Staff Review: Karen Memory

Karen Memory book cover

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

This book is impossible to contain within a single genre of fiction. You will find it in our collection under “Mystery,” but it also contains elements of Steampunk SF, alternate history, Westerns and Fantasy.

The tale, set in an alternate version of the Pacific Northwest, takes place in a “house of ill repute,” but a nice one, relatively speaking. The women there make good money and are treated well by the Madam, one based on a historical figure from our world’s Seattle. As the story builds, the murder mystery brings in a real character from the American west, U.S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves, who may have been one of the real-life inspirations for the fictional Lone Ranger. Reeves was tough and single-minded, and in real life took the assignment to track down and capture his own son for a crime. He was also an ex-slave who had lived with tribes in the Indian Nations during the Civil War. Over his career he brought in over 3,000 criminals, and killed at least 14 in gunfights.

The steampunk SF parts of the story wander all over the map, ranging from steam-powered devices of various arcane natures to electrical torture devices. There are even a dirigible and a very special ship. The elements of fantasy are mainly in the background, with mythical beasts from American folklore mentioned in passing, or perhaps seen in the distance.

The real strength of the story is in the characters that Bear creates, ranging from the title character, who is also the narrator, to the various good and bad folks who wander through this complex tale of murder, corruption and greed. Mix that with the various forms of hypocrisy in the townsfolk’s treatment of the “sewing machine operators” of the Hotel Mon Cherie, and their attitudes about Marshall Reeves and his deputy, and the setting is alternately grim and fascinating. The contrast between the “good” and “bad” houses of prostitution in the setting are quite drastic, but seemed believable based on the history of the period. By the time the real villainy rears its head, the tale is complex and exciting.

So, look for it in the mystery section, but be prepared to stretch your mind to fit the other genres of the book.

-Nick S., Central Library

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