Book Review: Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

3 Feb

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In the late 19th century, Rapid City is *the* port in the Pacific Northwest. Much of the foundations are now below ground level, in the muck and mire of the poor soil for buildings and the other things being filled in to raise things. Places like Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle, whose entrance is 32 feet below the current level of the street, a real old part of the city, then. But to climb down that ladder and go in isn’t to get your clothes mended. Even if there are two sewing machines in the parlor. No, the usual people who climb down and visit the Sewing Circle are men coming from or going to the gold field, looking for a little action, spend a little money. Karen Memery, along with the other women,  practices sewing, to help mend her clothes, see, but she mainly practices a more horizontal trade.  And she is the center of Karen Memory, a new steampunk novel from Elizabeth Bear.

Karen Memory features a rich steampunk world described and seen through the eyes of Karen Memery. She’s come to the Northwest to make her fortune, in a world where a city much like Seattle is the gateway to the gold of Alaska, and trade across the Pacific to Russia and beyond. Where airships soar through the skies, and where steam power has definitely taken a pride of place that it didn’t quite manage in our world. And there is much more, strange and sideways technology from our own, in true steampunk fashion. Its a world we only see through a narrow lens, but it is a world that comes to life and line as much through suggestion, rather than ornate detail.

It is that world and its juxtaposition against its narrator and its protagonists that is the tension, and opportunity, and strength of the novel. A steampunk novel, in a world with airships, with a rather large threat to the city sounds like a novel where some typical steampunk character archetype would be our viewpoint character if not our outright hero. There is a throwaway (although throwaway is not something that really applies to Bear’s level of craft here) line about steampunk inventor scientist types dueling it out on the docks. A more typical steampunk novel set in that world would have had that as lead.

Instead, Karen Memory features a selection of workers in the sex trade, down and out and the type of character generally disempowered and side characters at best. In addition, there are numerous characters of color, both inside of Damnable’s and without, giving a palette of characters that aren’t the usual suspects you’d get in such a novel. It was an intensely good experience to get to read a story from the point of view of those who would be sidelined at best, whitewashed or forgotten at worst. It takes what is already an interesting story and kicks it up several notches into something different and special. This is led by the singular and unusual voice of the protagonist and point of view character herself, Karen Memery, Prairie Dove if you are paying a call to Damnable’s.

And once you are used to the protagonist’s voice, it is such an intensely interesting viewpoint. Karen has opinions, views, and a sense of humor and snark that I fell right into. Like her disdain for the name of the city Anchorage, or her admonition that bacon smells better the more miserable, wet and cold you are. She’s bright and curious even if not as erudite as most protagonists you might encounter, and that is an interesting character tightrope to walk. Bear manages it, and manages it quite well, showing a fluency for character It helps shape a voice for Karen that jumps off of the page.

As the story goes from something Ripper-like to something much more surreal and steampunk infused, Karen keeps us on course, and introduces us to her world and the worlds she, and the reader discover together. Karen Memery is not the protagonist that you expect, but definitely the protagonist that you want. Read Karen Memory and see that you don’t agree with me.

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