Sunday, September 20, 2015

Karen Memory - Elizabeth Bear

Some books spend years and years on the same bookshelf without being touched, others have adventures. My copy of Greg Egan's Teranesia for instance, was printed in the US, shipped to Australia where a friend bought it as a gift for me. It then travelled to Ireland, the UK, Italy, the Czech Republic and Germany before ending up in my bookcase. I also own a copy of Frank Herbert's Destination: Void that once belonged to a highschool library in Canada and had at least two other owners before it ended up in a second hand bookshop in the Netherlands. My copy of Karen Memory also had an adventure. I took it with me to read at the hospital while waiting for my girlfriend to wake up from narcosis after surgery. Of course I forgot to take it home with me. The nurses were kind enough to put it away for me. It then spent a week in the hospital before I could collect it. I'm grateful to the hospital staff, if it had gone missing I would have missed out on an incredibly fun read.

Karen Memery is a 'seamstress'  in Rapid City, a town on the west coast of the United States. She works in Madame Damnable's establishment, catering to high paying clientèle. Life in Hôtel Mon Cherie is thoroughly disrupted when two injured prostitutes appear at their door. They are taken in to recover from their injuries but only minutes later one of the more influential citizens of Rapid City and owner of one of the cheap brothels in town, Peter Bantle, comes calling. His demands are the beginning of a feud that will see Karen plunged in a whirlwind of murder, corruption and violence but will also introduce her to the love of her life.

The novel is set in an alternative version of the 1870's. It is essentially a steampunk western. It is full of strange technologies and fantastical machines. The timeline has been adapted a bit by moving the Alaskan gold rush a few decades back. Rapid City is fictional but it is clearly inspired by some towns that did exist at the time. The setting reminded me a lot of Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century books. There are lots of references in the book to historical figures in the Old West, although their lives, given the alternative timeline, rarely follow the historical paths. For readers who are well acquainted with the period but not too attached to western clichés, there is a lot to be had in Bear's alternative timeline.

Prostitutes are a cliché in both westerns and other genres. They are almost always secondary characters. Women rarely seen as persons by their clients or the writers who use them as characters. Apparently many writers find them hard to write and many readers find it hard to identify which such a character. Bear breaks right though these preconceptions in this novel. Karen is a well rounded character. Her life has not been easy but she has held on to her optimism, dreams and sense of humour. Contrary to the dominant view of her profession displayed in many novels, she is neither a victim nor powerless. In fact, she has a very clear opinion of the fallen woman (or, as they put it in this novel, soiled dove) nonsense that surrounds her. Whichever way you look at it, Karen is (no pun intended) a memorable character.

Bear tackles other clichés in the books as well. The view that the American West was entirely populated by white cowboys and red Indians for instance. With the occasional lost Mexican mixed in if you were lucky. The cast is remarkable diverse. Karen herself is half Danish and the novel also includes a black law man, a Comanche warrior, French, Russian, Chinese and Indian (as in from the country in Asia) characters. Rapid City is a mix of cultures, languages and customs much more representative of historical fact than the dime novels Karen and her colleagues read to entertain themselves. Bear uses the possibilities all these different cultures offer to create a rich environment to tell her story. I thought it was a very well developed setting.

Karen herself is the narrator of the story. She is not a character with a lot of formal education so she tells it to us like she experienced it. The book is written in the first person and is seen entirely from her point of view. Her style is humorous and full of tongue-in-cheek comments on  men and the world around her. Her language is straightforward, full of poor grammar and a kind of vernacular that would have been ruthlessly stamped out by any respectable English teacher of the time. It is quite an achievement that Bear has managed to carry this style for an entire novel without fail. It must have been a challenging book to edit.

The plot itself is that of a good adventure story. Bear keeps the pace up and doesn't let herself get distracted by side plots. The whole story is neatly wrapped up at the end. Although the setting would lend itself to more stories, the novel very much looks like a singleton. As the story advances, the steampunk element becomes more pronounced. Towards the climax of the book, a number of interesting machines play a crucial role in resolving the plot. Bear allows her characters to grow first, without the distraction of too many gimmicks. It's a well structured book in that sense. The main character carries the story, not the cool machines or other steampunk technology.

Karen Memory is a book I appreciate in several ways. On one level it is a fast-paced adventure, on the other it challenges a number of clichés encountered in genre fiction. I loved Karen's sense of humour and the immersive alternative history Bear has created. It's a very fun read. Not as demanding as Bear's previous novels in the Eternal Sky universe perhaps, but clearly showing her versatility as a writer. It is a 2015 release you really ought to read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Book Details
Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 350
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7524-7
First published: 2015

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