RogerBW's Blog

The Women of Nell Gwynne's, Kage Baker 12 September 2017

2009 steampunk SF novella, very loosely connected with the Company series. The finest brothel in Whitehall is also a nest of spies, but very discreet ones.

This is a "virtuous brothel" story in the vein of Sally's Place and Karen Memery, where all the girls are basically happy to be there and the (female) boss looks after them. But it's also tied into the conspiracies of the Company series, which is where the steampunk comes in; if you don't recognise the Gentlemen's Speculative Society from the main books, you can at least work out that they're a secret organisation with advanced technology, and that's all you really need to know here.

The story is really two short stories together: in the first part, "Lady Beatrice" grows up in British India, survives various horrors on the 1842 retreat from Kabul through toughness rather than external rescue, finds that society no longer has a place for her, takes to prostitution on the basis that there's nothing else she can do, and is eventually recruited to the brothel. This is solid stuff, and works well. In the second, five of the women are hired as "entertainment" by a gentleman-scientist who's inviting interested parties to bid on his new invention, and complications ensue; perhaps a few too many complications, and this doesn't hold together the way the first part does.

The main story of The Company was completed in The Sons of Heaven, and like The Empress of Mars this is a story that uses the setting rather than a further development of that glorious complication of time-travel and eventual consistency. Lady Beatrice is a fairly flat character, admittedly for good reasons, and one assumes that if written at greater length she might eventually recover from some of her post-traumatic stress.

Overall this feels more like a trailer, the setup and a quick proof of concept, than a complete story. It doesn't offend but nor does it drag me in.

Followed by Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea, completed by another after Baker's death.

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