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Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory

by Elizabeth Bear

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3382532,536 (3.87)48
  1. 10
    Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (reconditereader)
    reconditereader: Similar setting, similar level of butt-kicking awesomeness.

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Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)

I'm not a huge fan of sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk, primarily because the world-building is usually just a bunch of white heterosexuals. But not this book -- in fact, I think this book has one of the most diverse casts I've read in quite a while. The setting is made-up, but I definitely got a late 19th century San Franciso vibe from this.

I really enjoyed it, so this rating is really more of a 3.5 stars. The plot has a lot of fluff to it in the beginning and the second half of the story didn't jell too well with the first half -- for me, anyway. The pacing felt off in some places and I had a hard time picturing some of the action. But again, I don't read much in this type of genre, so maybe it's just me.

But overall, it's a quick, fun read, and honestly the diversity of the cast really elevated it to a much higher level. It seems like it's just a stand-alone novel, but I have to say, I'd gladly read a sequel/prequel. ( )
1 vote majesdane | Aug 8, 2017 |
I was excited to get a copy of Karen Memory because I enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy – it had an epic scope, a great unconventional setting and subverted a whole bunch of stereotypes of women in fantasy. Karen Memory is pretty different in both setting and tone (steampunk adventure featuring a lesbian prostitute protagonist), but it was still superb.

Karen Memery is a “seamstress” at Madam Damnable’s upscale brothel Hôtel Mon Cherie in the burgeoning Rapid City. When Madam Damnable offers sanctuary to a girl escaping from the harsh conditions of Peter Bantle’s rather lower-scale establishment, he swears retribution and Karen gets swept up into the adventure of her life, involving a legendary lawman, a serial killer, a plot against the United States and more.

Karen’s first-person narration really sells this book – she’s down to earth, but has a sharp wit, plain-spoken but charismatic, and most importantly, is full of heart. She’s had a tough life, and she doesn’t run away from that, but neither does she doesn’t let that stop her from being optimistic. It’s apparent that she’s no lady, but she’s definitely someone you’d want as a friend.

All the supporting characters feel like people you’d want to know too. Of course there’s Priya, the indentured girl rescued from Bantle and Karen’s love interest – she’s whip-smart and has a core of steel, despite being abused. She’s a full, three-dimensional person that is treated as such and isn’t really exoticized at all despite being from India, which is pretty amazing (I’ve met people in real life who have the best intentions but feel like they have to treat me differently because I’m from India, so I really mean that it’s amazing). There’s the kind but determined U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who was a real person, and Tomoatooah, his badass Numu posseman, and Merry Lee the also-badass woman that rescued indentured slaves. And all the other girls at the Hôtel Mon Cherie have their own distinct personalities without any reference to what they do for a living (something that is carried over from the Eternal Sky trilogy and sorely missing from fantasy – a cast of mainly women that all defy stereotypes) – in fact, there’s very little sex in this book, and none actually described.

The protagonist and the characters are the most charming things about Karen Memory, but it’s also a damn good adventure story. The pacing is excellent, and the stakes keep getting higher – what starts off as a simple mission to rescue Priya’s sister turns into helping Marshal Reeves find his killer, which turns into an attempt to stop Peter Bantle’s political ambition, and that leads into even more trouble. Karen grows as a character, learning to move on from her father’s death, discovering talents she didn’t know she had, and falling in love.

I’m not super well-read in the steampunk genre, but I’ve learned to be wary of stories that are all about the gadgets. The steampunk elements in this book, though prevalent and integral to the plot, are just everyday items in the world Karen lives in. Gadget fans won’t be disappointed either – there’s the mandatory airship trip and a cool submersible, as well as some very useful household and medical devices – but they are just supplements to the plot and characters.

I really need to go back and read Elizabeth Bear’s earlier work – between this and Eternal Sky, she’s shown she has incredible range. ( )
1 vote kgodey | Apr 11, 2017 |
Great. I don't read much steam punk, but if it's like this, I should! ( )
  chavala | Dec 28, 2016 |
This book came highly recommended, but I thought it was a mess. Poor pacing, and the first-person voice irked me. I did like the world-building, but the way the story was told spoiled it for me. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
It’s the Wild West, but not quite as we saw it; it’s also an age where licensed Mad Scientists hold steam-powered robot duels and everything from street lifts to sewing machines have an added touch of steampunk. Karen is a teenage prostitute working in one of Rapid City’s classier bordellos, the Hôtel Mon Cherie. When the wounded Merry Lee, who liberates women from sex trafficking operations, turns up at their door with a frightened young Indian woman rescued from just such a brothel, trouble arrives with them. Trouble’s name is Peter Bantle, and Karen is the first to notice the strange way that Bantle seems to bend people’s wills against their best efforts. With a mayoral election on the way, a dead street walker turning up outside the Hôtel, and a U.S. Marshal on a manhunt, Karen and the women of Madame Damnable’s house have a lot more on their hands than just the usual gold-hunting johns.

Karen Memory is a very engrossing read, with that just-one-more-chapter quality that makes the pages fly by. Even when there’s not a lot happening, Karen’s narrative voice gives the story a conversational feel that keeps the pages turning, although her patois was occasionally jarring to me because it felt very East End, especially in the first quarter of the book when I don’t think the author had settled in to the character’s mannerisms quite as much as she did later on. I could write my knowledge of American regional dialects on a post-it note and have room left over, so it may actually be an accent that’s appropriate to the place and period, there’s just a bit of cognitive dissonance going on when a character in a Western is making me think of London. Bear definitely did a good job of evoking the sense of being in the mind of a slightly world-weary but not broken down teenager, though, which again aids the novel’s flow. I’m pushing thirty, but still young enough to be bugged when -- all too frequently -- authors fail to accurately capture the teenage voice.

It’s a first-person narrative, so Karen is obviously the character we’re treated to the greatest sense of, but everyone else veritably leapt off the page as well. I admired the fact that each woman in the Mon Cherie is a fully fleshed out individual that the reader not only gets a full sense of, but cares enough about to fear for, as well. This is a very diverse book, including multiple gay characters, a trans woman, and men and women of colour, and it’s a diversity that feels sort of effortless because the historical period isn’t used as an excuse to reduce anyone to their social status as the Other. Bear trusts the reader to understand why being on the outskirts of the society of the time would have brought these characters together without rubbing their, and our, noses in ugly attitudes in the name of gritty realism. I also enjoyed the fact that the women had each other’s backs, and the occasional mild competitiveness didn’t blunt their affection and compassion for each other, which is a big step up from the vapid cattiness with which prostitutes are so often portrayed.

I am anti-prostitution, but I don’t like the demonisation or objectification of women involved in it, so I walked into the book with a certain hesitation about its premise. I feel like fantasy fiction is divided between takes on prostitution that either glorify it to a level that makes even some of its proponents uncomfortable, or that invite us to alternately sneer and leer at the ‘whores’ while ascribing few characteristics to them beyond the pathetic or the salacious. This is the first book I can think of where the portrayal completely worked for me. There’s no sleaziness at all, in fact there aren’t even any sex scenes. In a way, although the brothel is very important as a setting, what the women who work there actually do is just sort of incidental. The johns are background noise, the women are women first and prostitutes second, and leaving aside the fact that the main romantic relationship is a lesbian one, it’s the way women platonically relate to other women that is the main focus of what actually goes on at the bordello on the page. At the same time, the Hôtel Mon Cherie is never explicitly painted as a good thing or glorified, but it does contrast a really important difference between a drug-free, woman-owned establishment where everyone is at least nominally there by choice -- even if their reasons are sad or their other choices are ugly -- and an operation run by brutal men like Bantle, where the girls have no say in their customers or their treatment, and particularly ones that engage in sex trafficking. The whole thing is just refreshingly agendaless.

The development of Karen’s relationship with Priya is another thing that worked well for me. Firstly, because it’s great to see the more rarely-explored (at least in the genres I read) situation of a lesbian relationship where the characters are already comfortable with their sexual orientations and the relationship can develop at the same pace as most heterosexual ones, without the additional angst of a coming out story. Secondly, I liked that Karen’s initial development of feelings for Priya reflected the giddiness of a crush without turning into insta-love, which I think is the perfect balance for a girl who seems worldly enough not to be fooled by the difference between lust and love, but still pretty sheltered when it comes to opportunities to pursue intimacy for herself, out of genuine attraction, with members of the sex she’s actually drawn to.

I think if the plot had continued to operate on the relatively intimate scale on which it began, just addressing the murder mystery, their conflict with Bantle’s operation, and the side plot involving Priya’s sister, the book would’ve been just about perfect. Where it falls down for me is that it tries, towards the end, to blow up into a story that’s too big for the world the author’s built up until that point. That story could’ve been a great one too, but if Bear was going that route then a lot more groundwork needed to be laid for me to find it satisfying. There should’ve been more mad science, rather than just tantalising hints; the nation responsible for one of the dastardly schemes should have been a little more gracefully integrated before they showed up as cackling villains; the Wild West should have been a bit more wild. Having scheduled automaton duels between licensed Mad Scientists dropped in as a background detail without ever being elaborated on works great if you’re just telling a story about this one bordello, the people who work in it, and their clash with a rival operation, but if you’re going to build up to something that has much, much bigger stakes, then the world is one of the things that needs building.

I didn’t really buy into the framing device of having this be Karen’s dime novel, either. That felt like an afterthought, because it seems incongruous with the conversational tone that I mentioned earlier and with Karen’s use of dialect. To be honest, I headcanoned it away almost immediately and forgot it was meant to be the case until I looked at my review notes.

I can’t really say that these flaws impeded my enjoyment much. They’re the kind of things that registered without much impact while I was reading, and became more prominent in hindsight.

Karen Memory is a book with very broad appeal, and the impression I went in with before I read it, that it was a book about steampunk prostitutes, turned out to be very reductive, as those are two of its least defining qualities. Give it a go. This one’s a keeper.

Review from Bookette.net ( )
1 vote Snumpus | Aug 10, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Bearprimary authorall editionscalculated
Sheppard, CynthiaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book is for Karen Memery Bruce,

who is not actually a seamstress

but who is a librarian and puppeteer.
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You ain't gonna like what I have to tell you, but I'm gonna tell you anyway.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0765375249, Hardcover)

“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.

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:16 -0400)

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