At one point, I was considering giving this five stars, I was having so much fun with it. Some pacing issues towards the end, as well a tiny quibble with the ending brought me back down to earth, though. But overall, fun!
Karen Memory is a book I wasn’t really looking forward to reading, for what reason I’m not sure. I’d never read Elizabeth Bear before (but will in future!), and sometimes Westerns just don’t work for me (and other times I love them). But I pulled it out of the good ole TBR Jar, and TBR Jar has spoken, I obey.
Karen Memery is our main character (Memery spelled with an ‘E’), and she is a sixteen year old sex worker plying her trade in a high quality bordello in a fictional western town, akin to Seattle or San Francisco in the midst of the Gold Rush. (Bear states in her afterward that Rapid was highly influenced by Seattle Underground, which I hadn’t heard of before.) This is an alternate history, though, one in which steam-powered technology has taken off, and people can pay for inventors’ licenses to mess around with the technology, creating things like sewing machines that are also wearable armor, among other spoilery nonsense.
I was immediately charmed by Karen’s point of view. She doesn’t have the best grammar, and writes/talks in an affected dialect, so I could see how others might be turned off from it, but her voice leapt off the page for me. Karen is practical and kind, has a sly sense of humor (she always uses euphemisms for her work, such as “alterations,” or “stargazing,”) and has such a matter of fact way of looking at the world. She is a hard worker (saving up to leave the trade and buy her own horse ranch), and determined, but she has these lovely flashes of humanity, such as when she’s remembering her father (who was killed by a bucking colt, orphaning her) or thinking about the woman she has a crush on. She’s also very curious and willing to learn, constantly looking up words in the dictionary and trying to understand the world around her.
The others who populate Karen’s world are just as interesting, and likable in their own ways. Most of them work in the bordello with her, and a wide swathe of humanity is portrayed, reflecting the real-world diversity of the west at this time. Real-life historical figure Marshal Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Marshal, comes into town hot on the heels of a serial killer, and Karen and her friends get mixed up in the investigation. It becomes part adventure, part mystery, part rescuing girls from the clutches of sex trafficker and rescuing the town from his friend, who seems to have a machine that can sway people’s minds.
My only complaints were that the pacing towards the end was off. It felt like the ending went on for just a little too long, too many confrontations ending with Karen unconscious in the street. Also, SPOILERS the very end of the book we’re shown that the book we’re reading is the book Karen wrote, but aside from that being cheesy, it didn’t feel realistic to me because she’s very open about her relationship with Priya in it, and wouldn’t she still have had to hide it? It would have been better for us to have just seen that she became a published author rather than the text we’re reading being that book END SPOILERS.
All in all, very glad I picked this up.