Kage Baker is a interesting, versatile writer. Among other works, she has written the charming steampunk children’s tale, The Hotel Under the Sand, and The Empress of Mars, a fun sci fi story about life on Mars.
In The Scarlet Spy, we have another steampunk story in novella form about …. OK, …. cover your eyes, those of you with tender sensibilities …. prostitution and spying. Set in Victorian era London, we are introduced to a rather special brothel, where the women are intelligent, professional, and spy for the secret Gentlemen’s Speculative Society.
It features Lady Beatrice, and the redoubtable Mrs. Elizabeth Corvey, erstwhile blind person, now with … ahem …. visual enhancements.
While in India , Lady Beatrice was carried away screaming by a Ghilzai tribesman.
Lady Beatrice was beaten and raped. She was left tied among the horses. In the night she tore through the rope with her teeth and crawled into the shelter where her captors slept. She took a knife and cut their throats, and did worse to the last one, because he woke and attempted to break her wrist. She swathed herself in their garments, stole a pair of their boots. She stole their food. She took their horses, riding one and leading the others, and went down to find Papa’s body.
Upon her return to England and her mother and siblings,
it was revealed to Lady Beatrice that, though she had been sincerely mourned when Mamma had been under the impression she was dead, her unexpected return to life was something more than inconvenient.
Because of her despoliation, she was basically tossed out on the streets to make her own way in the world. She soon discovered that she could do best in the age-old career field of whoring. At one point, she was approached by Mrs. Covey, who revealed that she worked for the secret Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, whose function apparently was to invent wonderful gadgets for use by the government. One of these curious items was an implanted device in place of her eyes which gave her sight back to her. An upgrade gave them a telescoping function. She wore a pair of smoked goggles, very black, over them, and it was to her advantage to pretend to still be blind in order to do some highly effective spying.
One of the lovely steampunk elements was the ‘ascending room’ in the luxurious brothel. You know — an elevator!
Mrs. Covey selects Lady Beatrice and three other of her best prostitute/operatives to attend a country house party where the host claims to be auctioning off a marvelous new invention that all government will want, and had ordered some ‘entertainment’ for his invited guest bidders. The house party was a hoot, enhanced by a couple of murders, and some really spiffy characters.
All in all, a fun romp, and yes, only in fiction and only in fiction set in a steampunk world could prostitute seem lively and colorful and fun. But like I always say, reading fiction is the art of suspending disbelief for a period of time.