Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

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.

Writer’s Ink: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is the award-winning author of a whole bunch of stuff! How’s that for specific? Her most recent book is One-Eyed Jack [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], one of her Promethean Age novels. She’s part of SF Squeecast, co-created the Shadow Unit web serial, and has taught at a number of different SF/F writing programs and workshops.

She also has a spider on her arm, which she explains thusly:

As you can see, my body doesn’t have much use for colored ink, especially red. So much for permanence!

I got this after I moved back to New England. The spider is a local wall-crawler: I’ve always had a fondness for spiders, and they’re a bit totemic for rock climbers, which happens to be my sport. And the sugar maple leaf is a reminder of home: this is the place I have always been happiest, and autumn is my favorite season. I actually brought in a particularly spectacular maple leaf for the tattoo artist, Steve Gabriel of Guide Line Tattoo in East Hartford, CT, to copy.


I definitely recommend clicking to enlarge the picture and see the details. The one on the left is when the tattoo was brand new. The one on the right was taken a few days ago for this post. My theory is that the spider has been waking up at night and feeding on the red ink. Makes me wonder what it will eat when it runs out…

New Books

Lots of friends with new books out this week. Because apparently I don’t have enough to read already? At this rate, I’m never going to reach the summit of Mount To Be Read!

Morgan Keyes’ Darkbeast Rebellion [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is a middle-grade fantasy, the follow-up to Darkbeast, which I enjoyed and reviewed here.

Martha Wells has a Star Wars book out about Princess Leia, called Razor’s Edge [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], set between the events of Star Wars and Empire.

Anton Strout’s Stonecast [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the second book in his Stonemason Chronicles. There may or may not be were-jaguars.

Laura Anne Gilman’s Soul of Fire [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is the second part of the Portals Duology, following Heart of Briar.

Marie Brennan has put together a collection of essays on writing fight scenes, called (appropriately enough) Writing Fight Scenes [Amazon | B&N].

Elizabeth Bear’s novella Book of Iron [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is a standalone prequel to Bone and Jewel Creatures.

Finally, the tenth issue of Seanan McGuire’s serial Indexing [Amazon] has just been released.

As always, please feel free to suggest other new books I’m forgetting, or just share what you’re reading and enjoying right now.

Podcast Fiction: Ahmed and Bear

I’ve had a harder time lately making time to read for pleasure. It’s something I usually try to do before bed, but between working double-time on the book and the kids staying up later, this hasn’t been working out as well. Then, after listening to Alethea Kontis’ Enchanted on the drive to and from GenCon, it occurred to me that I could at least squeeze some audio fiction into my 15-minute commute to and from the day job.

This is how I ended up on PodCastle and Escape Pod, searching for stories to listen to.

I started out with Saladin Ahmed‘s “Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions,” a short first-person superhero piece. At 14 minutes in length, it felt like flash fiction, though I don’t know the exact word count. More snapshot/commentary than full-length story, it contained a number of good, Ahmed-style observations about race, prison culture, and superhero tropes. Poor Doctor Diablo…

Next up was “The Tricks of London,” by Elizabeth Bear. PodCastle describes this as a “Giant Episode,” coming in at 79 minutes. The story is set in Bear’s New Amsterdam world, and features Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene Garrett, a forensic sorcerer and the only woman in the late nineteenth century Enchancery. (April 1879, to be exact.)

The story is told from the point of view of Detective Sergeant Sean Cuan, and describes their investigation into a supernatural serial killer.

Let me put it this way. I now need to read all of Bear’s New Amsterdam stuff.

The plot itself isn’t overly twisty, but the details she provides reminded me that Bear has a lot of practice writing this kind of fiction (see Shadow Unit), not to mention being a fan of Criminal Minds 🙂 )

It’s the characterization and the language that really drew me in, though. While this story does fall into the “only one active female surrounded by male characters” category, it’s a deliberate historical choice, and handled quite well. I like Garrett a lot, and enjoyed her developing quasi-mentoring/friendship with Cuan. And Bear’s description is vivid and evocative. She chooses each word carefully, and it shows.


Have you read or listened to either of these stories? If so, what did you think? And what other sites would you recommend for someone starting to get into podcast fiction?

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear‘s forthcoming book Range of Ghosts [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is thoughtful.

I finished reading this book several weeks ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out how best to review it. I keep coming back to “thoughtful.” Everything from the worldbuilding and mythology to character to sentence and word choice.

The book opens to Temur, heir to the Khaganate, stumbling through a battlefield. His hand has gone numb from clasping the bloody gash along the side of his neck– You know what? Let me just give you a few paragraphs from the first page.

Beyond the horizon, a city lay burning.

Having once turned his back on smoke and sunset alike, Temur kept walking. Or lurching. His bowlegged gait bore witness to more hours of his life spent astride than afoot, but no lean, long-necked pony bore him now. His good dun mare, with her coat that gleamed like gold-backed mirrors in the sun, had been cut from under him…

He walked because he could not bear to fall. Not here, not on this red earth. Not here among so many he had fought with and fought against.

And then you have Samarkar, who fled her home and gave up her title for the hope of becoming a wizard.

When the news of the fall of Qarash reached Tsarepheth, the Once-Princess Samarkar did not even know that a woman in red and saffron robes sat alongside her, because on that day Samarkar lay drowsy with poppy among rugs and bolsters in her room high up in the Citadel of wizards. Silk wraps wadded absorbent lint against a seeping wound low in her abdomen. When she woke–if she woke–she would no longer be the Once-Princess Samarkar. She would be the wizard Samarkar, and her training would begin in truth.

She had chosen to trade barrenness and the risk of death for the chance of strength.

One thing I think both of these introductions capture is the complexity of Bear’s writing. Wizardry isn’t a simple thing; you pay a price, and there’s no guarantee you’ll gain the power you hope for. We meet Temur as his dreams of battle and glory have been shattered by reality. In many stories, we see characters who change by the end of the tale. In this book, we meet characters already in flux, scared and confused and struggling.

I should mention the plot too, right? Okay, let’s see … we’ve got warring kingdoms and dark magic and gods and armies of ghosts and tiger warriors and kidnapped lovers and a journey over a fascinating world.

The world is one of my favorite parts of the books. This is a world where the sky literally changes depending on the nature of the kingdom below. In Temur’s land, there are moons for every heir, including himself. He looks up at the night sky to see which of his cousins have died based on how many of those moons have vanished. And then, later, he crosses into another land, and his family’s moons are nowhere to be seen. I love it.

Bear also does a wonderful job on her horses. I’m no expert, so I can’t say if she got every detail right, but she certainly avoided the “Horses = medieval motorcycles” mistake some epic fantasies fall into, and Temur’s new mare Bansh is one of the best characters in the book.

I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a quick read. Thoughtful writing requires thoughtful reading, and I couldn’t zip through this one the way I do some books. But if you’re looking for more complex, non-Western epic fantasy, I’d definitely suggest checking it out.

I will note that this is book one of a series, so you shouldn’t go in expecting things to be all wrapped up by the end.

You can read an excerpt at Tor.

Range of Ghosts comes out on March 27.

First Book Friday: Elizabeth Bear

Welcome to First Book Friday.

Elizabeth Bear (matociquala on LJ) has won the Campbell award for best new writer, the Hugo award (twice), the Locus award for best first novel, and the Sturgeon award. If my math is right, she’s put out about sixteen books since 2005, not counting several short fiction collections. Plus she’s been quoted on Criminal Minds.

Personally, I’m waiting for her to write a book about a Giant Ridiculous Weredog.


Jenny Casey is somebody who has lived in my head for a long time. Wounded, courageous, charismatic, with a take-no-prisoners sensibility and a voice that never hesitates to relate the truth she sees, be it breathtaking or horrible.

I suspect every writer has a few of these–the characters you can slip in to as easily as you slip into your favorite sweater. The ones whose rough patches and worn places just make them more comfortable. The ones whose voices wake you up at night with clever comments.

The ones who will not shut up and give you any peace at all.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, and I figured out stories came from someplace. I had stories in my head; it just took close to twenty-five years to learn the skills necessary to get them out and onto paper in a form other people are actually going to want to read.

Jenny first came to me in 1995 sometime, and among the first words she ever said to me were I never sleep if I can help it. I wrote a bad action novella about her, and a much better short story (“Gone to Flowers”) which has since seen print, and reams and reams of backstory vignettes.

She seemed to want to tell me about her life, and I was eager to hear it. But I wasn’t yet the writer I needed to be to pull it off. And I had no idea how to learn to be that writer. So the pile of notes and unpublishable fiction remained just that–a pile, even though I went back and worked on it periodically. I was writing, but I wasn’t progressing.

In 2001, though, I lost my job, and in the wake of 9/11 could not find another. So I wrote. It was a coping strategy. In that same time, I fell in with a group of writers at the Online Writing Workshop For Science Fiction and Fantasy (in a bit of sweet irony, I am now a Resident Editor there) and they taught me all the skills I needed–the most important of which was learning how to learn.

I wrote five novels in two years. And the fourth of those was Hammered [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which was based on some of those early notes, was good enough to impress Jenn Jackson, who agreed to become my agent. She sent me some rewrite notes, by means of which I tuned up the manuscript, and we started submitting it. I’d already finished Scardown by then–publishing is slow!–and while I was waiting, I went back to writing … I think it was Blood and Iron, at that point.

Jenn called one night and told me she had good news: Anne Groell at Spectra had made an offer on Hammered and its two sequels. I almost dropped the phone.

And then I went and started work on Worldwired.

Anne has since told me that at the time, the Jenny books were Bantam Spectra’s fastest turnaround from acquisition to publication. (The record’s since been beaten–I think by Kelley Armstrong.) She bought the series in November of 2003, and they were all in print by December of 2005. They made my name as a writer, quite frankly, and I am eternally grateful to Anne and Jenn for that … and also, it must be said, to Jenny.

Jenny’s still got that voice: straightforward, brittle, brutally honest, a little jagged-feeling. The difference is, now other people can read it too. By the timeline in the books, she’s going to be born on September 30, 2012.

I think I need to throw her a party.

Friend Promo

I’m very fortunate. I’ve got a lot of very nifty friends and acquaintances, both the real-world and the online variety, and sometimes I’ve just got to show them off.

To that end, I’m declaring this an open “Promote Your Friends” thread.  Please feel free to post whatever cool projects or accomplishments your own friends have been up to lately.  (If you’re on my jimchines.com blog and your comment doesn’t show up, let me know and I’ll rescue it from moderation.)

Let the promo begin!

  • My daughter Clara was promoted from purple belt to third brown in Sanchin-Ryu on Monday.
  • Seanan McGuireis currently in Australia at Worldcon, where she’s a finalist for the Campbell Award for best new writer.  Between her Toby Daye books and the success of her zombie thriller Feed, I think she’s got a good shot at bringing home the tiara.
  • Lynne Thomas, editor of Chicks Dig Time Lords (and my archivist!), has a new project: Whedonistas: A celebration of the worlds of Joss Whedon by the women who love them.
  • My friend Steven Saus has a story online called The Burning Servant, part of a chain story project founded by Mike Stackpole.  (Stackpole sounds like he’s doing a lot of interesting stuff … I need to check that out!)
  • Elizabeth Moon is a well-known SF writer, but she’s also a very good blogger.  She wrote a great post about gender bias in publishing last week.
  • John Kovalic provides a very nice, pointed comment on race and gaming in this Dork Tower strip.  (Check out the follow-up strip, too.)[1. I’ve never met Kovalic or talked to him much online, but we swapped a few e-mails and he provided a great blurb for Goblin Quest, and I figure that’s good enough to include him here!]

Finally, my author friends have some new books out.

Your turn.  What nifty things have your friends been doing?

Book Roundup

I picked up a copy of Kelly McCullough‘s Cybermancy [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], in the dealer’s room this weekend and read it on the plane ride home.  I reviewed WebMage [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], earlier this year, and Cybermancy was even better (which is how it should be).

Basically, if you liked the first book, you should definitely pick up the second.  Cybermancy brings back magical hacker Raven/Ravirn and his webgoblin companion and throws them into even more trouble than last time. It’s got the same fast pacing, the same humor, but McCullough also shows a more serious side, taking an unflinching look at the story of Persephone.  I really appreciated his take on that one. Ravirn’s relationship angst felt a little too predictable, but nowhere near as bad as your average sitcom, and overall I really liked this one.  Book three is already on my wish list 🙂


Other new books to check out:

Bitter Night [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], by Diana P Francis.  Book one of the Horngate Witches Books.

Indigo Springs [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], by A.M. Dellamonica.

By the Mountain Bound [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], by Elizabeth Bear. This is the prequel to All the Windwracked Stars.

So, anyone have any thoughts or comments on these?  If not, what else is out there that we should all be reading?


Jim C. Hines