You don’t understand how much I love Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory. Hell, I don’t understand how much I love Karen Memory: normally neither steampunk nor 19th century Americana have any great appeal for me.
But Karen Memory is a book I loved so much that I’ll seize any opportunity to extol its virtues. Because its narrator-protagonist, Karen, has the kind of voice that I’d be happy to read all day. And all the next day. And the day after that. Karen’s voice is funny and smart and confiding and so very sixteen—a sixteen possessed of a whole lot of pragmatism and with a whole lot of the innocence knocked off, but so very sixteen nonetheless.
Lee Mandelo’s review has already sketched some of the main points, so I won’t cover the same ground. (I disagree with my honourable colleague that Karen Memory lacks depth and reflection when it comes to itself and its characters—but every reader finds something different in their books.) I’m just going to… well, honestly? Probably gush.
It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Also, be prepared for spoilers.
Bear has a habit of writing books that rip the heart out of my chest and then put it back differently. (Sometimes broken.) That’s true for Karen Memory too, but unusually for a Bear novel, the main characters fight their way through to a conclusion that has nothing of tragedy about it. A conclusion that is, in fact, uplifting in an uncomplicated (for a Bear novel) way. A happy ending!
Let me pause here a moment to hug this book to my chest and never let it go.
The happy ending is a romantic one, not just an adventure triumph, too. For Karen and Priya—the young woman that Karen’s been courting—end the story alive and settling down together. And much as I love Karen and Karen’s voice, Priya is, for me, the most arresting character in this novel. From the second chapter, where she’s described from Karen’s point of view—
“Priya looked up at me through all those bruises, and I thought filly a third time. I could see in her eyes what I saw in some of my daddy’s Spanish mustang ponies. You’d never break this one. You’d never even bend her. She’d die like Joan of Arc first, and spit blood on you through a smile.”
—I was primed for her to be awesome, and damn but she is. Quiet, competent, determined, and awesome.
But so is practically every character in this book, from the actually-historical-no-really-he-was-that-awesome Federal Marshal Bass Reeves to the inimitable Madame Damnable, proprietor of the brothel in which Karen works, and from Miss Francine Wilde, tall and brave and transgender, to Merry Lee, anti-indentured-prostitution-vigilante, to… well, everyone.
Even the villains have a certain charisma in their villainy.
And there is awesome steampunk fun. There’s a submarine with tentacles like an octopus, or a squid, that pulls surface ships apart and drags them under. There’s a sewing machine that’s basically a steampunk Jaeger. The villains have a machine that controls people’s minds. And also they are awful people. (But compellingly awful.)
Look, I love this book. I love it so much I can’t stop talking about it. I think many of you will love it too.
And I’m going to stop talking now. Honest.
(But it’s so much fun!)