Kage Baker, The Women of Nell Gwynne's (Subterranean Press, 2009)

The plot, as described on the Subterranean page for pre-ordering this tasty novella, is is simple enough:

Lady Beatrice was the proper British daughter of a proper British soldier, until tragedy struck and sent her home to walk the streets of early-Victorian London. But Lady Beatrice is no ordinary whore, and is soon recruited to join an underground establishment known as Nell Gwynne's. Nell Gwynne's is far more than simply the finest and most exclusive brothel in Whitehall; it is in fact the sister organization to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, that 19th-century predecessor to a certain Company . . .and when a member of the Society goes missing on a peculiar assignment, it's up to Lady Beatrice and her sister harlots to investigate.

Ahhh, but there is much more here than a mere soufflé of a story. First, consider the Heinlein riff she's playing off of. (Kage is in many way a shining example of what Heinlein would be if he were writing today.) Surely, you've read Heinlein's 'By Your Bootstraps' (1941) and 'All You Zombles' (1958) in which he introduced W.E.N.C.H.E.S. (Women's Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section). (He would expand the idea over the years by adding A.N.G.E.L.S. -- Auxiliary Nursing Group, Extraterrestrial Legions -- and W.H.O.R.E.S. -- the Women's Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. Please, no tirades on how sexist he was. That's a matter of opinion open to debate.) But whereas Heinlein's whores were there largely as sexual toys for the brave male adventurers, the ladies of Nell Gwynne's are much, much more.

Befitting that they work for The Company, their primary purpose is extracting intelligence from important men -- capitalists, lawyers, doctors, and government ministers who make use of their unique services -- to be passed on to the the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, the Victoria Era organization that will one day be the time traveling Company that exploits the past for its own greedy purposes. But the ladies of Nell Gwynne's know nothing of this, nor need you, as this is a perfect pulp story that stands on its own without you knowing anything of the existing Company continuity. (It helps to have a passing familiarity with Heinlein's writing to fully appreciate how she stands the alledged sexism of much of his writing on its head!) And there's even a really cool bit of steampunk technology that I won't detail as it'd spoil the story for you.

Suffice it to say that the wenches of Nell Gwynne's are bright, intelligent women who are more than a match for any male who stands in their way. They will save the day long after the male hero has been captured and left helpless to his fate. If you were to take the tropes of thirties' sf, where the damsel is the weak one and the male heroes were the strong ones, and reverse them, this is what you'd get -- literate, fun pulp fiction in a way that is far too rare these days because too many sf writers take themselves far too seriously.

(Note I have not given away any plot details. With a story of this length, any details would spoil your fun. Like The Maltese Falcon, it is a tight story that will surprise you in several ways.)

I can say that The Women of Nell Gwynne's is one of the best novellas I've read in years. Indeed it is as good as the previous Company novella she did a few years back for Subterranean called Rude Mechanicals, and it's very bit as well-crafted as The Angel in the Darkness that was done for the Golden Gryphon Press. All three novellas certainly show Baker's a writer well-suited to creating stories of this length!

Let's hope that the ladies return for more adventures soon!

[Cat Eldridge]