Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: Karen Memory

KAREN MEMORY by Elizabeth Bear is one of those books where I went into it knowing that some reviewers I follow really liked it, but I didn't read the actual reviews so I could experience the story sans any kind of spoiler. For me, this was absolutely the right choice. Falling into Rapid City and Karen's life and uncovering all of the layers and twists, it was so worth it.

So here's the quick and dirty if you are a reader like me. KAREN MEMORY is stocked with interesting, diverse characters, the villains are heinously evil, the steampunk element starts out subtly then grows, great action, and the titular character and narrator has a distinctive voice. I was cheering her from page one. The city was the right mix of Western territory lawlessness with hints of future progress. I don't know if there will be future books, but this works so well as a standalone I'm not worried about it.

There you go. There's action, great characters, and for the steampunk tinker fans, you get some very cool machines. If you want more details, read on after the jump.

Remember to check out the giveaway courtesy of Tor Books that we announced yesterday.

I like steampunk novels set in the American West. Of course I love my Victorian London, but there is something so right about the combination of scientific progress and rustic ingenuity. It speaks to me, just as it did with Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century books and M.K. Hobson's The Native Star.

Rapid City is a construct of bits of early Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco and Seattle. However, with the underground city in the middle of construction to build up the sidewalks, it's Seattle that I pictured most. (Yes, I've been on the tour.) The bordello Karen works at is reached via a ladder leading down from the upper level. It is run by Madame Damnable, a formidable character in Rapid City, but for Karen, this is the best place to work in her profession. It has security lacking for anyone working the streets or the horrors of the cheaper dockside brothels (where choice isn't an option), and it beats the unsafe working conditions of the factories, where exposure to toxic chemicals could destroy you faster than any STD. She is practical, though, and is saving up for a life away from prostitution.

Her security starts eroding when one night two women seek sanctuary at Madame Damnables. A serial killer also leaves one of his victims outside their door. The first event brings Priya into her life, a woman that she comes to love and be willing to take risks to protect and aid. It also introduces us to Peter Bantle, one of our villains. He is cruel, ruthless, abusive and has his hands in a bigger conspiracy. The second event brings a formidable ally, Marshal Bass Reeves. No, this is not the story where the hooker with a heart of gold and the Marshal fall in love while battling evil foes. I know, spoilers, but I did enjoy that this story did not follow the more traditional Western tropes (not that I really expected that from Bear in any case). As I mentioned before, Karen is a lesbian and Reeves is married and dedicated to his job. They just work together to take on the bad guys. And it is awesome.

The danger increases and Karen has to fight to protect everyone she loves. This involves action (yippee!), more action, and defeating more than a few bad guys. The stakes also rise as she falls deeper into the villains' plans.

Now onto one of the aspects that drew me to the book in the first place, steampunk. This isn't a book that drops you into a laboratory or airship from the start. We get a few subtle clues that this isn't our late-19th century technology, with a machine that can mend bodies, notices of inventors duels in the tinker section of the city, and so on. It fit in seamlessly, though, as you would expect from the POV of someone who doesn't work with mechanicals every day, but exists in a world where they are commonplace. As much as I love all of the airships and contraptions, this book contains one machine that made me absolutely giddy when I learned it was in the book.

There is a submarine. I freaking love submarines. I can blame watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea over and over again as a kid. I wanted to live on the Nautilus. I still do. I will leave you to figure out what happens with the sub, and Karen, and all of the inhabitants of Rapid City.

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Elizabeth Bear

Tor Books:

[received a review copy]
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  1. Oooo yey! I keep skipping the reviews of this for the same reason. But was glad to read yer quick and dirty summary at the top to get a little taste. Can't wait to read this.

  2. KAREN MEMORY has action, romance, intrigue, adventure, and a climax so ridiculous(ly wonderful) it has to be read to be believed. I can overlook any minor flaws because it's such a delight.

  3. That is exactly why you should read Karen Memory. Because that line right there describes Karen and this book perfectly. Its mischievous and fun with just the right dose of dark reality mixed in that will make you still take it seriously. I highly recommend it!

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