Some days, you just get a hankering for a tawdry, tattered paperback. You know the type. The kind of book that’s at least 500 pages long, yet is still small enough to clasp easily in one palm. The kind that’s grown worn and well-thumbed from countless hands flipping through its pages over the years. The kind whose plot is the equivalent of jingling keys in front of a toddler, all bright lights and bombastic fights and maybe a drawn-out sex scene or three (the medium allowing the author to get as x-rated as they want). In short, trash, but entertaining trash that you can glide through on a slow day at work when you’re sitting bored at your desk with nothing else to do.

When a friend of mine recommended Babylon Steel, the sheer zaniness of the premise, combined with the fact that a used copy of the mass-market paperback was going for 9 USD on my country’s Amazon (that’s with shipping), I had the damnedest feeling that this book would scratch my itch for entertaining trash. So did it?

Oh yes. If you’re a fan of balls-to-the-wall SFF splurge, with excitement, drama, action, violence, fresh fruit, passion, thrills, spills, romance, and adventure, then Babylon Steel is a perfect source of entertainment for you. Despite its length the story (well, stories, but we’ll get to that in a minute) flies by, and there’s an overwhelming sense of fun that permeates every page.

However, it’s when the book tries to be more than fun entertainment, when it tries to say something deep, that it starts to stumble. This book came out in the last dying days of New Atheism, and shares that movement’s open disdain for organized religion. Given how vitriolic the titular main character is towards religion, how her friends all react with confused worry whenever she gets heated about the subject, and how her own upbringing involved a violent religious cult (which we learn more about over the course of the book), I was expecting the book to end with Babylon realizing that her outlook was informed by her own personal trauma, and gain a more nuanced outlook on religion after confronting that trauma. But Babylon ends the book more or less in the same place she began, and given how one of the plots of the book involves her revealing to its worshipers that the deities of this cult aren’t actually as nice as they say they are, and her unmasking their evil so that said worshipers them aside, I got the impression that we were supposed to be on Babylon’s side whenever she talked about how only stupid idiot babies believe in gods and such . Will there be any fallout to gutting an entire planet of its religious infrastructure? If there is, Babylon doesn’t think about it. Civilizing the backwards inhabitants of this world is more important to her.

The thing is, the other two stories also involve religion, but are much more nuanced criticisms of the concept than simply “We need to kill God because he’s secretly eeevil!” One of them involves a religious order covering for one of its members committing a mundane crime (something that actually happens far too often in our world, sadly), and the other involves a religious prophecy that may or may not be real, but which has serious ramifications for a planet’s social structure regardless (showcasing how, far from being simply a matter of personal faith, religion has wider influences on cultures and societies).

However, I need to explain what I mean when I say multiple plots. See, Babylon Steel isn’t really a book but rather three books, three distinct stories all sewn together in a single volume. And while you would expect these plots to weave and intersect together at some point, they never do. They remain firmly discrete from one another, and the one involving the prophecy is even resolved before the halfway point of the book, only returning in the last five pages so that Steel can set up a sequel. It raises the question of why Gaie Sebold didn’t simply write three separate books with more focus, instead of one big book with everything spread out.

Even with these issues that I had though, they were never enough to drag Babylon Steel down into unenjoyment. At the end of the day, I went in expecting a pulpy paperback, and that’s exactly what I got. And if the book expressed opinions that didn’t sit right with me, well, I defy anyone to find a trashy adventure pulp story whose morals line up perfectly with your own. I know I spent much more word count discussing the book’s flaws instead of its strengths, but that’s only because the book’s strengths are simpler and can be summed up with basic sentences like “It was fun!” or “like if Farscape was fantasy”. So if you, like me, ever find yourself hankering for a tawdry, tattered paperback, I’d say check this one out. If nothing else you’ll see some imaginative alien sex in the pages.