Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear has a cast full of great characters, but are all overshadowed by an uneven narrative.
2/5 10/25 possible score
Type of Story: Steampunk alternative U.S. history.
Plot – 2(Weak)
Characters – 4(Strong)
Setting/World Building – 1(Very Weak)
Writing Style – 1(Very Weak)
Heart & Mind Aspect – 2(Weak)
Karen Memory is set around 1880 in the Northwest portion of the United States during the Alaskan gold rush. The main characters of the story all work at a brothel in the imaginary city of Rapid City. When mysterious female foreigners from India and China show up on their doorstep with injuries and one of them shot, their entire world gets turned upside down. Karen, along with the other working girls, protect Priya, the Indian girl, that was forced to work in a less favorable prostitution ring, controlled by a powerful man named Peter Bantle. The girls at the brothel, that includes women of varying age, a transgender girl, and other extremely willful women, stand up to Bantle. Bantle, wanting to run for mayor of the city, wants to deal with these women that are being a nuisance.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Marshall comes to town looking for a murderer that kills working girls. Marshall Reeves is an African American Marshall that meets Karen, and they become friends as Karen helps him with his investigation, because the investigation is pointing towards someone that knows Bantle. Karen falls in love with Priya while she stays at the brothel and helps Priya with rescuing her little sister from Peter Bantle’s clutches.
Why you might enjoy this book:
Karen Memory has a lot of great characters that are extremely diverse. For readers interested in reading more diverse characters, you will not be disappointed in this novel. There is a lesbian romance with the main character, a gay bouncer, a transgender female prostitute, Asian characters, Indian characters, African American characters, and even a Native American character. They are all of varying ages and personalities. All of the women that work at the brothel are different from each other and just getting to know their personalities is such a good part of Karen Memory. The owner, Madame Damnable is a fire-cracker of an older woman, that makes her presence known in the novel.
The interactions between all the women are just great. They have a strong loyalty towards each other and it is a small family. Elizabeth Bear has written a brothel that is seen in such a great light and extremely positive. Your views of prostitution during this time might change slightly because of the family of women that Bear has written. The relationship between Karen and Priya is great and is the highlight of the entire book. All of the characterization in this story is strong. A lot of the characters are even modeled after real Americans during that part of U.S. history. Marshall Reeves for example, is a well known African American Marshall.
Why you might not enjoy this book:
Karen Memory felt like a very uneven book, with its world, and its writing. The first half of the book did not have a lot of steampunk elements. The characterization was high and the characters were driving the story. It felt more like a western than a steampunk at this point, but it was working. As soon as the more steampunk elements were added, it just became unbelievable. It felt like Bear was writing two completely different books. One was a great characterization novel and the other was a really clowny, steampunk action book, with mechanisms that made absolutely no sense. Not only were the steampunk elements not balanced but the writing felt very lost. It was if Bear didn’t really know what she wanted to do with this story.
The action sequences just did not make any sense. There was one scene in particular, where either the characters, or Bear herself made an awful decision on who was going to sneak into a house, to destroy a machine. Instead of sending the U.S. Marshall in to help, he just stood watch outside, while his unarmed friends sneaked inside. If anyone would have had a gun, which makes complete sense, at many points in this book, both the protagonists or the antagonists could of ended the entire story. The incompetence by all the characters was an insult on my intelligence as a reader. It was if Bear realized she needed to add more scenes, more plot lines, and less description to make the book longer, cliched, and more steampunk worthy. Most of the issues should have been pointed out during editing, revisions, and beta reading.
Finally, the biggest draw back of the entire book is the lack of description. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to some steampunk machines but they just were not described well enough. The reader had no idea, what these machines could do, or even what they looked like. Then, later in the story, these machines become so embarrassingly unbelievable, because it comes out of no where, and makes zero sense. Plot lines that became important in only the last 50 pages of the book were never even mentioned at the beginning of the novel. There is no foreshadowing here, no hinting, that anything during the second half of the book could be even remotely possible. Even the dialogue lacked description. Important scenes would transpire and characters would respond with some out of the blue response that made no sense. Characters wouldn’t discuss important details of what just happened until much later.
If you would like to check out a book with a lot of female characters, a great amount of diversity, and solid relationships between female characters then check this book out. However you might want to pass if the lack of description and absurd action sequences sounds like something you wouldn’t enjoy. There was a point in this book when I was going to give the book a 4 rating, about 150 pages in. It had so much potential but the labeling of it having to be steampunk is what hurt the book in the end. As a western, it could of been a solid read, but the nonsensical additions of over-the-top steampunk elements ruined it. I was extremely disappointed.