Book Review – Karen Memory

Title: Karen Memory

Author: Elizabeth Bear

Format: Hardback

Year Published: 2015

I’m pretty sure I first heard about this book on John Scalzi’s blog (or at least, that’s what made me add it to my hold list at the library). I started it and was somewhat dismayed at the POV (first-person– you all know my feelings on that by now), but because it had been getting great reviews, I kept going and soon had forgotten that it was written in first-person.

Karen Memory is about Karen , a “seamstress” (read: prostitute) who finds herself embroiled in a series of adventures when prostitutes start turning up dead. Karen launches herself into the investigation, working with Marshall Bass Reeves who has been tracking the murderer across the United States and the Territories. (One of the most refreshing parts of the whole book was that there was no romantic angle between Reeves and Karen – in fact, Reeves continually holds steadfast to his wife back home.)

While the prostitutes are being murdered, the Hôtel Mon Cherie is being threatened by Peter Bantle, who wants to control all of the city and has a beef against the proprietor, Madame Damnable. To make matters worse, Bantle has a mind control device that he isn’t shy about using – not only on Karen and the other girls, but on their customers, and on potential voters.

The main issue I had with the story is that you have two connected but distinct storylines – the threat to the Hôtel Mon Cherie by Bantle and his men and the threat to the prostitutes by the serial killer. This means that when all of the characters are acting together, sometimes it’s hard to see why this benefits both sides. You get all of the adventure – the nightly escapades, the roof adventures – which benefits one side, but not necessarily the other. Once the storylines start to dovetail, however, my quibble with that goes away.

Populated by all sorts of people – from Asians to blacks to transpeople – the world is rich and intriguing. Karen’s not incredibly racially aware, but when she missteps and is corrected, she takes the correction well, showing that she is far more naive than she is prejudiced. The steampunk (did I mention this book had steampunk?) is just an accepted part of the world. Karen talks about the contraptions but doesn’t do so in a “look at this strange thing” way but rather in a “oh that’s so cool that you did that” way.

Although Karen is a seamstress, the book contains very few racy moments – let alone scenes – and Karen’s love interest is another woman, who has escaped from Bantle’s captivity. The fact that Karen prefers girls is simply accepted by the rest of the House and is a refreshing thing to see in a story, especially given the time frame the book takes place in.

One of the reasons I think the first-person POV worked for me in this book was because the story was obviously being told as something that had already happened – the first line of the book (“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway”) sets this up – and this gives Karen the ability here and there to add more information that she may not have known at the time, but that she learned at a later date. The epilogue brings it all back around and shows us why we’re reading this book.

4/5 pages – If you like a story with fascinating characters, a refreshing narrator, and a sweet but not too saccharine love story, this is the book for you.

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