitive move, we get to a good ending point with all the loose ends tied up neatly. The writing style is very efficient and pulls us through with a constant stream of interesting new developments. This makes Babylon Steel a very pleasing first novel and Gaie Sebold an author watching out for in the future.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.