“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
“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.
I picked up a copy of Karen Memory when it came out last year, and thanks to trying to finish up a reading challenge, I finally took it off the shelf and read it. What fun!
Karen’s voice is distinctive — maybe a little jarring at first, getting used to her grammar and word usage (especially “of” instead of “have”, as in “would of”…, etc). The first-person narrative by Karen lends a Western grittiness to the tale that really adds a lot in terms of flavor and setting.
The steampunk elements are enjoyable. I tend not to enjoy steampunk that gets so involved in the description of gears and pistons and steam engines that plot and character suffer. This is not the case in Karen Memory. The gadgets and gizmos serve the story, not the other way around.
The plot is engaging and exciting, as Karen takes on the bad guys, backed up by the do-gooder US Marshall, his Comanche partner, and the women of Madame Damnable’s. While I wished that some of the supporting characters were a bit more developed (it was hard to get a feel for several of the working girls as distinct people), overall the cast of characters is diverse, flavorful, and quite entertaining.
All in all, Karen Memory is a great romp of a read. Definitely quirky and unusual, it was a nice change-up for me from the somewhat heavy books I’ve been reading lately.
Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Length: 350 pages