Elizabeth Bear instantly charmed me with her 2015 novel Karen Memory, in which a young “seamstress” battles against greed and corruption with the aid of her friends, a U.S. Marshal, and a hulking ambulatory sewing machine. The first follow-up tale, Stone Mad (2018), is a slight novella jam-packed with action, adventure, folklore, and romantic strife.
Karen Memery and her brilliant girlfriend, Priya, are treating themselves to a top-notch dinner at the Rain City Riverside Hotel, with plans to go see an illusionist’s widow performing his stage show afterward. Karen’s healed up from her previous effort to save Rapid City, they’ve moved from the Hôtel Ma Cherie to their own little homestead, and they’re as close to married as two ladies in their time and place can be, so it’s time to celebrate. Their lovely evening is spoiled when a pair of spiritualists known as the Arcade Sisters cause a fuss and accidentally awaken a tommy-knocker in the hotel’s basement, nearly bringing the building down around their ears. It’ll take all of Karen’s gumption and pluck to set things right, especially since her insistence on tackling this mystery drives a deep wedge between herself and Priya, and doing the right thing may prove to be the worst decision possible.
The Arcade Sisters seem to be influenced by, but not directly drawn from, various individuals and pairs of spiritualists throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their antics and devotion to their stage personas are admirable, especially when Bear reveals the secrets and genuine cleverness behind their success. The widow Mrs. Micajah Horner herself is a fictional creation, as well, though it’s no fiction that women of a comparable era would have been relegated to re-creating their husband’s stage shows rather than performing their own acts. Karen lives in an only slightly-sideways version of our own reality, and Bear does a good job of incorporating historical precedent into this Gold Rush town.
I made a point of re-reading Karen Memory right before reading Stone Mad, and there’s a slight tonal shift between the two books. (Perhaps Karen’s been influenced by listening to months of Priya’s sometimes-maddeningly proper grammar.) The entire story within Stone Mad could have used a little more feeding, rather like Priya herself — I would have liked to see more of Karen and Priya simply being together, so that their disagreements and Karen’s hard-headed attempts at reconciliation could carry more weight. As happy as I was to see honest, adult examinations of what it means to be beholden to and responsible for another person, and for those examinations to be given equal weight regardless of the party in question’s gender or sexual preferences, there was often a sense of telling the reader how much Karen and Priya love one another rather than showing it.
Still, I was glad to get a chance to read another of Karen’s wild adventures, and I certainly hope there will be more to come. It’s always a pleasure to see interesting chances taken with a genre like steampunk, and Bear provides a heart-warming story of redemption in among Stone Mad’s crashes and machinery.