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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Elizabeth Bear: "Karen Memory"

Author:  Elizabeth Bear 
Title: Karen Memory
Plot Type:  Steampunk Fantasy novel  
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2-3 
Publisher:  Tor      

     This steampunk fantasy is told in pulp-fiction style, with a plucky heroine, lots of weird gadgetry, and a supporting cast of quirky characters, most of whom are employees of the Hôtel Mon Cherie, a brothel located in Rapid City, a fictional Wild-West town in the Pacific Northwest. The action takes place during the late 19th century, although some of the actual historical events mentioned in the narration don't fit quite correctly into the time frame. Many of the brothel's customers are gold miners coming from and going to Alaska. 

     In order to bypass local laws, Madame Damnable, the brothel's owner, pays taxes as if her business were a factory and her girls were seamstresses. As a joke, she even has two ornate sewing machines sitting in the parlor, one of which looks like a suit of armor: "one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too." Keep your eye on that particular machine because it plays a major role in the story. The house has other complicated steam-driven machines. In the kitchen the cook uses a robotic monster that "scrubbed and sliced and stirred and scraped, its octopus arms going every which way." In the infirmary, two more brass machines remove bullets, stitch up wounds, and perform surgery.

     Rapid City is built close to the sea, so close that over the years it has had to be raised up above sea level. The town's structure, with its raised roadways and sunken sidewalks and storefronts, resembles Seattle in the late 1900s. Today, the Seattle Underground occupies those original passageways and basements. Using this complicated structural image for Rapid City sometimes gets in the way of the story because the characters are always having to climb up and down ladders. This bi-level element seemed to me to be unnecessary and distracting.

     Our narrator is Karen Memery, a young girl who became one of Madame's "seamstresses" after her beloved father died in a riding accident. (Note: Because this story is written as a memoir, the heroine's name in the book's title"Memory"is a play on words. Her actual last name in the story is "Memery.") Karen's widowed father had owned a small horse farm in a near-by town, and after his death, Karen had to sell the horses and find a new way to make her living. Throughout the story, Karen is torn between her deep love of horses and her rage at the colt that threw her father to his death. Karen has a wry sense of humor and her worldview is a sometimes heart-wrenching mix of the naiveté of a young ranch-raised orphan and the worldliness of a teenager who has spent a year on her back in a brothel. Madame and the girls have become Karen's family, and they spend their off hours together, reading dime novels aloud and dreaming about the future.

     Karen's relatively peaceful life comes to an end when she has a violent encounter with the story's main villain, the mean and powerful Peter Bantle, who owns a crib of prostitutes that he lures from Asia with the promise of a trade apprenticeship. When the girls arrive, they are immediately locked into cells in Bantle's cribs and sold by the hour to sailors and drifters. These girls are beaten regularly and fed poorly, so they don't live very long. One night, two women knock on Madame's door begging for help. One is Merry Lee, one of Bantle's "indentured servants" who escaped some time ago and now sneaks in to rescue other women. The other is Priyadarshini (Priya) Swati, an Indian girl who was rescued by Merry Lee that very night. Unfortunately, Merry Lee was shot during the escape and is now near death. While some of the girls take the two fugitives upstairs to the healing machines, Karen and one of her "sisters" are left to guard the front door when Bantle and his thugs ("a confusion of scalded weasels") break it down and demand custody of the two runaways. Although Bantle tries to use his mysterious magical mesmerizing power on Karen, she is able to shake it off and defy him, thus making her his enemy for life. Bantle is one of those cowardly villains who is only brave when he has plenty of backup and weaponry. He always wears a special glove on his left hand that exudes blue sparks as it burns his enemies with electrical current, leaving them unconscious and deeply scarred.

     A day or so later, one of Bantle's men tries to kidnap Karen from the town market in broad daylight. None of the good citizens of Rapid City come to her rescue, but suddenly an African American U.S. Marshal named Bass Reeves sweeps in, sending the would-be kidnapper on his way. Reeves has come to Rapid City with his posseman, a Comanche Indian named Tomoatooah (aka Sky) on the trail of a serial killer who kills young prostitutes, flaying them with a whip and dumping their bodies in alleys. Reeves suspects that the murderer is one of Bantle's men.

     As the rest of the story plays out, Karen teams up with Reeves and Tomoatooah to rescue Priya's sister, Aashini, from Bantle's crib and then to stop Bantle from mesmerizing the townsfolk into electing him mayor. The plot begins in a relatively realistic manner (well…as realistic as steampunk can be), but by the end, it has become a version of a Jules Verne tale, right down to Captain Nemo and his submarine. The only dissonant note is struck when Mr. Minneapolis Colony shows up out of nowhere near the end of the book to help save the day. Colony is a thinly disguised deus ex machina who plays an important role in the slam-bang climax.

     Karen tells her story in her singular, first-person voice, a mix of grammar-challenged sentences and big words from the dime novels and real literature that she reads. Her diction and narrative style remind me of Mattie Ross's voice in True Grit, both the novel and the film. Although Karen's voice takes some getting used to, I grew to enjoy her sometimes awkward attempts at being genteel: "A young rat skittered past. Trying to look ladylike in front of the Marshal, I didn't kick at it."

Morgan Dollar
     From the very beginning, we are encouraged to view Karen as a free-thinking, courageous, intelligent young woman. In one scene, Karen studies the profile of Lady Liberty on a Morgan silver dollar that Marshal Reeves has just given her as a keepsake: "She had a sterner look to her, a lifted chin, a good strong nose, and a plump line of her jaw. She made me feel stubborn, and like getting things done." Miss Francina, a trans woman who works with Karen, looks at the profile and exclaims, "She could be your sister." (Note on the cover art: If the profile on the coin looks just like Karen, then the female on the cover can't be Karen. Karen's ethnic heritage is Danish and Irish, while the cover girl has East Asian facial features. Karen describes herself as being "sturdy" and "plump,…broad across the shoulders and hips," while the girl on the cover is slender. I'm not sure who she is supposed to be, but she is definitely not the title character.)

     Karen constantly analyzes the people around her, particularly the men who frequent the house: "The ones who want to know a woman as a person are fewer than you'd hope, and most of those don't even realize it about themselves. They don't care who a woman is, or what she's scared of, or who she wants to become. they think they want a woman, but what they really want is a flattering looking glass wearing lipstick and telling them what they want to hear…I can't imagine being married to most men" These feelings are at the root of Karen's instant and deep infatuation with Priya, who refuses to wear skirts and work as a whore, insisting instead on wearing pants and doing mechanical work on the house's many gadgets and machines. Even though the book is set in a brothel and includes a transgender woman and girl/girl love, there are no explicit sexual scenesjust a few chaste kisses.

     Karen's narration gives the reader a wonderfully detailed picture of Rapid Cityimages of its appalling poverty, its unique physical structure, its complicated cultural elements, and its corrupt politics. One brief, fascinating scene describes a group of bearded men who are planning to vote at least three times: first with full beards, second after shaving off their beards, and third after shaving off their mustaches. (Note: This type of voter fraud was actually a common practice in the late 1800s.) 

     Karen Memory is a story in which the heroine gets beaten, whipped, kidnapped, shot, badly burned (twice), and nearly blown up, but (being super spunky) she always prevails, just like a superhero. If you're looking for escapism steampunk with a tough-but-vulnerable heroine, well-drawn supporting characters, an enthralling plot, and a 90-mile-an-hour ending, you'll probably enjoy this book. 

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