“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.”
Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century — an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who 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 into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, 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.
This is the first novel by Elizabeth Bear that I’ve read. Lauded far and wide, throughout the SFF online community, I had very high hopes for Karen Memory, a weird Western adventure/crime story. It mostly lived up to them. There’s much to like in the novel, certainly, but there was one consistent thing that didn’t work for me. Nevertheless, it’s quite an enjoyable read.
The novel is populated by an interesting, varied group of characters: from Karen herself, to her fellow ‘seamstresses’ at the Hôtel Mon Cherie, to Marshal and even the mostly off-stage antagonists. Each of the characters is quirky in just the right way — not too much to make them cartoons, just enough to make them stand out from most other novels’ characters. They are certainly familiar types that one might find in a Western novel (speculative or not), but Bear has made each of them just a little bit different from the norm to remain interesting. Also, there are a fair few steampunk elements and gizmos thrown in to keep things even more interesting and different. And yes, there’s an airship or two.
Speaking of steampunk elements: I very much liked that they were kept to a minimum, and weren’t the focus of too much of the story, which remains the interactions and relationships between the characters, and a bit of local politics. Events seem to spiral out of control, as a fateful decision at the start of the book has lasting and wide-reaching repercussions for all concerned. It’s well paced, and only a few times did Bear’s interest in describing the setting become a bit over-long. It builds to a good conclusion, of messy confrontations and a nice bit of action. Some of the wider aspects of the story could have done with more development — given the antagonists’ plot, I thought the focus on Karen’s immediate circle made it come a bit out of nowhere. (This means it’s one of the few SFF books I think should have been longer…)
So, an interesting story, an excellent alternative history setting (one that could still have done with some development). What didn’t I like? Well, the style Bear has chosen: it’s presented as a recounting of events, told in Karen’s voice. Therefore, it is filled with grammatical errors (the same ones proliferate throughout) and old-timey slang. Yes, this is all on purpose, and Bear does an incredibly impressive job of maintaining it throughout the 350~ pages. It just didn’t quite work for me, sadly. Apparently, when it comes to style, I’m rather conservative. The aforementioned old-timey slang can account for the confusion I mentioned in the previous paragraph, in which some turns of phrase obscured what I thought was going on in the scene. This could very well be a result of my lack of experience with Westerns in general — I’ve not seen many at all, nor do I tend to read novels based in a Western (Weird- or Wild-) setting. There were a few times when the style knocked me out of the story, but for every time this happened, there was a following scene that tugged me back into it. Made for a somewhat choppy reading experience, and prevented me from becoming truly hooked.
Certainly, this is a well-written and constructed novel, and one that ticks a great many boxes for “Must Read”. I had expected more, though, so was left feeling a little disappointed. If you don’t think the style will be a problem, and certainly if you are a fan of steampunk, then I recommend you read Karen Memory.
For fans of: Cherie Priest, Gail Carriger, Mike Resnick, Lee Collins, Cullen Bunn’s The Sixth Gun