Gaie Sebold’s Babylon Steel was one of the most enjoyable debuts of 2012. The follow-up, Dangerous Gifts, begins once more in the anything-goes city-state of Scalentine, where Babylon Steel, sometime sword-for-hire, runs (and occasionally works in) the city’s best brothel, the Red Lantern. Recruited to bodyguard a young heiress, Enthemmerlee, Babylon travels to nearby Incandress, home of the reptilian Ikinchli and the humanoid Gudain, who treat the Ikinchli as little better than slaves. Enthemmerlee is a Gudain, but is transforming into the Itnunnacklish, a mythical hybrid of Ikinchli and Gudain who will unite the two races if married to a member of each. There are, of course, many who don’t want that to happen.
On top of this, Emthemmerlee’s household guards are a lax, badly organised bunch and the Gudain have an attitude to sex that could only be called insanely prudish, leading to Babylon’s arrest for breaching their inflexible Moral Statutes. Meanwhile, the Lantern is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as one of Babylon’s girls, the Fay princess Laney, spends everything in their bank account on a shipment of very expensive silk which is now in danger of being stolen. Back on Scalentine the ‘humans-first’ Builders are fomenting violence against Scalentine’s non-human inhabitants – especially weres, like Babylon’s lover, Militia Chief Bitternut. There’s a vast amount going on, but Sebold keeps us on top of it with crisp, wry, uncluttered prose and deft storytelling.
While hugely entertaining, the novel is far from lacking in meat for those readers who prefer characters with emotional depth and a little darkness in the mix. Sebold showed in her first novel that she wasn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and she’s just as capable of doing so in this one. And Babylon has a past, unfolded in the first, which returns to haunt her in this one.
Dangerous Gifts has all the qualities that made Babylon Steel such a pleasure to read: a blend of comedy, romance, and action that’s smart, sexy and fun, but with enough of a dark edge that it retains a necessary degree of realism. The characters are great, too – in Babylon herself, Sebold has created a heroine who’s convincingly and simultaneously tough, smart, sensuous and capable of love on her own terms, without becoming a doormat or a damsel in distress. The sex scenes are erotic rather than sleazy; one of the most refreshing touches Sebold brings is an honest and unmoralising attitude to sex, and, in particular, Babylon’s trade. The girls (and boys) of the Red Lantern are neither pathetic victims nor hopelessly damaged individuals – they’re just people who enjoy sex and have no problem doing it for money.
Indeed, one of the only drawbacks to the novel is that Babylon’s crew, Laney aside, are absent from most of it. So, while Dangerous Gifts can be enjoyed without reading Babylon Steel, it’s more fun if you do, as those who haven’t encountered the S&M twins – Cruel and Unusual – or the Lantern’s eight foot high, green-skinned troll chef, Flower, can do so therein.
In short, Gaie Sebold has written a hugely entertaining novel, full of humour and excitement but also with real depth. Even if you don’t normally like sword and sorcery-type tales, this one is more than worth your time.
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