I was excited to get a copy of Karen Memory because I enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy – it had an epic scope, a great unconventional setting and subverted a whole bunch of stereotypes of women in fantasy. Karen Memory is pretty different in both setting and tone (steampunk adventure featuring a lesbian prostitute protagonist), but it was still superb.
Karen Memery is a “seamstress” at Madam Damnable’s upscale brothel Hôtel Mon Cherie in the burgeoning Rapid City. When Madam Damnable offers sanctuary to a girl escaping from the harsh conditions of Peter Bantle’s rather lower-scale establishment, he swears retribution and Karen gets swept up into the adventure of her life, involving a legendary lawman, a serial killer, a plot against the United States and more.
Karen’s first-person narration really sells this book – she’s down to earth, but has a sharp wit, plain-spoken but charismatic, and most importantly, is full of heart. She’s had a tough life, and she doesn’t run away from that, but neither does she doesn’t let that stop her from being optimistic. It’s apparent that she’s no lady, but she’s definitely someone you’d want as a friend.
All the supporting characters feel like people you’d want to know too. Of course there’s Priya, the indentured girl rescued from Bantle and Karen’s love interest – she’s whip-smart and has a core of steel, despite being abused. She’s a full, three-dimensional person that is treated as such and isn’t really exoticized at all despite being from India, which is pretty amazing (I’ve met people in real life who have the best intentions but feel like they have to treat me differently because I’m from India, so I really mean that it’s amazing). There’s the kind but determined U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who was a real person, and Tomoatooah, his badass Numu posseman, and Merry Lee the also-badass woman that rescued indentured slaves. And all the other girls at the Hôtel Mon Cherie have their own distinct personalities without any reference to what they do for a living (something that is carried over from the Eternal Sky trilogy and sorely missing from fantasy – a cast of mainly women that all defy stereotypes) – in fact, there’s very little sex in this book, and none actually described. Here’s Elizabeth Bear talking about how she sees that:
And the thing is, for Karen and her colleagues, prostitution is a job. It’s how they make a living, not how they identify themselves. The protagonists of most urban fantasy novels seem to work waiting tables or as private investigators, if they’re not starving artists. Either their job is the adventure, or it’s something that provides a gateway to the adventure, but we’re never supposed to care too much about the job qua job itself!
So Karen’s job gives her an entry into her adventure—but it certainly doesn’t define her. And to me, the adventure is the interesting thing. She’s not having adventures or being a good person in spite of being a prostitute. She’s a prostitute, and she also gets to have adventures.
The protagonist and the characters are the most charming things about Karen Memory, but it’s also a damn good adventure story. The pacing is excellent, and the stakes keep getting higher – what starts off as a simple mission to rescue Priya’s sister turns into helping Marshal Reeves find his killer, which turns into an attempt to stop Peter Bantle’s political ambition, and that leads into even more trouble. Karen grows as a character, learning to move on from her father’s death, discovering talents she didn’t know she had, and falling in love.
I’m not super well-read in the steampunk genre, but I’ve learned to be wary of stories that are all about the gadgets. The steampunk elements in this book, though prevalent and integral to the plot, are just everyday items in the world Karen lives in. Gadget fans won’t be disappointed either – there’s the mandatory airship trip and a cool submersible, as well as some very useful household and medical devices – but they are just supplements to the plot and characters.
I really need to go back and read Elizabeth Bear’s earlier work – between this and Eternal Sky, she’s shown she has incredible range.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.