Karen Memory

The Nitty-Gritty Details 

Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor, Feb. 2015
Blurb: “You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”

Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.

The Experience

I started reading Karen Memory at this current juncture as research (you know, since I asked for this book for Christmas and got it…two years ago). Since I’m planning to start working on a steampunk novel of my own, I figured I probably should read a couple more (read: a lot more) in the genre, just to get a feel of how different authors write steampunk novels.


I was slightly surprised when Memory, to me, felt more like a western than steampunk, even with all the wonderful steampunk influences and mechanics that played a major role within the story. Yet I wasn’t disappointed by this. As I read, instead of looking at the book critically and noticing how steampunk played a role, I instead got lost within the story, to the point where I finished the book a few days after I started it and I couldn’t believe it was already over. And that was in large part thanks to the narrator of the book.

Karen Memory.

She had such a lively voice and way of speaking, if you know what I mean. It was a joy to not only get lost in the story, rooting for the women going up against Peter Bantle (who was just such an arse), but to hear all about it from Karen’s perspective. Her point of view and little reflections and tidbits were what made the book so enjoyable. It was one of those books I just seeped into, without thinking too much about it. It was a simple, enjoyable read and that’s always refreshing to find. And, I just learned, through searching Goodreads, that the sequel is meant to come out this year, in March! An added bonus and make no mistake.

Read on!

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