Karen 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.
“Bear’s got talent, style, and imagination to spare.”
Not to mention that great cover. If you get a chance, check out a larger version of the image–there are tentacles!
I’ve been wondering about this one. I’ve only read Bear’s Edda of Burdens Trilogy, which left me with mixed feelings, loved the first couple but the 3rd one not so much.
Karen Memory works really well as a stand-alone novel, so I hope you get a chance to read it, Greg.
thanks Jana. I’ll give it some more consideration. I haven’t read any steampunk really. I keep meaning to and I have a lot of steampunk books on my TBR list. Maybe this one will be the one.