Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

February 20, 2015 Review 0

Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth BearKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Published by Macmillan on February 3rd 2015
Genres: Steampunk
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Sexual Content: Well, it's a book about prostitutes, but the narrator speaks mostly in euphemisms.
Reviewed by: Megan
4 Stars

“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.Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.

This steampunk western adventure includes a bevy in a brothel, a lethal sewing machine, and love at first sight. Elizabeth Bear introduces her audience to KAREN MEMORY (actually spelled 'Memery'), a working girl at the Hôtel Mon Cherie with a penchant for dime novels and a huge heart that gets her into trouble. The ladies of Madame Damnable's are worth following all on their own, but Bear sweetens the pot with a series of mysterious murders in the vein of Jack the Ripper. The novel's only misstep is in mild over-plotting, but there's no denying it's one hell of an adrenaline ride at the end.

First-person narrator Karen's dialect and use of slang can be a bit difficult at times - as a grammarian, her use of 'should of' instead of 'should have' drives me nuts - but it also makes the time and place seem authentic, despite the airships. Her detail is fantastic in bringing Madame Damnable's to life, particularly her descriptions of the other girls, and the daily operations of the house. From Beatrice, whose mother was a courtesan in New Orleans, to Pollywog, a particular favorite of the town's mayor, to Miss Lizzie the tinkerer, and Miss Francina, who was born with the wrong genitalia. Madame herself is a force, and uses her position as purveyor in the city to make sure her household is well-taken care of.

Most of KAREN MEMORY is focused on the conflict between Madame Damnable and a local pimp named Peter Bantle, a human trafficker with aspirations of becoming a politician. When a former pro who runs around rescuing the trafficked girls turns up at the Hôtel Mon Cherie with one of Bantle's, Karen decides it's her mission in life to protect the girl, Priya, no matter the cost. Seeing as Priya is beautiful, brilliant, and brave, Karen also can't help falling head over heels, though she moves cautiously, knowing Priya's been through hell. It's nothing on what Karen endures, however, in the name of love. The steampunk alternate reality lands this novel in the fantasy realm, but there isn't actually any magic, so I was highly skeptical of the amount of damage Karen suffers toward the end - only to keep going. The last couple of chapters, while incredibly tense and shocking, are probably unnecessary, adding an extra layer of conspiracy that strains incredulity. It does, however, provide for a happy ending.

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