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Karen Memory
by Elizabeth Bear
Tor, $25.99, 346pp
Published: February 2015

This was the most fun steampunk story I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I haven’t read everything but I’ve seen a lot of “proper young women wielding parasols who buck the caste system to be detectives, government agents, inventors, etc.” to start to suspect a trend. Our heroine in this story is a parlor prostitute. And the world building is wonderful!

In this alternate Seattle is a brothel run by a woman who treats all her working girls as family – every working girl’s wet dream. Our heroine is a young woman named Karen. And she really is a heroine, not just a protagonist. There is actually a whole pantheon of heroes in this story. The host of characters just leap off the page…but I get ahead of myself.

Karen’s life is pretty routine – a night of ‘star gazing’ on her back and the day spent shopping or sewing (our Karen is pretty handy with a sewing machine.) She is protected by a formidable madame and cossetted by her sisters. They have a motherly cook in the house, as well as a mechanic who keeps the medical surgery machine and all the clockwork in the house functioning. And there is the sewing machine.

But one night two women stagger into the house – gun shot. And they are closely followed by the nasty, weasely owner of the rival whorehouse – a mean man who mistreats his own whores, a man who might be doing much worse… The women are given sanctuary but it begins a brawl between Madame and the evil Peter Bantle. The next night the first dead street whore’s body is found next to the trash.

Soon after that, Karen meets a U.S. Marshall and his Indian sidekick (I kid you, not) who are hunting a killer – quite probably the same man who is killing street whores. The Marshall asks for Karen’s help but ends up giving much more. As the story evolves, Karen and the Marshall discover that Bantle is importing kidnapped girls to his house, he is running for Mayor which may put an end to Madame’s House, and is up to something decidedly more sinister involving a mysterious machine in his parlor.

Oh my gosh – where to begin… Bear has populated her characters with more diversity than a corporate EEO training session – the Marshall is black, he has a Native American Indian, Karen’s sweetheart is an eastern Indian girl, there’s an Asian activist, and there’s a transvestite working in Madame’s house. These characters are the heart of the book and the plot is the soul. The story is told from a first person vantage, Karen’s; and it’s just about perfect.

Since this is a steampunk story, we have to have automatons. And they are so cool! Besides the surgery machine and the mysterious device of Bantle’s, there is also a Nautilus-type vessel and a dirigible and the ubiquitous sewing machine… You’re gonna love the sewing machine…just saying.

This is highly recommended for any steampunk aficionado but it’s also an excellent starting point for anyone who hasn’t dipped their toes into steampunk yet. It relies more on plot and characters than many steampunk stories that rely on gadgetry. I loved this book! ~~ Catherine Book

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