Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

February 6, 2015 5 stars, Book Review 31 ★★★★★

Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth BearKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Published by Tor Books on February 3, 2015
Genres: Adult SFF, Historical Fantasy, Steampunk
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
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*This book was provided by the Publisher for review. No compensation was provided and all opinions are strictly my own.

“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, beggin 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.


Karen Memory was just my sort of read! A sassy young heroine, a great cast of dynamic characters, and a steampunk slightly western vibe mixed in with a 19th century Seattle/San Francisco inspired city. What more could you possibly want!? Well diversity of course! – which is just what Elizabeth Bear gives us. All of her character cast is made up of an array of misfit characters that staff or frequent the Hôtel Mon Cherie (yes you know the bordello type salons of the old west but this one on the swankier higher standards side). The characters are all so different and yet they all fit together so perfectly. So a bit hat tip to the author because I really loved each of them!

Of seamstresses, steampunk, serial killers and …mind control!?

This book was just so much fun and managed that in a sometimes dark way. Even with some of the harsher themes the main character Karen’s spunk really kept everything lighter then I think it would have otherwise. Since the main setting was a 19th century bordello house and there were all sorts of neat steampunk inventions that would crop up all over the place, along with dead bodies of girls that had been whipped to death and all that talk of slavery – you’d think things would be rather depressing. But they just weren’t! I have to mention the steampunk contraptions peppered through this book were amazing! From many knived surgery machines, tracking devices to a crazy fancy sewing machine that was like an entire body rig that the person would have to fit themselves into to use, an electrocution glove, an airship AND a submersible and a mind control device – this was a literal smorgasboard of cool gadgets that delighted me! So really now you can’t tell me all of that doesn’t sound cool? Often in steampunk you’ll see these types of things thrown in but they aren’t nearly so fascinating to see in action nor so seamlessly woven in with the story.

Ah yes, perhaps you want to know about the story!? It stars Karen Memery, a young “seamstress” (a polite euphemism for prostitute) who works for Madame Damnable in Hôtel Mon Cherie, one of the better salon houses in Rapid City. (Meaning the girls aren’t treated like trash and seem to have pretty good lives aside from the fact that they make their livings on their backs.) All told from Karen’s perspective there is a dust up with this nasty man Bantle who runs some dockside whorehouses (that are the treat em like slaves, beat and torment the girls kind) when one of his girls and her rescuer escapes to Madame’s house. So along with that there is the mystery of prostitutes turning up dumped around the city having been flogged (whipped) to death and that killer is being chased by a U.S. Marshall and his Comanche posse-man all across the country. Now mix in some romance – because young Karen is pining away in love with the whisp of a girl that escaped from that nasty brute Bantle. There is must more going on that I can’t speak of because that would spoil plot for you. But suffice to say you won’t get bored with this book!

Speech with a specific flavor to it, like corncakes and molasses, nom nom

Be prepared to luxuriate in the dialect and slang of the main character Karen. She has a very particular prose that felt very old world western. While this might be hard for some readers, this wasn’t a problem for me because it really served to put me in the mood and place of the book’s setting making the whole experience more real for me. Pretty much all of the cool turns of phrase were easy to pick up from context. I absolutely LOVED this character’s voice so much that while reading it I felt like I was watching a movie in my head where you get to a part and there is a letter and the voice reading it is the character’s, except the whole book felt that way. As if I was listening to the most excellently narrated audio book, but reading it instead. Anyways all I’m saying is I loved Karen, her personality, the way her voice stood out from so many of the books/chracters I’ve ever read and most definitely how the entire book was written. So if you think you’ll have an issue with the reading of it – perhaps try the audio I don’t know if there is one yet, but I hope it ends up with one because this was just too much muchy muchness to miss! One thing is for sure they better get an excellent narrator to pull off this young miss’s voice and do her the justice she deserves!

You ever hear somebody blithely say something so amazingly plastered over with bullshit it just makes your eyes bug? pg 198

It weren’t raining, for a mystery. But the day felt pretty dark to all of us just then, notwithstanding. pg 104

We’ve all got our issues!

This tale had a whole lot of everything going on – and all without making it feel like too much. You know what I’m talking about! – those books that try to jam pack so many themes and ‘issues’ into them that you can hardly see straight when you’re reading? Instead Karen Memory seamlessly integrates all of these things into one great story but with lots of pizzazz. I personally have an issue with books that include “issues” just for the sake of covering those issues, or making issues, or being controversial. I just don’t know how to adequately describe what I mean but that but I hope you guys are catching my drift because ultimately I don’t want to read a book about issues just because someone wants to write a book about issues. I like a great tale and if some strong issues are inherent therein – well all the better and they have to fit and not overwhelm me. That is exactly what I got and I loved it! It touched on women’s equality as well as those for people of color, slavery, political and legal dirty dealings.

Smart enough to get herself into plenty of trouble. Pg 209

That is exactly why you should read Karen Memory. Because that line right there describes Karen and this book perfectly. Its mischievous and fun with just the right dose of dark reality mixed in that will make you still take it seriously. I highly recommend it!

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Tabitha (Pabkins)

When I'm in the zone I can flip book pages faster than the eye can see - screaming "More Input!" I'm a book, yarn, & art supply hoarding goblin who loves to draw, make toys and craft all sorts of creepy cute things. My current habit is to listen to audio books while I'm arting it up!
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31 Responses to “Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear”

  1. Carmel @ Rabid Reads

    First Nathan, and then Mogsy, and now you. You guys are giving my will power a run for its money! The heroine has all of the qualities that I look for in my female protagonists, and I love that the author’s writing style has a old world western vibe to it. Aah, who am I kidding, Karen Memory is going on my kindle ASAP.
    Carmel @ Rabid Reads recently posted…Audiobook Review: Bound by Flames by Jeaniene FrostMy Profile

  2. Rhissanna

    This does sound wonderful! Everything I love all, mashed together. And I know exactly what you mean about books with issues, where the issue,(no matter how noble) is the reason for the book. I call those things, ‘Tracts’, because that’s what they remind me of; Victorian tracts designed to improve the mind.

  3. Brigid

    HAHA! YES. Steampunk. Oh I love a good steampunk. And thank you for mentioning that it’s set in a Seattle inspired city. I love the crap out of that city. It’s such a wonderful place. It is so beautiful.

    Have you read Richelle Mead’s Succubus Blues? The big reason I love that book is because it’s set in Seattle. The book is also really good, but SEATTLE.

    Okay. Um. I need to step away from the computer. I got a little too excited, which I often tend to do at this time of night.
    Brigid recently posted…Waiting On Wednesday: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. MaasMy Profile

  4. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    I did a search for Karen Memory at audible and I was shocked – SHOCKED!!! – to see they didn’t have it. I hope it’s one they plan on releasing at a later date. If they do get one recorded, I’m very curious to see how the narrator would do. I know a couple reviewers who had trouble getting used to the writing style and Karen’s “voice”, and I agree an audio version would likely solve those issues. It’d be much better to hear it than to read it, I would think.
    Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum recently posted…YA Weekend: Half the World by Joe AbercrombieMy Profile

  5. Kayla

    I’m glad this book got such a good review as the plot sounds so interesting. It’s going on the need-to-buy list.