Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth BearKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Published by Tor Forge on February 3rd 2015
ISBN: 9780765375247
Genres: Steampunk
Pages: 346
Format: Hardcover
Source: 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.

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Disclosure: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


drey’s thoughts:

The Plot: There’s something afoot in Rapid City, and it takes a band of soiled doves (i.e. prostitutes), a few runaways, and a US Marshall and his “posse” (i.e. 1 Indian) to track down the what and the who. Not that the what was easy to figure out, buried as it is under bodies (courtesy of a fugitive from justice, hence the Marshall) and what looks like a turf war. The plot isn’t the reason I enjoyed Karen Memory – I thought it was a little lightweight, instead it was the cast of characters and the story itself that caught my attention and had me flipping pages as fast as I could read.

The Characters: I really appreciated the diversity of the characters in Karen Memory, from the professions to the ethnicities. I mean, how many other books have you read where most of the characters, action (in the beginning, at least), and background are centered in a brothel?

The heroine is a prostitute who’s gay – and she’s so pragmatic about life general that both facets of her life are matter of fact. One of the doves is a man – I believe the correct term is transvestite, and the bouncer is gay. The madame passes for white – enough that nobody thinks to question it, except for the villain who’s trying to take over the city. The Marshall is a former slave, and the runaways mentioned above are Chinese and Indian (east, not native). And lest you think it’s just labels, I’ll throw in my 2 cents that I thought Elizabeth Bear did a really good job writing them and I’ll add the caveat that I could be totally wrong, because I do not have the experience nor the expertise to judge what makes a good or bad character with any/all of the attributes listed above. My opinion is just that, and is based wholly on how real I perceived them to be.

Not that these are the only attributes each character possesses. Karen is brave and stubborn – have you noticed how these often go hand in hand? She’s also wily, loyal, and an optimist. She can read and write, though not with proper grammar, as she’s not had much of an education. And if you’re a fussy reader, this will irk you as the entire story is told in Karen’s voice.

The Story: Karen Memory is a story told so well that you’ll regret reading the last word, if only because there’s no more Karen et al. Elizabeth Bear describes the setting so well that you can almost see it in your head as you read. I liked the logic behind the layout, too.

Fans of a good ol’ adventure story will enjoy Karen Memory, so pick it up if that’s your cup of tea.

drey’s rating: Excellent!

Have you read Karen Memory? What did you think?

About Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. This, coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, the mispronunciation of common English words, and the writing of speculative fiction.