Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear is a very prolific writer – it seems to me that, at this point, she's tried her hand at almost every subgenre the spectrum of SFF literature holds. Her latest novel, Karen Memory, is a foray into the steampunk genre, taking place in the fictitious Rapid City, a frontier town in a parallel nineteenth century where airships fly through the sky and various kinds of advanced mechanical augmentations are an everyday occurrence. Karen Memory, the book's protagonist, is a “seamstress” working at Madame Damnable's the Hôtel Mon Cheri – a lucrative brothel where the clientele is rich and well-mannered and the girls are well taken care of and kept safe by their imposing but maternal Madame and the tight-knit camaraderie they share among themselves. Not everyone is so well off, however – down by the docks, girls that have become victims of trafficking and bad circumstances are kept in cribs and forced to prostitute themselves for the gain of Peter Bantle, a greedy and cruel man who care nothing for their well-being or how they're treated by his customers.
The story begins when two bloody and bruised women barge in at the Hôtel Mon Cheri one uneventful evening – one of them is Merry Lee, a Chinese woman who has made herself infamous in town by busting out prostitutes from the cribs, and Pryia, the woman she was wounded rescuing. They are offered refuge at Madame Damnable's, but in doing so, Karen, the Hôtel and the rest of the girls immediately become targets for Bantle's malice. He has his eyes set on a position more powerful than that of a whoremonger and Priya's escape runs the risk of throwing a wrench in his plans. Shortly after the two women's arrival at the Hôtel, a prostitute is found gruesomely murdered just outside its door and the girls find an ally in Marshal Bass Reeves, who has been hunting the bloodthirsty killer all the way from Oklahoma.
Karen Memory is a wonderfully imagined steampunk-flavoured Wild West story centered around a well-crafted murder mystery that will definitely appeal to readers of Cherie Priest's The Clockwork Century novels – Ganymede in particular – as well as Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate series. It's adventurous, exciting, and, above all, extremely addictive – I almost read the entire novel from start to finish, only stopping to save the last thirty or so pages for the following morning because I was so tired my eyes were literally falling shut as I read.
To me, the novel is also reminiscent of the recently, and unfairly, canceled Canadian tv-show Strange Empire, where a feminist retelling of the Wild West mythos shows how its lawlessness simultaneously functioned to put women at great risk for patriarchal violence while also allowing gender-related negotiations and transgressions that would have been almost impossible in 'civilized' society. In a similar manner, Bear deftly handles the issues and politics of gender, race and sexuality that ties in with the characterization and plot of Karen Memory. Particularly appealing, in my opinion, is the way Bear portrays Karen's fawning over Calamity Jane in the Wild West stories she reads and her developing feelings for the cross-dressing Priya in a display of lesbian desire all too rarely seen ever since the call for 'positive' images of queer femininity and female desire all but erased any trace of female masculinity from the equation of lesbian representation in popular culture.
All put together, Karen Memory is a fun, memorable read centered around an exhilarating, rollicking adventure, a great and nuanced cast of characters, and a beautifully rendered romance plot, and I highly recommend it.