Elizabeth Bear’s newest novel Karen Memory takes a different direction than her last several projects: it’s a steampunk romp set on the west coast during the late 19th century, narrated by the titular character, a young woman who works as a “seamstress” in a high end bordello.
One night, she helps (along with her housemates) to rescue two young women who have escaped the crib brothels down by the port—one the rescuer, one the rescue-ee. The incident brings the already-strained relationship between our antagonist, Peter Bantle, and the house’s Madame to a head; and, not long after, murdered women begin appearing around the city—also bringing to town the Federal Marshal Bass Reeves.
There are also dirigibles and steam-powered sewing machines like exoskeletons, of course, and the wider conflict over the future of the West lingers in the submerged layers of the narrative as well. There’s a mix of actual history and invented, real places and people and imaginary, that adds a certain depth to the fun—plus, there’s also a diverse cast, from our protagonist’s love interest Priya to the Marshal and his posseman.