I have long enjoyed Kage Baker's books, and I was so saddened by her death several months ago. When this novella was first published, it sounded like a lot of fun, but the library where I work didn't own it. I put in a request that we purchase it, but was eventually told that the budget would not permit it (and I have to say, I felt my request was vindicated when this wonderful novella recently received a Nebula Award - I just wish Baker had been here to receive it herself).
Usually my library purchases award-winning books, and I was puzzled when this one was not on the to-be-ordered list. I popped over to Amazon, and I was surprised to see that this is a difficult book to get these days - in fact, Amazon doesn't sell if for less than $100. What I thought was a sequel due to be released next month turns out to be a paperback reprint of the first book, with a new short story involving the same protagonist included at the end.
At any rate, as much as I love Kage Baker's books, I wasn't able to fork out the $100+ to read this one, so I put in an interlibrary loan request, and I must thank the kind librarians of the Alachua County Library in Florida for graciously sending this book all the way to Virginia for me to read - and for not even charging a fee! The book they sent is a signed copy, too, which was fun, and of course I took very good care of it.
The book follows the adventures of a young woman who calls herself the Lady Beatrice. As a child growing up in British colonial India, Lady Beatrice is intelligent, bold and courageous, the daughter of a British Army Officer. She shares a close bond with her father, but her mother disapproves of her unladylike ways. Following a tragedy that occurs in her early teens, Lady Beatrice finds herself on her own in London, spurned by her family, and forced to turn to prostitution to survive.
A chance encounter with an old friend of her father's finds Beatrice invited to join a very special, exclusive brothel known as Nell Gwynne's, which trades in secrets. It is the sister organization to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society (the predecessor to the Company, for those who have read Baker's books in that wonderful series) . The lady Beatrice and her compatriot harlots soon find themselves sent on a dangerous mission to an old estate home in the English countryside, trying to unearth the secret behind the disappearance of an agent and the rumors of an amazing invention. Armed with sophisticated gadgetry worthy of James Bond's Q, the girls feel well equipped to face whatever challenges await. But nothing can prepare them for the bizarre goings on at Lord Rawdon's estate...
This novella is absolutely delightful. It is exciting and surprising, with plenty of the tongue-in-cheek humor that often lurks in the pages of Baker's novels, and I enjoyed every single page and was so sorry when the book ended. The Lady Beatrice is a wonderful heroine, brilliant and with an often comical detachment and pragmatism that have allowed her, against the odds, to get rise above the obstacles and tragedy in her life. The women she works with are wonderful, too, unflappable and smart, and very willing to use all the hidden advantages of their social position when it comes to espionage.
I highly recommend this novella. With its deft sense of humor, evocative illustrations, memorable characters, biting social commentary, clever plot twists and surprises - plus all the cool gadgetry (always a plus with me), the only negative thing I can say about this one is that it was simply too short.
The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker; illustrated by J.K. Potter (Subterranean Press, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
Book Gazing: "I can’t talk this book up enough, it’s a little bit different, but not overly steeped in sci-fi for anyone unsure about that element of the steam punk genre. If you enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White or Sarah Water’s Victorian novels I think you could happily spend an entertaining afternoon with The Women of Nell Gwynne’s."
Writing Every Day: "When I got to the end, I smiled to myself and thought, This is absurd. The fun kind of absurd."