One thing “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s,” by Kage Baker, really gets right is that you can’t take steampunk seriously.
The daughter of a British officer in India, “Lady Beatrice” was a spunky kid who squashes spiders and won’t let anyone steal her dolls. Things go badly, and having a spine of steel doesn’t save her. When she makes it back to England, her dishonor makes her existence too uncomfortable for her family, so she takes up streetwalking.
She is recruited to join a secret brothel dedicated to stealing men’s secrets, housed at Nell Gwynne’s, and sponsored by the Speculative Gentleman’s Society. The SGS has fitted the proprietress, Mrs. Corvey, with very cool artificial brass eyes, which she conceals with dark goggles. Also the goggles make sure you know that this is steampunk.
More steampunkery is scattered along the way as we are introduced to still more of the “working girls.” I had the feeling that the author was setting up a new series, and since we sadly will see no more installments, it’s just as well we got to see Nell Gwynne’s in such detail. The inevitable sexwork is described about as salaciously as showing a code monkey tapping his fingers on a keyboard.
When “Lady Beatrice” finally goes on her first real mission, amusing antics and skullduggery ensue. It’s all told in a charming manner. When I got to the end, I smiled to myself and thought, This is absurd.
The fun kind of absurd.