One of the coolest things about being an author is getting advance copies of books that aren’t out yet. Such was the case with Elizabeth Bear‘s western steampunk Karen Memory [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], which comes out on February 3, 2015. I got to read it back in November. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!
Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, here’s the publisher’s description:
“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.”
Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century—an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who 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 into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, 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.
What the publisher really should have opened with is the fact that this book features a steam-powered Singer sewing machine mecha-suit that’s been heavily modified and upgraded. Readers might ask if it really makes logical sense to transform a sewing machine into something so complicated and mechanically convoluted. To which one could reply, “Who cares? It’s a freaking sewing machine mech!”
While there are other elements that are just plain fun, there’s a lot more going on in this book. You’ve got a group of women teaming up against several different layers of villainy, from a serial killer to large-scale political mind-control schemery. There’s high-stakes action with a nice bit of romance thrown in. Some of the plot revelations and twists at the end came a little too fast for me, but that might be a matter of personal taste.
Karen and company aren’t exactly the privileged class of 19th century society, and Bear doesn’t ignore the prejudices of the time. She’s worked to create a diverse cast of characters, but those characters face additional challenges. Marshal Bass Reeves is a black man, and at one point is threatened with lynching. His partner, a Comanche named Tomoatooah, is forced to flee the town. And while Karen is relatively open-minded and accepting, you also see her using the language of the times, and occasionally stumbling over her own prejudices.
While Karen and her allies live and work in a bordello, nothing sexual happens on the page. Karen’s life isn’t romanticized, either. Bear acknowledges that this can be ugly work. But it’s not something that needs to be on the page for the story Bear’s telling.
Bear brings together a strong plot, an engaging voice, and good characters. (I’m particularly fond of the foul-mouthed Madame Damnable.)
Check the Tor website for an excerpt.