Review: Karen Memory

Posted: May 31, 2016 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Elizabeth Bear, Steampunk

If you haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Bear you are seriously missing out. This woman can write anything. Anything I tell you. Norse mythology? (Amazon) Check. Vikings and telepathic wolves? (EBR Review) Yep. Magic in the Steppe? (EBR Review) You bet. And now she’s written a book that takes place in a steampunk version of a port city in the Washington Territory post-Civil War with a Jack the Ripper serial killer on the loose.

It’s as awesome as it sounds.

Karen Memery works a brothel in Rapid City and finds herself in the middle of a local mobster’s nefarious plot when a girl escapes enslaved prostitution and seeks help from the ladies at Hôtel Mon Cherie. Karen’s PoV narrative is authentic, witty, and plain fun to read. She’s been on her own since her father’s death. She knows she isn’t educated, but is still planning for a future, and considers her brothel stint temporary as she saves up enough money to start a business with horses, like her father’s. I can’t help but admire her pluck and ability to land on her feet despite the crazy things that go on.

KAREN MEMORY is told exclusively from Karen’s colorful PoV, but it wouldn’t be the same story without its fabulous and equally colorful cast. There’s Madam Damnable, the proprietor of Hôtel Mon Cherie, and every bit as tough as her name suggests. Priya, the recently freed prostitute who was shipped from India without knowing what she was getting herself into. Miss Francine, who is more than she appears on the outside. Marshal Bass Reeves who is tracking down the serial killer. And the evil Peter Bantle, who isn’t above bribes or outright bullying to get what he wants. There are several more, but I’ll give you the chance to get to know them, too, in the delightful way that Karen presents them. They all offer something valuable to the story and feel like real people, even if the events that surround them feel surreal.

A book that takes place in a steampunk version of a port city in the Washington Territory post-Civil War with a Jack the Ripper serial killer on the loose.

Rapid City is an alternate Seattle/San Francisco of the Wild West, and while the setting is steampunk, it doesn’t feel like the story revolves around the steampunk, but is a natural part of the environment. Eventually the steampunk becomes an integral part of the story, but until then it’s about the people and their story first. The story is also about the city, how it’s evolving, the variety of people who call it home, and how the gold rush has changed the tenor of the city–as though the city has a personality all its own. There’s plenty of action, but it takes a while to wind up to what should feel like an over-the-top sequence of events in the last quarter of the book (if I described the events to you, you’d be like, lolwut?), but Bear makes what should be absurd instead feel like a natural progression of the story (ahem, Mr. Barnett take note). It’s been a week since I finished the book and I’m still digesting how she did it.

Bear is an accomplished writer, so she’s got a handle on her characters, prose, plot, and pacing. While these well-written aspects make for an enjoyable read, don’t expect anything she writes to go down smooth. She writes about characters and situations that aren’t only grey area, but can be uncomfortable to read as a result of the grit that dirties real people and the complications of real lives. Bear’s characters suffer. Some people will love this book because of these very things. Despite my gushing for Bear’s works, because it’s easy to see the brilliance in her writing, I didn’t get the emotional high reading this novel that tips a book into a ‘love’ rating. But it’s still a super fun read. And now it’s in paperback.

  • Recommended Age: 17+
  • Language: None
  • Violence: A few scenes but nothing really gory
  • Sex: It takes places in a brothel yet there is surprisingly little; plenty of crass references, if you know what I mean; LBGT characters

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