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, 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.
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.
Elizabeth Bear swung by last week, before I had received my copy of Karen Memory, to talk to us about strong female characters; and what she said was brilliant, setting my expectations of the novel even higher than they had already been. So, how did it live up to those expectations…?
I’m going to talk a bit more personally about how I relate to Karen Memory, if the reader will indulge me. My copy arrived by post on Thursday morning of last week, and I read the first quarter or so of the novel between its arrival and four o’clock that afternoon. At that point, I received a phonecall from my mother, telling me my grandfather had died – suddenly and unexpectedly – the night before. Over the following few days, I had no fixed sleeping pattern, no real motivation, even no motivation at all – except to read Karen Memory, both so I could get this review up today, and because I wanted to. It afforded, by being first-person, escape into being someone else, someone with such different problems, and indeed a different life, to me, but with related problems; Karen is an orphan, and her processing of her grief for her father helped me process grief for my grandfather. It was also a book that took me away from the world; once I started reading, it was hard to drag myself out of the book, because Karen’s voice just drew me along, Bear keeping it smooth and consistent even while varying the pace, and making it very welcoming. The book provided a sort of haven from dealing with the reality of the world; when asked to think about saying something at my grandfather’s funeral, I wrote some brief thoughts and then retreated straight into Karen Memory, looking for the fun and joy that permeates the novel.
What I’m trying to say above is, I am hardly at my most objective when it comes to this novel; between the diversity of it, which I rejoiced in wholeheartedly for that first quarter, and the cloud hanging over me while reading the rest of Karen Memory and which it released me from, I have a huge love for this book, and am intensely grateful to Elizabeth Bear for writing it.
So frankly, Karen Memory surpassed all my expectations. This is an enormously fun book with enormous heart to it, even by the emotionally punishing standards of most of Bear’s output; helped no doubt by the very welcome return to first-person narration that we haven’t seen from Bear in some time. Indeed, the joy of the voice of Karen Memory is one of the best things about the book; our narrator-protagonist is Karen Memery, a seamstress (that article also gives some insight into the inspiration behind Bear’s fictional Rapid City, the setting of the novel) who speaks like a moderately-educated but by no means upper-class American of the 19th century, elided endings, dated terms (Bear doesn’t shy away from the racism of her time period), and a bawd’s sense of humour (innuendo abounds, and on at least one occasion is noted only to be taken back as actually literal). She’s a real delight to read, a joyous presence full of life, even in the darkest moments of Karen Memory; a sort of celebratory presence whose narration itself, by existing, reassures the reader that it will all work out in the end somehow.
Of course, Karen is also an animating presence in another way – it is largely her actions that drive Karen Memory, for better or worse, involving the rest of the cast in one another’s affairs in such a way as to cause the eventual explosion of chaos that concludes the novel. That chaos involves a Singer sewing machine pseudo-mecha reminiscent, intentionally, of Ripley’s xenomorph-slaying lifting suit; dynamite; explosions; a submarine with kraken-like tentacles for crushing ships; devious foreign plans; and US Marshal Bass Reeves as sidekick to Miss Memory, all coming together in the most pyrotechnic and cinematic scene you will ever read. This book, at times, reads like a James Bond film on speed, or run through the mind of a mad steampunk scientist; at others like the best kind of big stupid science fiction blockbuster; and at others, like a sort of steampunk Sex and the City; all the while sneaking in some very subversive messages.
And oh, does Bear ever bring in subversive messages to Karen Memory. This is a novel whose cast includes a number of people of colour, including the aforementioned historical figure of Bass Reeves and a fictional Native American posseman, Tomoatooah, filling the role of Tonto, but without the racism; a woman with disabilities, namely only one arm, and another old woman with movement difficulties; sex workers of various kinds (indeed, the disabled woman is a sex worker); and a trans woman, Francina, who is gendered female throughout, and on the one occasion when she drags up as a man, Karen as narrator is deeply confused. There are also blunt statements about privilege and about who we value (as for instance on p274), where Bear explicitly distances herself from some of the prejudices of her narrator by means of another character pointing them out, a very effective tactic.
Which leads to my summation; Karen Memory is a kick-ass, fun, diverse, and dare I say it spunky novel. It might not be Bear’s most cerebral work, but damned if I don’t think it might be her best to date. Indeed, it’s probably the best book I’m going to read all this year, and it’s barely even February…