Friday, March 27, 2015

Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear
Release: February 3, 2015
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“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I'm gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I'm one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It's French, so Beatrice tells me.”

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.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Review: This book was a little slow-starting for me even though I thought the world and the characters were really interesting. The cast is exceptionally diverse ethnically, with characters from China and India as well as native Americans and former slaves, but also with gay and transgender characters. I really enjoyed getting to know all of them.

Rapid City is a composite of several cities in the pacific Northwest, including Seattle, but has a Wild West feel. The streets have recently been raised to prevent flooding, but most of the buildings are still at their old level. So Karen has to climb a ladder to get from her front door to the street, whereas people in wealthier neighborhoods might have stairs or even an elevator. This whole set up was a little bit odd for me. I'm used to seeing parts of the city raised above others, but this is more like seeing the beginning stages of that process. I just couldn't quite picture it in my head. It did make the serial killer story line more interesting though when the bodies were dropped from above.

At first, the story is basically a murder mystery. Marshal Reeves arrives in town looking for a serial killer and the girls at Hotel Mon Cherie, especially Karen, try to help him. I had the killer pegged pretty early on, but it turns out there's much more going on so that didn't bother me as much as it normally would. The end of the book is more of a spy story and I loved the nineteenth century version of international intrigue.

In Karen's world, inventors can apply for a Mad Scientists License - love that idea! So it's not surprising that this book has some amazing Steampunk gadgets. The ladies at the Hotel have some enviable kitchen appliances and a sewing machine fit for Tony Stark. And of course the bad guys have their own evil inventions, as well as a frightening (but also really cool) submarine.

The fantastic machines and the Wild West elements combine for some amazing over-the-top action scenes and made the end of the book really exciting. Once I got into it, I loved Karen Memory and just couldn't put it down. I'd love to see more books in this world -  hopefully with the marshal who, I found out later, was based on a real person.

Word Nerd Warning: I'm all for characters having a distinct voice as long it's not too hard to understand them. And I basically liked Karen's stylized narration. But I have this one pet peeve -- I'm fine with "coulda," though I'd really prefer "would've," but I can't stand "should of" -- she kept using "of" instead of "have" and I cringed every single time.

Recommended for fans of: diverse characters, awesome Steampunk gadgets, semi-historicals like The Diabolical Miss Hyde

This is book 14 toward a goal of 35 in my Snagged at the Library Challenge.


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