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Book Review: The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

# Genre: Historical Fantasy; Alternate History; Steampunk
# Hardcover: 120 pages
# Publisher: Subterranean; First edition
# Publication Date: June 30, 2009
# ISBN-10: 1596062509
# ISBN-13: 978-1596062504
# Author Website
# Illustrator: J. K. Potter

Crack the pages of The Women of Nell Gwynne’s and you will find action, mystery, and beautiful women. Oh no, you say, not another Conan wannabe. To which I reply, well actually, no. A novella by Kage Baker, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is everything any SF/F fan wishes the works of Charles Dickens would have been.

The story is about a premier brothel in Victorian London. Though these ladies of the night provide pleasure to the notables of the city, that is not the primary reason for their existence. No, these women serve as a front and spy-center for a certain Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, an entity which has appeared in other Baker works. Lady Beatrice, newly arrived to working at Nell Gwynne’s is promptly swept up into an adventure requiring all the skills these ladies can muster. The must find a man that the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society has lost, and learn what secrets his former employer, Lord Arthur Rawdon, is hiding.

This novella is thoroughly entertaining. Baker has skillfully captured the tone and feel of a Victorian novel, reading like an Austen or Dickens without an excess of flowery language or philosophical meanderings. The grammatical structure and dialogue, along with the setting combine to make one feel as if he or she were in the very room with the protagonists. It is what readers hoped Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would be, but sometimes came away feeling it was not. But instead of the magic of Susanna Clarke’s novel, Baker has instead used gadgetry and technology to turn this period piece into a science fiction novel. It draws comparisons to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but rather than super hero literary characters, the protagonists are ordinary people with a desire to shape and influence world events.

Beatrice is interesting, and we get a detailed glimpse of her history as a British army officer’s daughter, and her subsequent kidnap into the wilds of Afghanistan. Baker takes some opportunity here to imply that the imperial ambitions of the British of the Victorian period to are similar to those of American in the here and now, but these are easily glossed over, more of “oh, look and interesting similarity” than a “here is what you should think about this.”

Baker also acknowledges that she is writing a story about whores. But whereas a male writer might have spent more time on that fact, Baker instead chooses to differentiate profession from character. These women are strong and intelligent, people you would want to know as a friend. They are not wholly defined by what they do, something that is unusual for a fictional character whose profession is that of a whore. Baker should be commended for managing to make her characters more than the sum of their profession.

That being said, this novel is for adults only. Theses woman are frank about what it is they do, and there is implication that some of them perform acts of bondage, etc., etc. Except for a short scene or two, this is not graphic, but it is there, so anyone offended by such will want to turn away.

Beyond that, there is little if anything to dislike about this little novella. It reads quickly and easily, flowing smoothly from one chapter to the next. The mystery aspect of the story reminds me of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, though with a SF twist. The fact that the tale is about female protagonists in a man centered world allows little bits of humor in, “Life for the ladies of Nell Gwynne’s was, placed in the proper historical, societal and economic context, quite tolerably nice.”

I recommend this novel for any fan of Kage Baker, and for anyone who likes stories of Victorian London. Readers of Jo Walton or James Blaylock will find The Women of Nell Gwynne’s to their liking, as will those classicists who read H.G. Wells religiously. Mystery fans will find much to enjoy here as well. As for me, on this my first reading of a Baker work, I have become a card carrying fan member of her club and will eagerly be seeking out more of her work in the near future. You should too.