Saturday, April 27, 2019

Karen Memory

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 4/27/2019, Reviewed 4/27/2019
4 stars

I’m not a huge steampunk or western fan, but I really enjoyed this cross between the two.  The book is about a prostitute with a heart of gold in the Pacific Northwest during the Washington territory days in the 1800s.  It’s mixed with a Jack the Ripper style murder mystery where women are found in alleyways flogged to death.  It was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2016 for positive LGBTQ content in Science Fiction/Fantasy.

The book is told in first person narrative by Karen Memery, like memory but with an e.  She’s an orphaned girl doing the best she can in Madame Damnable’s high-class bordello in a town called Rapid that’s a sort of amalgam of Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco, servicing the mariners and the gold seekers before they head up to Alaska.  All is relatively normal until one day, an injured girl named Priya shows up on the doorstep.  Turns out she’s from India and was abducted and forced into prostitution by the evil competing bordello.  Taking her in creates a war between the two houses.  At around the same time women begin appearing in alleyways flogged to death.  The owner of the other house has a mind-control device that he uses to control his indentured prostitutes as well as influence the people of the town against Madame Damnable.  Also coming into the story are a black Lone Ranger type with an American Indian sidekick who are searching for the murderer.  Together they all try to solve the murder mystery while surviving the attacks from the competing house.

The story is really well done.  It’s told in old west style, low-educated grammar.  At first I found it a little annoying, then appreciated it for giving us a sense of who Karen is.  It’s just the right touch of quaint without being too difficult to read.  There aren’t a lot of flashbacks into Karen’s past but she conveys her life experience as well as her hopes and dreams.  In particular, she tells us about how she is falling in love with Priya and wants to settle down on a ranch of her own with her.  She’s been saving up money to buy land, as working in the Hotel Mon Cherie pays pretty well.  We get to know a lot about Priya, as well as several of the young women working at the bordello as they all interact as a family.  The characterization is really well done.

In the steampunk category, there are dirigibles, the mind-control device, a Nautilus-type submersible run by a captain nicknamed Nemo, and a walk-in sewing machine/automaton that Karen uses as a sort of coat of armor.  This walk-in sewing machine was the only thing I didn’t quite get.  I got that it was like having armor that enhances the musculature of the wearer, but I never got how it was used for sewing.  It didn’t ruin the story for me in any way, it just made me wonder what it’s for besides escaping from burning buildings or busting people out of jail. 

Readers of my blog may note that I’ve been reading this book over two weeks.  It’s not a long book, and it’s quick reading.  I was just distracted by gaming.  If I wasn’t playing games for two solid weeks, I would have read more than 20 pages a night.  The action is well described and fast paced.  I would have finished this book a lot more quickly if I hadn’t been playing so many games. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s not my usual brand of excellent, but it was really well written and thought out.  I liked Karen, the book’s setting, and its plot.  It’s pretty fun, and I think would have been a fast read under normal circumstances. 

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