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 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.

Danika reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

I’ve got to say, with a title like “The Cybernetic Tea Shop,” I expected this to be a fun, silly, quick read. Instead, it was thoughtful and quiet, seeming to take up more space than the pages it occupied. This is set in a world where sentient, sapient robots were once mass-produced, but given the ethical problems they raised, they’re now illegal to make. Hundreds of years later, some of those original robots are still around, with questionable legal personhood and a lot of animosity aimed at them by a public who wants to forget the whole thing ever happened.

But it’s not about the sci fi world, really. That’s just backstory for Sal, who has been running a tea shop for more than 200 years, continuing after her old “master”/partner died, while facing constant harassment and even violence. She meets tech Clara when she visits the shop, and despite Clara’s wanderlust and Sal’s complicated situation, they hit it off.

Although the word isn’t used, both Sal and Clara are asexual. Clara explains that she doesn’t have sexual attraction to people, even when she has a romantic relationship with them (and Sal isn’t programmed for that):

[Sal:] “I mean, I’m not designed to be sexual. That’s to say, I can act on others, but I don’t want—”
“That’s okay. Me neither.”
“Oh, but—”
“It’s not something I need from someone else,” Clara said firmly, willing Sal to understand. It wasn’t something that needed explanation, but something that too many people had wanted one for. Love, romance; those were things she’d felt before, even if she wasn’t often inclined toward them. But she didn’t need anything from or with that person, never felt attracted to them even with the addition of love. If her body wanted something, she could spend five minutes with her hand. Another person never needed to factor into that for her.

(I include that quotation because before reading this, I saw that people referred to it as having asexual representation, but that it didn’t use the word “asexual.” I wasn’t sure whether there was just no sex on the page, or whether there was more textual rep, so I wanted to put the paragraph out there for anyone else wondering.)

I really appreciated how character-based this is. In a small amount of time, I felt like I really got to know both the character and how they complemented each other. I’m interested to read more by this author! (Especially when I found out after reading this that we live in the same small city! What a fun coincidence!)


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.”