Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

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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.

To start out with, you have to hand it to a book for being this incredibly diverse. Not only is the main character queer, other main characters include a trans woman, African American bounty hunter (a real person, btw), Native Americans, Indian women, and a variety of sex workers treated with respect by the author. And it is a rip snorting steampunk adventure. Karen, whose last name is actually “Memery” so the title is a bit of a misnomer, is intelligent and honest and very aware of her situation as a prostitute. I appreciated the fact that nothing about the women’s profession was glamorized, nor was it really judged either. There was no details about their work, but you understood what was happening.

My only complaint would be that the love interest was a bit flat as a character. I bought into Karen and all the other characters, but not her so much. The rest of the story was a high octane adventure that didn’t overwhelm with steampunk details and used a good bit of actual history to base itself.

4 out of 5

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