Just out from Subterranean Press are two steampunk novellas, James P. Blaylock’s The Ebb Tide and Kage Baker’s The Women of Nell Gwynne’s. Both take place in Victorian England. Both have great illustrations from J.K. Potter. In both stories the protagonists are trying to keep anti-gravity devices from the hands of evildoers. One is pretty good; the other is really good.
James Blaylock’s The Ebb Tide reprises his hero, Langdon St. Ives, adventurer, scientist and member of the Explorers Club, and his narrator, Jack Owlesby, who is really the star of the show. St. Ives first appeared in “The Ape-Box Affair” in 1977, and, thus, Blaylock can be considered one of the founding fathers of the steampunk movement in fantasy and science fiction. Although there have been several other St. Ives stories, The Ebb Tide is the first new adventure in nearly 20 years.
The tale begins as Owlesby, St. Ives and their friend Tubby Frobisher await dinner at their favorite pub, The Half Toad. An acquaintance comes in with a copy of Merton’s Catalogue of Rarities. Listed for the reasonable price of two pounds six is a “hand-dawn map of a small area of the Morecambe Sands, the location not identified.” The mention of a small letter K followed by a figure-eight drawing of a cuttlefish leads the trio to suspect that this may be the long-missing map fashioned by Bill “Cuttle” Kraken which may lead to one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the age.
Dinner is forgotten as the three adventurers begin a quest that will take them to the an underground laboratory containing a Nautilus-like submarine and an amazing diving bell apparently created by the nefarious Dr. Hidalgo Frosticos.
Our heroes take the diving bell and Frosticos follows in the sub, and the chase is on, from undersea tributaries of the Thames to the quicksands and quirky tides of Morecambe Bay. And an enjoyable romp it is.
The biggest disappointment is that Blaylock doesn’t do more with Frosticos. All we know from this story is that he is an evil genius, but he hardly makes an appearance, except from a distance. And, it seems, everything goes a little too smoothly for our heroes to cause more than moderate tension from the audience.
Kage Baker’s, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, on the other hand, is the initial installment (we hope) of what should be a series of first-rate genre stories, starring a unique cast of well-developed characters.
After her father is killed and she is raped by Ghilzai tribesmen, Lady Beatrice, the daughter of a ranking British soldier originally stationed in India, makes her way back to England. When her mother and sisters discover that Beatrice has been besmirched by scandal, she is disowned by the family and becomes a high-priced streetwalker on the London streets.
It isn’t long before she is recruited by Mrs. Covey, a blind madam who runs a secret and very selective house of ill-repute. The beautiful and educated prostitutes in her charge only provide services for the most powerful of men. And the information the women glean from their customers is passed on to a clandestine arm of the British government.
When it is learned that a scientist is planning to auction off a sophisticated weapon to foreign governments, Beatrice and three sisters from the House are sent to seduce the bidders and the scientist and find out exactly what is going on.
In a rundown castle with hidden rooms, tunnels and dungeons, Lady Beatrice and the girls discover more than they expect, and Mrs. Covey has a few surprises of her own. In all this is one of the most fun reads of the summer.
It doesn’t matter whether she is writing about a tavern in 24th century Mars, as she did in her latest novel, The Empress of Mars, or of a caravan across a fantasy desert as she did in The Anvil of Earth, Kage Baker’s stories and novels are rare delights. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is no exception.
Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mounain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly for the since 1988. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.