Written by: Elizabeth Bear
Published by: TOR Books
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – Review
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. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging 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.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Karen Memory is definitely in the Steampunk genre, but its author, Elizabeth Bear, does not let the trappings overtake the story. This stand alone novel takes you to a time and place that feel real, despite being utterly fantastic. Yes, there are steam driven whirlygigs and whatchamacallits. The paraphernalia and trimmings help to support the story in the sense of giving it time and place. The time and place is a rough and ready frontier city of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. This novel portrays an alternate history or maybe more accurately an alternate reality Seattle. It is a bit like Jack the Ripper in the Old West.
I am not a big fan of regional accents and dialects in books, but sometimes it’s necessary and Elizabeth Bear seems to have nailed down, not just the words and accents, but the pacing of the vernacular of the day. Karen Memory is for the most part the narrator of the book. She was raised by a family of ranchers; a child of the frontier. She knows how to ride a horse as well as any man; she has a first-rate head on her shoulders and is not easily spooked. Orphaned and turned out on the street as a teenager, this young woman turned to prostitution to support herself. She lives, and is employed in a brothel run by a clever businesswoman. The owner of the place is Madame Damnable who cares for her girls as well as her business. Madame Damnable isn’t a softy, she has strict rules but those rules have reasons. She is also not a cruel taskmaster (or mistress). Her girls have a real sense of kinship. They look out for each other. They feel justifiably protected despite the nature of the trade. Their sense of security is shattered almost at the start of the story. First a bloody and broken girl shows up at the doorstep of Madam Damnable’s establishment and she is given shelter from Peter Bantle, the man who holds the girl’s indenture. Bantle is the vile rival of Madame Damnable and he has gotten his hands on technology that can control the thoughts and actions of anyone within its range. Things get darker fast. Challenged by the sudden gruesome murders of prostitutes that neither police, nor the upright citizens of the community have done much to stop, the girls themselves with the aid of a hired hand go after the monster that is responsible.
Despite living and working in a bordello, Karen seems to be in charge of her life. Though nobody uses the word feminism, there is a strong feminist streak to be found here and not the kind that is academic and above it all. It gets very real and gritty in the increasingly mean streets. In no way will Karen play the part of victim or shrinking violet. She is strong and sympathetic toward the less fortunate among her sisters. Those women who are enslaved in the very low end brothels near the docks are the first to die, but the twists and turns soon reveal danger around every corner. At the very start, Karen is quick to step in where angels fear to tread. The personal growth of Karen is heartwarming as she treads a perhaps, slightly tarnished hero’s journey. There are dastardly plots afoot that would put dime store novels to shame. Crooked politicians, base dishonorable evil villains, an African American marshal, and a transgender prostitute all keep your attention while the plot unfurls and while you may very well be able to figure out how things will turn out you will still want to be around for the ride.
Written by June K. Williams
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