Maddison reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is a steampunk-esque novel set in gold rush era Washington. Karen Memery and the other “seamstresses” working for Madame Damnable at Hôtel Mon Chérie in Rapid City have their lives turned upside down when ex-prostitue and current “crib whore” savior Merry Lee shows up shot outside their Bordello with her latest charge, Priya. As Priya and Merry recover from the incident and Priya finds her place in Madame Damnable’s, a slow building romance begins to develop between Karen and Priya. The romantic elements of the book sit on the back-burner as the more salient issues of mystery, murder, and mayhem come to light. 

The book manages to bring the world to life with interweaving plots that encompass the personal, the economic, and the political. It also addresses issues like gender and sexual identity, racism, classism, and patriarchy.

The main cast of characters are lead by Karen who is the point-of-view character of the novel. While her fellow “seamstresses”–a code for prostitutes–and Madame Damnable’s employees like Crispin and Connie, are important and interesting characters, the novel focuses on Karen, Miss Francina, Priya, and Merry. As the adventure continues to unfold US Marshal Bass Reeves and his Comanche posseman also become integral to the story.

The book hosts a curious cast of characters with a gay African-American bordello bouncer; an African-American US Marshall and his Comanche posseman; the Chinese “crib whore” savior Merry Lee whose name has been bastardized by English tongues; and the brave, beautiful, and loyal trans woman Miss Francina to name a few.

The book doesn’t spare too many words in discussing sexuality, but it does remark upon LGBT characters and brings attention to the issues it may cause them. It does have a happy ending! Karen and Priya and the rest of the gang have a happily ever after.

I do think that Karen Memory has excellent representation and a very diverse cast and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. However, I found it hard to push my way through the beginning of the novel as I struggled to understand the way in which the book is narrated. Karen is intended to be undereducated young woman whose speech lacks some eloquencies and so it was difficult to get a grasp on some of the grammatical choices. However, as the book went on I was really pulled in by the story, and I became more used to the style of writing.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Karen Memory!

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