Review: Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Karen MemoryIt’s the Wild West, but not quite as we saw it; it’s also an age where licensed Mad Scientists hold steam-powered robot duels and everything from street lifts to sewing machines have an added touch of steampunk. Karen is a teenage prostitute working in one of Rapid City’s classier bordellos, the Hôtel Mon Cherie. When the wounded Merry Lee, who liberates women from sex trafficking operations, turns up at their door with a frightened young Indian woman rescued from just such a brothel, trouble arrives with them. Trouble’s name is Peter Bantle, and Karen is the first to notice the strange way that Bantle seems to bend people’s wills against their best efforts. With a mayoral election on the way, a dead street walker turning up outside the Hôtel, and a U.S. Marshal on a manhunt, Karen and the women of Madame Damnable’s house have a lot more on their hands than just the usual gold-hunting johns.

Karen Memory is a very engrossing read, with that just-one-more-chapter quality that makes the pages fly by. Even when there’s not a lot happening, Karen’s narrative voice gives the story a conversational feel that keeps the pages turning, although her patois was occasionally jarring to me because it felt very East End, especially in the first quarter of the book when I don’t think the author had settled in to the character’s mannerisms quite as much as she did later on. I could write my knowledge of American regional dialects on a post-it note and have room left over, so it may actually be an accent that’s appropriate to the place and period, there’s just a bit of cognitive dissonance going on when a character in a Western is making me think of London. Bear definitely did a good job of evoking the sense of being in the mind of a slightly world-weary but not broken down teenager, though, which again aids the novel’s flow. I’m pushing thirty, but still young enough to be bugged when — all too frequently — authors fail to accurately capture the teenage voice.

It’s a first-person narrative, so Karen is obviously the character we’re treated to the greatest sense of, but everyone else veritably leapt off the page as well. I admired the fact that each woman in the Mon Cherie is a fully fleshed out individual that the reader not only gets a full sense of, but cares enough about to fear for, as well. This is a very diverse book, including multiple gay characters, a trans woman, and men and women of colour, and it’s a diversity that feels sort of effortless because the historical period isn’t used as an excuse to reduce anyone to their social status as the Other. Bear trusts the reader to understand why being on the outskirts of the society of the time would have brought these characters together without rubbing their, and our, noses in ugly attitudes in the name of gritty realism. I also enjoyed the fact that the women had each other’s backs, and the occasional mild competitiveness didn’t blunt their affection and compassion for each other, which is a big step up from the vapid cattiness with which prostitutes are so often portrayed.

I am anti-prostitution, but I don’t like the demonisation or objectification of women involved in it, so I walked into the book with a certain hesitation about its premise. I feel like fantasy fiction is divided between takes on prostitution that either glorify it to a level that makes even some of its proponents uncomfortable, or that invite us to alternately sneer and leer at the ‘whores’ while ascribing few characteristics to them beyond the pathetic or the salacious. This is the first book I can think of where the portrayal completely worked for me. There’s no sleaziness at all, in fact there aren’t even any sex scenes. In a way, although the brothel is very important as a setting, what the women who work there actually do is just sort of incidental. The johns are background noise, the women are women first and prostitutes second, and leaving aside the fact that the main romantic relationship is a lesbian one, it’s the way women platonically relate to other women that is the main focus of what actually goes on at the bordello on the page. At the same time, the Hôtel Mon Cherie is never explicitly painted as a good thing or glorified, but it does contrast a really important difference between a drug-free, woman-owned establishment where everyone is at least nominally there by choice — even if their reasons are sad or their other choices are ugly — and an operation run by brutal men like Bantle, where the girls have no say in their customers or their treatment, and particularly ones that engage in sex trafficking. The whole thing is just refreshingly agendaless.

The development of Karen’s relationship with Priya is another thing that worked well for me. Firstly, because it’s great to see the more rarely-explored (at least in the genres I read) situation of a lesbian relationship where the characters are already comfortable with their sexual orientations and the relationship can develop at the same pace as most heterosexual ones, without the additional angst of a coming out story. Secondly, I liked that Karen’s initial development of feelings for Priya reflected the giddiness of a crush without turning into insta-love, which I think is the perfect balance for a girl who seems worldly enough not to be fooled by the difference between lust and love, but still pretty sheltered when it comes to opportunities to pursue intimacy for herself, out of genuine attraction, with members of the sex she’s actually drawn to.

I think if the plot had continued to operate on the relatively intimate scale on which it began, just addressing the murder mystery, their conflict with Bantle’s operation, and the side plot involving Priya’s sister, the book would’ve been just about perfect. Where it falls down for me is that it tries, towards the end, to blow up into a story that’s too big for the world the author’s built up until that point. That story could’ve been a great one too, but if Bear was going that route then a lot more groundwork needed to be laid for me to find it satisfying. There should’ve been more mad science, rather than just tantalising hints; the nation responsible for one of the dastardly schemes should have been a little more gracefully integrated before they showed up as cackling villains; the Wild West should have been a bit more wild. Having scheduled automaton duels between licensed Mad Scientists dropped in as a background detail without ever being elaborated on works great if you’re just telling a story about this one bordello, the people who work in it, and their clash with a rival operation, but if you’re going to build up to something that has much, much bigger stakes, then the world is one of the things that needs building.

I didn’t really buy into the framing device of having this be Karen’s dime novel, either. That felt like an afterthought, because it seems incongruous with the conversational tone that I mentioned earlier and with Karen’s use of dialect. To be honest, I headcanoned it away almost immediately and forgot it was meant to be the case until I looked at my review notes.

I can’t really say that these flaws impeded my enjoyment much. They’re the kind of things that registered without much impact while I was reading, and became more prominent in hindsight.

Karen Memory is a book with very broad appeal, and the impression I went in with before I read it, that it was a book about steampunk prostitutes, turned out to be very reductive, as those are two of its least defining qualities. Give it a go. This one’s a keeper.

4 stars

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One Response to Review: Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

  1. Pingback: Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear (DNF) | Books, Life & Wine

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