Our narrator and protagonist, Karen Memery, is a sex worker who is saving up to finance her dream of owning her own horse-taming stable. She works at the Hotel Mon Cherie, a quality house of “seamstresses” run by Madame Damnable. Madame worked her way to the top in the gold rush towns up in Alaska before coming back to Rapid City to open the best seamstress house in town. She runs a fair, clean, and safe establishment, and expects her girls to be sensible and honest with her.
One memorable evening, another soiled dove named Priya is dumped, seriously injured, in front of the Hotel by her employer, Pete Bantle. Bantle is the kind of odious man who runs a cribhouse. He treats his women like cattle, locking them into their cell-like rooms, beating them, and parading them through the streets of Chinatown as a form of advertising. He wants to be mayor, and has it in for Madame and her Hotel since one of her regulars is the current Mayor. Madame takes Priya in as a servant, and Karen falls in love with her. It’s pretty clear that Bantle is holding Priya’s younger sister against her will and Karen wants to help Priya rescue her.
Federal Marshal Bass Reeves and his posseman Tomahatooa ride into Rapid City on the trail of a serial killer who has been beating prostitutes to death in towns across the frontier. After a dead prostitute is discovered behind the Hotel, it’s pretty clear to the Marshal, Karen, and the other girls that his killer is probably someone in Bantle’s employ. They team up to rescue Priya’s sister and capture the murderer.
I really enjoyed this book. I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate Elizabeth Bear’s decision to use Karen Memory as a way to interrogate the racism and sexism of the era.
The cast of characters in the novel are pleasingly, refreshingly diverse, but Bear makes it clear that these characters have a tough time of it in the culture of the late 19th century. Madame Damnable is mixed race, but must keep that fact secret in order to maintain what respectability she has as a madame in a frontier town. Priya and her sister are immigrants from the Far East who came to the US to help provide for their families. They were tricked into prostitution by recruiters who claimed to be helping them. Another seamstress at the Hotel, Miss Francina, is trans, and while she’s accepted by Madame and her coworkers, it’s clear that their acceptance is not the norm for their town. Marshal Reeves is African-American, a former slave who is illiterate, yet he has fought hard to earn his reputation as a respected lawman1. Tomahatooa is Comance and a good friend of Reeves. Karen notes that although he and Reeves are lawmen chasing a serial killer, some ignorant people might assume that since he belongs to a tribe with a reputation as fearsome warriors, he might actually be the killer. By the end of the book, the girls, the Marshal, and Tomahatooa have made, in so many words, a chosen family, a concept that resonates with us today.
I also love the narrative voice in Karen Memory. The book is told from Karen’s point of view. Bear uses cornpone, down-to-earth voice for Memery, but she refrains from trying to render Karen’s countrified accent with misspellings and apostrophes. Instead, she uses a little eccentric grammar, Wild West-inspired metaphors, and occasional phonetic tricks like writing “coverlid” for “coverlet” to render Karen’s prose. As a result, the writing has the charm and flavor of a Western while remaining very readable.
Even though I’d call the book character-driven, there is no shortage of action and adventure here. Night time raids, chase scenes, and gun battles featuring a thought control device, a squid-inspired submarine, and a modded Singer sewing machine-turned-Aliens-style loader are all present and accounted for. People get injured during fights, and Bear makes a point to be as realistic here as possible, so you’re never drawn out of the story by superfast healing or ordinary people who are impervious to bullets.
I’m sure it’s probably book one of a series, but Karen Memory has a satisfying ending, thank goodness! It stands on it’s own, which is kind of required for a series novel these days. Bear makes the whole thing look effortless, which is a testament to her skill as a writer.
Verdict: I’d recommend Karen Memory to anyone who likes steampunk and adventure, but who wants a story that points out some very problematic parts of the Victorian era.
1. Bass Reeves is a real guy! Repeat, BASS REEVES IS A REAL GUY. In fact, he’s reputed to be the model for the Lone Ranger. You know, that white guy? On the white horse? Rescuing white people? Yeah. That’s the one. He was in fact an illiterate former slave who became a respected Federal Marshal. My entire childhood is a lie, but this reality is so very much better!