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!

Danika reviews Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairIt’s rare for me to pick up a book and be surprised to see it has queer representation. That’s part of being so immersed in the LGBTQ book internet: I’ve usually heard about the representation before picking it up. I picked Everfair because I was intrigued by the premise: a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. I like steampunk, but I’m even more interested in steampunk that isn’t in a European context. I was happily surprised to see that in addition to that premise, this book also has several queer women main characters!

This is an incredible and complex story. I wouldn’t pick this up as a light or quick read: it definitely took me a while to get through. Each chapter switches perspectives, and there are tons of point of view characters (I actually lost count). This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. The alternate history of the Congo was fascinating, and although the steampunk element was more subtle than I was expecting, there was so much going on that I didn’t notice. There are a lot of nuanced political machinations taking place, including negotiations between the people who helped to found Everfair and the rulers of the area who preceded the existence of Everfair.

At least three of the points of view characters are queer women, along with more minor characters. I would argue that the relationship between two of them is at the core of the book. They definitely don’t have a simple, sweet romance. It’s complex and deeply flawed, but it’s also passionate, genuine, and loyal. I didn’t always like the characters (okay, one of the characters, but I won’t spoil it for you), but I always appreciated the layered, believable relationship they built between them, which spanned continents and many years.

This is an ambitious novel, tackling difficult and multi-faceted topics (including war, colonialism, and racism). It is thoughtful and unafraid to deal with uncomfortable conversations. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to dive into a book that is far-reaching and thought-provoking.

Lauren reviews The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue

beast-at-the-door

Confession: I’m new to steampunk-themed fiction. Therefore, I was excited to fall into The Beast at the Door— tagged as a steampunk fairy tale.

Immediately, the author (Althea Blue) hits readers with a big dose of pathos, which is delivered by the teenage protagonist, Patience.

Patience lives in a cage. A cage constructed of rigid decorum, never-ending pretense, and swift punishment. She’s prodded by rules and subdued by her family’s wealth. Despite the lavish lifestyle she’s afforded, Patience is drowning in a world that stifles her voice and potential.

When Patience’s parents surprise her with an arranged marriage, she finds the courage to set herself free. She flees from home and embarks on a rough journey with a dash of danger until she stumbles upon a garden and the lure of sanctuary. Out of desperation and survival, Patience resorts to behaviors short of her moral code.

Blue sprinkles tiny nuggets of foreshadowing, but they come later in the plot—mainly due to the story’s very slow pacing. Nearly halfway into the book, Blue drops a golden nugget before her reader’s eyes. The enticing hint comes during a low moment of Patience’s journey and propels the heart of The Beast at the Door into a coming-of age-story.

Saving plot spoilers, romance lands at Patience’s feet when she least expects it, which grants her refuge in the form of emotional freedom. This feeds my favorite aspect of the story. Patience’s vulnerability is authentic and bubbles over into the thrills of young adulthood, budding love, and friendship.

The newfound freedom works to Patience’s advantage by making her a relatable character; however, this book lightly treads on steampunk. The most tangible steampunk element hinges upon a single character, Ada. Other subgenre-related characteristics (i.e., the setting and time period) are captured in the story, but they are secondary to Ada’s role and don’t necessitate Patience’s development. The fairy tale element was steeped in the main characters’ overall cheerful dispositions and the essence of oral storytelling (which is mimicked in the writing style), but stunted by the story’s realism.

Granted, I’m .5 of an ounce biased. Maybe I was in the mood for a sprinkle of fantasy where I’m transported to a slightly alternate world. Or, maybe I was in the mood for a gritty European subculture. But hey, isn’t that the beauty of fiction? Readers indulge, digest, and then regurgitate all sorts of thoughts and feelings from a single story.

With that said, if you’re in search of weighty speculative fiction, The Beast at the Door may not satiate your curiosities. You’ll need a meatier portion of steampunk. However, this novella will be a delightful read for those who seek dashes of lesbian and steampunk flavors.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

 

Jasper reviews Glass Houses by Laura J. Mixon


I read about Laura J. Mixon’s “Glass Houses” in K. Cadora’s article “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Cadora, author of the novella “Stardust Bound” (which I recommend), argued that, in “Glass Houses,” Mixon translates the tropes of cyberpunk out of a male-only worldview into a wider, more equitable worldview. As a sometimes cyberpunk and noir fan, I was looking forward to reading this revelation for the genre.

Unfortunately, “Glass Houses” is very straightforward. At just over 200 pages, it has an extremely simple story to tell, and it tells it without a single surprise. In a near-future world suffering from global warming, down-on-her-luck techie Ruby operates waldoes for a living. Waldoes are robots that can be controlled at a distance by the minds of their operators; Ruby uses her waldoes to scavenge and salvage, recovering loot from abandoned buildings for clients. As the novel opens, Ruby discovers a rich old man trapped in a tottering skyscraper in the middle of a hurricane. She tries to rescue him and fails, but she *does* manage to steal his jewelry and a sealed envelope he was carrying. Cue the countdown as she, inevitably, has to figure out who *else* wants these items and how she can survive having stolen them.

There’s a lot that *could* happen in this novel, but little of it does. It could be a mystery novel, noir/cyberpunk-style, but everyone’s motivations come clear in the first half of the book and there’s no whodunnit to wonder about. It could be an exercise in world-building, exploring a world wracked by global warming, in which access to climate control is class-based and people go outside as little as they can, but the worldbuilding aspects barely go deeper than the cosmetic. It could be an action-film-on-the-page, but the two fight scenes that are clearly meant to be the story’s highlights come off flat and adrenlineless, as Mixon skips over large chunks of action in a sentence or two and fails to describe events with the precision and impact needed to make them live in a reader’s mind.

It could also be a learning-to-have-faith-in-yourself story, and it *almost* is. As Ruby navigates the challenges of the storyline, she begins to trust herself in the real world, interacting with it in person as well as through her waldoes, to value herself and her body, and to separate herself from her toxic lust/love crush on her roommate, beautiful party girl Melissa. (And, if you’re worried she puts aside her flawed f/f relationship for a m/f one, she doesn’t. She stays firmly attracted to women throughout the book.) This was the strongest aspect of the novel, and it came closest to working. The problem? It’s hard to care about Ruby’s development because, as a reader, you know so little about her. Sure, you’re handed a smattering of backstory details, but I finished the novel not even certain how old she was. Is she in her 20s? Her 30s? Even possibly approaching her 40s? It’s hard to say. What made her so afraid to leave her apartment? Why didn’t she ever have a relationship before her crush on Melissa? Ruby’s crushing lack of belief in herself, in her physical body, is central to the novel, and the reader is told little about how it developed–so it’s difficult to feel invested in her struggle to overcome it.

After finishing “Glass Houses,” I’m still looking for that woman-authored cyberpunk revelation. This isn’t it. Though the focus on wrestling with body image and self-confidence is nice to see, I’d reread Melissa Scott’s “Trouble and Her Friends” three times over before rereading “Glass Houses.”