Karen Memery is a seamstress – which is to say, salon girl – at the Hotel Mon Cherie in Rapid City. Though romantically inclined towards womenfolk, Karen is a practical soul in a comfortable, well-paying position that lets her save for the future, and her employer, the formidable and aptly-named Madame Damnable, makes sure her girls are protected. But not all who share their profession are so lucky: Chinese and Indian girls in particular are vulnerable to slavery and exploitation, as are those who work the streets. So when Merry Lee, the famous saviour of trafficked girls, shows up badly injured with Priya, her latest rescue, Karen and her sisters are quick to defend them against their pursuers – a man named Peter Bantle and his toughs. But Bantle won’t give Priya up so easily, and soon, his escalating retaliations against Karen, Madame Damnable and the other girls land them with much bigger problems. Who is killing Rapid City’s streetwalkers? How is Bantle running for mayor? And what can Karen do to stop it?
Karen Memory is an energetic, engaging novel and an absolute pleasure to read. Though technically steampunk, the bulk of the story has less to do with brass, cogs and technology and more to do with the varying intersections of character, sexuality, race and gender that necessarily underpin an evolving, industrial, frontier society – and all done with a rambunctious sense of fun. A hallmark of Bear’s writing is her effortless use of narrative voice to reflect a different time, place and culture, and Karen Memory is no different. Told as the first person reminiscence of the titular heroine, the language and cadence immediately situate the reader in the setting and contrive, through a combination of excellent pacing and complex characterisation, to keep her there.
I honestly can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s put sex workers front and centre without taking that as an excuse to describe them in bed.
Here’s the thing about Karen Memory: it’s a story whose protagonists – or most of them, anyway – are prostitutes, but which features no sex scenes. This shouldn’t be a rare thing in literature; it is, for instance, quite common to mention a protagonist’s profession without ever showing them engaged (ahem) in the throes of it. If the profession in question is something like law or teaching, for instance, we might hear peripherally about its impact on the character, but that doesn’t mean we always get lengthy courtroom/classroom scenes, especially if the real action, so to speak, is taking place elsewhere. Yet sex workers, it seems, are seldom if ever extended such narrative courtesy: their lives are viewed as synonymous with their professions, and I honestly can’t think of another book I’ve read that’s put sex workers front and centre without taking that as an excuse to describe them in bed.
The realities of the profession in the time and place are neither exaggerated nor elided. Karen works at a high-class establishment under the auspices of a caring female madame, one who not only strives to protect her girls, but to educate and support them. That some of Karen’s sisters are women who would elsewhere be subject to different social prejudices than Karen herself, particularly within the context of their profession – like Bea, who is black, or Miss Francina, who is trans – is precisely why Madame Damnable’s establishment is not just a home, but a refuge; which is, in turn, why Merry Lee and Priya are offered sanctuary there. But neither is the Hotel Mon Cherie romanticised: the women are always aware of the potential perilousness of their situation, not just because of Peter Bantle’s threats, but in terms of how they’re viewed by “respectable” citizens, and what everyday courtesies they can or can’t expect from such people. Priya and Merry Lee are both trafficking victims, and unprotected streetwalkers are being whipped to death by an unknown killer: neither the reader nor the characters are allowed to forget the crucial distinction between those who choose their profession and those robbed of choice, nor the further distinction between those who, having chosen it, are working in better, safer, more hospitable circumstances than others.
Karen Memory is a lively, heartfelt novel with a suite of funny, clever, courageous, complex heroines.
The inclusion of Bass Reeves – a real historical figure, and the apparent inspiration for the character of the Lone Ranger – is a particularly nice touch; as, for that matter, is the realism in Bear’s portrayal of the daily life of Karen and her sisters. (Those interested in the history of the oldest profession could do worse than to read Nils Ringdal’s Love For Sale: A Global History of Prostitution, which is both fascinating and accessible.) For all the presence of steampunk elements, like electric gloves, airships and mind-control devices, at its heart, this is a story about people – which is, I think, a pertinent means of distinguishing it as an adventure, rather than action, narrative. Whereas action stories are primarily concerned with and defined by external elements – chase scenes, explosions, ticking clocks – adventure stories are more internally focussed, exploring the impact of such devices from a human perspective. Action shows us characters through the lens of crisis, but adventure shows us crisis through the lens of characterisation, and while it’s certainly possible to fuse the two, Karen Memory, with its endearing narration and wonderful cast, sits very firmly in the latter category.
Karen Memory is a lively, heartfelt novel with a suite of funny, clever, courageous, complex heroines. I recommend it without hesitation, and if I wasn’t already a fan of Elizabeth Bear, I certainly would be now.