Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Review copy provided by Tor. Also, full disclosure, the author is a personal friend.

Remember when I read Emma Bull’s Territory and said I don’t like Westerns, but I like this book?

Yeah. About that.

I also don’t like books set in whorehouses because they are a minefield of bad tropes.

Huh. So. Funny thing.

Karen Memory is a masterpiece of voice. If you read the first chapter and aren’t hooked by the titular character’s voice, I can’t really help you; and it’s achieved almost exclusively by word choice rather than phoneticization. Karen is a logging camp girl, the daughter of a horse trainer, in the process of being educated in the whorehouse in which she works. She is acutely observant but still thinks of some of her vocabulary as belonging to someone else. She is wholeheartedly accepting of her co-workers, except for the places where she doesn’t notice her own biases until they trip her up. There is every reason for this book to be titled with its protagonist’s name, because while there is plenty (plenty upon plenty!) of action plot here, it is really Karen’s story.

(The Memory part…if you are a neurology nerd hoping for a speculative novel whose premise rests strongly on the processing of memories, this is not that book. Her last name is Memery. This is the one with steampunk battle machines made out of the least likely possible domestic implements and a diverse group of people fighting to be treated as people. We can do neurology geeking somewhere else.)

The alternate history-steampunk elements are subtle in some chapters but present from the beginning, and crucial from the beginning. They are not gears glued on after for fashion. There is, for example, a medical machine that is far better with some cures than others, and the machines are sometimes loud and smell funny, and they need people to actually fix them or, better, soup them up. But there’s also a wealth of setting detail grounding the narrative beyond the machines: the smell and behavior of horses, for example, and more kinds of processed carbohydrates than you can shake a stick at. Dear heaven the carbohydrates. If you have celiac and read this book, I sincerely hope you have good substitute recipes, because I defy you to read this book and not long for biscuits and cornbread and flapjacks. There is buttermilk on my grocery list right now because of this book. This is entirely period-appropriate; there are also beans and bacon and molasses and suchlike. But when I finished reading I wanted to a) make a list of people to give this to and b) eat biscuits. Not in that order.

I am finding myself dancing around some of the coolest steampunky/speculative elements because I think the book will be more fun if the reader discovers them at the pace the book reveals them. So “Karen and her friends/co-workers fight a nefarious local would-be politician who has…” um. “Who can…” right. Yes. Well. There is fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love. Okay, not so much the fencing. But biscuits and giant crazy machinery are a pretty good substitute.

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One thought on “Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

  1. It’s a bit later, but I wanted to say thanks very much for the pointer. I’ve read the first three chapters and it looks really promising. It’s distracted me from rereading the first of the Lymond Chronicles, because I want to find out what’s happening with Karen and I enjoy her voice.

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