‘Karen Memory’ by Elizabeth Bear – original and engaging steampunk in 19th Century Seattle – highly recommended

It’s 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, 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, begging 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.

I started ‘Karen Memory’ with no expectation beyond reducing my TBR pile by reading a book I’d bought on a whim five years earlier and then forgotten about.

From the start of the book, I was mentally chastising myself – ‘Of all the books you didn’t get around to, how could THIS be one of them? Idiot!’ If it was possible to give yourself a mental headship, my ears would have been ringing.

Why? Karen Memery, that’s why.

Karen Memery is a unique and inspired creation. When was the last time you got to see a steampunk world through the eyes of a teenage orphan who is making her living as a sex worker, sees the men and women around her clearly and has a plan to move out of sexwork before she gets too old for it? Now imagine that the voice sharing that world with you through a first-person account is, fierce, frank, smart and engaging. Add in a Steampunk version of Seattle in the still-wild-on-the-Pacific-Northwest-coast, gold rush era, nineteenth-century America and a plot involving international human trafficking, mind-bending weapons and organised crime with political ambitions and murderous methods and you have a book that’s hard to put down.

Elizabeth Bear’s writing also makes ‘Karen Memory’ a pleasure to read. The world-building is fully integrated into the story – no hint of infodumping. There’s enough action to keep everything moving, enough uncertainty to keep me guessing and enough tension to make it all worthwhile. Best of all, there is Karen Memery’s first-hand account which is easy to listen to and which manages to let the reader make connections that the teenage Karen has yet to make without being any less engaged with her. I liked Karen Memery. She seemed real to me although she’s not like anyone I’ve ever met. She didn’t stretch my belief and yet I have no idea what she’d do next, except that it would be brave and smart and probably surprising.

Here’s a sample from the first pages of the book, where Karen is introducing herself. If you like this, I think you’ll enjoy the rest of 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.

Some call it the Cherry Hotel. But most just say it’s Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle and have done. So I guess that makes me a seamstress, just like Beatrice and Miss Francina and Pollywog and Effie and all the other girls. I pay my sewing machine tax to the city, which is fifty dollar a week, and they don’t care if your sewing machine’s got a foot treadle, if you take my meaning…

…You want to work for a house, if you’re working. I mean … working “sewing.” Because Madam Damnable is a battleship and she runs the Hôtel Mon Cherie tight, but nobody hits her girls, and we’ve got an Ancient and Honorable Guild of Seamstresses and nobody’s going to make us do anything we really don’t want to unless it’s by paying us so much we’ll consider it in spite of. Not like in the cheap cribs down in the mud beside the pier with the locked doors and no fireplaces, where they keep the Chinese and the Indian girls the sailors use. Those girls, if they’re lucky, they work two to a room so they can keep an eye on each other for safety and they got a slicker to throw over the bottom sheet so the tricks’ spurs and mud don’t ruin it.

Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory (pp. 9-11). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

I now have ‘Stone Mad’, the second book in the series, on my TBR and I won’t be waiting five years to read it.

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year.

She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Astounding Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.

She lives in Massachusetts in the Pioneer Valley with her spouse, writer Scott Lynch. 

3 thoughts on “‘Karen Memory’ by Elizabeth Bear – original and engaging steampunk in 19th Century Seattle – highly recommended

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s