Karen Memory Author: Elizabeth Bear Publisher: Tor Books, February 3, 2015 Format: Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages List Price: $25.99 (print) ISBN: 9780765375247 (print) Review Copy: Provided by the Publisher
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I'm gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I'm one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It's French, so Beatrice tells me.”
Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, beggin sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Did you know that estimates of black cowboys in the frontier period range from 5,000 to 9,000? At the high estimate this would be 1 in 4. I am glad to see an author who mixes such fantastical elements as fighting juggernaut sewing machines, mad scientist taxes, and mind control machines with very real issues of the roles of women, blacks, and immigrant populations in a period of history that is often glorified and whitewashed.
Karen Memery (aka Memory) is a farm bred girl who has her heart set on owning a horse ranch - a dream that was cut short with the death of her father. Now she continues to dream while she socks away some money from ‘stargazing’. As a soiled dove, i.e., sex worker, for Madame Damnable Sewing Circle, Karen joins a cast of irascible characters in the pursuit of justice for friends and to catch a killer before he murders again.
There are a lot of things to love about this story. I loved some of the quirks that you don’t usually see in other steampunk westerns: the mad scientist tax and the suggestion that science is far progressed with radium watches already evident in the late 1800’s. I love that we see a black U.S. Marshall and his Comanche posseman, but I also like that Bear takes time to explore the underlying racisms in a very subtle way by introducing historical facts into the narrative and by questioning assumptions by all the characters about each other’s capabilities. Bear's also added in some interesting notes about sanitation and medicine of the day. I love that Miss Francina is a strong sensible trans representation that fit in well with some of the other steadier and more mature ‘seamstresses’ in Madame Damnable’s sewing house.
Were all the multi-cultural elements perfect? When are they ever? I don’t claim to be an expert in anything other than myself. For me, there were some moments that toed the line, but never crossed over. I’m willing to bow to those more experienced and knowledgeable in these realms than I. There were a host of cursory or more developed themes that nodded at the overlapping historical issues and popular characters including the serial killer patterned after Jack the Ripper. For me, the Jack the Ripper character was tied so intrinsically from the start with the feud with Peter Bantle that it didn’t lend the horror and terror that it inspired in Whitechapel in 1888. That isn’t to say it was distracting from the story, but a subplot like that could easily have been its own book.
While the attempt to write in period can be jarring at times, the problem I usually run into with it is inconsistency in treatment throughout the book, but Bear does a great job of keeping the writing and pacing consistent.
Steampunk inspired stories for me are like Lovecraftian horror is for other people. I feel like there is a lot of it out there and, for me, not much of it is very creative or enjoyable. A lot of times even when I enjoy something done in steampunk it isn’t enough with all the other options out there to keep me coming back, but I’d read another dozen books set in Bear’s alternate Rapid City.