Monday, 17 October 2011

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy by Kage Baker

This book was first released as a collector’s edition entitled The Women of Nell Gwynne’s. Considering that it garnered a lot of attention and the author sadly passed away shortly after, the publishers decided to republish it along with an accompanying short story. This was good news for me as it meant that I could get the book that had piqued my interest for less than the $100 asking price for the limited edition. Unfortunately, for a long time the only edition that came up on my book provider’s site was the German one, and my German is far too rusty to attempt to read a book in the language! So I found myself waiting until the English language edition became available. Having forgotten about the book for some time, I recently went back to check on the status only to discover that it was now available for ordering. I, of course, immediately put the order through, excited for what awaited me even though I knew absolutely nothing about the story. Yes, sometimes I get fixated on things that I know nothing about!

Presentation: A large, good quality paperback. The type is small but spaced. The original novella is 122 pages broken down into 18 chapters. There then follows a short story The Bohemian Astrobleme that is approx. 40 pages long and includes breaks in the text but no chapters.

Story: I’m only going to address the story of the original novella here. In The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Lady Beatrice, daughter of a high-ranking member of the English army, finds herself fallen from grace and unacceptable in polite society after the death of her father. Instead, she turns to prostitution and is soon approached by the madam of a very exclusive brothel that deals only in secrets. When one of their agents goes missing on a mission, the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (which works hand in hand with Nell Gwynne’s) sends the ladies to an ancient English manor hoping not only to find their agent but also to uncover just what the Lord has been doing with vast sums of money.

Thoughts and impressions: As of the very first lines, this book strikes you. It is probably largely due to the fact that the style is so very formal but at the same time… I can only think to call it in-your-face and cheeky. The main character is always referred to as Lady Beatrice because that is the name that she took for her prostitute persona. The reader never knows what her name was before this, though they do (briefly) follow her through the early years of her life and the events that led up to her decision to sell her body to earn her way.

The author introduces the reader to a steampunk early Victorian society where the underground Gentlemen’s Speculative Society has invented any number of interesting and quirky devices, such as mechanical lenses that allow the blind to see, but do not share their inventions with society at large. At least, not for now. But they do use these inventions to influence society with the help of the secrets that the women of Nell Gwynne’s extract from their high-ranking clientele. Some of the devices are great fun!

But the characters themselves are even more fun. There’s just something about writing about whores that allows the author to present the tight-laced society that they live in and characters that completely contradict everything about that society. Books about whores also always seem to have an undercurrent of dry, sarcastic humour and Nell Gwynne’s is no exception! I’m a big fan of dry humour when it is handled correctly, as it is here. Lady Beatrice always goes with whatever the flow but tries to subtly influence it to meet her means, sometimes with funny or unexpected consequences.

I believe that it was the author's original intention to continue this series of novellas but that life unfortunately did not allow for such. This is a great shame as it could have heralded the start of an excellent series about Lady Beatrice's adventures.

A quick note on The Bohemian Astrobleme: this short story delves more into the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society and the work that they do. It’s about a specific type of meteorite only found in Bohemia that gives a powerful electric shock to anyone who touches it after it comes in contact with a specific type of acid. It is soon ascertained that this red glass would make excellent battery fuel cells. Ludbridge, whom we met in The Women on Nell Gwynne’s is sent to Bohemia with two companions to track the origin of the glass. Lady Beatrice soon joins him and again the reader is treated to a delightful romp through this society with characters who are quiet and others who are too cocky for their own good.

Style: The greatness of this style stems from the juxtaposition of a very formal style and extremely informal situations. There’s just something about describing an orgy and then mentioning that the host had agreed to allow himself to be “fellatiated”!

Final verdict: Great fun. Short but it worked really well. I really enjoyed it, it was a quick read and I’ll likely go back and reread it at some point soon in case I missed anything. 5 stars.

Extra notes: Occasional mild language. The story is about whores so obviously there’s a certain amount of sex involved.


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