Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear

About the Book

“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.”

Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, 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 one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, beggin sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and 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.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.

352 pages (hardcover)
Published on February 3, 2015
Published by Tor
Author’s webpage
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This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

All you have to say is “Elizabeth Bear” and I’m there. She’s one of my all time favorite authors. I don’t think it’s possible for her to write a book that is less than amazing. All of her books and stories are just different. They are truly unique in a way that only Bear can manage. Karen Memory is no different.

I’m not big on steampunk. In fact, I tend to try and avoid it, but I am big on alternative history, and I’m big on Elizabeth Bear books, so I decided to give this one a shot. I got the review copy a while ago and I tried to put off reading it until closer to publication date, but some books just look at me, and something needs to be done about that.

Karen Memory is gritty, and dirty, and completely real world with a strong female protagonist with an incredibly distinctive voice (unforgettable, even) and companions that you can’t help but love.

The setting is western, and so is much of the prose. That could drive some readers nuts, while other readers will love it. If you’re a fan of steampunk or western novels, you might want to give this one a shot. If the word “ain’t” bugs you, then you’ll probably want to avoid Karen Memory.

Karen Memory is a lot of fun, and despite the gritty setting and the messy (but realistic) language, it’s incredibly charming. Karen is a hard character not to fall instantly in love with. She was a brave and bold choice for Bear. She’s a “gutter” character. She works as a whore in a city that is impacted by trade, gold, gangs, and politics. It’s quite interesting how all of these threads converge in Karen’s life and form a compelling story that wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without her unique voice.

And despite the grit and realism, the dirty world and the dirty job, Karen is quite a dreamer, and she is full of curiosity and infectious passion. She cares deeply for those she loves, and has made a relatively comfortable life out of where she lives. Yes, parts of the novel are uncomfortable, but Karen has an ability to glance over those uncomfortable bits and keep the story moving without losing any of the realism that makes it so unforgettable.

The mystery is quite compelling, as much for the mystery part of it as for how the murders impact those people that history so often overlooks – people like Karen. It’s also very empowering to see a woman that many might scorn who is capable of such impressive feats of heroism. The plot moves pretty quickly, though the novel starts out feeling more like a memoir than anything else. It quickly becomes obvious how all the threads weave together, and by that time you’ll be far too addicted to do anything besides read.

I could really praise a lot of aspects of this book – flawless world building, a brave setting, bold characters, the passion, the zeal, the relentless plot, the fact that it is absolutely addicting. Really, this book absolutely blew me away. However, the thing I liked the most is something that I almost hate to admit.

I’m a sucker for the underdog. I like the books about the strong people that society tends to overlook. Bear tells the story of a whore, through her own perspective, in a way that makes Karen so much more than a whore. That’s just dressing, just a side fact on a woman who is so much more than her circumstances. Karen Memory is a lot of fun, and the mystery is very well done, but it’s Karen’s voice that sealed the deal for me. Sometimes it’s important to remember that we are all more than our circumstances.


5/5 stars

3 Responses

  • All you have to say is “Elizabeth Bear” and I’m there

    Me, too, Sarah. Me too 🙂

  • Oooh, you got me on this one. The story sounds fantastic and that cover is gorgeous. Must check out! Thanks for the rec.

  • Cheryl Holsonbake (@cherylreads)

    I’m about half way through Karen Memory. I have to say that I think my expectations were wrong on the steampunk thing. Although I was eager to try Bear’s book, I think it feels more like a Western novel than a Fantasy novel. (Think Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke trying to save the saloon from bad guys… not that there’s anything wrong with Western novels or saving saloons!! 😉

    I guess I’m just not feeling invested in the main character and her story. I should have been hooked by now. I just don’t feel an urgency to know what’s coming next. And I feel bad about that. I really wanted to like it. I’ve read and loved Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, so her talent is certainly not in question. Maybe the sub-genre is just not for me.

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