Book Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy
Series: Book One/Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (February 3, 2015)
Author Information: Website
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
“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.”
A lot of times, it’s the books that initially fly under my radar which end up impressing me the most. This was the case with Karen Memory, whose description didn’t actually appeal to me at first. After all, as much as I love steampunk, I’ve read so much of the genre that admittedly I’ve gotten a lot pickier in recent years. It’s going to take more than just airships and clockwork gadgetry to entice me these days.
The moment I read the first paragraph though, I knew I was going to be in for a treat. It’s not even just the “Old West” feel of the setting (which I’m a sucker for and gets me every time) that caught my attention, but the distinct and down-to-earth voice of the narrator which immediately tugged at something in my heart. Right away, I knew I wanted to learn more about her. I wanted to get to know her and hear her story.
Our protagonist Karen Memery turns out to a young “seamstress” (a euphemism those around her parts use for prostitute) working for Madame Damnable at one of Rapid City’s more upscale establishments. It’s late 19th century and the Pacific Northwest is at the height of another gold rush; like any frontier town that’s sprouted up around the mining industry, life is rough and the folks even rougher. Working girls like Karen at the Hôtel Mon Cherie know that the best way to survive is to stick together and look after one another, but not everyone is so fortunate to have an employer like Madame Damnable or friends to watch their back.
The calm is shattered one night when two young women arrive at the Mon Cherie seeking help and protection. This is how Karen first meets and falls in love with Priya, a prostitute who managed to escape the horrific conditions of a rival brothel, but not without its mean and nasty proprietor Peter Bantle in hot pursuit. Thwarted, Bantle vows to make Madame Damnable and her girls’ lives a living hell, and with what appears to be mind-control device in his possession, he might be more dangerous than anyone believed. When the flogged and bloody corpses of women start appearing around town, one begins to wonder if all of this is connected somehow. A new lawman rides into town with his Comanche partner on the tail of a vicious serial killer, and together with Karen and the friends, this ragtag but resourceful crew is determined to get to the bottom of this conspiracy.
At times, Karen Memory did feel very much like my perfect book. It is imaginative steampunk that feels fresh and full of life, served up as a rich blend of mystery, suspense, action and romance. The end result is difficult to describe, but delightfully easy to enjoy. As I said before, I have a weakness for westerns and stories that take place during the expansion into the western frontier, so I was charmed at once by Rapid City, resplendently brought to life by Elizabeth Bear’s evocative and vivid descriptions. Despite a healthy dose of fantastical steampunk, we never lose sight of the distinctive characteristics or nuances of this particular era.
Karen herself is an amazing one-of-a-kind character, telling her story with a candidness that I found very charming. The narrative style won’t be for everyone, riddled with its colloquialisms and informal jargon, but it worked surprisingly well for me. It made Karen feel so real — I could practically hear her voice and imagine her mannerisms in my head. I’ll say this — whoever is narrating the audiobook will have her work cut out for her, as it’ll be hard to top what’s already written on paper. Usually prose littered with slang and grammatical errors, whether they’re intentional or not, would drive me nuts (especially my personal pet peeve, “would of” instead of “would’ve”, which Karen repeatedly commits). That I was able to overlook them in this case says a lot.
No doubt the book would not have been the same without Karen’s unique voice, but the other ladies at the Hôtel Mon Cherie surely deserve a mention too. This entire cast of brave and capable kickass women will rock your world and fill you with admiration. After Karen, I’m especially taken with the character of Madame, inspired by the real Mother Damnable, Mary Ann Conklin who ran Seattle’s first hotel and high-class brothel. For a certainty, this novel features no shortage of spirited women will go to great lengths for those they love and what they believe in, and will not back down without a fight.
Karen Memory is a book about a lot of things – solving a mystery, hunting a merciless killer, saving the city from evil, and all the spectacular drama that comes along with such activities. But at its heart, the book is also about forging friendships, growing up, and chasing one’s dreams. Behind the rollicking adventure is also a softer, more introspective side to the story that will surely resonate with a lot of readers.
Final verdict? I would definitely recommend this. It’s actually my first book by Elizabeth Bear, but regardless of whether you’re a long-time fan of the author or relatively new to her work like me, you really can’t go wrong with this one. Check it out.
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes contained above are from the advance copy and are subject to change. My thanks to Tor Books!