Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Karen Memory is set in the late 1800s, post Civil War era, in the fictional town of Rapid City, Washington Territory. It’s not a real town, but in her author notes, Bear said she based it on many towns in that area around that time such as Vancouver, Portland, and especially Seattle’s Underground.
It’s a gold-miner, frontiersman/ frontierswoman story with a wild-west flavor. And also steampunk. Can’t forget the steampunk. There are submersibles, air ships, a mind control machine, and a Singer sewing machine automaton that is probably the equivalent of what Iron Man would have been at the turn of the century.
Karen Memery (not Memory, like the title) is an, eh-hem, “seamstress”. And she lives among an eclectic collection of “seamstresses” in Madame Damnable’s Hotel Mon Cherrie. And by seamstress, she means prostitute. But Karen really does sew, and Madame Damnable really does own one amazing sewing machine. Karen is saving up her money in hopes of one day buying a horse ranch, but her plans are threatened by the machinations of Peter Bantle.
Bantle owns his own prostitution business, but it’s nothing like Madame Damnable’s elegant bordello. He abuses his women, subjecting them to deplorable living conditions. When he makes up his mind to become the next mayor and put Madame Damnable out of business, it seems as though Rapid City is going out of its way to support him. But Karen Memory and her flamboyant cast of supporting characters will go to extreme lengths to stop him.
In addition to Bantle’s political aspirations, prostitutes have been turning up dead on the streets of Rapid City, and Karen suspects Bantle and his men might have something to do with it. With the help of US Marshall Bass Reeves, his Comanche posseman, Tomoatooah, and a handful of brave women, Karen follows Bantle deep into an underworld of political scandal, mind control, and 19th century style bio-terrorism.
For the most part, Karen Memory is a fast paced, thrilling adventure told with a good sense of humor and a strong narrative voice. It’s told in first person POV, and Karen calls her dialect “Hay Camp”. Sometimes dialect can be a chore to read, but Bear strikes the right balance: enough to create Karen's distinctive voice, but not so much as to make it a chore for the reader.
Bear draws thoroughly developed characters. Although Karen was the main character and narrator, she wasn’t my favorite. That title would have to go to either Bass Reeves, Miss Francine, Tomoatooah, or Merry Lee. Probably all four combined.
Karen drove the plot, as a good protagonist should, but she often took backseat to Reeves, Tomoatooah, and Merry Lee. Between those three, they may have achieved the main goals of the plot, with or without Karen, but probably not as quickly, and probably with a lot more casualties. Karen was never one to let someone else take a bullet. In fact she was quite willing to take the bullet, the fire, the electrocutions, the beatings, and the dislocated hip to keep everyone else safe and alive.
In that way, Karen Memery reminded me A LOT of Harry Dresden of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. In both books, the physical action builds in a steady escalation, as typical climaxes do, taking a greater and greater toll on the main character, until the reader wonders how he or she is still standing. Put Karen and Harry side by side in a fight, and I couldn’t tell you who would give out first. The conflicts just keep coming, and when you think the battle is finally over, another bigger, badder problem pops up. The plot is like a Hydra—cut off its head, and two more take its place.
It sometimes leaves the reader exhausted, too.
If I had any disappointments in Karen Memory, they are as follows:
- Bear wrapped up the story and tied up all the strings in a neat package. Some people need this kind of closure. Me… not so much. It also means, if you loved this story and want to see the characters in a sequel, it probably isn’t going to happen. I’m okay with standalone books (really I am), but I wouldn’t mind hanging out with this bunch again.
- I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler, but it is information that comes near the end of the book, so don’t read the rest of this bullet if you are against learning anything ahead of time… A few times Karen mentions she keeps a journal, loves reading dime novels, and wouldn’t mind being the author of some dime novels herself. And, a few times throughout the book, she addresses the audience as “Reader”. So it’s no surprise in the end that we find out that the book we are reading is actually Karen Memery’s memoirs of this grand adventure (which is where, I guess, the “Memory” comes from in the title). I don’t know how I feel about that. I kind of feel like it was a device that kept drawing me out of the story, and it gave away the fact that Karen obviously survived the ordeal. But I don’t think Bear was trying to hide the fact that it was going to be a memoir all along, so I don’t feel like I was tricked, either. Mixed feelings on this.
There’s been some divisiveness in the sci-fi/fantasy community lately and I couldn’t help thinking about the current politics as I read this story. I hate to say Karen Memory is “progressive” because while the story seems to reflect an open minded application of political and social situations, it is actually reflecting a truthful representation of American culture in the late 19th century that History would have us deny. Despite the fantasy elements, the humor, the action and adventure, Karen Memory has a sociopolitical vein that touches on truths of human condition. We’re finding more and more proof that those conditions are not inventions of the 21st century. They are realities that have always existed, but haven’t been fairly represented. It was a pleasure to read a book, like this one, that shed a bit of light on those aspects that have been too long in the dark.