Review: “Karen Memory” by Elizabeth Bear

karen memoryKaren Memory
Elizabeth Bear
Tor, 2015.

Note to self. Don’t fuck with a steampunk seamstress. You just don’t know what she’s packing in that sewing machine.

Karen Memery (like memory but with an e as she explains), is just such a seamstress. She is the titular narrator of Elizabeth Bear’s latest steampunk adventure, Karen Memory (with an o and not an e). A prostitute at the Hôtel Ma Cherie, a high-class bordello in Seattle Rapid City in the late 1800s, Memery is dissatisfied with her job and her johns, longing for the prairie life she gave up when her father died.

Until Priya crashes into the bordello and her life. An Indian indenture who fled the brothels along the docks of Seattle Rapid City, Priya is given sanctuary by Madame Damnable of the Hôtel. Karen helps nurse her back to health and quickly falls in love with her.

But Priya’s escape is just the tip of the intrigue that will upend Karen’s life at the Hôtel Ma Cherie, as Priya’s pimp, Peter Bantle soon comes looking for her. A ruthless businessman and local politician, Bantle possesses powerful steampunk devices that allow him to maintain ruthless control over his prostitutes, both physically and mentally. Bantle is running for mayor and looking for any excuse to shut down the Hôtel Ma Cherie.

And then the bodies start turning up — dead prostitutes whipped and flayed, along with a tall, dark US Marshal from the Indian Territories, the former slave Bass Reeves, accompanied by his Native American deputy, Tomoatooah. The pair are chasing a serial killer and believe the mysterious prostitute murderer is their man. They join Karen and her fellow “seamstresses” as they attempt to take down Bantle’s organization, free Priya’s younger sister and save the Alaskan territories from an international incident involving airships and Jules Verne-esque submarines.

It’s loads of fun.

And Bear delivers it all in Karen’s plainspoken prairie dialect, capturing the language and rhythm in a way that immediately immerses the reader in Karen’s steam-driven version of the Old West. Imagine Calamity Jane from Deadwood, with a little more refinement and a lot less alcohol.

Bear also gleefully subverts gender roles in Karen Memory. Not just with Karen and Priya’s lesbian relationship. She also introduces Crispin, the gay bouncer at the Hôtel Ma Cherie, and Miss Francina, one of the seamstresses who has a select client base. As Karen puts it:

“…the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.”

So not only do we have three prominent gay characters, including the main protagonist and her love interest, but we also have a transgender character — the first I’ve run into in a 19th Century setting. And Karen’s plainspoken acceptance of Miss Francina, and those other societal outcasts who gravitate to the Hôtel Ma Cherie is probably the most refreshing part of the book.

Indeed, one of the major themes of Karen Memory seems to be the subversion of the dominant white male paradigm. Bear puts a variety of alternative lifestyles and minority role models on display, and fervently asserts that they too can be heroes in a fantasy novel. Madame Damnable in her quest for leadership of Seattle Rapid City against Bantle; the African-American Marshal Reeves, who has risen to a place of leadership despite his race (and actually Madame Damnable as well – Karen makes it clear that the powerful madame is also African-American by blood, if not by appearance); and Priya and Karen’s blossoming relationship, forbidden both as same-sex and interracial, are all examples.

It’s enough to make a Sad Puppy cry.

And the sewing machine?

“That big, industrial, ridiculous, totally overengineered, souped-up-to-Jesus Singer… The one that Priya and Lizzie had been hot-rodding for weeks, with the ornamental metal plates all over the armature, and Miss Lizzie’s diesel engine welded in beside the hydraulics.”

Well, wait till you see just how Karen puts that to use at the end.

This book is a helluva joy to read.

—Michael Senft

Buy Karen Memory

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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5 Responses to Review: “Karen Memory” by Elizabeth Bear

  1. DJ_Escapes says:

    I’ve read many reviews mentioning the cool inventions in the book – all of them though seem to bring up this sewing machine.


  2. That sewing machine was something else…DJ, I didn’t bring it up in my review, but I’d meant to! Ugh, I can’t believe I forgot something so important!


  3. Pingback: Tough Traveling — True Love | Relentless Reading (And Writing About It!)

  4. Pingback: Fantasy that is more than Farm Boys: A Chat with Elizabeth Bear | Relentless Reading (And Writing About It!)

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

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