Book review: Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Bear Karen MemoryBear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory. Tor, 2015. 350 p. $25.99. Hardcover. ISBN 9780765375247

Sixteen year old Karen Memery lost her beloved father, her home, and her horse. Now, a “seamstress”, she works in Madame Damnable’s high class bordello, one of many whorehouses in the frontier town of Rapid City—which closely resembles Seattle’s Underground when it was still above ground. Nefarious deeds come to light when a young woman brings her badly wounded rescuer—a Chinese woman—to the bordello for sanctuary and doctoring. Hot on their heels is Madame Damnable’s rival who demands the return of the young woman whose contract he holds.

Unlike most speculative fiction—science fiction and fantasy both—Karen Memory speaks directly about women’s lack of economic opportunity in 19th century American frontier settlements. Unlike most steampunk tomes, inventions that make housekeeping, cooking, and sewing easier are featured. That these same inventions can be used in thwarting the bad guys makes me deeply happy. Told in first person dialect, Karen Memery’s story is an engrossing cross-genre story with steampunk, spies, serial murders, Western lawmen, young lesbian love, political corruption, and a generous helping of humor. It will appeal to teen and adult steampunk and fantasy readers. Enthusiastically recommended for high school and public libraries.

Jane Cothron
Newport, Oregon


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