fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear steampunk fantasy book reviewsKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear

If — like me — you find steampunk to be a problematic genre, take heart: Elizabeth Bear has created the cure, and it is called Karen Memory. This is a rollicking good story, full of period-appropriate details and flights of fancy, nefarious plots, honest romance, and women who say things like “I gotta get to my sewing machine” and mean it as a call to arms.

Our heroine is Karen Memery, a “seamstress” who works in Madame Damnable’s Hôtel Mon Cherie, located in Rapid City, Washington Territory. Rutherford B. Hayes is president, the Klondike Gold Rush is in full swing, and pilots steer gaudy airships through the sky. “Seamstress” is one of many euphemisms for a woman in Karen’s profession, along with stargazer, sister, frail sister, nymph du prairie, ragged robin, sparrow, and crow. The Hôtel Mon Cherie is a well-known and respectable establishment, more like a saloon with upstairs entertainment than competing establishments which just sell flesh. Rapid City is a town in transition, elevating itself above sea level for necessity’s sake as well as separating affluent citizens from their less-desirable neighbors.

Madame Damnable’s is in the deep part of town, and they ain’t finished raising the streets here. What I mean is when they started building up the roads a while back so the sea wouldn’t flood the downtown every spring tide they couldn’t very well close down all the shopping — and the sewing — so they built these big old masonry walls and started filling in the streets between them up to the top level with just any old thing they had to throw in there. There’s dead horses down there, dead men for all I know. Street signs and old couches and broke-up wagons and such.

Karen isn’t just a “whore with a heart of gold” — none of Madame Damnable’s employees are as one-dimensional as that — she’s a clever, determined, ambitious young woman who sees sewing as a temporary means to an end: saving enough to money to own a stable and raise horses. She’s also loyal, kind, quick-thinking, impulsive, and the first to admit when she’s wrong or behaving unfairly. One of my favorite moments is when Karen realizes that she’s never bothered asking Crispin, a black man with whom she’s lived and worked for over a year, what his last name is. After all, even a white prostitute is given greater respect than a former slave. For all that Karen must struggle against, including her inability to vote or legally wear pants in public, she’s still a product of the society in which she lives. Luckily, her embarrassment at this revelation is palpable, and she works hard to move beyond her own casual racism.

The cast of characters in Karen Memory is generally well-written. Each member of The Ancient and Honorable Guild of Seamstresses is enjoyable and fully realized, particularly Miss Francina and Madame Damnable. The villains are more complex than they are in the dime novels Karen loves to read with her friends, but there’s no question that they’re Bad Guys with little-to-no subtlety, or potential redemption. When one considers the type of story being told, that’s not necessarily a detriment. That said, a little more depth or even a solid monologue from Bantle regarding how or why he accomplished his misdeeds would have been appreciated. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with simple greed: men like Bantle rarely have any more multifaceted motivations than cold, hard cash. And Bantle’s plot strung me along with very real surprises, which helped mitigate my disappointment.

Karen Memory redeemed steampunk for me. Here, there are scads of women, people of every color and social class who serve a purpose beyond window-dressing, high action and adventure, and genuine fun. Rather than just slap a few gears and goggles on everything and call it good enough, Bear includes steam-powered machinery and elements of the fantastic as though they are an organic part of everyday life. Before leaving the house for a shopping excursion, Karen checks the daily newspaper for “the Mad Science Report. No experiments were scheduled, and no duels had been announced…but you never knowed when a giant automaton was going to run rogue unscheduled.” There are the expected machines, like the Hôtel Mon Cherie’s “old-style” sewing machine “with a black cast-iron body and a shiny chrome wheel,” and then there is the larger sewing machine with which Miss Lizzie is constantly tinkering: “one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body.” If a so-called seamstress is expected to pay her sewing tax every week to the city, she may as well be able to sew in the traditional way, right? (Fun fact: the weekly “Mad Science Tax” is less than the sewing machine tax.)

Bear’s got talent, style, and imagination to spare. She does a great job of establishing setting and characters with enough details to lay the groundwork of her story, and then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination. Karen’s voice is impeccable, perfectly suited to who she is and when she’s meant to exist. Bear’s done her research, to be certain, but her authorial voice never interferes with the story Karen is telling. Really, that’s the way Karen Memory reads — as though Karen Memery really did sit down and write out this grand adventure as it befell her and her friends: automatons, alligator pears, and all. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: February 3, 2015. “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.


  • Jana Nyman

    JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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