Wednesday, April 8, 2015

REVIEW: Karen Memory

Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Genre: fantasy, steampunk
Price: $12.99 (ebook) $19.43 (hardcover)
Publisher: Tor
ISBN 978-0765375247
Point of Sale: Amazon 
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I bought Karen Memory based on having heard the first chapter read aloud by the author at Windycon.  It was a hell of a first chapter, and to my delight, the rest of the book delivered on the promise.

Karen, the narrator and title character, works as a prostitute in a high-class bordello in “Rapid City” which is a mashup of Portland Oregon and Seattle Washington of the 1880s.  We’re in steampunk, so Mad Scientists are running around and (at least in theory) getting licensed, and dirigibles fill the sky.  Oh, and one Peter Bantle, pimp and all-around sleezeball, has a mind-control device.  (He uses it on Karen in Chapter 1, so that’s not much of a spoiler.)

Now, steampunk is an interesting genre, and Elizabeth Bear, the author, has decided to graft non-existent and futuristic technology on real people of the era.  I do mean real – Bass Reeves, the first black US Marshal, is a supporting character.  Bear also has realistic people, including blacks “passing” as white, gays and cross-dressers – all of the people you’d expect to find in a real bordello of the time.  Importantly, bordellos in the 19th Century were like gas stations today: ubiquitous and catering to every socio-economic group in society.

At any rate, our entertaining story is of Karen Memory, resident of Madame Damnable’s bordello (Madam is based on a real person who died as one of the wealthiest people in Seattle) who is thrust into the role of helping Priya, an Indian girl (from India, not Native American) sold into sex slavery.  Oh, and Karen would really like to get into Priya’s knickers.  Bantle is the main obstacle to progress, although we find during the story that the stakes aren’t just one girl, but rather the whole Alaska territory.

Steampunk is by definition interjecting non-real technology into a “real” setting.  That’s done here, although surprisingly sparingly.  Where non-real tech is used, it’s done in a restrained manner, which allows real characters to shine through.  In short, Karen Memory is highly recommended.

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