Susan reviews Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Stone Mad is the sequel to Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory (which I reviewed here last month!), so there might be some unavoidable spoilers for Karen Memory from here on out!

In Stone Mad, Karen and Priya are settling into their life together and celebrating their new ranch with a night out for dinner and a magic show – except that their dinner companions happen to be a widowed sceptic and illusionist, a pair of Spiritualists who might be sisters and are almost certainly con women, and whatever is haunting the hotel’s dining room. It as dramatic as you would expect.

Stone Mad is really different in scale to Karen Memory. The first book covered schemes and murders that stretched across North America at least, even though the majority of the action took place in Rapid City. In this, the action is very local and personal, and the drama is mainly interpersonal instead of conspiracy, which makes for a somewhat different tone to the action and consequences. The steampunk elements are quite toned down, presumably because of the space, but the bits that we do get are well set up and dramatic, and I enjoyed them a lot! Instead, we get a little more folklore, which is great when the characters can acknowledge that tommy-knockers and jackalopes are probably real, but ghosts and Spiritualism might be a step too far.

I really like Karen’s narrative voice. She is very frank and matter-of-fact in her narration, especially about her past as a sex worker; I really liked that she could recognise the tricks that the Arcade sisters were using on her from that, and had professional respect for it, as well as the way she talked about things she’d learned from clients. The narration has a really conversational tone, which works well for when Karen digresses onto a different topic – the digressions seem to go a little further afield before they loop back to the actual narrative than they did in Karen Memory</em, but that could be a trick of my memory. Her voice also has great descriptions, especially for the tommy-knocker – Karen has a great eye for people and details, as a character, and those really come through in the narrative.

But I did read great swathes of this book from behind my hands because one of the central dramas in Stone Mad is that relationships are not easy, as evidenced by Karen and Priya’s first real fight in their relationship. And it’s one of those fights where the actual problem and the thing that the fight’s about are two separate things, so solving it is not a simple matter. For those who spend books going “Why can’t you solve this relationship drama by talking to each other like adults?!” this might be worth checking out – I found the way they reckoned with each other and the way they helped each other with problems to be quite realistic, especially the way they talk about family.

Aside from that: I found the scenes with the tommy-knocker to be effective and unnerving, the magic show was really vivid, and I really appreciated that Elizabeth Bear actually kept and used the repercussions she set up in Karen Memory; not just the social aspect of them being heroes of the town, but also Karen’s tinnitus and chronic hip pain, and Priya’s PTSD (which in particular I thought was really well-done – the details of her being embarrassed by her own reactions rang really true for me).

Plus, I always love historical stories where every female character is explicitly Done with men, and Stone Mad goes in on the perception that the greatest woman will never be taken as seriously as the most mediocre man, How to Suppress Women’s Writing style.

Basically, this is a fun sequel to Karen Memory, and it was great to go back to that world and see how the characters were doing, even if the answer made my clutch my face in my hands! I really enjoyed it, and if you liked Karen Memory it’s worth checking this out too.

[Caution warnings: mentions of historical racism, sex trafficking, and abuse]

[This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory is a steampunk alternate universe set in Seattle during the Gold Rush, following a prostitute named Karen Memery (“like memory but with an e”) as she and her colleagues investigate the murders of streetwalkers, attempt to help rescue of women who have been trafficked, and also have to deal with a rival brothel owner trying to drive them out of business using mad science and mind control. I feel like everyone I know has read and recommended this book at least once to me since it came out, and they were exactly right because it falls squarely in the middle of my interest in both queer mysteries and genre-crossing SFF!

Karen’s narration is written in a really strong voice – it felt quite natural and dialectic to me, although knowing that every “should of” or non-standard grammar choice was a deliberate choice from the author really helped me to shut off my inner grammar snob. Some of the descriptions were hard for me to follow, though – I could not for the life of me parse what was going on with the street levels of this city, and learning that they’re real has honestly actually clarified everything magnificently; and I honestly had no idea what to picture for the Singer sewing machine at all until Karen started using it in ways that definitely were not intended by the manufacturers and I went “OH, IT’S A MECH!” – but it worked out.

(The mix of real history with the alternate universe and steampunk elements are really cool by the way – the man who comes looking for the murderer, Marshall Bass Reeves, was a real person, and Rapid City’s raised streets are based on the actual Seattle Underground (which I didn’t know was a thing until I started reading around for this review!)

And the characters! I adored Karen and her friends; Karen in particular is very well drawn, and her awkwardness in trying to show her interest and regard for Priya warmed my heart, especially because it’s such a slow-moving romance and it’s really sweet – and her admiration for Priya is so sincere! I love that completely. Plus, the friendships are lovely between all of the women, and the way that everyone goes out of their way to help each other in the face of racism and stigma against their profession, I also like that despite the majority of characters in this book being sex workers, there’s no actual onscreen sex – it’s very much depicted as a boring job that people have different preferences about. It’s refreshing!

But yes, Karen Memory is fun and action-filled, with a sweet romance running through it and some really cool ideas and inventions – see also, sewing machine machine mech – and all of the social commentary that you’d hope for in a steampunk story. My only real complaint about the book is that the pace and scale of the last quarter or so of the book escalated really suddenly. It makes sense, considering that its supposed to read like a dime novel (Was I delighted by that aspect of the story? Of course I was.).

I did think that this was a standalone book, but it turns out that there’s a a sequel called Stone Mad due out on the 20th of March, and I am really excited, so that might be worth keeping an eye out for! But in the mean time: hello, this is a book about sex workers investigating murder and using a sewing machine as a mech, it’s great.

[Caution warnings: misgendering, historical racism, human trafficking, mostly off-screen torture and abuse, off-screen murder of sex workers]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

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!