by Kage Baker
Subterranean Press, 2011
This slim little volume is comprised of two stories: "Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" and "The Bohemian Astrobleme" both of which feature a character named Lady Beatrice. I got it for the first tale, which I had originally heard of as The Women of Nell Gwynne's, a novella that won a Hugo in 2010. Frankly, I think the original title is more fetching; luckily, my most excellent local indie bookstore was able to track down this volume, as the original novella was out of print. Very pleased, because I'd desperately wanted to read this story since I'd first heard about it.
I think it was worth the wait; it was certainly diverting and well-written. It was a little more grim than I expected, but also funnier than I expected. Baker doesn't pull her punches, and though there's not a lot of graphic gore, there's a darkness to these stories that upon reflection makes a lot of sense -- the first story is an astute, if sideways, glimpse at a Victorian woman's life options. It's not a pretty picture. The second story is somewhat lighter, but the darkness blows in full force at the end. The humour is dark, too, in both of them, although it's also quite charming and often very dry in the way I particularly like. And both stories are exceedingly well-constructed.
"Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy" (aka "The Women of Nell Gwynne's") is almost a simple character study; at least, it starts out that way. Lady Beatrice -- not a lady, nor a Beatrice, but we never find out what name she used to go by -- was a soldier's daughter. After a pretty horrific, harrowing experience abroad, she ends up on the streets. She is brave, shrewd, and highly intelligent, though, and this gets her noticed by Mrs. Corvey, the proprietress of Nell Gwynne's, an exclusive brothel that serves customers by invitation only. It also happens to be connected to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, a very secret group of highly intelligent men who are far, far ahead of their time. The women of Nell Gwynne's serve to gather secrets and occasionally blackmail the powerful into doing exactly what the Society wants them to do. In return, they have a relative measure of freedom, the opportunity to use their ample brains, and have use of some of the Society's fantastic inventions, not to mention a very comfortable living and an easy, early retirement.
"The Bohemian Astrobleme" is a story about what happens when the Society wants something. Lady Beatrice is involved, as is Ludbridge, a character we meet in the first story. It's an entertaining little piece, interesting and somewhat chilling, too. Because we like both Lady Beatrice and Ludbridge, and in this story they are pretty ruthless. There's a very good reason that this story was second in the pairing; characterization is very thin (it can be, because it is second) but the reader is left feeling a little alarmed by how easily we were charmed by both Lady Beatrice and Ludbridge, and how we still like and admire them.
There are a couple things that I liked about the first story especially: a) life as a Victorian woman isn't glamourized, nor is prostitution, which can be a trap historical fiction and fantasy of a certain kind falls into; and b) though there are steampunk elements, it also avoids the above glamour trap, which steampunk can certainly fall into. I felt like these stories both treated their time period respectfully -- affectionately, perhaps, and we weren't delving deeply into issues, but with a clear head.
Overall recommended, if you can get your hands on these stories. Definitely not for children or the prudish. I keep thinking of dark chocolate as a metaphor -- delicious, a little exotic, and slightly bitter in a way that makes the whole experience that much better. The writing is quietly excellent, and the story is original and diverting. I'll be reading more by Baker in the future.