Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review - Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Short review: Karen Memery is a "seamstress" working for Madame Damnable in Rapid City. Then Priya enters their lives, Peter Bantle starts making trouble for everyone, and adventure ensues.

A boom town "seamstress"
Fights the meanest man in town
And then falls in love

Full review: Karen Memory is a steampunk flavored Western featuring a feisty young prostitute named Karen Memery living and "sewing" (as all of the hookers in the book call plying their trade) in the fictional Rapid City, a boom town in the Pacific northwest that sprang up following the discovery of gold in Alaska. Surrounded by the quirky denizens of the bordello in which she works, aided by the recently arrived U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, in love with Priya, a foreign girl rescued from a nightmarish existence, and opposed by the brutal and villainous Peter Bantle, Karen embarks upon a fast-paced and exciting frontier adventure that seems inspired by the dime-novels that she and her friends are said to love to read in the parlor after all of their clients have gone home.

One might expect the working girls of the Hôtel Mon Cherie, the rather high-class cathouse run by the formidable Madame Damnable, to be a collection of pretty young waifs. Instead, they are an eclectic and interesting bunch, starting with Karen herself, who is described as a large woman, tall and strong shouldered, evidencing a hearty fitness apparently gained working alongside her late father in his business of breaking horses. Working by Karen as a seamstress (because in addition to her euphemistic "sewing", Karen does actual sewing to make clothes for the women she works with) is Miss Francesca, who, in addition to being good at making clothes, is pretty clearly a transgendered woman, and is described as having a rather particular clientele. There are other women in Madame Damnable's Sewing Circle, including Pollywog and Effie, plus a collection of other people who work in the establishment including Crispin, who is more or less a general handyman and bouncer, Miss Bethel the bartender, and Connie the cook. The strength of the book is that all of these characters are both interesting and well-drawn, with even the bit players presented in a way that makes them feel like they have full lives even if those lives are only briefly touched upon on the page.

Despite populating Karen's world with a number of engaging characters, Bear doesn't waste any time getting the plot going, and by the end of the first chapter, a woman named Merry Lee, who specializes in rescuing women who have been forced into prostitution, shows up in Madame Damnable's parlor with a rescued Indian girl under her arm and Peter Bantle and his crew of thugs hot on her tail. It seems that Bantle runs his own whorehouses, and doesn't pay attention to details like whether the women in his employ actually want to work as prostitutes, and keeps them locked up as virtual slaves to prevent them from running away. Merry Lee, who is described by Karen as being Chinese (although Karen is sometimes not particularly well-informed as to the ethnic origins of others), takes exception to this state of affairs, and has made it a practice to rescue as many of such imprisoned women as she can. The denizens of Hôtel Mon Cherie face down Bantle's gang in an encounter where the first real "steampunkish" element comes into play: Bantle has an electric glove, and apparently, some sort of mind affecting device that causes Karen to almost shoot one of her own friends. This confrontation turns out to be the first round in a conflict that dominates the rest of the book, with an ever escalating back-and-forth complemented by more than a few twists and turns.

The encounter adds a new character to the story in the form of the rescued girl, who turns out to be named Priya. She also turns out to be remarkably intelligent and well-educated, and entirely uninterested in becoming a seamstress under Madame Damnable, which seems understandable following her experience "working" for Bantle. Karen falls in love with the newcomer, and one of the strengths of the story is the halting and hesitant relationship that grows between the two women. Before too long, Bear adds the character of U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves to the mix, bringing the former slave turned federal lawman into the story by explaining that he is on the trail of a murderer whose modus operandi he is familiar with, but whose identity he does not know. Reeves is described as a massive man, and illiterate, but he is also kind, incredibly competent, and serious about his duties as a lawman. Reeves, like Priya, is almost improbably capable, and both characters seem to be a rather subtle condemnation of the wastefulness caused by the common American prejudices and practices of the nineteenth century (and beyond).

Once the various characters are in place, the story rolls forward at a rapid clip. Every event is told entirely from Karen's perspective, and the reader only knows what she knows, and hears everything in her rather folksy voice. Despite maintaining this rather relentless focus on Karen, the story never bogs down, and only occasionally seems to take an artificial turn necessitated by the limited viewpoint. This very focused viewpoint serves to give the entire book an immediacy, as Karen's almost raw emotions are on virtually every page. From her shock and pain when she is wounded in one of the many fights, to her shock and dismay when events turn against her and her friends, to her nervous uncertainty in approaching and courting the object of her desire, the story has an elemental feel that is made possible by Bear using Karen's eyes as the filter through which the reader sees the world.

The story does have a few weaknesses. Because of the limited focus, there are points where it is clear that Bear needed to move Karen to a particular location so she could be given information and, as a result, the reader could be given information. Consequently, there are a couple of rather abrupt scenes in which Karen is captured so the villain can either explain some of his plans or spirit her away to a location where she can see his villainous machinery at work. The book also has a lot going on in its pages, and at times seems to strain against its own length. There are subplots involving local politics, a murder mystery, a romance, and a threat to the nation itself, as well as a number of steampunk elements such as airships, sewing machines that can double as combat armor, and a Jules Verne-inspired sea vessel that are casually dropped into the story. On the other hand, given that my main complaints about the book amount to the fact that it is jam-packed with so much material that I would have liked to have had more pages for them to be more fully explored, that can probably be taken as a sign that the book is pretty strong overall.

One minor pedantic complaint that is probably entirely unique to me is that even though we are told that the story takes place during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, a major plot point is the ongoing gold rush in Alaska. The trouble is that Hayes' presidency lasted from 1877 to 1881, and there wasn't a major gold rush in Alaska until the 1890s (and actually didn't start until after Hayes had died). The book is, obviously, an alternate history, so this is probably nitpicking something that that isn't really a problem, but given that the handful of other major historical events that are mentioned in the book took place on the same schedule and in much the same way as they did in our world, this seems like an odd change.

Set in a steampunkish world complete with electrical gauntlets, magnetic personal location devices, and a city that is almost a character in its own right, Karen Memory is a tale of action and adventure with a rapid-paced plot and a collection of interesting characters who could have been ripped from the pages of a dime-store western. Centered on the feisty and no-nonsense Karen Memery, this is a book that is sure to scratch the itch of anyone who is hankering for a well-written combination of H.G. Wells and Zane Grey, with maybe a dash of Arthur Conan Doyle and a little bit of skewed history thrown in for good measure.

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  1. I'm not normally into westerns, but I like the steampunk aspect to it. Sounds like a very interesting read!

    1. @fredamans: The Western element is fairly light. Because it is ostensibly set during an Alaskan gold rush, it might have more in common with a Jack London story than with most out and out "Westerns". Maybe I should have described the book as feeling a bit like a cross between Jules Verne and Jack London.